Seeking the Lost

The Ides of April has a different meaning for me than the unpleasant apprehension it provokes in most Americans. Even with a generously delayed tax-filing deadline, April 15 induces a certain panic in the hearts and minds of most people, which is far more pervasive than any virus. For no one is immune and no one can remain asymptomatic when it comes to confronting the taxman.

For me April 15 is a date sadly noted for a far more compelling reason. It is and will always remain the anniversary of my father’s passing, now approaching 30 years in memory. I was with him when he died and the sightless gaze of his spiritless body mimicked our relationship. The silence in the room where I stood at his bedside affirmed how little I knew of the man who said little and revealed less about his life. What I did know is that he was a union man to the very marrow of his being and his singular pursuit of securing for his fellow union members a fair wage for honest labor brought him into a brief period of prominence and a confrontation with one of the more notorious characters in the history of organized labor.

The Netflix movie, The Irishman, with its focus on what happened to Teamster president Jimmy Hoffa, reminded me of a story my mom once told me about dad’s encounter with this infamous union leader. The extent of that story, or the extent of her willingness to tell it, is that 1) Hoffa was trying to bring the Bakery and Confectionary Worker’s Union, of which dad was an officer in Local 37,  into the fold of the Teamsters and 2) dad, along with his allies, took a stand against that maneuver.

There was one very distinct element of her story that I do vividly recall. She said that dad called Hoffa at an airport and told him not to catch his flight to Los Angeles for a meeting about the takeover. Dad’s defining statement during that call was to inform Hoffa “There’s nothing for you here in LA.” Hoffa consequently cancelled his trip and the Baker’s union kept its independence. Mom, on the other hand, worried that a bomb placed under our family car would be Hoffa’s definitive response.

All the hype surrounding the release of The Irishman, particularly its questionable reliability in terms of historic accuracy, garnered my interest. The Hoffa name has that affect given the story my mom told me all those years ago. Fortunately a little research revealed the nearly simultaneous publication of a new book by Jack Goldsmith entitled In Hoffa’s Shadow. In his book the Harvard Law School professor tells his own story, which involves a difficult relationship with his step-father, Charles “Chuckie” O’Brien, Hoffa’s one-time driver and close friend. Chuckie really did have the personal relationship claimed for the character of Frank Sheeran in The Irishman. He also became one of the FBI’s top suspects as a willing participant in Hoffa’s disappearance and likely execution.

Goldsmith’s book is a fascinating, well researched account of Hoffa’s rise to power and its personal impact on Goldsmith’s family. The reliability of his story impacted mine as well. First he gave credence to another one of my mom’s abbreviated comments about my dad’s career. This one involved his trip to Washington D.C. to testify before a Senate committee of which then Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy was a member.

Mom merely mentioned this episode in passing when Kennedy was elected President in 1960. I guess Kennedy’s new-found celebrity seemed to burnish dad’s reputation as a union leader of a reform movement. Goldsmith affirmed her vague comment with his account of Arkansas Senator John L. McClellan’s chairmanship of the Select Committee on Improper Activities in Labor and Management, formed in 1957. Senator Kennedy was a member of that committee and his younger brother, Bobby, was its chief legal counsel. Hoffa and the Teamsters were their principal target, but dad’s union, the Bakery and Confectionery Workers, came under scrutiny as well due the corrupt practices of its own president.

The second affirmation Goldsmith unintentionally bestowed upon my mother’s minimal comments about dad’s work was his reference to Hoffa’s tactics of organizing the various shops the Teamsters served, which at that time was any business that received goods or sent products by truck. This put the bakery and confectionary trades in his sights and, by mom’s account, the Secretary of Local 37 in Los Angeles – dad.

In one way we were very much like a mafia family. We were taught not to ask questions. It was a rule of our house to never ask dad about his work and he, in turn, never volunteered anything to us. But mom did manage to leak a modicum of information, probably because she could never keep a secret for very long. Still, she managed to divulge these two insights into my dad’s career without revealing the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Her brevity, not to be confused with discretion, had to be enough to satisfy any curiosity we may have had – at the time. Now is different.

Enticed by the publicity surrounding Martin Scorsese’s questionable account of Hoffa’s execution and the in-depth reporting by Goldsmith for his book, In Hoffa’s Shadow, I did what any red-blooded American son would do. I went on-line to do my own research. This took me, by way of Wikipedia, to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) website. I honestly didn’t get very far on my own, but the opportunity to query a NARA staff member and solicit her professional help produced an initial favorable response about the existence of the McClellan Committee’s records. But then the shutdown came as part of the attempt to slow the spread of the Covid-19 virus, which in turn paralyzed my effort at discovering further evidence about dad’s role in the Committee’s investigation and potentially his confrontation with Hoffa.

The occurrence this past week of April 15 on the calendar served as a sad reminder of personal loss of a kind, which is greater than any tax liability. The prospect of lifting a corner of the veil surrounding my father’s career in tandem with observing the anniversary of my father’s death was tantalizing, but apparently futile. The lock-down will pass. So if I am patient my search can resume whenever the backlog of NARA’s caseload allows. Until then I must content myself with what I know thus far thanks to the creative genius of others entwined in the Hoffa tale, as am I.

Next Week: An Unexpected Find

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