WASHINGTON -- On the last day of his life, 84-year-old Anthony Bai dressed in his best day clothes -- a brand new gray flannel shirt and pressed jeans -- slapped Aramis on his freshly shaved face and hugged his daughter goodbye.
Then he climbed into his gold Lincoln Town Car and drove off to serve his country.
His family had tried its best to dissuade him.
Dad, his daughters said, what in the world can you contribute -- an old man who has heart problems, diabetes, and is deaf?
You served your country once before, they argued. Leave it to others this time.
There are enough volunteers at the Pentagon. There won't be anything for you to do.
But Bai had spent five days watching the horror on television, the crumbling towers in New York, the black hole gouged out of the side the Pentagon, still smoldering just 15 miles from his Springfield, Va., home. He had driven to the site on Sept. 12, only to be sent home by rescue workers.
This time, he was sure.
''I have to go,'' he told them. ''There has to be something I can do to help.''
This time, his daughters knew better than to try and stop him.
Long before the terrorist attacks, Tony Bai knew pretty much all there was to know about hardship and sacrifice and war.
His parents fled Poland during World War I before Bai was born, leaving behind two sisters, one of whom wound up in a concentration camp.
His mother died when he was 2.
His father beat him so badly that he ran away at the age of 14, hopping trains across the country to the magical world of Depression-era Hollywood, where Ginger Rogers treated him to steak and eggs for lunch and Eddie Cantor teased him that he looked like Cary Grant.
And young Bai believed in the magic and vowed he was going to create some for himself.
He didn't have much to go on, just an autograph book full of famous signatures and a dream -- of a happy home, a family who cherished him, enough money to take care of them forever.
Bai made his way back to the East Coast, and made peace with his father just in time to go to war. When the military draft took effect, Bai was first in line to register. A faded newspaper photograph shows Bai, sipping coffee, waiting outside the military recruitment center in the Bronx before dawn. It was a few months before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He was 24.
But Bai badly damaged his eardrum in artillery training and never saw combat. Years later his family wondered: Did he feel guilty at surviving when so many others were injured or killed? Is that why he devoted the rest of his life to helping veterans, in the Teamsters union where he worked as a delegate, at the American Legion, in Polish American clubs where he helped people with language and immigration problems?
''I think he felt this burning desire to give something back,'' said his youngest daughter, Deborah. ''He had been so lucky in life himself.''
Bai always said his luckiest break of all was the day he met Vickie Martin.
It wasn't the most auspicious start to a romance. Hot and sweaty and hungry, wearing dirty overalls, Bai rolled into a Howard Johnson's restaurant in the Bronx for lunch one day. The war had just ended and he was trying to make a go of a new trucking company.
An elegant Irish redhead served him coffee. Her name was Helen Alvera Victoria Martin. Bai's heart melted on the spot. But ''Vickie,'' as she was called, laughed when he asked her out. She was already engaged to a firefighter.
Bai went home, showered, put on a new suit, and went straight back to the restaurant. He told Vickie Martin that he wasn't leaving until she came, too.
Thirty days later they were married.
''Tony Bai never took no for an answer,'' said Kenneth Cripps, his friend of 50 years. ''And he was fearless when he knew he was right.''
Bai knew he was right about Vickie. He knew he was right when he and Cripps, who both worked for a cement company, were subpoenaed to testified against Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa in the late 1950s.
''He never talked about it much,'' said Margaret, the eldest, who was in her early teens during some of the union corruption scandals, and who remembers detectives being posted at their home in the New York borough of Queens. ''He just said it was something he had to do.''
There were other things that Bai felt he had to do. He needed an education. And so, in his 50s he enrolled at Cornell University and graduated with an associate's degree in industrial labor relations. In 1971, when he could finally afford to, he went to Poland and met his two older sisters. A home video shows Bai, silver haired and beaming, hugging and kissing his sister Mania as if he will never let her go.
A few years later, he paid for Mania and other Polish relatives to come to America.
He treated the rest of his family with the same boundless generosity, showering Vickie with gifts -- fine furniture and china, a gleaming yellow Chrysler that was the talk of the neighborhood, a house in Florida with a pool.
It was there that they spent their final years together, hosting dinner parties for the family on a yacht named ''My Vickie,'' traveling the country in a motor home named ''My Vickie II.''
The only time the couple were apart was when Bai went to Washington for Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993. Vickie was too ill to go. Bai himself had undergone quadruple bypass surgery a few weeks earlier. Still, he dressed up in his veteran's uniform and hung his silver Polish Legion of American Veterans medal around his neck. He looked as handsome and patriotic as his family had ever seen him.
A Democrat was being inaugurated president, Bai said. He had a duty to go.
When Vickie died in 1998, everyone thought it would just be a matter of time before Bai followed her. But he struggled through his grief and hurled himself into life again, with gusto.
He moved to the suburbs of Washington to be near Margaret and Cynthia. He bought a little condo, and a little Shih Tzu, Deedee, that he adored so much his daughters jokingly called her ''My Vickie III.'' He signed up for computer classes, threw himself into genealogy, began to map his family tree.
''He was as passionate as ever about life, about living it to the full,'' Cynthia said.
And as passionate as ever about his country. A month before the attacks, Bai drove his 27-year-old grandson, Chris, to an army recruitment center and urged him to consider the military as a career. Chris said he would think about it. He wasn't sure if his grandfather was joking when Bai asked if he could join up, too.
So when terrorists struck the nation's capital, it surprised no one that Bai wanted to help. Or that he refused to take no for an answer.
Turned back from the Pentagon, he searched for a place where an 84-year-old veteran would be allowed to serve. He found his answer at the Salvation Army.
On Sunday, Sept. 16, five days after the attacks, he was put to work on a medical detail, sorting drugs from large containers and putting them into smaller packages. He'd rather have been driving a fork-lift, or pulling bodies from the rubble. But at least he was contributing.
For hours, Bai sorted and filled and stamped dates on parcels. He didn't say much. He just glowed.
At the end of the day, completely exhausted, he signed up for another shift.
That night Margaret cooked her dad's favorites -- London broil, potatoes and asparagus salad. Over dinner, they sat on the deck with friends and talked about terrorism and tragedy and patriotism and pride.
''There were tears in his eyes as he talked about the outpouring of help and love, about being part of something so important,'' Margaret said. ''It was as happy as I've ever seen him.''
After dinner, Bai hugged his daughter and promised he would call when he got home.
He never made the call.
They found him the next day, in front of the television, baseball cap perched on his head, a tiny American flag pinned to it, Deedee dozing on his lap. He looked like he was sleeping.
In fact, he had died of a heart attack.
There were so many funerals for victims of the attacks, that Bai's daughters had to wait a week for a church that could hold a service for their dad.
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