Thursday, June 18, 2009

the leader of the band

Although my dad has been gone now for nearly 15 years, I always think about him this time of the year, and those thoughts always bring a smile to my face.

Laurence Joseph Brennan was the first son born of the marriage of Mark Brennan and Josephine Harris, a farm couple who lived in the small town of Hastings, Minnesota.

The family eventually grew to include eight children:

Marie (born May 16, 1899, died August 30, 1994)
Agnes (born October 25, 1902, died September 28, 1996)
Dorothy (born October 24, 1906, died October 26, 1992)
Laurence (born February 3, 1909, died October 31, 1994)
Clement (born June 24, 1911, died May 16, 1999)
Alice (born April 30, 1915, died March 19, 1988)
Josephine (born September 3, 1917, died June 12, 1990)
Marjorie (born April 7, 1920, died October 28, 1978)

Sadly, it didn’t stay intact for long.

My dad’s mother, Josephine, passed away on November 12, 1920, at the age of 43, and his father Mark was killed in an accident on August 16, 1929, forcing dad and his siblings to struggle through the Great Depression without the guidance of their parents.

A few months after Pearl Harbor, Dad joined the Army , at the age of 33, leaving his brother Clem, and a few of his sisters, to run the family farm.

As the years passed, my dad’s family suffered other tragedies.

His oldest sister Marie lost her oldest son, Edward, at Iwo Jima on February 19, 1945.

His youngest sister Marge lost HER oldest son Donnie in Vietnam.

Uncle Clem continued to operate the farm for another two dozen or so years after my dad left to fight in WWII, and when he sold the farm in the mid 1960’s, he was approximately the same age that his father Mark was in the summer of 1929.

Clem milked the cows, and harvested the corn, but his true love was writing, and he wrote LOTS of stories. Somewhere in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, and also somewhere in the America Southwest, some of Clem’s descendants have custody of the notebooks that he used to put his thoughts down on paper, thoughts that take us back to a time and a place that no longer exist.

My cousin Edward died more than two years before I was born, but I spent a lot of time with my cousin Donnie as we were growing up, especially at the Brennan family picnics at the Olson family farm in Afton, Minnesota.

I was in basic training for the Army when the helicopter that Warrant Officer Donald J. Lundequam was piloting crashed in Bihn Dihn, South Vietnam on June 5, 1970, a scant 92 days after his tour of duty began.

Although I never had an opportunity to talk with my cousin Edward, I DID talk with my cousin Don again 26 years after his death.

His name is on panel 09W – Line 14 on a Memorial that had been designed by Maya Ying Lin, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, and is etched into black granite that had been quarried in Bangalore, India.

As I stood at the wall on that day in the summer of 1996, the somber black panels towered over me and drew me in.

Some of my former classmates and neighbors are on the wall, and panel 56W – Line 17 carries the name of Thomas Brennan, a young man whose personal history is eerily similar to mine.

Another Tom Brennan died on September 11, 2001 in New York City, but THAT story will have to wait for another time.

October 31 of 1994 is the wettest Halloween on record in the history of the City of Chicago.

It’s also the day when my dad slumped over in a chair in his kitchen in St. Paul, Minnesota, finally succumbing to the heart trouble that had plagued him for several years.

At his funeral a few days later, the organist (at the urging of my sister) played “Danny Boy”, which filled my eyes with tears.

I didn’t give the eulogy that day, nor do I remember much of what the priest said, but I’ll never forget the words that my cousin Jean said at the funeral lunch:

“you know, he was a pretty good guy”

Dad never made a pile of money, and he’ll never have a building erected in his honor, but I really can’t think of a higher accolade than that.

My dad and I were both born with the ability to pick out a tune on a piano “by ear”, but neither one of us would be considered musicians (although my son Brian is one of the most gifted drummers that you’ll ever meet)

Nevertheless, there are more than a few phrases in the late Dan Fogelberg’s tribute to his father, the musician, that remind me of the mail carrier from the East Side of St. Paul.

My dad was not a violent man.

Instead, he taught me how to laugh.

He taught me how to cry.

Most importantly, he taught me how to love, and I’m just a living legacy of a man who farmed the land.

the leader of the band

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