Friday, December 9, 2011

My 869th post

The number 869 has special meaning to me. During World War II, my dad was a machinist's mate on the U.S. Navy vessel PCE-869. The letters PCE stand for Patrol Craft Escort, which type of ship escorted patrol craft (duh!) and hobnobbed with sub (for submarine) chasers. In later years my dad had nightmares in which human body parts floated to the surface of the sea after he and his shipmates set off depth charges. (From Wikipedia:
“A depth charge is an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) weapon intended to destroy or cripple a target submarine by the shock of exploding near it. Most use explosives and a fuse set to go off at a preselected depth in the ocean. Depth charges can be dropped by either surface ships, patrol aircraft, or from helicopters. The depth charge has now largely been replaced by anti-submarine homing torpedoes.”)

Dad joined the Navy in 1942 and was on the PCE-869 from 1943 to 1945. His last months before receiving an honorable discharge were spent at Quonset Point Naval Station in Rhode Island. He was 36 years old when he enlisted, older even than the captain of his ship. Everybody on board called him “Pop” because most of them were young whippersnappers not yet dry behind the ears, too big for their britches, all of 18 or 20 years old. He didn’t mind; in fact, he rather liked it.

When I found the photo of Dad’s ship, the site also had a place for a list of the crew. There was only one name listed, Father Frank Toste. I googled his name only to learn that he died in July of this year at the age of 86. (World War II did end 66 years ago, after all, and my Dad would be 105 if he were still alive.)

Father Frank Toste, from what I gather, was a fascinating fellow. He was born March 20, 1925, in Providence, Rhode Island, and died July 6, 2011, in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He entered the priesthood in 1960, was teacher of Drama and Drama Department Head at Notre Dame High School in Bridgeport, Connecticut (1960 - 1965); Assistant Headmaster and Department Head of the Theatre Department at Saint Peter's High School in Gloucester, Massachusetts (1965 - 1970); and Founder and Department Head of the Drama/Communication Arts Department Teacher in all areas of Theatre within the Department including Film and Television at Peabody Veterans Memorial High School in Peabody, Massachusetts (1970 - 1990). He then retired to Cocoa, Florida, but returned to the north in 2010. He had done graduate work in Theatre at Ohio University (1983) and graduate work in Filmmaking at UCLA (1983), received a Master of Arts in Drama from Harvard (1991), and was a doctoral candidate in Filmmaking at the Union Institute in Cincinnati (2000). To me, the most interesting paragraph in his obituary was:

“Always an avid stage and screen participant, Father Toste received certificates in Cinema from the School of Cinema/Television at the University of Southern California and the Feagin School of Drama and Radio in New York City. He was most proud of his affiliation with the film, ”Love Story,” in which he had a speaking role and met the co-stars of the film, Ryan O’Neil and Ali MacGraw. Fr. Toste was also an Equity Actor and a technical advisor for the long-standing television series M.A.S.H. and appeared in “Oliver’s Story,” and was on stage at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly. He was a long-term member of the Screen Actors Guild.”

I read in another place that he was Technical Advisor on M.A.S.H. for the character of Lt./Capt. Father Francis J. Mulcahy as played by William Christopher.

Ever the ’net surfer, I then discovered that some of Father Toste’s former drama students from Peabody had posted comments on Facebook about their favorite teacher. One of the threads asked people to relate, if they remembered, some of the funny things he was always saying. Lots of people responded. What blew me away (UK readers: American for “astonished me”) was that one of the quips they remembered was something I heard my Dad say many times:

“I see,” said the blind man, as he picked up his hammer and saw.

I know. Groan. Lame joke. But it must have been considered hilarious back in the day, and I could just picture my Dad and his shipmates interacting daily in the confined passageways of the PCE-869. I don’t know who said it first, my Dad or the young man who became Father Frank Toste or somebody else, but for a moment, I was a kid again and my Dad was close.

Some of us who are living and breathing can still remember the service of our fellow countrymen so many years ago and we are grateful. Father Frank Toste, the only one of Dad’s shipmates whose name I know, I honor you and the entire crew of the PCE-869 today.

[Editor’s note. A few hours after finishing this post, I suddenly realized that I know the name of one other sailor from the PCE-869 as well: Leroy Behrens of Round Rock, Texas, in whose living room I sat in September 1958 with my Dad and new stepmother on a trip from Coppell, Texas, that deposited me in the dormitory at Southwestern University at Georgetown, Texas. It had been 13 years since Dad and Leroy had seen each other, and they talked much about their days in the Navy. They never saw each other again. --RWP]


  1. Its just another post, but an excellent one!

  2. Enjoyable post.

    My father also did the, "I see said the blind man..." number, but I never knew where he got it. His parents called people you'uns and we'uns (I never heard anyone else in Mississippi do so), and I was 15 before I learned that they had brought the words with them from Appalachia.

    My father was in the Merchant Marines, but I wrote that, come to think of it, so you already knew it.

  3. Jeannelle, thanks! I saw your culinary creations on Facebook yesterday. Next time you make biscotti, please coat their bottoms with chocolate!

    Snowbrush, glad you liked it. My dad, who was from Iowa and Wisconsin, never learned to do the "yes, ma'am" and "no, ma'am" thing properly after moving us to the South. It came out "yes, mom" and "no, mom" instead and people would get strange looks on their faces. In our town, he was known as "Yankee"...not the Yankee or a Yankee, but simply as Yankee Brague.

  4. My grandpa was referred to as a Yankee when he moved to south Mississippi from northern Alabama (the Bridgeport area). I guess those people were a bit geographically challenged.

  5. Sounds good. I might just do that!

  6. I read your story with great interest ! I was one of Father Toste's High School students at St. Peter's in Gloucester, from 1965-1969. He was indeed a great guy, always able to extract the finest from his students - as most of us now know.

    I was fortunate to be able to fulfill a HS dream when Father married my wife and I in 1994. We did keep in touch regularly (I was his computer guru), but I must give him credit for my career in television production as I was a member of his Drama Club at St. Pete's for all 4 years, and I learned an incalculable amount from him in that time.

    It was a very sad day when Father passed away last year. My wife and I attended both the wake and funeral and it seemed that it was incomprehensible that he was gone.... but he will be remembered by many whose lives he touched - and for that, we must be happy.

    For more info and pics of Father Frank, you're all invited to visit the St. Peter's website at

  7. As a former student of Fr. Toste (PVMHS, class of '82), I'm so glad you got to know a little bit about the great man who was our teacher/mentor/father/friend, depending on what we needed. To me, he was all of that and more. To him, I was his "Sarah Heartburn", just one of the thousands of kids he helped through their teenage years.

    Whenever I say the "I see" phrase (and I do quite a lot), I get lots of groans and a few smiles ... and I always think of Fr. Toste. As a matter of fact, I said it just today with one of my students (yes, I'm a teacher now) and I got an eye roll. Father would have been proud.

    I enjoyed your post and am so glad our quotes were so evocative of your dad. :)


  8. It has been a pleasant surprise to receive comments from Jim C. and prosemonkey, who were students of Father Frank Toste in the late sixties and early eighties, respectively. All of us, if we but knew it, are interconnected. Perhaps six degrees of separation are too many.