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More than a big brother – a Father’s Day story

More than a big brother – a Father’s Day story

By Kevin Flanagan

BSD Senior Staff Writer

I have to admit for as much as at times I have not deserved it, I have lived a pretty lucky life.  I’m approaching 30 years of marriage with a woman who often times should have deserved better than her draw for a partner, and I have two children who from the time that they were born, made it obvious – and thankfully so – that they took after their mother.

The young adults that they have become fill me with more pride than simple words can ever express.

I am the youngest of six kids of depression era parents, who somehow – despite our best efforts, at times – successfully kept us from killing each other over the years.  My childhood memories are those surrounded by family and friends in the Brookfield section of Brockton, where family cookouts and parties were the norm and not the exception, and where a pickup sports game could be found no matter the season or the weather nearly all year long.

I have written this narrative a number of times, so I apologize in advance for the repetition for those of you I have bored to tears in the past.

Christmas at the Bridgewater Flanagans, shortly after Larry ate Adam Vinatieri.

I was born to Bob and Marge Flanagan on January 15th, 1967.  As some of you sports fans of a certain vintage may remember – that is if you can still read without the use of a magnifying glass – this was the date of the first Super Bowl ever.  Family legend has it my dad dropped my mom off at Brockton Hospital and said that he would see her after the game, before returning home to watch what has become the only national holiday that doesn’t include a day off from work on the following Monday.

And yes, I pretty much take credit for the six Super Bowl titles the Patriots have won over the last couple decades, because as a former season ticket holder and entering the world on such a divine date, who wouldn’t?

When the stork dropped me off on the doorstep of our overcrowded ranch on 304 Lynn Road, my mom was 44 and my dad was 48.  Based on what was considered at the time an advanced age to have children – a record my brother Bobby would shatter some nearly 40 years later – I guess you could say my arrival was not necessarily a planned occasion.

The age difference between me and my oldest brother Larry was a little over 19 years.  In fact, after having him in 1948, they waited nearly nine years before they had another child.

Those of you who know Larry well understand that there were multiple reasons behind this decision.

Fast forward to when I was still filling my cloth diapers and eating pureed peas, Larry was on his way to Vietnam, one of those who were drafted to serve in a controversial war that at the time divided the country.  And despite the best advice he could have been given by our Uncle Ed Galvin – who told him not to volunteer for anything – he chose not only to be a volunteer but to lead.

You see, our Uncle Ed was overqualified for giving such advice due to his own experience in WWII – or as Archie Bunker would say, “The Big One”.

Edward Michael Galvin enlisted in the Army in March of 1941, nearly six months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that resulted in many of his contemporaries doing the same out of a flood of patriotism surrounding the cowardly strike that would result in the United States entering the war.

Uncle Ed (right) in his days in the Devil’s Brigade.

And yet, like his nephew would a little over a quarter of a century later, he would not settle for being just another GI.  As it would turn out, both of these men were cut from the same courageous cloth, one that few among us – or for the two century-plus history of the greatest country in the ever established by mankind – have ever deserved to wear.

Uncle Ed was a member of the “Black Devils” or the “Devil’s Brigade”, depending on which side of the war you were on.  This consisted of an entire volunteer group of men whose bravery and commitment is virtually inconceivable to most of us who struggle to contend with morning traffic, never mind going through the rigorous training and subsequent “suicide missions” that the first group of Special Forces that the Army ever had since it’s ragtag group of colonials were organized by George Washington in the Revolutionary War were charged to do.

In December of 1943, Ed and his unwavering fellow warriors conducted an assault on a heavily fortified mountain in Italy against a ruthless German army.  In entering the fight that one of the survivors of the battle described as, “It looked as if we were marching into Hell. The whole mountain was being shelled and the whole mountain seemed to be on fire”, our Uncle Ed became one of the 77% of casualties – 511 total, 91 dead, 9 missing, 313 wounded and 116 suffering from exhaustion that was a result from the relentless campaign.

Uncle Ed’s medal collection.

