Sunday, September 7, 2014

Some Interesting Family History That I Just Learned

I went out to my sisters house a couple or few nights ago, to go through some of my mom's photo albums and other memorabilia with the purpose of taking what I wanted to save. My sister and brother-in-law  split up and finally sold the house and have to get things out of it. Since my mom is in an assisted living facility, she has no room for it so I took virtually all the old photo albums and a few small trinkets that bring back memories.

Among the picture albums, I found some old family papers and old family photos of my maternal grandfather and his family going back two generations before him. I did not know him well, in fact only met him when I maybe was in my mid-teens, more likely in my late teens, maybe even in my young twenties; I am bad on timelines from back then, don't ask why. I visited him fairly often once we found out he lived in our neighborhood, he and my grandmother had parted ways many years before and my mother had not seen him in decades and suddenly there he was close to home. He lived only a few blocks from us. When I visited him, I did some small chores for him and we talked more of current events and jawboned more than talking his history. Anyway, among his photos was an awards brochure from the New York City Sanitation Department in 1943. When I paged through it, I saw he was awarded a medal by then mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia. I read on and found the reason why he got that medal, it was the NYC Dept. of Sanitation Medal of Valor. (Who woulda thunk that someone working for the garbage department could win a medal of valor - but he did - as did four others in that ceremony.) We don't have the medal (unless it is yet to be found) but I do have the certificate he was awarded with it, too bad it is in really bad shape, torn and missing pieces. Anyway I guess I should mention why he was awarded that medal of valor.

On September 6, 1942 (72 years ago yesterday), my maternal grandfather, Robert Oppel, was an oiler on a NYC Dept. of Sanitation tug boat in District 56, Queens. As it ploughed the waters of the East River... Heck, let me tell you verbatim how they said it, back then, using the words from the awards pamphlet:

"About 4PM on September 6, 1942, while working on a tugboat, Robert Oppel heard the screams of an eight-year old boy, who had fallen into the East River. He plunged into the water, swam over to the child and brought him to safety. He rendered first aid treatment pending the arrival of medical assistance."

My mother was 17 soon to be 18 when that happened, my grandfather was no spring chicken at the time. Judging by his photo in the booklet, I would say he was in his late 30s to mid- forties. I am not too sure but I also think he was estranged from the family by then, already for a long time. I  know my mother did not think much of her father especially since he basically abandoned her and her brother and their mom many years before we found him living close to us. Yet, she was proud enough of him to save this stuff and a few other things of his as well as his family photos and some family papers dating back to the mid to late 1800s after he passed on.

That's the photo of him that they used in the
1943 awards pamphlet. As you can see there is
also a photo of a Sanitation Dept. tug boat, I am
guessing the one he served on and of what looks
to be a tug crew (he may be the guy to the left).
Also his Port Security card from 1955.
My mom was also good enough to help take care of him once they were back in touch after all those years of separation. Had she not been of that ilk, I guess I would never have met him, she could just as easily have never introduced me, my brother or sister to him but she did and we all connected. Family bonds meant something back then, to most people, more than they do today to way too many. Even if those bonds were broken they could be mended again or made anew if not mended. Ironic thing is she wound up marrying a bum much worse than her father may have been to her; my father was truly a monster and thankfully left us too, but then again this is not about my father or mother but about something I only found out about my grandfather a couple of days before its 72 anniversary.

I will admit I am pretty awestruck by it. It's not everyday that you learn one of your relatives saved another person's life at peril to his own life. Pretty cool in my book. I'd like to think I'd do likewise in a similar situation. Anyway - a hat tip to Grandpa Oppel - whether he is I heaven looking down on me, or down lower and looking up at me, for whatever else he did or did not do in his lifetime. (All about which I have no clue but I'd like to know. I suppose I likely never will learn any more about his endeavors and adventures, little to no chance of that now but then at least I found out about this.) Oh well, that's it - just something of our family history that peaked my interest from out of the blue almost 72 years to the day from when it happened.

All the best,
Glenn B
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