Let me tell you about a man I knew, and was lucky enough to call a friend. His name was Joe. Whenever I get low or feel overwhelmed, I think of him.
- February 27, 2021 at 10:19 pm
Joe was a simple guy – quiet, soft spoken. …an “every man” type. He grew up in the heart of Pennsylvania, plenty far away from either Philadelphia or Pittsburgh. He was just simple man from a simple background. Some might say he reminded you a little of Jimmy Stewart. There was a quiet but obvious dignity about him.
After he left high school, he joined the military, like so many of us do – to see what we’re made of and do great things. Joe joined the Navy, and volunteered for the Submarine Force. After completing submarine school and then torpedo school, he was assigned to Charleston, South Carolina. Once he settled in, he married his high school sweetheart, Mary. As far I a knew, he had never had another date or kissed any other girl. He was assigned to a ballistic missile boat.
For those that don’t know, that’s a sub that has two crews. One takes the boat out on patrol, while the other stays in port for training, leave, etc. The crew that has the boat on patrol might as well be on the moon. No ports, no mail, no contact with the outside world minus a few one way messages to them from family while underway. All precious little for patrols that lasted nearly 120 days back then.
On his first patrol, Mary got very lonely while Joe was gone. It’s not exactly a new tale, but she had a short term affair. Mary revealed the affair, and Joe forgave her. It wasn’t easy on either of them, but they moved on. There was a a rare crew changeover and refit that happened in Charleston rather than in Holy Loch, Scotland after this patrol. During the refit, a there was a freak accident. A steel deck plate was being hoisted and the strap broke, and fell on his head, caving in part of his skull. Joe was in a coma for a while and now with a plate in his head. Mary never left his side. During his year of recovery, they found out they were expecting a child who would be their son, Thomas.
Just as he was nearly fit for full duty, a final physical found that he had testicular cancer. He was sidelined again. All this man wanted to do was to do his duty, go to sea, and be a submariner.
Joe’s squadron was being decommissioned and most assets left were spread around the rest of the Submarine Force, Atlantic. This brought him back to Submarine Base New London in Groton, Connecticut where I met him. Assigned to shore duty until he could be cleared medically, he took any job assigned to him and sought out more. Once again, he had a physical to clear him for full duty. Once again, bad news. Joe had cancer again, only now in several places throughout his body.
What did he do? He became a volunteer firefighter – in his spare time. In the Northeast, outside of the bigger cities, most fire departments are volunteer with training paid for by the towns. With a cancer diagnosis, Joe attends and passes the fire academy and basic paramedic qualification. Full duty as a Sailor during the day and on call as a firefighter all other times….with cancer. If Joe was ever in a bad mood or wasn’t optimistic – I’m here to tell you, that I never knew it. I’d see him at Squadron Headquarters sometimes first thing in the morning after he had been up all night fighting a fire, and for him it was nothing. He was an absolute machine.
After a time, his cancer took a turn for the worse. He was taking so much chemotherapy, he had a tube? catheter pretty much permanently in his chest. All the while, still serving full time and yes, still fighting fires – EFFECTIVELY. He just would NOT quit. Part of his treatment sent him over to New York City to be seen by Sloan Kettering, allegedly the best cancer hospital in the country. There came a point where there was nothing left for the doctors to do. As a last ditch effort, he was sent to San Antonio to Brook Army Medical Center. Worse news. They did a scan that other doctors didn’t bother to do and found that Joe had a brain tumor that was feeding all the other cancer in his body. Had they caught it a few months earlier, they might have been able to save him.
So, with a terminal diagnosis, he was discharged and allowed to receive his GI insurance in full. Joe was honorably discharged of course. With a large portion of his GI Insurance, he bought a house outright. Joe wanted to ensure that Mary and Thomas would always have a roof over their head.
I remember the night Mary called me to tell me that Joe had just died. It hit me like a sledge hammer to the chest. He fought every day, every hour, every minute – to the end. He actually REFUSED to die, and wouldn’t let go until Mary assured him that he had done everything a man can do as a man – take care of his wife and child.
Joe was the toughest man I have ever known and most likely will ever know. He wasn’t a “badass”. He wasn’t a brawler. He didn’t wrestle alligators or anything like that. No matter how hard life hit Joe, he leaned into it and kept moving forward. He didn’t complain. He never showed that things got to him. He just took it in stride and kept going. The word quit was never in the same galaxy as he was.
So no matter how bad I think things are – I remember that Joe had it a LOT tougher than I can ever imagine.
I don’t mourn that Joe died. I crack a rare smile that I was lucky enough to know a man like him and that he ever lived at all.
Thanks for taking the time to read this small tribute to a man who was a man in the truest sense of the word.Iacet nobilitas mea.50
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