My Dad, the Fighter



My Dad, the Fighter
For “Big Papa,” Edward Richard Toll, 10/26/1945 - 9/10/2023

For the first thirteen years of my life, I didn’t have a dad. My biological was out of the picture before I was born.

He punched my mom in the stomach while she was pregnant with me. I’ve always blamed growing up with crooked teeth on his violence, but the likelier truth is it just ran in the family.

My mom’s first husband left us just after I came into the world. I bear his last name, but it means nothing to me.

My mom’s second husband, was the original saxophone player for a group that would later become Tommy James and the Shondells.

If the name doesn’t ring a bell, perhaps some of their biggest hits will: “Mony Mony,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Crimson and Clover,” “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” and “Hanky Panky,” to name a handful.

But he was drafted into Vietnam just before the band took off—a source of bitterness that never went away, and manifested itself in the ingestion of way too much alcohol, and far too many strikes from his hand to both my mother and I.

We lived that way for nearly nine all but unbearable years, until my mother found the courage to leave. That was no small decision for her. She was a head cashier at a local grocery store, and money was not something she had much of.

I remember our first place after she filed for divorce didn’t have a bedroom for me. In the second place, I upgraded my sleeping quarters to a small closet that was just big enough for a tiny bed and a record player.

Even with barely enough room to turn around, I was happy then.

I suppose it’s because for the first time in a very long time, I felt safe. To this day, I still look back on those financially insecure days as “good times.”

That being said, I was aware of what was missing, even back then.

Although I was just on the cusp of my teenage years, I had given up on the idea of ever having a dad. Dads were for other kids. Luckier kids.

I had my mom, I had friends, and I didn’t know how tenuous our financial condition was.

That mixture of having daily fear removed from my life, as well as the blissful ignorance of youth, was a quality cocktail.

My mom dated a bit. I do have to say, that was weird.

There was a fun but not all that serious guy named Rudy, and a man called Jim who my mom liked very much, but they never could quite take the next step.

I know that when my mom and Jim broke up, she was hurt, but I was relieved. Moving in with Jim would have meant changing schools.

It’s odd to think that I would have been reticent about that, as I hated my junior high, and later my high school, in equal measure.

I guess, like most of us at any age, I just feared change, and after what my mother and I had gone through, a new man and a new school seemed like far too much.

Then one day my mom showed up with this tall (6 foot 2), burly (260 pounds) man who I had almost nothing in common with.

He wasn’t a reader, he didn’t pay attention to sports or popular music, and if the movie didn’t have Clint Eastwood or John Wayne atop a horse, well, he didn’t really have time for that either.

But this man, who I shared so little commonality with, married my mom. Not only did he marry my mom, he became my first and only dad.

We were an odd couple, with distinct differences at almost every turn. He was good with his hands, liked to hunt, and was mechanically inclined. I was and am none of those things.

What’s most interesting is how, over time, so little of that mattered. We somehow found our place.

He was crudely funny, he was great with horses, dogs, cats, and as Maria (my wife) and I later learned, not bad with rabbits either. He also loved my mom, Maria, and me.

Our shared love of the fur-bearing sort was a level we both lived on, and despite his background as a Vietnam vet, a firefighter– “Rescue Me” was not kidding about how crazy firemen are–and a factory worker, we became very close.

Not to say that any of those things I just described him as are negatives, just that they are things I could never be.

We did occasionally find crossover points where we could bond.

He wasn’t a boxing guy, but he found great joy in big old middle-aged George Foreman knocking out Michael Moorer to regain the heavyweight championship.


Photo by Icon Sport

He and George were around the same age and he loved seeing an “old man” show that he still had it in him.

He also took a liking to the Karate Kid movies, even if he couldn’t tell you which one he was watching or in what order the storylines went—a fact that would often cause my cinema-loving self great consternation.

I would say to him, “Dad, can’t you tell that Macchio looks older in this one?”  He would just grin, squint his eyes, and say, “I suppose so.”

I think he took pleasure in my frustration, and somehow, so did I. I’m going to miss that.

As I got older and got to know him better, I learned that he was a remarkable soldier, receiving many medals and commendations.

He told me that when his platoon would go out on patrol in “the bush” that he would often volunteer for point.

The way he saw it, there was nothing good that could come from a scared person running point in the jungle, and as he often said, “I figured if I was gonna go, I may as well go first.”

I still can’t wrap my head around that thought process. I’m not made of the same stuff he was made of.

He and I once saw Oliver Stone’s Vietnam masterpiece Platoon together. After the house lights came up, my dad leaned over to me and simply stated, “That’s how it was.”

