This being Fathers Day, I think I’ll take a little time to share just a little about the kindest, most honest and best man I’ve ever known – my dad.
Charles Aloysius Brown was born into poverty in New York city in 1910, one of three boys and three girls born to an overworked rug weaver and fathered by an alcoholic gambler. They moved from low rent tenement to lower rent tenement, often the night before the rent was due in an effort to stay just ahead of their landlord and other bill collectors. Their father, when they could find him, could usually be found up to no good in a bar, pool hall or cardroom. With their mother working long hours to make ends meet, the three brothers in particular became street urchins dodging the truant officers and doing what they could to simply get by.
Ongoing truancy and dereliction of the most basic of responsibilities by their father led to repeated intervention by social welfare authorities and eventually a judgement by Family Court. As a result, the boys were shipped off at various times in their youth to a Jesuit-run reform school in upstate New York where the rod was not spared for fear of spoiling the child.
It was there, away from the mean streets of Hell’s Kitchen that my father developed his appreciation of nature and fishing in particular. As teens, he and his brothers somehow managed to gain possession of a canoe that they kept hidden in brush somewhere in the Catskills. When they needed refuge from the city, they would take the train out of the city and then hitchhike and walk to their refuge in the woods, portaging their canoe in order to fish in various waters and camping nearby.
It was from those experiences that fishing became a part of my father’s DNA, and eventually mine.
When his formal education ended after the eighth grade, my father and a brother shared responsibility for taking care of their younger siblings. By the time he was 16, his mother had died from influenza and his father was killed over unpaid gambling debts following a card game. Working as an apprentice in a print shop, it was his responsibility to carry wooden boxes loaded with lead type from place to place within the printshop. Holding the box at arms length in front of him, the type rubbed against his stomach resulting in a case of lead poisoning that nearly killed him.
By this time, his brothers and sisters (except for Winnie, the youngest who was born with Down Syndrome and had earlier been institutionalized) were able to shift for their own. With the crash of the stock market in 1929 and desperate to leave his life behind, my father charted a new course by joining the Navy, where he was trained primarily as a machinist, but saw a variety of duties, including running a Navy riverboat in China during unrest between warlords.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 he was in the Atlantic on the USS Sterett, a Belknap-class destroyer or “tin can” that was serving as an escort for a convoy of supply ships transporting supplies to Russia which was already at war with Germany. With the loss of so many ships and lives at Pearl Harbor, the Sterett and its crew was one of many immediately re-routed to the beleaguered Pacific Fleet. It was there that the little ship saw plenty of action, including a decisive role in the second battle of Savo Island, and was later the subject of the book, Tin Can Sailor.
More than half way into a more than 20 year Naval career, he was a seasoned hand and although only in his early 30’s became a mentor known as “Pappy” to the young sailors, most in their late teens, who enlisted in the days after Pearl Harbor. During the second battle of Savo Island, the Sterett traded shells with ships in a Japanese convoy known as the “Tokyo Express,” was hit on the bridge by a Kamikaze and was struck by a torpedo that fortunately failed to detonate.
Medals, commendations and photos of my father being recognized for heroic actions by the Commander of the Pacific Fleet rest in a box that I open from time to time to help me better understand the nature of his life. The mementos don’t reveal the story told by a former shipmate who explained how my father saved his life and others by diving through diesel oil in a flooded engine room and pushed them through a hole to safety, how he continued to risk his own life to recover the bodies of the young men under his command who died in the engine room that day, or how he led the emergency crews that helped to keep the Sterett afloat.
I had to find these stories where I could, because my father rarely spoke about his combat experiences and never his heroism, but I do remember a few things he did tell me. He told me that he enjoyed representing his group of ships as a lightweight boxer, that black sailors who were relegated by policy to serve as cooks or stewards bled the same red blood as white sailors, that the real heroes of war are the dead. He told me that “enemy” sailors, whether Japanese or German were no different than American sailors and simply men like him caught up in something they had no control over. From his perspective, war as he knew it was a senseless exercise with an immeasurable expense of human suffering.
By 1950, what he hoped would be a 30 year career ended with a medical disability discharge for a sailor whose service was cut short by the loss of one lung and significant damage to the other, but I suspect these were insignificant injuries compared to the heartbreak that came with the death of his pretty and petite young wife who died during childbirth in 1936, while he was on duty overseas.
Almost immediately, the young woman’s sister moved to San Diego from Promise City, Iowa to care for the baby that was left behind. In time they married and she became my mother. Extraordinarily “handy” working with metal, glass and wood, his civilian vocation was that of a house painter and handyman for home repairs.
It was his avocation as a fisherman that many people remember him for as he became one of the best known bass fishermen in San Diego. At a time when most fishermen were secretive about their exploits, he was sharing his secrets with anyone who listened and it was our fishing trips together that cemented our bond.
While I know a little bit about his history, I will never understand how given his life experiences and lack of a role model, he could become such a good man and the best father I could have ever hoped for.
Happy Father’s Day!