(Author’s note: For Father’s Day, I would like to present this chapter from my recent book, Life with a Laryngectomee. Happy Father’s Day, Dad.)
Chapter Twenty-five: “Oh! My Pa-Pa”
Which would you rather have: the English lyrics or the German?
English, you say?
And here, in English, is the song that reduced my father to tears every time he heard it, especially when sung by Eddie Fisher with Hugo Winterhalter’s orchestra and chorus:
Oh, my Papa, to me he was so wonderful,
Oh, my Papa to me he was so good.
No one could be so gentle and so lovable,
Oh, my Papa, he always understood.
Oh, my Papa, so funny, so adorable,
Always the clown so funny in his way.
Oh, my Papa, to me he was so wonderful.
Deep in my heart I miss him so today.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe we were returning from a family vacation to Clam Lake, Wisconsin when I first heard that song on the radio. Or maybe I had heard it before, but I will forever associate Dad and the German song John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons adapted into English with Wisconsin, that most German of American States.
We were cruising along in our big American hunk of steel when Eddie Fisher crooned about his Papa being so wonderful.
I don’t mean he vanished from sight, but he was transfixed at the steering wheel as Eddie Fisher sang his Number 1 hit from 1954.
I remember sitting in the passenger seat and staring at my lachrymose father.
What in the world?
Was Eddie Fisher making my father think of his father, who had died of a heart attack at the age of 68 in 1948.
I had never talked to Dad about his Dad, Eugene Adams McKelvy, and aka: EA.
My grandfather EA was as much a mystery to me as the Periodic Table of the Elements had been in Mrs. McKenzie’s chemistry class at Morgan Park High School.
Meaning that I had no idea what kind of relationship my father had with his father.
What in the world?
What in the world?
Dad didn’t explain his tears over a sentimental ditty that had begun as a German song as related by a young woman remembering her beloved, once-famous clown father.
And go figure how a dirty, little Jap-hating U.S. Naval Officer like my father would go to pieces every time he listened to Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.
Madam Butterfly, right?
Yes, that would be the tragic opera about a geisha who gives up everything for the U.S. Naval Officer who promises her the world. When Lieutenant Pinkerton reneges on his promise, Madam Butterfly commits suicide with her father’s knife.
Puccini does not portray the U.S. Navy and Americans in a positive light in his three-act opera. Why, we had an opera-loving friend, Julie Holmes, who absolutely refused to watch Madam Butterfly with us because it was so anti-American, and because she had proudly served overseas with the U.S. Department of State. Julie had Butterfly in her amazing collection of operas, but Julie wouldn’t even glance at the screen when we watched it in her living room, even though it featured her beloved Plácido Domingo as Lt. Pinkerton.
Julie left us in 2009, and I wonder if she and Dad have met in the Great Bye-and-Bye, and if they have perchance discussed Puccini’s masterpiece.
I would love to be a fly on that heavenly wall and eavesdrop on that conversation.
I would be particularly interested in hearing Dad say why he loved Madam Butterfly so much.
Why he kept an LP of the opera’s highlights in our stereo cabinet and why he loved to play it when he was in his cups?
And when wasn’t he in his cups?
Why Madam Butterfly?
Why Oh! My Pa-Pa?
Dad never said.
Well, he did.
He turned on the water works when he heard either work, especially Butterfly’s death aria, Con onor muore.
Dad was absolutely unapproachable when he listened to that music.
I learned not to approach him at such times.
But I watched.
And I wondered.
Where is he, and why these two works?
I wish I could tell you.
I know that my father experienced great tragedy in his life:
-He lost his father in 1948, and—
-He lost the love of his young life on November 28, 1942 when she and 491 others perished in the deadliest nightclub fire in history, at the Coconut Grove in Boston.
Dad had been detained by Navy duties, and so when he arrived to meet his lady for their date at Boston’s premiere nightclub, the Coconut Grove was engulfed in flames and panicked patrons were trampling one another to death in a mad scramble to flee the main entrance, a single revolving door rendered useless in the mayhem.
I’m sure Dad talked about Coconut Grove.
But not to me.
I would have liked to have heard what it was like for him that night to arrive in uniform looking forward to a lovely evening with his sweetheart with the other Thanksgiving weekend revelers and the football fans who had just seen Holy Cross upset Boston College 55-12.
Dad never spoke of any of this—at least not to me.
I had to look up the Coconut Grove Fire on Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
But Wikipedia didn’t provide the name of Dad’s sweetheart.
Just the fact that official reports stated “that the fire started at about 10:15 p.m. in the dark Melody Lounge downstairs.”
Want to hear the rest of it?
I sure do.
Here it is straight from Wikipedia:
A young pianist and singer, Goody Goodelle, was performing on a revolving stage, surrounded by artificial palm trees. It was believed that a young man, possibly a soldier, had removed a light bulb in order to give himself privacy while kissing his date. Stanley Tomaszewski—a 16-year-old busboy—was instructed to put the light back on by retightening the bulb. As he attempted to tighten the light bulb in its socket, the bulb fell from his hand. In the dimly-lit lounge, Tomaszewski, unable to see the socket, lit a match to illuminate the area, found the socket, extinguished the match, and replaced the bulb. Almost immediately, patrons saw something ignite in the canopy of artificial palm fronds draped above the tables (although the official report doubts the connection between the match and the subsequent fire).
Despite waiters’ efforts to douse the fire with water, it quickly spread along the fronds of the palm tree, igniting decorations on the walls and ceiling. Flames raced up the stairway to the main level, burning the hair of patrons stumbling up the stairs. A fireball burst across the central dance floor as the orchestra was beginning its evening show. Flames raced through the adjacent Caricature Bar, then down a corridor to the Broadway Lounge. Within five minutes, flames had spread to the main clubroom and the entire nightclub was ablaze.
As is common in panic situations, many patrons attempted to exit through the main entrance, the same way they had entered. The building’s main entrance was a single revolving door, rendered useless as the panicked crowd scrambled for safety. Bodies piled up behind both sides of the revolving door, jamming it to the extent that firefighters had to dismantle it to enter. Later, after fire laws had tightened, it would become illegal to have only one revolving door as a main entrance without being flanked by outward opening doors with panic bar openers attached, or have the revolving doors set up so that the doors could fold against themselves in emergency situations.
Other avenues of escape were similarly useless: side doors had been bolted shut to prevent people from leaving without paying. A plate glass window, which could have been smashed for escape, was boarded up and unusable as an emergency exit. Other unlocked doors, like the ones in the Broadway Lounge, opened inwards, rendering them useless against the crush of people trying to escape. Fire officials later testified that, had the doors swung outwards, at least 300 lives could have been spared. Many young soldiers perished in the disaster, as well as a newly married couple.
As night deepened, the temperature dropped. Water on cobblestones froze. Hoses froze to the ground. Newspaper trucks were appropriated as ambulances. From nearby bars, soldiers and sailors raced to assist. On the street, firefighters lugged out bodies and were treated for burned hands. Smoldering bodies, living and dead, were hosed in icy water. Some victims had ingested fumes so hot that when they inhaled cold air, as one firefighter put it, they dropped like stones.
Later, during the cleanup of the building, firefighters found several dead guests sitting in their seats, with drinks in their hands. They had been overcome so quickly by fire and toxic smoke that they hadn’t had time to move.
Dad never said a word of any of this to me.
To others, yes, and from them I know that he was one of those who helped lug out smoldering bodies, living and dead.
I know from Dad’s confidantes that he also had to go and identify his sweetheart at a makeshift morgue after the fire.
But that’s it.
I don’t even know her name.
Dad never said.
Oh! My Pa-Pa.