Bridge & Tunnel Books
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The Commute

"Dad’s Leg" by Rosemary McLaughlin

The voice at the other end of the line was garbled, husky, unclear. I thought it might be Santa, but he didn’t sound too friendly. I was a little over two as my mother held the phone to my ear, and I tried to puzzle out who was speaking to me. It was my dad, Frank Madia, on the other end of the line, and he was in the hospital. A terrible streetcar accident at the Pittsburgh Railways car barn, where he worked as a mechanic, took his right leg, my mother’s peace of mind, and her dancing partner.

Dad had been working on one streetcar, and he had asked his buddy to leave the other car in the yard. “Don’t bring it in,” he told him. “The brakes are bad.” But the other mechanic had been drinking and not really paying attention, so he brought it in anyway. Unable to stop, he caught my father between the two cars. Dad knew right away he’d lose his leg because his foot was twisted completely around. Although bleeding profusely, he still had the presence of mind to take off his belt and apply the tourniquet that saved his life.

This kind of bravery was not out of character for Dad. He had been a rowdy young man, a sailor for whom the war had been merely an adventure. He was a stationary engineer on many Merchant Marine supply ships, and on his very first voyage out of New York, his ship was hit by a torpedo. He spent the next 18 hours on a life raft in the frigid Atlantic. He was one of fewer than ten survivors. He escaped the war unscathed only to lose his leg at a job that paid $150 a month. The accident took some of the dash out of him, but he still remained the giant of my childhood, of my life.

After his three months in the hospital, he came home. When I was old enough to know what prayer was, I started praying in earnest for God to send him a new leg. I believed that God could do anything, but I wasn’t sure about the details. Would God just throw it down from heaven, and how would Dad attach it once it arrived? I dutifully checked the front step every morning since that’s where I figured God would leave it. Would it already have a shoe and sock? I wondered. Maybe it would just start to grow, and I wouldn’t be able to see it until it reached the floor. Oh, the ways of the Lord are mysterious indeed.

My prayer was never answered, so Dad set about building a new life, one that involved more doing than complaining. He was happy he could keep his job, and he worked for the Pittsburgh Railways and then the Port Authority for the next thirty-five years.

The company purchased his first wooden leg, a miserable heavy contraption that left him sweating, sore, and bleeding for the rest of his life. The first thing he did when he came home each day was take off that leg. It usually stood in a corner of the living room and scared the pants off of my little friends and cousins. Dad left his leg dressed at all times. It wore a pair of boxers, a pair of pants, and a shoe and a sock. Like him, it was ready to run. He was on a perpetual quest to find or make a leg that would fit him comfortably. He applied strips of wool or lamb’s skin to the inside of socket to protect his stump, which was often so painful that he couldn’t wear the leg at all. He continually sanded or filed away at the wood, trying to shape it into the elusive perfect fit.

When he died, we found thirteen prosthetic legs in the attic and basement, and they all hurt him. We had no idea what to do with them. No one would take them. Ultimately we left them on the curb for pick up, where they waited like half of the cast of A Chorus Line. It didn’t seem right.

Before the accident, Dad had been quite a dancer, and I have pictures of him as a handsome sailor with my mother, the perfect forties cutie. I never saw them dance together—not even at my wedding.

When my brothers and I were little, we were in awe of and a little afraid of Dad. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for us—even if it embarrassed us. Once at a neighborhood picnic, to my thirteen-year-old mortification, he jumped off the high dive at Piney Forks Swimming Pool. Everyone in the park gasped as he hopped off the end of the diving board, risking life and remaining limbs for God knows what! The only thing that would have embarrassed me more would have been if he had lost his trunks in the effort.

Mostly though, Dad was the kind of father to make a girl proud. He worked hard year-round, talked to all of my friends, and gave us rides wherever we wanted to go. Some of my friends continued to visit him long after they had lost touch with me. He had more friends my age than I did.

When he was seventy-six, we learned that he had lung cancer and probably wouldn’t live for more than a few months. We all wept: his legions of friends, his three children and their families, his eight siblings and their families, his nephews, nieces, four grandchildren, and especially the young men from the neighborhood for whom he had been a surrogate father. He comforted us, never complained, and even about his own imminent death said, “I’m going to show you how it’s done.” And he did. If ever a man died with grace, it was my dad.

My husband asked him if there was anything special he wanted. “You get the tools, Frankie (my younger brother) gets the car, and divide everything else among the three kids.” We were in our forties and fifties but kids to him. His final declaration was “I’m paying for the party!” He was emphatic about that. It wouldn’t be a funeral reception but a party as far as he was concerned.

The night before he died, he slipped into a coma, and his friends and family spilled into the hall. Everyone wanted a few private minutes with him. The last to leave that night was John, a buddy several years my junior. John sat next to Dad and told him how he loved him like a father and how he’d miss him. Then John tried to call his wife to tell her when he’d be home but couldn’t get the phone to work. Dad, who hadn’t spoken for at least twenty-four hours, began sputtering, and a raspy whisper emanated from his throat. John bent closer to the bed.

“What is it, Frank? What can I do for you? What do you want?”

Dad laboriously formed the words, “Dial nine.”

I guess there are more memorable last words, but none as characteristically my father, Frank Madia—funny and helpful to the end.

 

ROSEMARY MCLAUGHLIN has been a lover of the written word since she received a D in reading in the second grade and her parents took her to the library to remedy the situation. She has been reading and writing ever since! She majored in English Education at the University of Pittsburgh and went on to teach English at Oliver High School and then Mt. Lebanon High School for 35 years. Correcting essays really cut into her writing time, but she has picked it up again since retiring. For eight years she wrote a community column for the North Hills News Record, and she has done quite a few feature columns for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as well as publishing many stories in the Chicken Soup series. She is married and has two children and two grandchildren, and they all live happily at the edge of North Park.

Heather McAdams