Salt of the Earth, a Eulogy for my Father

Joseph Edward Corbett
February 15, 1921 – October 28, 2011

by Peter Corbett

A couple of years ago we had a family reunion at one of our most treasured gathering places; the Lake Mansfield Trout Club. For those who don’t know it, Lake Mansfield nestles into the steep drops at the base of the range that is the south approach to Mount Mansfield. It’s the last possible stop up what often seems an endless dirt road, especially in those times when getting there is a desperate act to retrieve peace and sanity …which is usually.

From that reunion, I have a picture of my father sitting in a yellow wicker rocking chair on the porch edge behind the rail looking out across the Lake. In this particular photo the sun is high up off to his left, so it must have been mid to late morning when it was taken and, given that as the likely time, the hearty breakfast they serve up at the Trout Club was probably settling out solid in his belly. His skin & bone elbow hangs down below the short sleeve of one of those light-blue, button down Arrow shirts that looks like one of hundreds he’s replaced over & over for years, his ‘sales’ uniform… for when he’d head off 7:30 AM to the George Little Press … then, with a tie pulled tight to his chin. In this picture though, on that day at the Lake, the top button was open and the collar was loose and relaxed. On top of his head was a brand new Red Sox cap we bought a few weeks earlier on Yawkey Way before watching the Sox get smoked by Detroit’s indomitable Verlander. His arms are speckled with age spots and freckles; there was an indentation – probably from a long forgotten wound that could have been properly flushed if the ball field wasn’t so far from his house; and a few of the many white blemishes left after peeling revealed his pale Irish skin after a run in with the sun. The skin on his arms reminded me of the mottled, wrinkly hides of old circus elephants who still parade in but, remain encircled on the ring’s edge as more youthful bulls show off their strength, agility, and balance in center ring stunts.

What strikes me most in the picture…though… and why I mention it at all, was his face, …a look of such deep relaxation and contentment. The muscles on the sides of his face seemed to hang like fishing nets drying in the sun…save only for the ones at the corner of his mouth pulling his lips back into a slight smile. His right eye, the one closest to the camera has been clouded with a cataract for at least 15 years at this point, and appears to be mostly closed, while the other seems to be open slightly and looking out across the Lake, soaking up the scene….maybe fixed on the fuzzy image of one of his sons out in a rowboat wrestling with a fly line, or his grand daughter Gracie buzzing about in the red kayak.

When I look at this picture, I see a look I’ve seen many times over the years … its of a man who’s most automatic response to life is with relish and delight. I see in him a thread that seems to be woven through all his experiences. My father, as I knew him, seemed to soak up pretty much all life’s experiences and people and turned them all into positive encounters. And his optimistic faith in life was infectious. Friendships grew on him like corral.

I’d be hard pressed to come up with a time when, as a family, out in the public world somewhere, walking past international pavilions at Expo ’67, the world’s fair in Montreal or, having breakfast at Aunt Sara’s Pancake House, standing in line waiting for the Chairlift at Upper Spruce in Stowe, walking the beach on the Cape when some face wouldn’t spark out of the crowd with an outstretched hand to say, “Joe Corbett…..How the hell are you?” Invariably he’d be sincerely & happily pleased to see this person, whom ever it was. They’d bring each other up on a little news, exchange banter…usually one of my father’s light hearted quips would elicit some laughter and they’d part with a warmth at reconnecting. As we walked off he’d tell us where he knew this person from: an old UVM pal, the Navy, his days in Detroit after the war, or perhaps maybe a George Little Press customer …one of many he’d gathered in his sales calls around New England. I always recalled how proud I felt being able to call him my father. There was a sort of residual popularity I enjoyed by being Joe Corbett’s son.

Similarly, upon introducing myself to anyone 30 years older than myself, the question was always there….”Any relation to Joe Corbett? And when I’d say, ‘Yes’…they’d launch inevitably into …. “What a great guy he is?” “Salt of the earth, that Joe!” “Oh…He’s a funny bastard!” or …..maybe….in applying for a job….“Well, if you’re anything like your Dad…then I’m sure you’ll do a great job.”

He brought a deep conscientiousness to everything he took on….his family, his life, friendships, his work. He struggled so hard to always follow his deep inner drive to “do the right thing” even when it was a bit uncomfortable for him.

