My Dad, SMSgt. Joseph Jay Hessinger, retired from the United States Air Force in 1974 at the age of 52. He had joined the United States Army Air Corps at 17 with his parents’ permission to become a mechanic on B-17s in England during World War II. When the war ended, my Dad returned home to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to marry his hometown sweetheart, our Mom, Julia Ann Lazun.
Dad then went to work for the Bethlehem Steel Company like his father before him. But post-war strikes and the responsibilities of a new family with already the first two of eventually five children to provide for led our father to re-enlist in the new United States Air Force where he served our country for the next thirty years. He was a jet mechanic in Korea during that war, and did planning and scheduling at Da Nang Air Force Base during the height of the Vietnam War. When the North Vietnamese Army and the South Vietnamese Viet Cong guerrillas rocketed Da Nang heavily during the 1968 Tet Offensive, our father wrote in his journal, “The fright of the recruit is revealed anew in the rocket’s red glare, no matter how many times one has seen its light.”
Dad was in Vietnam when our big sister marched with hundreds of thousands of young people against the war in Washington, D. C. He made it back in time for his eldest daughter’s graduation from Douglas College in New Brunswick, New Jersey. It was a beautiful spring day that day for the outside ceremony before thousands of beaming parents and family members. When the commencement speaker encouraged the graduates to “follow in the footsteps of the world’s great moral teachers, Moses and Jesus and Marx,” there was a gasp and then a stunned hush from the crowd. No one had expected to hear Communism placed on the same level as Judaism and Christianity. The silence was broken when one man amidst the thousands there bellowed out a very loud, “BOO!” That man was our father. After the ceremony, a nicely dressed young college professor came up to our family with his arm outstretched to shake my Dad’s hand saying, “I just want to thank you, Sir . . . ” After my Dad took his hand, the man finished with, ” . . . for ruining what was otherwise a very beautiful ceremony.” It was only my grandmother, mother, and three of us kids holding back my Dad that allowed this effete, intellectual jerk to walk away with the smug look still on his face!
After he retired from the military, my Dad went to college on the old “G.I. Bill,” earning a bachelors degree in sociology. Then he worked as a bailiff for four different superior court judges in downtown Phoenix, Arizona. Just before we moved to Yuma in 1991, I took my Dad and our eight year old son to see the movie “Memphis Belle” playing at the grand old Cine Capri movie theatre on 24th Street and Camelback Road in Phoenix that sadly isn’t there anymore. The movie told the story of the first B-17 crew that made it through their mandatory 25 bombing missions during World War II. During the opening scenes of real, restored B-17s in flight that they filmed for the movie, I looked over at my Dad. I could see in my father’s face that he was transported back in time to his youth and to civilization’s great crusade against outright forces of evil.
When we moved to Yuma a few weeks later, my Dad and Mom were planning to come visit us as soon as our young family of four settled into our new apartment and I’d settled into my new job at the Yuma County Attorney’s Office. On the eve of my first felony jury trial, my Dad called on the phone and asked me how things were going. We hadn’t talked in a while, and we enjoyed a good long conversation that night with me telling my Dad how my first misdemeanor jury trial had gone the day before and what I was anticipating with my first felony trial the next day.
Somewhere in the conversation I worked in how I didn’t have enough money to get my diplomas framed, and my Dad asked me how much it would cost. I told him “$200.” “TWO HUNDRED DOLLARS!” my Dad exclaimed. “What are they framing them in, GOLD!” I explained that that was just what a quality framing cost and then quickly changed the subject
The next day after my first day of trial, I was excitedly describing to my boss how things had gone when a secretary interrupted to tell me that my wife was on the phone for me. I excused myself with my boss and took the call. Karen said softly, “Mark . . . your Dad died.” I can still remember my heart plummeting from the heights of elation where it had been while talking with my boss to the now depths of despair while my mind reeled and my heart tried to grasp what my wife had just told me.
My Dad had died at his desk from a ruptured aortic aneurism a few months shy of his 70th birthday. He was gone in minutes. At our father’s funeral mass at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic Church in Tempe, Arizona, where I had gone to high school, then college, and finally law school, hundreds of people attended the midweek service. There were old retired military friends and their families, our Dad’s friends from Mesa Community College and Arizona State University where he had gone to school, and lots of court people from downtown Phoenix, including judges, lawyers, clerks, and staff of every sort. When the service had concluded and as the crowd began to melt away, a guy who went to my same law school but who was a year or two behind my class and who also named “Mark” came up to me and introduced himself. He said that he was studying to take the bar exam while working as a bailiff for the judge in the court next to my father’s office. He said he’d heard my father fall and rushed in to find him slumped over on his desk. He said that he had held my Dad in his arms as he slipped away and that my father had not suffered any pain. Then he said, “Mark . . . EVERYONE loved your Dad!”
The final lesson my father taught me in his life was the immeasurable worth of leaving your family a good name.
When I returned to work after a week of bereavement, I found a stack of mail on my desk waiting for me. The first letter on top was one from my Dad mailed the week before. Inside the envelope was only a check for $200. I just stared at this check that was signed by my father . . . that had been written out and mailed the same day that he died.
Then I broke down at my desk . . . and cried like a baby.
Leave a Reply