Friday, August 7, 2020

Insight: Look to the past for inspiration for the future

By Ed Pierce

Managing Editor

Each year as the calendar turns to August, I stop and reflect about what can be accomplished in life if you set your mind to it. For some this comes easy, but for my father, it was a constant struggle to forge a new life free from the limitations of hardship and poverty.

Born Aug. 11, 1925 as the youngest of nine children and raised on a farm outside Fairport, New York, my dad’s story is like many others who lived through the Great Depression. Putting food on the table and staying warm in the winter was the priority and all members of the family, no matter their age, were expected to contribute.

Ed Pierce, Sr. near Biserte, Tunisia, 1944
While other students at Fairport High School were playing sports or participating in other after-school activities, my father worked two jobs. On Saturday mornings he received a penny for every bowling pin he placed upright on a lane as a pinspotter at a local bowling alley. When classes in school wrapped up weekdays, he trudged off to a 25-cent an hour job at a company that made tin cans for businesses.

There wasn’t money to go to the movies or to buy new clothes. He didn’t own a car and he walked six miles into town for school and then back home again.     

His teachers raved about his abilities in mathematics and science and encouraged him to go to college, but on the same day he graduated from high school in 1943, his draft notice arrived in the mail and those plans were put on hold.

Trained as an infantryman, my father joined thousands of other soldiers on a troop ship bound for Libya. Years later, he spoke of seeing extreme poverty there as Libyan families would raid the soldiers’ trash and convert discarded burlap bags into clothing for their children.

Leaving North Africa, my father was part of the U.S. contingent of troops landing at Anzio Beach, Italy in January 1944. In one of the bloodiest battles of the war, the Americans eventually prevailed, gaining a foothold to drive the Nazis from Italy.

A few months later, as his unit was advancing on Cisterna in Italy, my father was shot in the back by a sniper while trying to repair a broken communications line. He survived his wounds and was discharged from military service in 1946.

He enrolled at Manhattan College in New York City and used the GI Bill to study mechanical engineering. Missing home and finding the cost for room and board expensive, he transferred to the Rochester Institute of Technology and worked a series of part-time jobs in addition to his college studies to pay for his textbooks.

While working as a private investigator, he met my mother and they married in 1951 after he became the first person in his family to ever earn a college degree. I came along in 1953 and my brother in 1957 and by then, my father was pursuing the post-war American dream. Along with my mother, they bought their first home, their first new car and he started his career as a mechanical engineer for Delco Automotive and later ITEK, Xerox, Nalgene Plastics and Harris Corporation.

He rarely talked about his experiences in war, but became something of a sports fanatic, never missing a game on television and championing my desire to someday write about sports for a newspaper.

Just after retiring at age 65 on May 19, 1991, a drunk driver struck my father’s car head-on near Kissimmee, Florida as he was returning home from an afternoon visiting his oldest sister in Lake Wales, Florida and he died.

Through everything he did growing up, my father paved the way for me and my brother to have a better life. I’ll never complain about how bad things are during the pandemic after hearing him talk about eating buttered spaghetti noodles without sauce or meat as the main dish for supper during the Great Depression, or how he watched in horror as an Army buddy lost his life standing just inches away from him during a blast from a Nazi machine gun turret while storming the beachhead at Anzio.

Today, we stand on the shoulders of those who endured far worse than we will ever know and the lesson they have left for us is that we can and will survive these trying times. My father was proof of that and I am reminded of it each year when his birthday nears. <     

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