Most of all, here’s to my dad who could not have been a better father to me. I marvel to this day how given the hardships of his childhood and upbringing, he could become such a great father and role model.
Born in 1909, Charles Aloysius Brown was one of five surviving children of a hardworking mother, a shiftless alcoholic father, and raised in a series of rat and cockroach infested tenements in New York city’s Hell’s Kitchen. On more than one occasion and for long stretches, my father and his two brothers were removed by Family Social Services and sent to live in a Catholic boarding school for orphans and boys whose parents could not take care of them.
His Irish Catholic father was a hustler and gambler who was found dead after a card game and believed to have been killed over unpaid wagers, though that is a matter of murky family history. Shortly thereafter, his mother died. He was 16 and it was up to he and his older brother to try to support and fend for their younger siblings. Work in a print shop left him gravely ill from lead poisoning as a result of carrying and handling the lead type used in those days.
Through it all, fishing provided some respite from the hardships of his childhood. His first fish was a bluegill caught on a bent pin in a Central Park pond and he ditched school to fish in the East River. He caught striped bass and bluefish from the beach at Montauk Point. He and his younger brother found a badly damaged and abandoned canoe that they repaired and hid in bushes off of a trail for fishing in the Catskills, which they reached by train and hitchhiking.
Fishing provided diversion from a difficult existence, but at the age of 19, joining the Navy provided a permanent escape and kept its promise to enlisting sailors to “see the world.” He explored Europe with the Atlantic Fleet, skippered a small gunboat on Chinese rivers, briefly piloted landing craft and was a Chief Engineer in the engine rooms of the USS Sterett and USS Honolulu while trying to dodge torpedoes, bombs and Kamikazes during World War II – efforts that were not entirely successful and frequently threatened to cut short his life.
Whether fishing for sharks from his ship while anchored or in port, or trolling for billfish and tuna with the Captain’s launch and whether homesick for his wife or wearied from war and the death of his shipmates, he turned to fishing whenever and wherever he could and it became his salvation.
While stationed in San Diego, he met and married a petite young Iowa farm girl who had moved west with her parents. He was overseas when she died giving birth to their child on her 21st birthday. With him returning to duty, the child was left to her parents who summoned a another daughter to move west and help them raise the baby. A few years later, my father married his deceased wife’s sister and she would later become my mother.
A medical discharge as a result of complications to combat injuries suffered years earlier cut short his plans to serve a 30 year Naval career. As a Chief Warrant Officer out of work, and a formal education that ended in the 8th grade so that he could earn money to support the family his father didn’t, he turned to house painting to support his two sons, wife and her parents.
As smart and wise as my father was, given his injuries, his post-service career choice is open to question. By the time of his discharge, his pulmonary system consisted of one half of one lung. When my father talked about the Navy, which he loved, he rarely if ever spoke of the war, so it was just by chance that I learned how he suffered the injuries to his lungs.
In 1959, when I was 12 and camping with some cousins at Rock Creek Lake in the Eastern Sierras, my father suffered a major heart attack. It was only upon returning from that trip that my mother told me my father was in Balboa Naval Hospital, which was only a few miles from our house. While I was there one day, one of his visitors introduced himself to me as we sat in a waiting area while doctors and nurses tended to my father. He said his name was “Ski,” and I had never seen or even heard of him before. After a few minutes he said he wanted to tell me why he was there, which included a litany of things my father had never told me, and it went something like this:
“When I heard that Pappy was in the hospital I knew that I had to come here and try to do anything I could to help out, because your old man saved my life. After Pearl Harbor thousands of us young guys enlisted and your dad became a mentor and counselor to those of us kids who worked under him in the engine room. He was barely in his 30’s, but to us, he was Pappy. He protected and looked out for us. He tried to keep us out of trouble, but when we got into trouble, he got us out, so there was nothing we would not do for him. We ended up in a sea battle at night between Japanese ships (later research revealed this as the Third Battle of Savo Island, apparently a classic event in the history of Naval warfare) and our ship was hit hard and began taking on water. Everything had to be closed to prevent the flooding from sinking the ship which left a few of us who worked under your dad in the engine room trapped in a compartment. We also called him “Peanut,” because he was a little guy, and he somehow managed to squeeze through a hole caused by the explosion of one of the shells that hit our ship, and began pulling us out. I wasn’t conscious, but I was told that he kept at it until he got all of the dead and wounded out of there. The compartment was flooded with seawater and diesel oil and I think diving in that flooded compartment, in addition to working 12 hour shifts in boiler rooms filled with diesel fumes were the beginning of his lung problems. Anyway, your old man never gave up on us, he saved my life and others and that’s why I’m here now for him now.”
My dad eventually recovered enough from the heart attack to be discharged from the hospital and resume his career as a house painter and handyman, and I doubt the exposure to solvents and lead based paints did his damaged lungs much good. The pack of unfiltered Camels each day probably didn’t help much either.
Just as we had before the heart attack, and had begun when I was maybe four or five, we went fishing somewhere every Saturday and sometimes Sundays too. During school vacations, we added Wednesdays to our fishing schedule and it mattered not whether we were fishing for bass or bluegill in the local lakes, trout in the streams or halibut and croaker in the bays – as long as we were together and fishing.
Those experiences were the beginning of my lifelong passion for fishing, nature and the outdoors as well as a career for me.
I had the privilege and pleasure of my father’s wisdom, patience and guidance along with the example of his honesty, integrity, and goodwill toward others for only 30 years. I hope the things I learned from him and saw in him have helped me as a father to a daughter and son who have had a bit more than 30 years with me. And, I marvel that a man who had such a poor example for a father could become such a good example to me as well as anyone who knew or met him.
Charles Aloysius Brown died on October 7, 1977 at the age of 68 with many fish caught, but too young and with too many left to catch.
I have now reached a point in my life in which I had less years with him than without him, but I still think of him nearly every day.
Thank you and Happy Father’s Day dad and to every father who makes and takes the time to be with his children, especially those who open the door to nature and the outdoors.