I’ve written many times about the roller coaster of life as an Academy parent. We felt it again recently.
My Mid got cut from the Sprint football team Plebe Year, earned an invite to camp that led to a roster spot last year and after a summer of working on every aspect of his game this past summer, earned his first start. And it was against Army. At home.
Of course, we had to be there. So I loaded Mid Mom and Mid Sib into the car and we rolled into the stadium just before the game started (I won’t go into details about how I tried to get everyone to Annapolis in time to actually grab a bite to eat before the game and how that was ignored). We bumped right into our Mid’s sponsor and were soon joined by the Mid’s roommates. Another Mid who had been to our home came by to say hello and, all in all, I couldn’t imagine things going any better, especially when Navy surged to a lead late in the game.
The picture of perfection shattered when Army earned the right to sing second. Our Mid was crushed and when his head coach walked by, he just looked at him from a distance and said, “I feel like I let him down.”
We met him back at the post-game team tailgate and met some of the other Sprint parents, including a Facebook friend I had yet to meet in person. After our Mid gobbled up some food, Mid Mom handed him the phone – “call your grandparents, they’ll want to hear from you.”
Mid Pop-pop answered the phone – he always answers the phone there and he was elated to hear from his grandson. He assured the Mid that the loss was nothing to worry about, “you’ll get ’em next time” and handed the phone to Mid Gram.
Shortly after the phone call, we packed up for the late run home. We were all exhausted, but it had been a pretty good night – the Mid had his first collegiate start and we had all been there to share the moment.
The next morning, as I was running out to pick up some dry cleaning when Mid Gram called. “Pop had a seizure and he’s out of it. He’s not himself.” She had called the ambulance but when Mid Mom & I arrived at the house, we were met by a police officer.
“Protocol doesn’t let us make the call here on the scene, but I don’t want you to be surprised,” she said. “He passed before they got him out of the house.”
Our pastor came to the house to stay with Mid Gram and we bolted to the hospital, where the officer’s words were confirmed. Richard J. Kuchinsky, Navy veteran of the Korean War, son of a coal miner, husband of 65 years and Mid Pop-pop was gone.
* * *
He didn’t talk about his Navy days often, mostly because he saw some terrible, terrible things. He would tell you, though, that he didn’t want to be in the Navy. Actually, more accurately, he didn’t want to be in the military. He left the coal region to seek his fortune in Philadelphia, but his mother called to tell him a letter had arrived, informing him he had been drafted into the Army. He figured the Navy was the best of two not-so-great choices, so the next day he went down to the Naval Recruiting Center to volunteer, where he found himself in line with a number of young men who had also been invited by the Army to join the Korean War but thought enlisting in the Navy was a better option. By the time the Army sent someone to the coal region, Rich had completed basic training and was headed to sea.
* * *
Amid the whirlwind that engulfed the family, I had to call the Mid and break the news. We arranged to have the funeral the following Saturday, with hopes the Mid could get a weekend off and attend. The week was a blur and we finally got word that he could make it Saturday. He would play again Friday night when we had visitation and come home early Saturday morning.
We made it through the service OK … the Mid declined to make any comments, but the rest of us filled the void. He was overcome with emotions at that point.
* * *
Mid Gram said the post-game phone call brightened Mid Pop-pop’s day. It had been a rough few weeks and Rich had been on the decline. “But that phone call came and for a moment,” she said, “he was his old self.” In some ways, maybe the phone call was the final OK for him to leave his watch. He had spoken with Mid Mom (his only child) Thursday night and had gone out of his way to pick up a small gift for Mid Sib who had recently passed her driving test. And the very last thing he did that final morning was make a cup of tea for his wife of 65 years. Maybe the phone call was the last box on the checklist.
* * *
We made our way to the cemetery for a brief service in the mausoleum chapel. A Navy honor guard was on hand and when the sailor took a knee to present the flag to Mid Gram, even the most stoic eyes were moist.
The pastor offered some scripture and a prayer, then invited us to approach the casket for our final respects. One by one, each member of the family placed a flower on the casket. After the Mid placed his rose, he stepped back, put on his cover and delivered a crisp salute. The moist eyes turned to steady streams as the crowd filed out.
At the luncheon that followed, the mood lightened and we shared many laughs and stories and talked about the future, how we all needed to see each other more frequently and under happier circumstances. And when I brought the Mid back to The Yard in time for formation, he had the hat Mid Pop-pop wore almost everywhere, the one that bore the name of his ship – the USS Lewis Hancock, along with three pins – Korean War Veteran, an American Flag, and the symbol from the Mid’s company, the Dirty Thirty.
We know that Seaman Kuchinsky will rest easy, knowing his grandson has the watch.