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Honoring a Vet I Knew

Honoring a Vet I Knew

by Frank Roche on November 11, 2010

in KnowHR

Today is Veteran’s Day. I knew one of the greatest vets ever.

My uncle JIm Roche is what you think of when someone talks about The Greatest Generation. He served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Multiple times. He spent more than 30 years in the military, raised a great family, and spent his retirement years volunteering at the children’s hospital in Dayton, Ohio. That’s Jim in that picture at his retirement from the Air Force.

Last week, I went to Jim’s funeral. He had a full military funeral and was buried at Dayton National Cemetery. That’s a picture of the honor guard at the top of the hill where he was buried.

I could write for pages about my Uncle Jim. Perhaps the words of his son and my cousin — the writer, Dan Roche — spoken in eulogy best tell the story of service and dedication on this important day:

Eulogy for Jim Roche
by Dan Roche
Nov. 5, 2010

By far the most frequent pair of words I’ve heard in the last few days to describe my dad is “great guy.” This is not the only time I’ve heard those words applied to my dad. I’ve heard them, in fact, all of my life—from his co-workers, from his friends, from my aunts and uncles and cousins, from the waitress at some restaurant he’d either frequent or only been to once or twice, from my Little League coaches, from just about anybody who had more than five minutes in his presence. It used to be that we’d be doing something like going on a family vacation, and we’d drive through, say, a toll booth, and I’d half expect the toll booth operator to take the five bucks and then turn to us kids in the back seats and say with a big smile and total admiration, “Your dad is a great guy!”

Frankly, it got a little tiring. And that was partly because I always knew they were right. My dad had all the qualities of great guyness: humor, generosity, empathy, patience, self-confidence. I think handsomeness figured in there for a lot of his admirers.

There is no father, I imagine, who is always a great guy in the eyes of his kids. Sometimes this comes from the fact that a responsible father has to say, as my dad did more than once about the operations of the family, “This is not a democracy.” Sometimes it’s because of no-nonsense rules that a parent has to impose and that can seem, to a kid, just a little bit picky.

Are you a kid? went one of my dad’s rules. Don’t bring your drink into the living room. I don’t give a damn if it’s in a sippy cup.

Are you learning how to wash dishes? The job’s not done until I inspect them.

Are you a 13-year-old boy who is letting his hair grow over the tops of his ears because it is 1973 and I’m 8000 miles away in Southeast Asia? Get it cut.

And sometimes the father doesn’t seem to the kid like a “great guy” because of larger complexities that arise out of father and child simply being different people, of different generations and different worldviews and different temperaments.

But a person who is a “great guy” in the eyes of so many people who are not his kids has to have a pretty good start on being a great father. It’s hard not to have the two identities seep into one another. They did seep together in my father.

He was, first of all, full of generous self-confidence. The image that conveys this most strongly for me, oddly, is the back of his head. Specifically, the sharp crew cut he used to wear, and which I used to focus on when I five or six or ten and taking a walk with him on a cold and starry winter night and he walked fast and expected me to keep up, and on our many family vacations, when he was in the driver’s seat of what he called the Roche Coach, the Plymouth station wagon into which we all piled for trips to Astroworld or Knotts Berry Farm or Niagara Falls. In the early years, he drove us across state lines and prairies and deserts with an almost unerring sense of direction, the car filled during the early years with the fruity smoke of his blueberry Tiparellos and the sweet scent of his Juicy Fruit gum. We went a lot of places under his solid guidance.

He was full of the kind of fatherly loyalty that had him driving me to my hockey games through snowstorms, that placed him happily in the stands at most of his kids games or concerts or graduations, that caused him to be interested in our friends and intrigued by what they were like, that made him come to visit us frequently once we were grown and to leave before he outstayed what he thought was his welcome.

And he was full of good humor. He liked to tease, and to be teased, but the target of his humor was mostly himself, and so we had a father who wasn’t hesitant to portray himself as a man who was, say, willing to climb headfirst into the Goodwill donation box, with his wife holding onto his ankles, because that wife had accidently given away his new golf shoes. And then to tell about it as often as it got a laugh. His laugh was usually the loudest.

He had other “great guy/great father” qualities: the empathy and patience to understand that all of us had to discover our own paths, our own passions, our own careers, our own life partners; the respect for independence that allowed him to believe and to say that when any of us got to be a legal adult, we were expected to take care of ourselves; the compassion to help out in times when, even as adults, we needed a father’s help.

I often wanted to be able to see my dad simply as the great guy that existed in everyone else’s eyes. But a great father, as I’ve come to discover from the other end of the parent-child spectrum, has to be more than just a great guy to his kids. He has to be a more direct model of behavior, because his kids are looking to him and at him more closely than is anyone else. He has to be a firm leader, and he has to do what’s best for the people who depend on him. And he can’t take himself too seriously while doing all that.

When all those things happen, then a kid can at last—especially with the help of the enthusiastic and utterly sincere and endless expressions of “great guyness” that come from people who knew him well or casually outside of our home—when those things happen, then a kid can come to see how it’s possible, accurate, and right to say “great guy” and “great father” in the same breath.

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