“Papa” Hemingway put this title, “The Old Man and the Sea,” on his book in 1952. His was a story about an old man who died with a broken heart and salt water in his blood.

That would pretty much describe my father, who died much the same way.

When your father dies and you’re 9 years old, you spend the rest of your life looking for him, and that’s not a smooth walk. It’s not for sissies.

“Pop” was a sailor, a uniformed naval engineering officer, who at 60 — after 40 years of service — was beached in a world of suits and ties he hated.

My brothers, sailors all, always called him the “Old Man,” a title for the commanding officer.

J.P. Devine’s father, a uniformed naval engineering officer for 40 years, stands with his mother, Annie McNamara, in this undated photo. Photo courtesy of J.P. Devine

Once again it’s the day to honor fathers, and I have often written on this day about my “Old Man” who died too soon for me.


I was a grown man before I was told he was a “quiet” alcoholic. The others knew that, but my brothers proudly said that “nobody ever saw the Old Man stagger.”

I know he kept a bottle of Irish whiskey hidden in the basement, but he only drank beer at supper.

I was born into a crazy, angry, noisy, Irish family. If they had known I would grow up to be a writer, they would have kept their mouths shut.

This wild bunch — four brothers and three sisters — sat at the wake’s table telling stories about the “Old Man.”

I sat at their feet, hidden by the folds of my grandmother’s lace tablecloth, listening.

In the late ’40s, unhappy at school and making everyone around me miserable, I was sent to Seattle to live with Mathias “Bud” Jr., who was my father’s oldest son, his favorite, and my substitute “Old Man.”


Bud, so emotionally damaged by his own Pacific war, spoke in short sentences that had to be pulled out of him.

There were bits and pieces about the “Old Man” who had fought in the Spanish American war as a soldier, slid over into the regular Navy and was commissioned a lieutenant. I have a photo of that day with Pop and his Irish immigrant mother, Annie McNamara.

When Bud was 17, my father, in one of his last acts, got him assigned to that famous ship that survived Pearl Harbor, and crawled, like a gut-shot animal, through the entire war, earning 17 battle stars. The New Orleans was sold for junk at the end of the war.

At the end of his life, Bud’s ashes were dropped into the Pacific Ocean at San Diego.

Over the years, I interviewed all the survivors of my family, trying to put together, like pieces of a broken statue, a perfect picture of my father. I failed.

Each had a different piece to add — love, hate, anger, laughs and tears, disappointment and sadness.

There is no grand final bust to display. I’m the “Old Man” now in a complete, happy and successful family. There is no little 9-year-old hiding under our reunion tables.

But he’s still alive, hiding in my heart and still searching for the “Old Man.”

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer. 

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