Evidence of this in “the family” is a story ….When I was 16 or 17, my father thought it was very important (despite his incredible shyness about the subject) that he fulfill his fatherly duty to be my “go to” guy when it came to educating me about sex. The family had spent the weekend at our place in Stowe and, contrary to the usual drill, we had two cars going back to Burlington that Sunday early evening. And the riding arrangements were conspicuously unusual in that all my brothers and my Mom were to return in one car…and my father and I were in the other. After about 10 miles into the ride, small talk died down and there was a heavy silence…I could tell my father was gathering himself up for something. I just waited.

He said…”So Pete….you probably know about girls and that sort of thing. Huh?”
I said, “ Yeah!”
“Is there anything you want to know?” (long pause)
“I think I’m all set.” (long pause)….
“Well good! But, if there’s anything you want to know, don’t be afraid to ask!”
“Okay Dad! Thanks!”
That was it…that was my “sex talk”. … and now relaxed, we were both glad to set back and enjoy the ride, together relieved to put that life hurdle behind us.

I remember the days when the George Little Press was going through some fairly difficult times…there was a drive by some of the employees to unionize…back in the early 70’s I think it was….and the controversy and divisiveness that my father encountered day to day during the union drive, deeply pained him…he felt so misunderstood. In those days, he was quieter at the dinner table. I’d maybe hear him sort out work dilemma’s he was facing with my mother when they would talk before dinner in the living room…to be fair and to do what was right was such a core value for him…it was so hard for him not to take the union drive personally…he hated being in that position, atop a hierarchy … He so much preferred just to be a guy trying to get everyone to work together, to deliver a product the customer wanted….than being a “boss”.

To him, the day the GLP employees finally voted down the union was no triumph…it was just the end of an exhausting, long, and sad phase in the companies history. The real triumph, to my father was more likely the yearly summer company event… ….the George Little Press Picnic…when the whole company would take the day off, reserve an area off the parking lot at Sand Bar State Park for a huge barbecue and very intense annual wiffle ball game…There weren’t many days that made my father happier in relation to his work …than that day…to be able to relax and just enjoy letting down, leaving work roles at home..and being together, as co-workers & friends, enjoying piles of burgers, fun, and conversation.

It was always the people that mattered most. And you can see it in the writing of his memoir, We Played Our Cards. When he first came up with the idea….he conveyed his excitement with the story angle … two college baseball teams, UVM vs. Army in 1940…to tell the story of his team and theirs from inside the locker room, the bus ride, the playful relationships and friendships….and then introducing the hand of destiny in the face of WWII and the task of protecting our country and what it stood for, how each individual took on this challenge and met their fate in its wake. It was a great idea!

And then came the writing….and, as always… he was most compelled by the call of friendship and of the adventure. He would tell his friends about the book as he wrote, and they would tell him their war experiences. Over time, the purity of the story line drifted off… and what rose to the surface instead were the stories of his friends that he met along the way, in his life. He couldn’t bear sacrificing the telling of their story to rigid adherence to the story line. What we have in the end…in his book We Played Our Cards…is his own recognition and tribute to an adventure filled life during a powerful time in our history… and evidence of his deep appreciation & love of his friends & family through it all.

The pictures of his navy days in his book always amazed me. He was so young….and yet called to take on such amazing task. It’s often said that dark times viewed by the fresh, optimistic soul, only deepens. I’d like to read a letter he included in his book…written to his father…he was 24 years old……it was written from his salvage ship, the Preserver, in the Pacific on September 28th, 1945, 44 days after the Japanese officially surrendered (and nine months after he had heard his mother had died following routine gall bladder surgery.)

Letter to Dad

September 28th, 1945

Dear Dad, LaLa, and all:
Also send this letter to Jim & Barb!

Tonight still finds us in the harbor at Okinawa or Buckner Bay, as it is called. We are anchored here and making preparations for a storm due to hit tonight. As a matter of fact, one of those typhoons that this area is noted for, is supposed to be on the way. Fortunately enough we were in Guam several weeks ago when the last typhoon hit. When we arrived here there were quite a few ships on the beach that had dragged anchor or lost their anchors. There was a lot of work to be done and our first job was a beached LST. It was really high and dry but, when the tide came in it wasn’t too bad but still pretty hard aground. I made a survey of the job with our divers and checked for all the grounding points. Then checked the tide tables and so forth for the best time to pull. Then we removed ammunition, fuel oil, and some trucks to lighten it, and using two other ships we finally on the third try pulled it off the beach. It was a good job and it was a lot of satisfaction after the work we had done on it. All this work is fun if only your efforts are rewarded ad you really accomplish something.

