By Theresa Parker
My dad is a member of the Great Generation. He served in the army during World War II and was on one of those LSTs that emptied soldiers onto the beach at Normandy. He earned a Bronze Star. He never really talked about it though, even when my sons would interview him for a Veteran’s Day report, he wouldn’t elaborate other than to say he participated. As I was reading stories about the 65th anniversary of D-Day, I came across a veteran who said he never talked about it either until just recently. To paraphrase, he said he did what he was supposed to do when he was in Europe and when he came home that assignment was over and he went on to the next thing.
I think that’s the mantra of that generation. Do what you have to do then move on. That’s my dad, Willie Cernoch. He grew up in the farming Czech community of Dubina about 95 miles west of Houston. Dubina is on the Texas tour of Painted Churches with its quaint Catholic Church—modest on the outside, glorious on the inside. The entrance to the church has a list of hometown heroes from the war and my dad’s name is listed. Makes me proud. But there are so many more reasons to be proud of him.
He has built a life on honesty, hard work and strong faith. With only a formal education through the eighth grade, he learned a trade. He was a cement mason for 40-plus years. He helped build many landmarks in the city, most notably and one he was most proud of—the Astrodome. He worked in all kinds of weather or sometimes he didn’t work because of the weather, which made the family nervous since no work meant no pay. He also was a member of a union—not a very popular thing to admit these days. We suffered through some strikes, but the union is what gave our family insurance and a pension when he retired.
Once he moved to the city, he exchanged his country name Willie for his city name Bill. He was a mentor to young men entering the cement mason profession. Upon his retirement several wished him the best and felt they were not only better masons because of him but better people.
I never heard my father complain about working—how hard it was, how much his knees undoubtedly ached after being on them all day long finishing a slab of concrete, how brutally hot or cold it was. I’d say, “Hot day today huh, dad?” He’d answer, “I mean.” Man of few words, this was one of his signature lines. It’s just how things were. This was his job—what he was supposed to do. When he was to start a new job on a Monday, he drove to the site on Sunday to make sure he knew how to get there so he wouldn’t be late. No Google Maps or GPS back then. I think that’s probably why I arrive early everywhere to this day.
My dad has been on the royal court of the Polka Lovers Klub of America (PoLKofA) Texas Chapter twice. He and his Klub members helped Torma Communications and Ellen Custer's 2d design celebrate 25 years in business last October. He also served as a Klub director, booking bands and venues. No one knows more about polka history in Texas than my dad.
He got up every day, put in a hard day’s work and enjoyed coming home to a beer and dinner expertly prepared by my mom. Sounds a little like Archie Bunker, right? Wrong. He enjoyed his life, his family. During the week, you work. On Sunday, you go to church. On weekends he loved to barbecue, go fishing, dance or just listen to polka music. This is happy music he would always tell me. I think polka music was his Prozac. It helped him cope. It was his happy place. Of course when I was a teen, I wanted no part of polka music. It was so not cool. And I wasn’t even trying to be cool. I just didn’t want to be any less cool than I already was.
His work cars were always classic autos—’57 Chevy, ’63 Chevy, an old Impala not sure of the year. When it came time to get me my first car he made sure it was a tank—a four-door Bonneville that I did put quite a few dents in.
As an only child, I grew up in a modest house in the Heights. In fact, we rented until my dad and mom had saved enough to buy a house when I was in junior high. The Heights was a great place to grow up. Full of unpretentious hard-working, blue-collar families. Now I can’t afford to buy to a house there. Somehow on our one-income living, my parents were able to send me to Catholic school. My dad felt this would give me a strong foundation. And he and my mom were always in the stands Friday nights watching me perform at half time with the drill team. Side note—I tried to be in the band and played the clarinet briefly—very badly, very briefly. I think it let Dad down as he had high hopes of me being able to play one of his favorites—the Clarinet Polka, but it wasn’t to be.
Dad loved football. He and I would watch it together every Sunday. Watching the Oilers find new ways to lose eventually became too much for my dad and he had to give it up or increase his blood pressure medication. They would make some stupid mistake and he would shout, “Oh come on!” Then leave to go to his happy polka place. I think many Oiler fans are still in therapy.
I guess you could say I’m a daddy’s girl. He taught me to ride a bike, drive, mow the grass (not excited about that one), fish and clean fish including how to skin a catfish. We had some great conversations sitting in a boat on the lake at dawn or sometimes we said nothing at all. I even once said I wanted to be a cement mason like him but he quickly talked me out of that one. He was proud that I went to college and even though when I got into corporate journalism I don’t think he understood what I did, he was proud just the same. He was beaming when my oldest son took up the French horn and was actually good at it. And he is so proud that Will has chosen music as a career. He attended Will’s graduation from Berklee College of Music in Boston last summer and it was very special to have him there. My youngest, Alec, also has a gift for music with a talent for French horn as well and for voice. I don’t think dad has missed a performance of either of his grandsons, except this year in May.
He couldn’t attend Alec’s spring choir show because he was in the hospital. My dad was in a car wreck the Monday after Easter. He fractured his neck and lower back. He had surgery and has been recovering ever since in ICU, bouncing back from one complication after another. This Thursday he finally was moved to a regular hospital room. Through it all, I have played some of his favorite polka CDs. I think it has helped him stay in his happy place. I hope so because he has been through so much, but here again, my dad is plodding along, doing what he is supposed to do—get better. There are more dances to attend, more grandson events to attend like graduation, maybe even a wedding soon. The doctors have been amazed that this 84-year-old has been able to bounce back from some of his setbacks in ICU. They don’t understand; it’s just dad doing what he has to do. This will be a Father’s Day to remember. I salute my dad and his perseverance, his notion that life is to be celebrated. Just like polka music, it’s a gift from God.