David Cook: Saving Scanlan stories

David Cook: Saving Scanlan stories

May 28th, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) reacts to a foul call against him in the first half of Game 7 against the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday.

Photo by The Commercial Appeal /Times Free Press.

When the U.S. entered World War II, the five Scanlan brothers entered the U.S. Navy.

Leaving their father, mother and sister behind in their Vance Avenue home, the five Scanlans -- one after the other -- all enlisted as sailors. Doing anything else would have been like flying a Japanese or Nazi flag in their front yard.

"You have to realize what the time was like back then," said Pat Scanlan, the youngest of the band of brothers.

Bill sailed aboard the USS Washington. Dick was on the submarine Archerfish. Jim sailed near South America. Tom was aboard the USS Mimosa, easily the most misleading name of any Navy battleship.

Pat, the youngest brother and last to enlist, went to Japan on a destroyer ship called the Bennion.

Now, more than six decades later, Pat's four brothers have all gone ahead of him once again.

Since his brother Dick died this spring, Pat is the last living Scanlan brother.

"He's the last of his brothers," said his daughter Mary Avans, who teaches at Barger Elementary School. "It's important we know the stories."

There are stories tripled-stacked on top of one another in Pat's mind, but he's being undone by one last foe, which comes like a thief in the night.

Alzheimer's.

"A dreadful thing," said his wife, Diane. "Who knows what is going on in his mind?"

Pat and Diane live in a Brainerd neighborhood, and one of his favorite spots is their kitchen table. Friends, family, visitors -- anyone who walks by -- is often asked The Question:

"Have I told you about me and my brothers being in the service at the same time?" Pat asks.

Most of his memories are stuck in the cobwebs that Alzheimer's spins. Like prisoners of war, they aren't allowed to come out. Every so often, one flashes across his mind like a shooting star and Pat, 85, lights up.

"I will never forget going into Tokyo Bay. Boy, were we glad to see them surrender," he said. "We turned one of those 5-inch guns around and shot into a billboard there on the shore. You should have seen it explode."

Sitting at that table with him, Mary and Diane, I could piece a few things together. Pat was as tough as creosote, beloved by his family, would have rather chewed roofing nails than not enlist and was one of the finest pool sharks this side of Iwo Jima.

Never one for a classroom, Pat would sneak out -- doors, windows, hide in the closet -- of Notre Dame School and head to the Knights of Columbus pool hall. He skipped more than a pack of kindergarten girls at recess. He had more nuns after him than the Von Trapp kids.

Turning 18, he walked to the post office and enlisted. Across the country, the sacrifice continued.

"I came from a family of nine," Diane recalled. "We used to collect the tinfoil off cigarette packages and roll them into balls. They'd use them for the war effort.

"Rubber was rationed. We had coupons for shoes. Everybody sacrificed," she said.

Returning to Chattanooga, Pat began a career with South Central Bell and married Diane 47 years ago. He has two children from a previous marriage, and Pat and Diane have three daughters.

"After his last brother died, it hit me like a ton," Diane said. "We had to tell these stories so his grandkids could remember their grandfather and the girls remember their dad."

What she's really wanting is this: a way to keep Pat alive after he's gone.

And isn't that the dilemma we all face with loved ones? How do we keep them alive after their body is no longer with us? How do we practice our own version of Memorial Day, instead of forgetting?

Maybe that's where Pat Scanlan and his brothers can save us. When the five Scanlans -- all Irish, all veterans -- got together, the church mice hid. Late nights, lots of hugging and toasting, sitting around the table, telling stories and smiling.

"We all got together and had a hell of a time," Pat said.

That's how the Scanlans save us. In the time we are given, those must be our marching orders. Enjoy life. With food and drink. Share stories. Listen. Be quick to torpedo grudges. Be quicker to cling to laughter and love.

And selfless actions -- for others -- is the hallmark of what it means to be an American.

"My God, it's the only country worth living in as far as I'm concerned," said Pat.

Somewhere, four other Scanlans nod, and beckon.