The Last Story

My dad told stories. Long stories. Stories about growing up in Brooklyn and about the Dodgers, about the rocket right arm of Carl Furillo and the clutch hitting of Gil Hodges. There were stories about all of the cars he owned and the ones that were in his dreams. He told me stories about his cousin, Jan, who was like a brother to him and who died way too young. And more recently, his stories to me via text or the phone were about his three New York grandchildren.

His stories often came out of nowhere and had nothing to do with whatever else we were talking about at the time. When we were bored with his stories, he wouldn’t hesitate to tell a stranger. He told stories to waiters and flight attendants and the guy at the dry cleaners. He would come visit me in Minnesota and tell stories to new people like the desk attendant at the Springhill Suites or the hostess at the Good Day Cafe. In the last couple of years, there were countless doctors and nurses and home health aides who got to hear the same stories from the one and only, the original Howie Mandell.

There haven’t been a lot of stories lately. Of course, you tend to miss things when you no longer have them. So when I visited in October, I was taken aback by a new story — one that I had never heard before. I was in Queens the week after 10/7. My dad had for months maintained a steady TV diet of Home Alone and Band of Brothers. An amazing combo that fits my dad perfectly. My mom and I wanted to watch the news to see what was happening in Israel, so I commandeered the remote and switched it to CNN. I’m not sure my Dad was aware of what had happened on 10/7 — his relentless news-watching had totally fizzled out. But there we were, watching the news when this new story emerged out of right field (Carl Furillo didn’t play left). Quite possibly, the last great story from the one and only, the original, Howie Mandell.

I’ve always known my dad to be a proud, but non-observant, Jew — not necessarily a fervent Israel supporter (or a Zionist as the kids like to call it these days). I don’t think we ever spoke about it. And I’m not sure my dad ever went to Israel in his 84 years.

My dad was a flight engineer in the Air Force. It was his dream to fly. But he gave up his dream to become a New York City public school teacher (and to avoid Vietnam). In one of his stories, he told me it was his mother who begged him to do just that. It was the only time I ever heard him give his mother credit for anything.

My dad taught junior high school social studies for over 30 years, mostly in Brooklyn but with a nice stint to end the run closer to home in Queens. Back in 1967, he was teaching in one of the worst neighborhoods in all of New York. Of course there were stories about that too. So I imagine there was this reluctant teacher, 28 years old, wondering what he was doing and where his life was taking him. A 28-year-old who still wanted to fly.

War broke out in Israel. We now know it as The 6-Day War. But on Day 1 of that war, 28-year-old Howard Mandell, placed a call to the Israeli consulate in New York. He introduced himself as a discharged flight engineer from the United States Air Force and a Jew. My dad then offered his services to the Israeli Air Force.

What the f*** Dad?????

How have I not heard this story before???

Obviously, the war only lasted for 6 days. The consulate never called him back. But I wonder what would have happened if they did. So many what-ifs have been running through my mind these last couple of months.

What if the war raged on and he was called up for duty?

What if he was shot down and killed?

What if he settled in Israel after that and never returned to Brooklyn, to teaching?

He would have never met Ms. Oconefsky, a young math teacher, my mom.

Thank you, Israeli military, for ending that war quickly and making sure my dad was exactly where he was meant to be.

And here I am, on a plane once again wearing my Brooklyn Dodgers cap, heading home to Queens to hopefully hear one more story.