During this battle, Ed suffered severe injuries – including the loss of the sight in his left eye, the hearing in his left ear, and the loss of his left lung.

After 10 months in an Army hospital, he was designated 100% disabled by the Government, and was issued medals of valor including a Bronze Star,  Purple Heart, Good Conduct Award, American Defense Service Award, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Award (with 2 Bronze Service Stars), European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Award (with 1 Bronze Service Star), World War II Victory Award, Combat Infantry Badge 1st Award, and an Honorable Service Lapel Pin .

And while most men would have simply collected their pension and chosen to live off the taxpayers, Uncle Ed worked as a US Customs Officer in the Customs office in Boston, “winding the clock”, as my brother Mike still believes well into the 1980s.

Me and Uncle Ed. God, I miss my hair.

So, needless to say, he kind of knew what he was talking about when he dropped Larry off at the airport before his flight to Fort Benning, Georgia in 1968.

As you can probably guess, his advice fell on deaf ears.

Instead, my brother Larry volunteered to become a member of the most elite group of Army Rangers.  He became a sergeant in the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol – or LRRPs, as they are commonly referred to – a far from distant relative to the band of brothers that our Uncle Ed was among that were the pioneers of the profession nearly a quarter century before.

Quite frankly, I don’t know much about my brother’s time in Vietnam, other than what I have read about the conflict in general.  However, those who risked the most seldom speak about their heroics, as my cousin David Galvin relayed to me when I was researching my uncle’s service history.

As was true of many families at the time, all four of Uncle Ed’s brothers served in WWII.  Dave told me of how they would pull him aside at family gatherings as a kid and tell him, “Your dad is a hero.  He served in the Devil’s Brigade.”.

Uncle Ed in uniform in his Dorchester.

Little much was said after that because, after all, true heroes don’t boast, they let their actions speak for themselves.  And, likewise, the only stories I have ever heard from Larry are about those he served with, not the heroic service they participated in together.

However, there is one story – or iconic photo – that made me the all-time winner of the “my dad could beat up your dad” argument that pre-pubescent boys have had since the beginning of time.

Whether it is right or wrong – and it would certainly be considered politically incorrect these days – guys would make fun of my dad because he had contracted polio as a child, and one of my responsibilities each day would be to dash off to our driveway to help my dad in from his car once I saw his station wagon make its way down Jon Drive.

And while I did my fair share of rolling around in the dirt to defend the honor of the toughest son of a bitch I have ever know, I also had an Ace up my sleeve.

You see, my big brother killed a tiger.  In the jungles of Vietnam.  And I had the picture to prove it.

Larry with his legendary tiger.

Game, set, match.  I was dropping the mike in those debates long before I even knew what that term meant.

When I was a kid, Larry was pretty much my second father.  Because of the difficulty that my dad had getting around due to the progression of his disease, our recreation time together was almost exclusively spent watching sports.

And trust me when I say, I wouldn’t give those memories up for all the gold in King Solomon’s tomb.

Neither would I surrender the Saturday’s that I spent with my big brother and his then wife Patty, who would make me feel like I was the center of their universe on any given weekend.

I remember like it was yesterday boasting to my buddies that my brother Larry was coming to pick me up on the weekend.  I’d wait in anticipation like a kid on Christmas Eve, and when I saw that 1960 Red Ford Falcon make its way down Lynn Road with my mutton-chopped tiger killing brother behind the wheel, I would relish the looks of envy that was on their faces as I hopped into the car along with my sister Maureen, leaving them behind to argue whose dad could beat who, while I rode off with my hero.

Certified badass.

At some point in time, all of us kids called upon Larry to get us out of a pickle.  My not so shining moment came as a teenager in the early 1980s.

Partying with some buddies behind Brookfield School on a Friday night in late fall – ironically on one of the paths that Uncle Ed would walk his beloved German Sheppard Smokey – I found myself in perhaps the worst spot in my life up until then.

