A major influence on Tim was his recently deceased father, Gerald Bulger.
On December 30, 1944, the USS Orestes suffered a direct hit by a Japanese kamikaze plane. Forty five crewmen were killed and over one hundred wounded. As a result of his injuries, Gerald's right leg was amputated. Despite his disability, Gerald went on to raise a family and become an active member in his community. His grandson, Devin, delivered a poignant and moving eulogy at Gerald's funeral mass.
Good Morning. Thank you for being here to celebrate the life of our friend, Gerald Bulger.
So, as most of you know, Gerald lived in the village in a little brick, one-story house at 37 Van Ness Avenue. You’ve probably seen him out in front of his garage, sitting in his wheel chair, reading the paper, or doing a word search, and if you have, you’ve probably received a small wave and an easy smile as you drove, or walked by.
Because it was right in the middle of the village, his house served as a kind of gathering place for our family - we’d stop by to have a bite to eat, watch some T.V in between practices or appointments, use the bathroom, use the internet, catch him up on what we were doing, and see how he was doing. A lot of times the conversation drifted towards sports - scores from the night before, a major trade or two that the Tigers just made, the latest on Notre Dame’s recruiting efforts - or he would catch you up on any happenings around town, different doctors visits he had coming up, the weather, especially if the weather was causing his stump to jump, and any other number of normal topics.
But whatever the topic of conversation might be on a particular day, you didn’t have to spend much time with him before he asked you this question: “Did I ever tell you the one?”
“Did I ever tell you the one about the Greenwich Travelers? This was after the war, and a bunch of guys got together and formed a community basketball group and we went around and played groups from other towns. I was a kind of score-keeper for them. Paul Quinn, he was one of our best. We went all over - Fort Edward, Hudson Falls, down to Salem and Cambridge. We could never beat Cambridge. Those guys had a good club. We were the Travelers because we didn’t have a home gym, so we had to travel to everybody else’s. One night we were heading up to one of the gyms up north, I think it was Fort Edward, and it was snowing bad and we were heading along Route 4 and just as we come up to the bridge, you know the one right there before you head in to the village, we saw a car off the road, stuck in the ditch. We slowed down and took a look and it was one of our guys. Can’t remember who it was now, but we all got out and they pushed and we finally got the car to come out of the ditch. The guys all piled back into the cars and they started driving off and there I was standing in the middle of the road waving my crutch after them. They didn’t get too far before they realized I wasn’t with them and they came back and got me and we got to the game on time… think we won that one. Yep… we have to drive through some pretty nasty storms for some of those games. The Travelers.”
As with most of his stories, he ended that one with a hardy chuckle, and would look to the ceiling with his hands folded behind his head, smiling at the sight of himself hopping around on Route 4.
“Did I ever tell you the one?” WIth those seven words, you were invited to share in the history that he lived, an almost unbelievable retrospective on American life from before the depression, through the war years, all the way up to the advent of personal computers and cell phones. You were brought to his childhood home of Abeel Ave., where he and his brother Tom’s chores included going down to the Battenkill with pails to collect drinking water from the springs and digging out one, or both, of their family outhouses. He gave you a tour around Greenwich, when the Washington Square Deli was the Ryan-Bradley Grocery, Pennywise was Cronin’s Hardware, Trustco Bank was the site of the White Swan Hotel before the fire, there was a butcher, a creamery, a gristmill, a candy kitchen where you could get a soda - oh, that was a treat- seven barbers, two bowling alleys, one of which was in the Village building, Doc Carroll’s was the Post Office and the Post Office was Bernie’s, Lake Lauderdale had the Oasis, Hedges had Duffy’s, and the Old Station was still a station that serviced the trains going back and forth from Salem Junction to Thompson.
He’d tell you how the spot where Whalen’s is now used to be called Connery Field and used to play host to all kinds of visiting attractions - fire musters, where hose teams from as far away as Brockton, Mass would come to compete in several different fire fighting related events; a tent revival and medicine show that stayed for two weeks, where they did all kinds of hoopin’ and hollerin’; an aerial show that featured stunt planes that actually took off and landed in the field; a traveling band of WRASTLERS that would perform different feats of strength and challenge the locals to contests and then they would WRASTLE for hours; and the biggest of them all, the Mills Brothers 3-ring circus that started with a parade down Main Street and had lions and elephants, giraffes… everything.
He’d tell you how the building that they just tore down on HIll Street as you come into town used to be the Manhattan Shirt Company. He should know because his mom, Anna Bailey, worked there. He’d tell you about the barns over at the Saratoga Raceway where his father, George Augustus, shod horses and ran his horse, GJ, in the harness races.
He got out into the world and he saw some things. And he’d tell you about that, too. How he once saw Bob Coursey hit a game winner from half-court to give Holy Cross the win over Bowling Green. How he saw the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Boston Braves play a game in Boston that was so cold that the second basemen, Connie Ryan, actually started a fire in the dug-out with some programs that he collected from fans in the stands. He saw Jackie Robinson in that one. He saw Ted Williams get called for a third strike and throw the bat 30 feet in the air in protest. He saw Bob Montgomery lose the title by knockout by Leslie Mozan; though Montgomery wold almost cause Mozan to go blind in the rematch. He shook Rocky Marciano’s hand outside of old Veteran’s Stadium in Philadelphia before a Notre Dame game. He was about to fight Jersey Joe\Westcott. At Lou’s Bar, in Philadephia, he was entertained by Bob Hope and Cheryl Landis. And at the Scollay Square, in Boston, he saw Peaches do her famous shimmy.
