I don’t write as much at this blog as I used to, with other things occupying my time and with other outlets for writing. But my father passed away yesterday (as I started writing this) and I wanted to share a little bit about him.
He was a member of the so-called “silent generation,” born in 1939, on a small farm just outside Denver, Colorado, where his parents had moved from their own farms in Nebraska. His dad worked at the Gates rubber factory and the farm, to my knowledge, was not a lot of acreage. There’s a picture in an old photo album of him, about age 12, standing next to a dead dog, and Dad told the story that this was the neighbor’s dog that got into his mom’s chicken coop and killed all the chickens, so Dad shot the dog, then the neighbor threatened to shoot Dad. This wasn’t a matter of beloved pets but a real source of income, as were the vegetables they grew and sold at the produce store.
His earliest years were during World War II but he didn’t have many memories of it; his father wasn’t drafted because he had an essential-worker job. He did tell the story of being sent (yes, he was a very small child at the time) on his own to the store to buy something and losing the ration cards. His early years were spent in a small house with heating only in the main living areas, so that if a child was sick, they were moved to the living room couch to sleep, and he remembered one Christmas laying awake watching a burnt-out bulb in the Christmas tree lights and being afraid of a fire. (Funny, I have a similar memory, of having a fire-safety presentation at school where they said something that I heard as “messy areas are a fire hazard” and I lay awake being afraid that the bedroom I shared with my sister was going to catch fire.)
As he got older, he was mechanically-inclined, and he spent his teenage years repairing a series of old cars. He then spent two years at the Colorado School of Mines, which operated at the time in a co-op fashion, alternating study with literally working in the mines, then transferring to Purdue, where he studied engineering and worked at the Pizza King. He was a part of Army ROTC; he would sometimes later claim that he knew Vietnam was coming, and figured getting his military service done with before then, and as an officer, was a good strategy — whether that was actually true or just a later claim of foresightfulness, who can say, but his roommate, in Air Force ROTC, has his name on the Vietnam Wall.
After graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering, he spent the majority of his time in the military in Kaiserslautern, Germany. It was only two years, but Dad looked back on that time fondly, and why wouldn’t he? He was a handsome lieutenant who certainly attracted the attention of the ladies (though he was not, to be sure, a wild partier) and enjoyed travelling through Germany, and even visited second cousins in Denmark. His experience with cars meant that he was put in charge of a repair depot supervising 100 civilians, which is pretty impressive, to me at least.
After his time in Germany, he didn’t return to Denver but to St. Louis, where an army buddy helped him get a job as a foreman at the Chevrolet Shell plant. He met my mom there, as she was working as a nurse at the factory, and they got married in 1966. His friend had gotten him interested in sailing and there are a lot of pictures from this time of them sailing in the Mississippi. That same friend also organized a group of 10 men who built their own 27′ sailboats, based on a wishlist customized for river sailing, with fiberglass hulls where you could literally see the weave of the fiberglass from the inside. Then, in 1969, Dad was transferred to Detroit, that is, to the Tech Center in suburban Detroit, but he travelled so frequently at the start that their first house was in Southfield, splitting the distance between the airport and the Tech Center, only later moving to Troy, which was closer to the office.
As a family, we did a lot of sailing, and spent most weekends on the boat, especially after — probably in my early grade school years — they moved from a no-frills marina to a small boat club, YOLO. There were maybe a dozen wells, and a small clubhouse, and everyone gathered on Saturday night to grill and eat together, while the kids played cards. Dad put a lot of work into the boat, switching from a tiller to a steering wheel, adding electric, and many other upgrades, and it was a sad day when, much later on, he sold the boat because he was no longer able to manage it.
He also had a much-loved Corvette which he similarly needed to sell when he could no longer maintain it, or drive it with his bad knee. In fact, when we cleaned out the house when they downsized, I came across (and still have) his log of every expense for the car, from car parts to gas purchases. Back in the day, there was a platform behind the two seats, meant for you to put a case of beer or some groceries, and that was where the kids sat if he was taking us somewhere (this was, of course, in the days before seat belt laws).
During the winter, he went hunting — or, rather, “hunting.” True, during deer hunting season, he joined a friend “up north,” though only once returned with a deer. But he’d take his rifle and go to a hunting area nearby, for rabbit, though we liked to joke that he was really just using that as an excuse to go hiking. Later on, he took to skeet shooting at a local club (we still have the trophies to prove it).
He got us involved with politics, by taking us to the local GOP HQ for collating brochures and making Get Out the Vote calls, and in 1980 took us to a Reagan rally, where I still remember Reagan’s stump speech line: “Recession is when your neighbor is out of a job. Depression is when you’re out of a job. And Recovery is when President Carter will be out of a job!”
And he taught us to play cards, mostly hearts (there were three kids, after all, so you can’t play a four-player game), and he and mom were in several bridge-playing groups for many years.
And he continued to work at General Motors, in various assignments but mostly with the labor time guide. After an unplanned early retirement, he continued to work on a contract basis with an engineering contract house. Not long ago, on a visit, we asked, of the various jobs he’s had, what he liked best, and he said, more or less, I’ve liked all of the jobs I’ve had; nothing was perfect but I always felt like I was doing interesting work.
And of course, through it all, he raised a family with my mother. It’s not just that he helped out with Girl Scouts and with volunteer activities at school, or that Sunday night was Waffle Night and his turn to cook, but that in big and small ways he was always there, and always looking out for us, not just as kids but as we made our way out into the world.
As he got older, he scaled back his activities — car sold, boat sold, bridge groups dissolved. The skeet shooting came to an end and I vaguely recall that the skeet shooting club was closed because land it was on was being sold for development, though I could be mistaken. But he and mom continued to enjoy annual cruises, and hung their Panama Canal-crossing certificates on the wall. And for a number of years, my brother lived nearby and he became a doting grandfather, taking his granddaughter out to McDonald’s for a treat, then later attending their activities, as well as my own kids’ events when they visited us. And he was always a storyteller, though we’d roll our eyes at how often the stories and jokes repeated themselves, and he loved talking to people, whether family members or complete strangers.
But when they visited us, or we visited them, the nature of those visits changed from receiving help, in the form of babysitting, to giving help with their own needs as they aged. And the card games shifted from hearts and euchre to Uno. A little less than two years ago, we moved them to an assisted living community near us, and when the covid lockdown came, we were grateful that Mom and Dad were locked-down together, after their over 50 years of marriage.
As spring approached, we looked forward to their community opening up again with the coming of vaccinations. But about six weeks ago, we received a call that Dad had fallen and injured his head. We had hoped that he would heal but it proved not to be the case and he passed away on April 7th.
So here’s a picture of Dad from their 50th wedding anniversary celebration. Farewell, Dad — we’ll miss your stories.