Anticipation was building.
In the months leading up to it, you couldn’t escape it. Every time you’d turn on the TV, invariably a promo would run.
“The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults,” a live 2-hour special hosted by Geraldo Rivera, was scheduled to air on April 21, 1986.
Much of America was drawn in by the hype, including my father, Thomas Joseph O’Hara–”The Big O.” He had been born in 1921 in New York, a time when Al Capone dominated the news and ultimately became “Public Enemy No. 1.”
My father had turned 65 the year prior, and had retired from his job as corporate VP of contracts and pricing at Lockheed. He’d absolutely loved his work, and didn’t want to retire. But those were the rules.
Sometime in the early spring of that year, “The Big O” was admitted to the hospital. He had polyps on his colon; “like Reagan,” he quipped. I was 26 that year.
I remember visiting him one evening after work. It was terrifying, seeing him lying there in the hospital bed with the IVs, tubes and monitors, looking so old and frail.
One of my brothers happened to also be visiting, and they were bantering back and forth. “Dad, he said, be sure to leave me all your Lockheed stock when you die.” They both laughed.
The “Big O”glanced over at me, saw me blinking back tears, and knew what I needed to hear. “Lefty,” he said softly, I’m not gonna die.”
He was released from the hospital a few days later. I visited him that Sunday afternoon, April 20th.
I’d brought him a loaf of sourdough bread from a little shop near my duplex in Silverlake, where I was, as my dad would say, “shacking up” with my boyfriend. The “Big O” absolutely loved bread, and I delighted in bringing him freshly baked loaves when I’d visit.
He was relaxing in one of his favorite spots, a scuffed-up ’50s-era Ethan Allen chair at the big wooden table he’d had made years prior in the “eating room” (the O’Hara term for the dining room). A Raleigh cigarette was smoldering in the amber-colored ashtray. His silver Zippo lighter was nearby, along with a glistening tumbler of scotch, on the rocks. As usual, something delicious was simmering in the oven. The”Big O” loved to cook big roasts with 50 (or so) potatoes, and have them simmer for hours in the oven. You could count on that every weekend afternoon.
His eyes lit up when I walked in, and we both beamed. He looked healthier, relaxed and happy. “It’s great to be home,” he said. “Didya’ eat? How ‘bout some roasted chicken and potatoes?”
He served me up a plate, along with some of the bread I’d brought. He, too, had a hunk of the bread, along with several slices of cold, hard butter. It was the only way to eat bread in his book.
We chitchatted for a while, and then I needed to go. My boyfriend was playing music nearby, I needed a ride. As I was saying my goodbyes, he winced a bit. “My back,” he said. It’s been hurting since I got out of the hospital. (If it had only been his back.)
The next evening, Monday, April 21st, he, like much of America, tuned in to watch “The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults” on live television. After several hours, all that had been unearthed were a few dusty old bottles.
“Big O” had seen enough. “This is bullshit. I’m going to bed,” he muttered, then made his way through the eating room, down the hall, into his room–and out of this world.
Thirty years after that massive heart attack took him from us all, he’s still in my thoughts pretty much every day–and will continue to be, until it’s my time to go, too.