And yes, if you knew him well enough, and spent enough time with him, he would tell you about the war, though he didn’t like to. He’d tell you about getting drafted before he finished high school, taking trains all the way across the country to San Francisco, boarding a ship bound for Papua-New Guinea and getting assigned to the USS Orestes. He’d tell you that from Papua-New Guinea they went north to the Philippines and how, as they pulled in to anchor in a bay in one of the islands south of Luzon, a seaman who had been stationed there a while said, “I give you a week before your ship gets hit by one of those kamikazes.” How on the first day he witnessed a boat that was anchored beside the Orestes get struck, how he could feel the heat from the flames and see the guys bailing overboard. And how, on the second day, December 30th, 1944, he heard the sirens sound and ran down the steps to grab machine gun magazines and ran them up the stairs to the gun turret, but how it was too late, he heard the call to take cover, and he wedged himself between two refrigeration units on the deck of the ship. And then he would tell you, without any trace of doubt or self-importance, that he heard a voice tell him to get out of there - that it wasn’t safe - and how he slid back out from between the refrigeration units and started running down the deck only to have a Japanese plane crash into the refrigeration units and catapult him into the air. Rod - Rod Rodriguez - was there and helped him to the side of the ship. He knew some of the guys in the water and he called down to them and said, “I’m hurt, but I’m going to try and roll under the rails.” And that’s what he did.
Then there was morphine and gangrene and Sodium Penanthol and the surgeon. He was in New Guinea from January until April 26th when they finally got him on a hospital boat that got him back to the U.S. He was 22 years old, missing a leg, and now had the rest of his life to live.
When I asked him about how he dealt with that one time, he said, “Well, I guess I just took it in stride,” which is ironic because that’s exactly what his injuries had taken from him. He went on to explain that he just kind of figured out what he could and couldn’t do. He loved basketball and baseball and would have loved to figure out a way to play those, but those were out. He loved swimming and he figured out that if he could get himself in the water he could still do that. He tried countless different styles of prosthetics, but none of them took, so he got good at being on crutches, and navigating his home in a wheel chair. He figured he was going to need to find a desk job so he finished high school and applied to Becker College for their book keeping and accounting program. After graduating, he came back to Greenwich and got a job in Cambridge doing the books for an auto shop for years.
In ’53 or ’54, a girl walked into a bar and before the night was through he learned that she was inquiring about him. He found out her name and eventually got the nerve to call her up. At first she didn’t believe it was him, thought it was some of her friends playing a trick on her, but he finally ended up convincing her to go out on a date and in 1955 Gerald Bulger and Wanda Moss were married.
Here again he faced another possible loss from his injuries. He had been told all long that because of the damage that the shrapnel had caused, he wouldn’t ever be able to produce children. But on September 1st, 1956, when his first son, Timothy, was born, he discovered that the war didn’t take the gift of fatherhood away from him. Then another son, Daniel, who was lost when he was six months old. Then the girls, Patricia, Constance and Susan. He had a family now. And that was kind of a big thing for him.
It seems another way that he found his footing after the war was to invest himself in the Greenwich community. He was a member of the VFW, the American Legion, the Knights of Columbus, and the aforementioned Greenwich Travelers. He helped start the Little League, he attended St. Joseph’s church, he worked with Boy Scouts to make sure that every gravestone that belonged to a veteran in the cemetery was marked with an American flag for Memorial Day, he had his spot in the center of the High School gym for basketball games, parked his car and watched as many baseball games as he could, watched countless hours of his grandson’s Little League games from the right field fence, and, when he found time to, relaxed up at Glen Lake with his family, or at his house, reading the paper, and doing word searches.
And on a sunny day, in the spring, summer and fall, that’s where you would see him. And I’ll bet you that over the next few months and years every time you make that turn on to Van Ness your eyes will turn towards the garage door and look for him out of habit. And if that’s not the definition of what it means to be a part of the fabric of the community, I don’t know what is.
This summer, we were able to get him down to his final Tiger’s game in Yankee Stadium. On the drive back, he told me some stories that I had never heard before; stories that he had probably kept from me because they described a vulnerability that his generation, the Greatest Generation, is reluctant to express. One of them was from his days in the hospital in Philadelphia. The amputees went out on the town one night, got roaring drunk and wound up in Lou’s Bar. One of the guys, a guy that had lost both of his legs, got up on the bar, and got a hold of a crutch and started swinging and smashed all of the glasses and all of the bottles that were behind the bar. Grandpa explained, “He was a mean sort of guy. Guess he figured the world owed him a living; a lot of those guys did. I never felt like that. Guess that’s why I’m where I am today.”
I don’t think he meant that to sound judgmental towards the guys that the war made mean. I think he knows how close he came to giving into that despair and respects the anger that any of those guys felt as a result of their war experiences. I think he was saying that life was hard - brutally hard, sometimes - and bad things will always happen to good people, and you don’t get to chose when they happen to you, but you can choose whether you focus on the bad things and live a life of sadness, or whether you focus on the good things and live a life of joy.
He chose the latter. He chose joy even after losing Wanda many, many years too soon. He chose joy even after losing his son-in-law Chris. He chose joy as the years took more and more of his friends and war comrades, and as the diminishments of old age continued to test his spirit. He chose joy and he brought joy to everyone around him. He chose joy to the end.
It’s because of his preference for joy that he was such a pleasure to be around, and why it is so difficult to let him go. But given the choice between mourning his death, and celebrating his life, I know he would want us to choose to celebrate and to always choose joy in our own lives.
I’ll close with the prayer of St. Francis:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there us doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
And where there is sadness, joy.
Oh, Divine Master, grant that I may not
So much seek to be consoled as to console.
To be understood, as to understand.
And to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.