My dad and I were both born in Rockaway, Queens. A sliver of a peninsula that stretches out from Long Island between Jamaica Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. The last stop on the A train. He grew up in a 1 bedroom apartment on the top floor of a large porch front house on Beach 130th Street with his parents and his brother John who was 1 year and 4 days older. They attended St. Francis De Sales together on Beach 129th Street, then Far Rockaway High School. They spent long hazy days atop their long boards waiting for and catching waves. They travelled to Puerto Rico, Surf City and Montauk together, long boards under their arms, creating adventures and memories bigger than any wave they ever caught. They were brothers and best friends.
In our little house on Beach 129th, the house where I was born, which sat just steps from the sand and sea, I would sometimes find my father quietly stretched out on his bed. I would climb up next to him. His tanned skin warm from a day of lifeguarding under the sun. I would cuddle in close as the cool night air drifted through open windows. His face was still, his eyes sometimes sad, sometimes smiling. I would watch him read the papers that came from the green metal box on his lap. I did this often, as he would be there often. I was perhaps three years old. I couldn’t read, and I didn’t dare ask him to read those yellowed pages to me. I just watched him. I listened to him sigh. I fell asleep nestled between his arm and chest. And when I awoke both he and the green metal box would be gone.
Several years later my dad took us for a ride in the car. It was the kind of bright sunny day in May where the blue of the sky and the yellow of the sun are so pure they don’t seem real. When the car came to a stop my sisters and I jumped out to find ourselves in one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen at 7 years old. The grass was emerald green and cut perfectly in shaded rows. There were flowers in groups, perfectly spaced out from one another. There were grand trees with fresh spring leaves casting perfect shadows on the perfect grass. I can’t remember my dad speaking. I only remember following him across the grass, reading names as we went. I remember my sisters Tara and Erin, a few years younger than I, giggling with each other, playing games. And then I remember my dad on his knees, placing his own bunch of flowers, in front of a white stone that matched all the others in this magnificent place. Only this stone had my last name. This stone made my dad sad. And suddenly everything lost its color and magic. The beauty drained out. My strong invincible father was wiping tears from his face. And I remember, just like it was yesterday, that seeing him cry broke my soul. As we left I read the sign – Pinelawn Cemetery.
I get bits and pieces of my dad’s past. Bits and pieces of Johnny. Johnny was born on October 31st, 1947. My father was born November 4th, 1948. Dad and Johnny did everything together. Johnny was the leader of the two of them. He signed up to go to Vietnam. He wasn’t drafted. He was an MP and that he was killed on May 13, 1968 at 20 years old. My grandparents never recovered (even a child can see the sadness behind the smile, can feel the emptiness in a full room.) My parents met before Johnny left. Johnny promised my dad they’d go surfing in Hawaii when he got back. My dad went to Hawaii on his own, with Johnny’s longboard, after he was buried. Johnny’s board still hangs in the garage with my dad’s board, ready to catch some waves. This is what I know.
One warm May evening just before Memorial Day, 1994, my dad picked me up from my Williamsburg apartment to shuttle me home for a weekend with the family. We drove with the windows down, just the city noise breaking the silence. Suddenly my dad said this:
“When we were kids at St. Francis the entire school would go out to the basketball courts and practice our marching and formation for the Memorial Day Parade. We would march past Memorial Park where they planted trees for each of the Rockaway soldiers who died at war. One time during practice they had just put new black top down. As I stood there I noticed a shiny penny. It was brand new. Really shiny. I think I spent the whole time trying to dig it out with my shoe. Not sure what Johnny was doing.” There was a pause. We drove under the Cross Island Expressway. “I never thought I’d be marching all these years later in his memory, past a tree with his name on a plaque. It’s crazy, you know?”
Yes, dad. I know.
In memory of John P. McGonigal MP, Vietnam; John P. McGonigal US Army, WWII; Bernard F. Levey US Air Force, WWII; Joseph Leavey US Navy, WWII; and all the men and women who have served our country. You are not forgotten.