Stephen Aloysius (O’)Daly
This being February, it draws to mind me late, sainted Oirish Fadder, Stephen Aloysius Daly, whose 95th birthday we celebrate at the end of this month. I don’t often reminisce – okay, I do – but I don’t often write about family and, perhaps, it’s time.
Stephen Aloysius Daly was born in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, New York, on February 28, 1922. He had three sisters, Patricia, Geraldine and Stephana – all older. His father died before he was born. His mother died when he was eleven years old – at the start of the Great Depression. At fifteen he dropped out of high school to help his sisters in their daily financial struggles, delivering telegrams for Western Union at ten cents an hour. He told me that he’d once gotten a whole dollar tip from May West – and, if you don’t know who May West was and you’re a man, shame on you.
As you know, World War II began for the United States on December 7, 1941. My father enlisted in the Marine Corps early in 1942. He did his basic training at Paris Island and shipped to the Pacific. He spent time in Hawai’i – not hard duty, I would imagine. His only trip in a small airplane happened when a pilot acquaintance offered him to “take him up” in an SBD dive bomber for a tour of Oahu. As was the way with young pilots, he wrung my dad out trying to get him to puke – and succeeded. Maybe that was why my Dad was never too enthused about going flying – and never actually made it into the sky with me.
He emerged from the meat grinder that was the Marines’ life in the South Pacific with a Purple Heart and two legs shattered during a kamikaze attack on the destroyer he was on. I had heard the story that he was running for his gun emplacement when the attack began – family lore passed on, perhaps, by my Mom. Later in life, over a beer, he told me that it was always so hot that he slept on the deck and, when the kamikaze began his attack, my Dad awoke from a deep sleep and, attempting to get up and get to his gun, he stumbled and fell to the deck below. Double ouch.
He spent time convalescing in Hawai’i as the war was drawing to a close, then shipped stateside, to San Francisco, where he was able to visit his three sisters, all of whom were stationed nearby and all of whom had joined the Marine Corps, too. When his legs had healed sufficiently – he received a 100% disability for the damage to both legs – the Marine Corps mustered him out in early 1946. He moved back home to New York, finding a job making brushes for the Fuller Brush Company.
On a visit to a family friend’s place on Staten Island – where I was born – he was taken to a neighborhood bar, Steve’s, named for the proprietor, Stephen Rebracca, an immigrant from Serbia. Stephen Rebracca had a pretty daughter named Helen who sometimes helped out in the bar and my Dad was smitten. They were married on November 17, 1946. I came along a year and a half later, my Sister, Jeanne, a year and a half after me.
My Dad bought my Grandfather’s bar and ‘twas convenient indeed that they both were named Steve, so he didn’t have to waste money on a new sign – he hated to waste money, having had so little of it growing up. Stephen Aloysius made a successful go of his new establishment. Seems like the Irish love a good story – and me old man could tell one – and, as we all know, the Irish have been known to enjoy an adult beverage on occasion. The bar was located across the street from the Staten Island Rapid Transit stop in our town, New Dorp. The Rapid Transit began its trek in St George, where the Staten Island Ferry docked. Guys coming home from a long day in the city would hop on the train – even when a city bus might drop them closer to home – and drop off at New Dorp to enjoy the camaraderie that their neighborhood tavern afforded him. There was shuffleboard for entertainment, a juke box for music and one of my Dad’s favorite bartenders, Bobby Johnston, would occasionally raise his Irish tenor to a popular favorite.
My Dad sponsored a softball team in the summer, trips to the local race tracks. The 122nd Precinct drank at Steve’s, the local firehouse guys when they were off duty. There were businessmen, workingmen, book makers, petty thieves – cops and their criminals enjoying a drink when not chasing or being chased. The head of the Armored Car Chauffeur’s Union, Bobby Relay, drank in Steve’s. Huey Cuff, who had his own seat on the New York Stock Exchange drank in Steve’s. Half the town drank in Steve’s and the only reason the other half didn’t drink in Steve’s was because they didn’t drink, or they couldn’t squeeze inside. And every Patrick’s Day, he’d give away over a hundred pounds of corned beef, with all the fixins, to show his appreciation for his loyal customer.
For twenty-five years, Stephen Aloysius Daly worked 7 days a week, 12-14 hours per day. One week he’d work the day shift, starting at 7am, working til 6pm. The next week he’d work nights in at 5:30pm and leaving an hour after last call, which on weekends came at 3am. He worked on legs that didn’t work very well, wearing heavy rubber support hose to manage his pain. He would take one day off a month to go to the race track with my Mom and friends from the bar.
Vinnie O’Grady may have been my Dad’s closest friend. Vinnie was a beat cop who made detective and always had a smile on his face and a funny story on his lips. Vinnie had almost made it to the majors, ending his baseball career as a Triple-A shortstop.
Once every few years my Dad would get a surprise visit from Googy Newbrand, a Navy frogman my Dad had befriended in Hawai’i. When Googy left the service, he hired on with the Treasury Department’s Secret Service. He was rarely off duty, but on the few occasions he’d make the train trip up from DC, he and my Dad would relive their youths, playing cribbage ‘til all hours of the night, shouting and laughing at each other with the fortunes of the game, and occasionally sharing a bit of cheer.
The year before I was supposed to graduate – late – from college (it didn’t ever happen), my Dad sold the bar to Bobby Johnston. He’d had enough of long hours, long weeks and long months. Twenty-five years were enough for him and he decided to relax. He had paid off the bar ahead of time, had paid off our mortgage way ahead of time, had some success in the market with the help of his own intelligence and his Wall Street pals, and could afford to take it easy for a while. He played the ponies at Off Track Betting, read voraciously, and finally got his high school diploma nearly forty years after his class graduated.
When he started back to work, he chose the New York Subway Authority because he was good at counting money and because their pension plan was superb. He enjoyed the work, enjoyed taking buses and subways for free, and enjoyed the solitude – he was part of the wallpaper, not the ringleader for a band of customers.
All my Dad did was work as hard as he could for as long as he could to try to provide for my Mom, my Sister and me. He worked on his feet, on those broken, painful legs, without complaint. He was loved by all his customers at the bar, by our neighbors and by his family. He did what he had to do to survive without parents, through the depression, through the horrors of war, because that’s what you did. You found a way to get through the hard stuff to enjoy the easy stuff at the end.
His end wasn’t so easy. Alzheimer’s began to take a toll on his memory and, worse, his marvelous sense of humor. He rarely left the house for the last five years of his life because he was deathly afraid of an occasional bout of incontinence embarrassing him. My Mom developed a heart condition – a leaky aortic valve – that killed her on March 15, 2009. My Dad lasted six weeks longer, unable to face life without the love of his life.
He was a wonderful man, a fine father, a good husband, a great provider. He was woven from the fabric of Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation”. It’s always around his birthday that I remember him, and the farther away I get from his death the harder it is because I miss him so badly. If you’re near your neighborhood tavern this, or any other, February 28th, grab a glass of your favorite libation and say a thanks to your Father, and mine. I’ll be doing the same. Slainte, O’Daly. I miss you.