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When dad truly is the best man

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
World War II hero Tom Griffin, left, was the best man at his son Gary's wedding.
World War II hero Tom Griffin, left, was the best man at his son Gary's wedding.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tom Griffin survived crash in Pacific and POW imprisonment in Europe during WWII
  • Bob Greene says Griffin, at 95, says some of those were good years
  • Greene says old age brings a different perspective to life
  • Last week, Tom Griffin was the best man at his son Gary's wedding

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose books include "Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War" and "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams."

(CNN) -- "I'm 95 years old," Tom Griffin said. He smiled a gentle smile. "And some of those years were even good ones."

This was last weekend, just after his son's wedding. We had all moved indoors, to the dining room of a lodge in Cincinnati. As the father of the groom, he was making a short speech. A very short speech -- he is not a man who has ever felt it important to draw attention to himself.

The wedding vows were said outside under a blazing afternoon sun. The groom, Gary Griffin, has spent his adult years on tour as a rock 'n' roll keyboard player with some very famous bands and musicians: the Beach Boys, Brian Wilson, Jan and Dean. He was marrying Elizabeth Fogle on this overly warm June day, and his dad was sitting near the front, unprotected from the harsh heat.

"Do you think Mr. Griffin will make it through this?" said Dean Torrence, Gary's friend and employer on the Jan and Dean tours. He and I had come to Cincinnati for the wedding, and he was worried about the high temperatures.

As soon as the words had left his mouth, we looked at each other, aware of the answer.

"I think we know that Mr. Griffin can make it through anything," I said, and Dean nodded.

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During World War II, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, there were long months when it seemed that the only news from the Pacific front was bad news. There were no U.S.-controlled airfields close enough to Japan to allow a counterattack. What could be done?

The answer was the Doolittle Raiders. Sixteen specially modified B-25s, under the command of Col. James Doolittle, would take off from the deck of the USS Hornet. Each plane would carry a five-man crew. They were to bomb Tokyo, then continue to a safe airfield in China.

But on the day of the raid, they had to take off from the Hornet from farther out in the Pacific than had been planned; the Japanese military had learned of the raid. Thus, they would not have enough fuel to make it to the safe airfield. They knew, as they took off, that after hitting Tokyo they would have to crash-land or bail out.

And they did it anyway. A young Tom Griffin was the navigator of one of the B-25s. This was the famous "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" raid. His plane carried out its mission over the Japanese capital and made it to the Chinese coastline before the fuel gave out. He parachuted into a thunderstorm; his chute caught in a tree in a dense forest, but he managed to extricate himself. He made it to safety and lived, but contracted a severe case of malaria.

Eleven of the five-man crews had had to bail out; four more crews crash-landed. One plane landed in Russia, and its crew was taken prisoner and held for more than a year. Two of the Raiders died, as they bailed out. Eight others were captured by the Japanese; three were executed, and five were sentenced to life in prison. One of the five died of starvation in a Japanese prison camp; the others endured 40 months of mistreatment.

Tom Griffin's fever from the malaria reached 106 degrees; he thought he might die from it, but he was rescued and was able to recuperate. As soon as he was healthy enough, he was sent to the European theater of war, where he flew more combat missions. On one, his plane was shot down. He was captured and spent the next 22 months in a German prisoner of war camp. When the war in Europe ended he was liberated by Allied troops, and came home to the United States.

Two weeks later he married the young woman he loved, Esther Jones, and soon they started a family. He worked as an accountant in Cincinnati; the years went by, and the nation was at peace, a peace won by men like him. I would see him, starting in the 1990s when I first met his son; Tom Griffin would sit quietly by the side of the stage at concerts, and the audiences would cheer and scream their approval of the celebrated bands. As if the musical heroes were real heroes.

Now here we were, at his son's wedding. Mr. Griffin has been a widower for six years; his health is not the greatest. He leaned on a cane as he made his brief speech.

"I'm 95 years old," he said. "And some of those years were even good ones."

With old age often comes the ultimate realization that the trajectory of life is not a continuous upward arrow -- that, as much as we might wish that triumph be constantly followed by triumph, that happy times will always be succeeded by more happy times, this is not the way the world works. Life is like the most jagged and erratic of stock-market charts: capricious, with sudden dips and tentative recoveries and unanticipated deep plunges along the way. We would hope for our lives to be an endless and uninterrupted up-staircase. But events not of our planning tend to intervene. We can just pray that, in the end, things will work out.

I looked at Mr. Griffin, standing at the microphone, and he seemed so filled with joy on this June afternoon. As a boy he had made it through the Great Depression, and then he had gone off to war, had done what his country had asked him to do with no complaint and no guarantee that he would ever see his home again. Now, here he was. Smiling softly and looking toward his son.

Out in the heat, minutes before, he had checked his pocket from time to time to be certain the box carrying the ring was still there.

Because, on this wedding day, Mr. Griffin was more than just the father of the groom.

His boy had asked him to play an additional role:

Best man.

Seldom have those words sounded quite so right.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

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