Drinking “pony” Lowenbrau – because back then you could say I drank 8 beers last night to impress your friends, even though they were only 8 ounces each – and possessing something smelly in my jacket pocket that is legal in Massachusetts these days, my buddies and I were gathered around a fire for the night.

In true 80s style, we had a boom box blaring – I can’t say for sure, but if pressed I think it was a well-worn cassette tape of the Kinks that was the entertainment for the evening – midway through the night felt a hand on my shoulder and I reacted.

In classic Brookfield style.

Instead of turning to see who it was, I threw my best right hook and connected square on the nose of the one who had come to interrupt our party.  It was less than a second later that I saw the Brockton Policeman’s hat roll past the fire pit and I realized what I had just done.

As my friends successfully scattered off, I attempted to do the same.  For some odd reason, the officers were fixated on me, and after a couple of blinding speed strides into the darkness, I faceplanted into a tree.

Blame it on the beer or the temporary blindness after staring at a fire for so long, my gig was up.

After being tenderized like a three dollar steak for what seemed to be an eternity by the two officers who used my back like the side of beef that Rocky – the fictional Rocky, not the Brockton Blockbuster –  beat into submission, they led me on a not so leisurely walk towards their cruiser that was parked at the end of Rodney Street.

After repeatedly asking me for my driving license – and not so subtly displaying their displeasure when I said I didn’t have one yet – one of the two rather displeased officers finally listened to my appeal to find my North Junior High bus card in my back pocket.

I will never forget what they said after they read my name on the laminated piece of paper, “What do you know, he’s a Flanagan.”.

Thinking that I had somehow curried favor with my agitated new found adversaries, somewhat excitedly I said something like, “Yes I am.  Larry is my brother.”.  That was met with a curt and quick response from the officer I later found out I had busted his nose.  “Larry has used up all his favors thanks to your brother Mike.”

Talk about sucky hand-me-downs.

Heart and soul.

Anyway, deservedly so, I was processed as a minor at the Brockton Police Department and was granted my request that they call my favor spent brother instead of my parents.  As we exited the station I was pretty much resigned to the fact that my life as I knew it was over, only to hear my brother ask in what I thought was a kindly voice say, “Did they rough you up?”.

And before I could answer I was on the parking lot of the police station courtesy of a punch from the Popeye-armed Vietnam veteran.

Needless to say, I never had another such run-in with the law, but I still hadn’t really learned my lesson.

Through my 20s and early 30s – some will argue even later – I had ego issues.  For some unknown reason – even to myself to this day – I thought that I was above a lot of the things in everyday life that most folks who aren’t self-absorbed realize are just the facts of what it takes to make your way successfully in society.

Because of my arrogance and selfishness for a time there was a divide in the relationship with the man I consider to be my second father, but like any other brother of Irish decent, it wasn’t anything a good argument couldn’t resolve.

Grampa in all his glory.

(Ok, tension breaker.  Nothing would crack me up more than when we would be at a golf tournament or out for a bite to eat and a drink when someone would ask “Is this your dad?”.)

Fortunately, this wasn’t long-lived.  I think my family – pardon my French – have recognized and accepted the “assholeness” that pretty much defines my “personality” over the years and I’m thankful for that.

However, perhaps what I am most thankful for on this Father’s Day – other than my daughter Katie and son Robbie – is the fact that I can call Larry not only my big brother, my mentor, and my hero, but I can proudly call him my friend.

Yet another generation of Flanagans letting Larry think he could arm wrestle.

As many of you know, Larry has been battling some serious health issues lately.  But like the true warrior he is, he has remained focused on the fight and his family.  No matter the obstacles that have been placed in his path – like those our Uncle Ed and he faced on the battlefield that none us of who haven’t been in that position will ever be able to comprehend – he continues to soldier on like the leader he has always been.

So I found it fitting that on this Father’s Day that I should share a bit of his story and let him know just how deeply he is loved.

Happy Father’s Day, brother.  By the way, I let you win every time we arm wrestled.

Follow on Twitter @KevinMFlanagan.  Email at kflan@bostonsportsdesk.com.

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