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Tony Petty, an Ennistymon man now living in Oklahoma, pictured out an about near Lahinch. Photograph by John Kelly

Air force experience prepared veteran for cancer battle

TONY Petty returned from Oklahoma recently to his native North Clare. Here, the Ennistymon ex-pat recalls getting in on the ground floor of the computer industry and how his experience in the United States Air Force helped him in his most recent battle with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

In 1957 Tony Petty took a leap of faith, unusual among his peers. The 20-year-old walked out of a permanent job as a bus conductor in London, to return home to meet an uncle returning to Ireland on holidays for the first time in 50 years.

Tony Petty, an Ennistymon man now living in Oklahoma, pictured out an about near Lahinch. Photograph by John Kelly
Tony Petty, an Ennistymon man now living in Oklahoma, pictured out an about near Lahinch. Photograph by John Kelly

Seventy-year-old Mikey Petty left Ennistymon for America in 1907. For the following five decades, he remained in contact with his family, among them his brother Joseph, Tony’s father. Now, he was coming home from Worchester, Massachusetts for two weeks holidays but in London, Tony couldn’t get time off to return home.

“I gave it up [the job] because they would not give me a holiday and I wanted to meet this guy. I don’t know why, other than the fact I had heard of him,” Tony recalled.

This decision was to prove pivotal for Tony, starting a course that would ultimately lead him to his adopted home in Oklahoma City but not before spells throughout the United States, France, the UK and Vietnam.

“When I met him first, I took him around a bit. There was a big fleadh down in Miltown Malbay and I took him down there and he was absolutely flabbergasted with the music in the streets and the pubs,” Tony remembered.

When Mikey left Ireland, the country was under British rule. The intervening years saw the Easter Rising, the War of Independence, the Civil War and the birth of the nation, as well as a raft of social and economic changes. Mikey was impressed by the new North Clare and Tony, 50 years his junior, enjoyed showing it to him.

“In those days, I still had a couple of girlfriends back in Clare, you know and I introduced him to them. I was very young at the time, compared to now,” he outlined.

When Mikey was getting into the taxi bound for Shannon Airport, a casual comment from Tony to his aunt was raised.

“So, I heard you would like to go to America, you’ll be hearing from me,” Mikey said as he left for the US again.

Tony didn’t buy it. He stayed around Clare for a couple of weeks before returning to England in search of work. A few weeks later, a letter arrived from Mikey, outlining the steps to take to obtain a visa. He returned home to be with his parents for Christmas and on January 7, 1958, Tony flew to America.  Mikey was as good as his word. He took Tony in and found him a job as a janitor in the nearby Holy Cross College.

“Moving from Ennistymon to London was a big transition and going to his house in Worchester was almost going back rather than forward, because they were a lot older than I was. I lived in London on my own, went to the Irish clubs in London, dancing and stuff like that and Mikey and his wife, Minnie, were very old. I liked to go out and I couldn’t because they were concerned about me being green and all of that. I didn’t feel like I was but I was and by the way, it snowed like crazy during that period. I had never been so cold in all my life,” he remembered.

Tony attended his first day of work at Holy Cross at 8am. The head janitor, another Irish man, outlined the dormitories he had to clean and what had to be done.

“About noon he came back and said ‘you can go to lunch now Tony’ so I went to lunch and never went back because, basically, I said to myself I didn’t emigrate at 21 to be a janitor at Holy Cross College.

“Mikey reacted pretty badly to this. The reason was because that was exactly what he did when he went to America. He became a janitor at Holy Cross College and went to night school and graduated with a degree in chemistry and spent the next 40 years or so with Wyman Gordon Company in America as their chief chemist or analyst.

“I let him down on the first job, for sure and maybe the way I went was wrong. I just walked out,” Tony acknowledged.

Next, Mikey’s son set Tony up with a job at the Worchester Telegram and Gazette. As a copy boy he took articles from reporters brought them to the editor to change and correct, before returning them to the reporter once more. The position held little promise for him and before long, that too was cast aside. Now it was Minnie’s turn. She got him a job in a museum setting up exhibitions. It was more ‘manly’ but the Ennistymon man still felt dissatisfied.

Military service
“I was saying ‘I have got to find something better than this otherwise I am going back home’. What I did was I started looking at military service because I was eligible to be drafted, even though I had just immigrated. There was a big recession in America in 1958, so I decided to check on getting my military service over with because I decided if I did that, maybe there would be a better future. Otherwise, I would have to leave and go back to Ireland and I knew I would never get the chance to come back to America. So I joined the United States Air Force in May 1958,” he remembered.

Mikey and his family “loved it”, according to Tony because he was “out of their hair”. Tony saw enlisting as his path to ‘freedom’.

After basic training Tony was stationed in France. “I had emigrated in January ’58, this was September ’58 and I am back in France as a GI. I didn’t even know what GI meant. I honestly didn’t. I just knew I was an American airman in France.”

In Phalsbourg, Tony was an inventory manager. “They were just beginning to get computerised in inventory management and I got in on the ground floor of that,” he recalled.

Two years later, Tony married his sweetheart Vera, having met her as a teenager in Paddy Cons in Ennis. He still has the letters they exchanged while he was in London and she in Cambridge, and those from his brief spell in the US and from his time in France. She moved there and their first daughter was born in France.

In 1962, Tony was stationed in Amarillo, Texas as an instructor in computerised inventory management for the Air Force.

