Thanksgiving: An Eagle’s-Eye View

“Thanks for the memories” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (November 22, 2007).

Thousands crowded the Ben Franklin Parkway to cheer the floats, bands and enormous balloons as they rolled, marched and floated past. I watched the scene unfold far below me, the mob miniature and the music muted.

The country’s longest-running Thanksgiving Day parade made its way through the streets, and my brothers and I witnessed it from high atop 1600 Arch St., the home of the Insurance Company of North America (INA).

It was also home to my father Monday through Friday for many of the 30-plus years he worked for INA (and later, after a merger, for Cigna). So it was that my dad shuttled his seven sons into the city for the Gimbels Thanksgiving Day Parade, giving us an eagle’s-eye view of all the action.

But it isn’t the parade that I remember. Rather, what comes to mind are memories of a young boy’s first glimpse into his father’s other life, a life which began with a morning trolley ride into the city and ended with a return trip that evening. It was a world I never really knew existed.

Entering the deserted building at 1600 Arch St., my brothers and I invaded the hollows of the country’s oldest publicly owned insurance company, discovering corporate America – and our father – in the process.

In that building, I learned that there was a life for my father outside of our home in Drexel Hill. He said hello to people I did not know, and people I did not know said hello to him. Security guards. Associates working in the lonely building on Thanksgiving morning. Strangers to me, colleagues to him. The idea intrigued me: My father, famous!

That building also housed a fine collection of 18th- and 19th-century fire engines, a tribute to INA’s history as one of the first underwriters of fire-insurance policies. The hand- and horse-drawn engines, with their pumps, hoses and oversize wheels, were iron objects of boyhood beauty. My dad might don a coat and tie each morning, but he had gigantic toy fire engines to play with.

Taking the elevator skyward, itself another cool thing my dad got to do each day, we hopped off a few stories up. It was here that we discovered high-rise windows, a labyrinth of desks and offices, and the chair my dad sat in for hours each day. It even spun around!

Throughout the abandoned floor, my brothers and I ran amok in corporate America. In so doing, we discovered the source of the stationery all our school tests and homework assignments were printed on. The paper they came on looked oddly similar to the reams at my dad’s office. Whenever a colleague or boss was fired, my dad saved the hapless soul’s unused stationery and donated it to our school. Countless tests were printed on that pink-slip stationery, and here was where they once lived and breathed.

The parade came and went, but none of us much cared. Rather, we relished in crowding into my dad’s office, enjoying a day in his secret world.

Over 20 years have passed since those Thanksgiving Day trips to my dad’s 9-to-5 world, and I don’t know much more today about what he did at INA than I did then. In an odd way, I’m grateful for that, for it is a testament to who he was – a man who made family his priority. A man of integrity, sacrifice, devotion, love and faith.

This Thanksgiving will be our family’s first without our dad, and I think back to 1600 Arch St. His office was dotted with homemade trinkets from his sons. A photo of our mother sat on his desk. Signs of life outside the office were everywhere.

Our father brought work home only in the form of unused stationery and marketing trinkets like INA rulers, flashlights, and tote bags. But he most certainly brought home to work.

It is indeed reason to give thanks.

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