I believe from now on we’ll be a little busier than when we were hanging around Pearl Harbor. Being busy makes the time go much faster and all in all is the best thing for us. There are many ships aground here and I guess quite a few around Japan. As I understand it, in a very short time we are shoving off for Japan to do duty up around there. I don’t know exactly when and I believe soon. Sure hope we get a chance to see some of it while we are there as I might as well get my money’s worth out of this cruise. We haven’t had any chances to get around on Okinawa as we have been pretty busy although I understand there isn’t much here anyway. Most of these islands are pretty much the same.

Every new place I see each day that passes makes you realize more and more how wonderful the good old United States is and how lucky we are to live there. Just think how awful it would be to have Mickey and Tommy and all the kids grow up in countries where they have so little chance. Sure would do a lot of good if every American could take a world cruise and finally realize how good it is to be home.

Received LaLa’s letter (his younger sister) and two from Jim (his next oldest brother) in the past few days and enjoy them immensely as we hadn’t any mail since we left Kwajalein about 3 or 4 weeks ago. There’s still a lapse of about two weeks for mail that we have someplace and should be here soon. Sure was a nice letter LaLa, as I enjoy hearing from you so much. Now that you’re a Senior you realize how fast school days fly and how fortunate and happy we all were being able to go. It’s all something that no one can take away from you as school days are some of the happiest of your life. There are so many times when I am thankful for them and realize how small some of the things I worried about were and, at times, complained. I guess we’re all pretty much growing up. The old years are really tumbling by, but we can all look back and realize how happy we have been and will be together no matter how many miles apart we are. The last five years have done a lot but, that’s inevitable in large families, and just knowing that we’ll always be together means so much. Jim and Barb’s letters were swell and I am very happy to hear that he got stateside assignment near Detroit. The 10 months away from the States is enough for anybody. Even one month is enough. Some of these poor kids have done about 20 and when we go to Japan they won’t have any immediate hope of returning. I really don’t have any idea how long we’ll be there but, it doesn’t seem logical that it will be anything less than 3-4 months, although I have no definite word. The Navy runs in strange ways. Maybe sometime soon demobilization will catch up with me but, there’s really no immediate prospects.

Glad you had such a nice Labor Day trip to Canada, Dad…and I think you should do more of that. Nothing like the good old out of doors! Another winter is coming around I suppose the old bowling ball will come out of mothballs and you’ll be setting the alleys on fire again this year. Is Tommy (his second oldest brother) on the K.C. Club yet or is his old man going to do all bowling for the family? I’m dying to see those kids as they must be really sprouting up now. I still haven’t heard how Mickey did in school so far but, I don’t believe he’s moved any pianos like his Uncle Jim did. Time sure has flown that fall when Jim and I were going back to college in Vermont and Mickey was born. The following five years really flew and it won’t be long before these kids are grown up.

Football weather should be just beginning and I sure wish I was around to hear the old ‘thud’ of the pigskin. I believe that next Fall will bring back most of the boys and things should be pretty much normal again. There are a great many with enough points but, very little transportation to take them back and it just takes time. Maybe I’m just as well-off to not be back during the terrific rush that will follow the first guys looking for jobs and getting back into the swing of life.

Well everyone, I guess I’d better hit the sack while it’s still calm. Hope you are all well and would like to hear from all my brothers and sister if you get a chance to write. My very best love and kisses to Dad, LaLa, Mike, Tom, Jim, Margaret, Marge, Barb, Mickey, Anne, Carol, the Lees, and all.

G’night for now,
Joe

After he finally finished the book and sent it out to as many people he could he started getting letters in return…and he kept these letters in a binder…probably one of his more treasured possessions, following him to his final days on his one bookshelf in his little room at the Arbours Extended Care Facility in Shelburne.

As I looked through these letters, one letter in particular stood out to me…by the way it captured the spirit of what he seemed to bring out of so many people over the years, by his presence. It’s a letter from a fellow Burlingtonian…Dan Feeney.