“I was very successful and it gave me the confidence to become what I call ‘American’ versus being in New York or Boston and being in Irish pubs. I had broken away altogether from the Irish environment and broken into the American environment. I worked with other Americans, GIs and so on and I became an American citizen in July 1964.”

In 1967, Tony was sent to Vietnam where his work led him to receive the bronze star, the fourth highest individual military award.

“In Vietnam, we were computerising manual accounting. Where you had done everything manually, we installed computers and converted all the manual accounting so the requisitioning of parts for airplanes and so on was much faster.There was a general who was in charge in Vietnam who said it was a waste of time putting computers into a war zone. One night in Da Nang, the Viet Cong came and blew up the warehouse and the most critical parts we had for airplanes there, obviously we lost them all. By computerising the records, we were able to get parts coming back in within 24 hours and if we had to do it manually, it would have taken forever,” he explained.

“That general later said that was the best move that was ever made over there to put computers in,” he added.

Tony recalls receiving a letter from Vera, who was in Ireland at the time. “The first letter I got from her when I went to Vietnam, I opened this letter and this piece of paper fell out of it. It was sort of like slow motion, you know how you see something fall on the ground. It was on the ground and I could almost read it and it was an obituary out of The Clare Champion on my father’s death. That was the first notice I had that he had died,” he said.

“I didn’t have to read the letter because I knew that was an obituary. I was aware that he was sick but not that he was critical in anyway. He had suffered from strokes. He was 70 years of age, which back in those days seemed to be old.”

Tony was moved to Bedfordshire in 1968 where his colleagues listened to ‘Cold War chatter’ before he returned to bases in the United Stated, retiring after 20 years service in Montgomery, Alabama at the age of 42. By that stage, he had earned a degree in computer science and had experience in the field of computerisation with the US Air Force. He left the military on a Friday in May 1978 and began work with a computer firm the following Monday. He remained working in computers until he retired 20 years later.

Change of pace
In 1999, while staying with his brother in Lahinch, Tony suffered a stroke that ended his consultancy work. He was brought to hospital in Ennis, taken for tests in Limerick and ended up in Cork. He was eager to get back to his daughters and his home in Oklahoma so, within two weeks, he was on board a flight from Shannon.

“We were praying that if I had a seizure that it would be half way across or maybe the whole way across, so they couldn’t turn around. If something was going to happen, we wanted it to happen at that end, for my daughters’ sake and my wife’s sake. I had a seizure and the flight attendant called for help to see if there was anyone onboard with a medical background. There was an ER nurse from Minnesota, so you couldn’t get a better person than an ER nurse. She asked my wife ‘have you got any medication or anything?’ Vera said ‘yeah, we have this medication that Cork gave us’…She said to give me two and ‘take three for yourself’. That was the last time I had a seizure. I still take medication for it but I haven’t had a seizure since.”

Tony attended a neurologist in Oklahoma, who praised the diagnostic skills of the medical team in Cork. Forced to slow down, Tony began spending more time on the golf course and with his family. After about two years, he began to return to Ireland again for three to four weeks at a time. He was in the full of his health.

Dealing with cancer

In May 2012, his sight began to deteriorate. “What happened was, because I like to read a lot, I started to lose my sight in my right eye. There was a sensation in my cheek. I figured there was something wrong but I wasn’t sure what it was,” he said.

Over six weeks, it got worse so “being an old computer guy and an old military guy I decided, if there is something wrong you have to figure out what it is and get it fixed”.

After visiting an ophthalmologist, a neurologist and an ear, nose and throat specialist, Tony had a biopsy done and was diagnosed with Non Hodgkins Lymphoma.

An oncologist arranged an 18-week programme of chemotherapy for Tony. He was also referred to a radiologist, who decided that he was a candidate for proton therapy.

“When you give regular radiation it goes through the system. It could blind me. The proton is very pointed. So when the radiologist checks you out, he knows the depth of your tumour, he knows the circumference of your tumour, how many centimetres it is deep and the whole curvature of it. Then he designs or writes a prescription for that. Then they fit me for a mask, or a mould, that goes over you face. When you go for the treatment then, that mask goes on and it ties you down to a table and the proton comes through the mask. I had them five days a week. I had 28 treatments of that and it ended on October 28,” he explained.

The ProCure Proton Therapy Centre where he was treated is within eight minutes of Tony’s home in Oklahoma City. He believes geography has a major impact on the quality, and convenience, of care a patient receives. Today, he volunteers at the clinic, speaking to patients from across the US and as far away as Indonesia.

“I was talking to a man from Kilfenora and he had colon cancer and he had to go to Limerick every day for his treatment and to Dublin. You could imagine going from Kilfenora to Limerick to get maybe five minutes of treatment, because it only takes that long to get it – it takes longer to set everything up, and do that for 15 or 20 weeks. I would just hop in a car and pop around the corner, so it makes a heck of a difference,” he said.

Tony recalled how the word ‘cancer’ had a powerful effect on his family and friends and urges people diagnosed with the disease to ‘stay positive’.

“I said, look, if I broke my leg I would have to go and get it fixed. Now, I have this condition in my sinus and I have to get it fixed. So let’s get on with the job and just do it. To all cancer patients I would say don’t give up. Stay at it. Go after the best treatment you can afford or can get wherever it may be and stay positive. That is the key.”

Tony approached his diagnosis and subsequent treatment in a systematic way and he believes his background in IT and the Air Force prepared him well for this. He documented the whole experience in photographs, videos and notes.

Earlier this year, he was given the all clear.

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