As film reviews go, it might have been the shortest ever, but those words authenticated the film’s power.

That fearlessness also probably explains why he spent many years as a firefighter, once winning fireman of the year.

Running into a burning building wasn’t so different than running into a hail of bullets, I suppose.

We lived in a small township, so the fire department members were all voluntary. That meant keeping a day job at the factory, and throwing water on flames at night.

I can recall the many occasions when the scanner would go off late into the night, and he would jump out of bed to attend to a house fire.

My mother and I would stay awake until he got home.

Eventually we moved out of that township and he was no longer allowed to remain on the ladder. A fact he bemoaned, but one that my mother and I were grateful for.

In 1999, he suffered a major heart attack while on a job site for a construction company. He was very lucky to survive, but his recovery was remarkable.

My mom flew out to New York where he was hospitalized while I stayed home to take care of Dusty, the beloved family Australian shepherd.

When he returned to the house, it was as if nothing had happened. He seemed not diminished in the slightest.

He carried on like that for twenty years until the alarm in his chest finally went off the week that Maria and I got married.

He was having a beer at a local watering hole when his heart stopped and his defibrillator kicked in, keeping him alive.

It was a terrifying time, but once he began to recover, he made it clear that even though he could not be present, he wanted our wedding to move forward.

My dad never wanted to hold me or anyone else back.

After that horrible event, my dad’s health began to decline in earnest, slowly and consistently until the powerful physical specimen that I once knew became a shell of his former self.

And just a few weeks ago, after falling and breaking his hip, my dad’s heart turned on him for good, leaving him with just 15% function of this most vital organ.

While he survived the hip surgery, and briefly made it into a rehab center, the weakness in his chest sent him back to the hospital.

I spoke to his doctor who was forthright enough to say to me that there was no coming back from this fight.

So, after first speaking with my mom, my dad decided that it was time to turn off his defibrillator and his pacemaker and move on to hospice.

He had been a fighter all his life, but this man of modest education knew when it was time to lay down his shield and stop fighting.

He never made it to hospice. Two days later, his heart stopped again, one final time.

While it has been an incredibly painful stretch of days, I do take comfort in knowing that he went quietly in his sleep, and that he was ready to go.

Before my mom and I, he was a bit of a wild man.

Known for drinking a bit too much, carousing more than I’d probably be able to comprehend, and getting into the occasional bar fight.

While he calmed down greatly after we came into his life, he was still incredibly formidable, and sometimes you would see his physical power in action.

There was a time he got angry and destroyed a sturdy wooden work bench with his bare hands as if it were made of twigs.

There were also times when he could merely threaten violence towards some wayward drunken fool, and that was enough to end any backtalk.

On one occasion, a man my dad had no use for tried taking me aside and talking to me (it was creepy).

My dad told him to stand down. The man threatened to go into the trunk of his car and get his shotgun. My dad replied, “We’ll see if you can open the trunk with two broken hands.”

The man retreated to his corner of the bar, which was probably one of the few wise choices that guy made in his life.

You could say my dad lived two lives. One as a rabble rouser, and a second of mostly quiet kindness.

He was a man of few words, but had a booming voice when he chose to use it.

He had the strongest hands of anyone I ever met (he really could have broken that ne’er do well’s hands with ease).

But underneath that gruff exterior beat the heart of a very sweet man.

Unlike some, who the passage of time leads to bitterness and derision, the years that went by only made him sweeter. In fact, that’s what my wife called him most often: “that sweet old man.”

In these brief few hours since his death, I’ve discovered the hardest part of any discussion about his life is speaking of him in the past tense. I don’t know how I’ll ever get used to that.

Maria and I used to have a coonhound named Lily who lived eighteen grand years.

David Phillips loves dogs

Dogs just know.

I rescued her from a shelter. She had been badly abused and was afraid of everything. When I first brought her home, she would crawl from room to room on her belly.

It took several months for her to become a real dog.

But even when she did find herself she was very selective about who she took to. I assumed that men would always be a challenge for her, as anything large or loud sent her into a fright.

But oh, how that strange, aloof hound dog loved my big towering dad. When he would come over, she would all but come out of her skin to get to him.

And when he would leave, she would bay her heart out as he pulled away in his red Chevy pickup.

She never failed to lament his departure in full-throated fashion. It always charmed me that she loved big papa so much that she would mourn whenever he left.

I now know just how she felt.


For “Big Papa,” Edward Richard Toll, 10/26/1945 – 9/10/2023