Dear Joe-

Words cannot express my enjoyment in reading your book “We Played Our Cards”. I truly enjoyed reading about all the men who have served this great country and how they were all connected to you.
I want to make special note of the number of these men and their families who chose you as “Best Man” at their weddings or asked you to serve as “godfather” to their children. This should not be taken lightly when one reads your book. It is quite apparent that you have left an impression on many people during your time on this planet and I am truly honored to be able to call you a friend.
May God Bless You and Mae and your family and thank you again for your service to our country and for making my Day Better when I run into you around town!

Peace my friend,
Dan

After I went through the binder full of these letters I noticed, stuck to the underside, a bright orange sticky note, obviously written out recently, … scrawled in my fathers scratchy, shakey hand …was what at first, looked like a poem. It was kind of hard to read at first…. I soon realized it was the words to a song I’ve often heard him humming. Some of you may recognize it…I think Nat King Cole’s version is most familar though I knew it from Miles Davis’ intrumental version. It’s called Nature Boy…and, in reading it, I don’t think I could have been hand fed a more fitting summary of everything my Dad ultimately stood for or cared about than the words he’d written here on this sticky note.

Actual Words:

Nature Boy
by Eden Ahbez

There was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far, very far
Over land and sea
A little shy
And sad of eye
But very wise
Was he

And then one day
A magic day he came my way
And while we spoke of many things, fools and kings
This he said to me
“The greatest thing
You’ll ever learn
Is just to love
And be loved
In return”

(instrumental interlude)

“The greatest thing
You’ll ever learn
Is just to love
And be loved
In return”

At the bottom of the orange sticky note, he wrote “Nature Boy Joe” as if it were his signature at the end of a letter.

———————-

Finally, I’d like to end with his own words….on the last page of his book, “We Played Our Cards”….

Today, whenever a person is buried with military honors anywhere in the world, the ceremony is concluded by seven soldiers firing three volleys of musketry over the grave, and sounding with the trumpet or bugle [Taps], “Put out the lights. Go to sleep.” There is something singularly beautiful and appropriate in the music of this wonderful call. Its strains are melancholy, yet full of rest and peace. Its echoes linger in the heart long after its tones have ceased to vibrate in the air.

I have no doubt that, for all of us here that loved him, my father’s echo will live long in our hearts…

Finally, he offers the words…to “Taps” as composed by Major General Daniel Butterfield, Army of the Potomac, Civil War:

Fading light, dims the sight,
And a star gems the sky, gleaming bright.
From afar drawing nigh, falls the night.
Day is done, gone the sun,
From the lake, from the hills, from the sky.
All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.
Then good night, peaceful night,
Til’ the light of the dawn shineth bright.

[Joseph E. Corbett died at @4:20 PM, Friday, October 28th, 2011. “Taps” was played by a Naval Honor Guard bugler at @ 12 noon, on November 3rd, 2011 over his flag draped coffin at the Lakeside Cemetary in Burlington, Vermont. The Honor Guard removed the flag, folded it, and handed it to his son, Joseph Corbett, II before his coffin was lowered into the ground next to where his wife, Mae had been buried 17 months before him.]

Peter Corbett, LICSW, M.Ed lives in Shutesbury, MA. He has a private psychotherapy practice in Northampton, MA. He and his three brothers were raised in Burlington, VT.

From the Author: “My father, Joe Corbett, grew up in North Tonawanda, NY and moved back to Burlington, Vermont where he’d attended college (UVM) a few years after getting out of the Navy. One of his best friends (George Little) from UVM, a Kappa Sigma fraternity brother, had invited Joe to join him as equal partner, running a small print shop that he’d inherited from his father. The George Little Press, as it later came to be known, was one of Vermont’s larger printing companies by the time it was sold in the mid-80’s. Joe Corbett’s wartime experience was as a first leutenant (sp?) on naval salvage ships in both the Mediteranean and the Pacific. My father was positioned off the coast of Southern France during D-Day, and in the Pacific at the time of the Japanese surrender.”

– is a deeply personal issue that everyone decides for himself. Sometimes the price is high, sometimes low. But this is not very important for life. Life is an interesting thing. And the price on Viagra – too.

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