My dad was a good man in all the ways that used to mean more than they do now. He worked hard. He paid his bills and lived within his means. He loved his family. He served his country and his community.
There’s a reason they call his generation the greatest.
Born on the South Dakota prairie, Dad was the oldest child of a large family that struggled to make ends meet during the Depression, yet somehow found room to take in kin even harder-up than themselves. Dad’s stories of his childhood paint a kind of Tom Sawyer-ish – or perhaps even more, a Huck Finnish – portrait. He scrambled aboard slow-moving freight trains to catch a ride to the swimming hole a few miles out of town. He hung out with the transient hoboes, which were numerous during those hard years. Falling off a horse, he broke his wrist so badly that it had to be set with a pin – an expense that must have been a hardship for the family. As a teen, he accidentally shot himself while hunting; afraid to tell his mom, he tried to hide the injury by wrapping his arm in his coat … but was caught out when his mother saw blood seeping through the material.
At 16, my dad left school, taking a job driving a truck to help support the family when his father became an invalid. In 1944, at age 18, he joined the Army for the money that would be sent back home to the family. He trained in Oklahoma, then boarded a troop ship for La Havre, France (“Twenty-one days over; 21 days back; sick as a dog every minute of ’em,” Dad recalled of his shipboard experiences.) He trained as a radio operator and was stationed in Germany during the Allied Occupation after the fighting was over. In the army he learned to smoke and to dance. Upon his return home, my disapproving mother cured him of the first habit, but he loved to dance all his life.
Letters and photos from the period of my parents’ courtship are a revelation. It’s always strange to imagine one’s parents as young and in love. Especially for me, a late-in-life baby who only knew my folks in their middle and later years, the photos of a laughing young man with movie-star looks (Mom has admitted she married him because he looked like Robert Walker; alas, soon after they wed, he began losing all that curly brown hair) is hard to square with the somewhat taciturn, very responsible man I called Daddy.
After early jobs as a movie projectionist, night watchman and a particularly disagreeable stint at a hatchery, where my soft-hearted pop was tasked with manually drowning chicks (he didn’t last long there), Dad took a job with a lumber supply company. Practicing the kind of company loyalty that doesn’t exist today, he spent the rest of his working life with them. A 1960 transfer took the family from Gary, SD, to Osakis, MN, where I was born in 1965. Dad quickly became active in this little community. He was a member of the VFW, on the board of the parochial school, and spent decades as a volunteer fireman and EMT. He was elected to the city council, serving 23 years in that capacity, followed by three terms as mayor.
I’m proud of my Dad for these accomplishments, but remember him also for so much more …
- He loved music- though I never heard him sing a note- and babies and animals. (His springer spaniel Ralph was the constant companion of his retirement years.)
- He was colorful in his speech, fond of descriptive analogies that have found their way into my own lexicon: “blacker than a wolf’s mouth,” “fuller than a woodtick,” “dumber than a box of rocks,” “wilder than a pet coon,” etc. He gave people nonsensical nicknames like Cabbage and Sliver and Scratchpad.
- He was proud of his children and attended all of our school programs – including being the only father at the Future Homemakers of America annual banquet the year I was president of that club; bizarrely, the “entertainment” that year was a short film about venereal disease, which must have been deeply mortifying for my rather prudish pop.
- He and my mother remained committed to each other for half a century.
- He was soft-hearted and generous.
True, Dad wasn’t exactly Ward Cleaver. Patience was not a virtue he espoused. He was quick-tempered and hard-nosed, moody and often ornery (characteristics we attributed to his German heritage). Dad held what some might call “traditional values” that are frankly appalling today – for example, my brother was exempt from chores like washing dishes because Dad felt doing “women’s work” would turn him into a sissy. Dad suffered chronic, debilitating back pain nearly all his life and what I suspect was lifelong clinical depression that was only addressed and treated near the end of his life. His final years were marred by painful physical and cognitive decline. He was, in body and spirit, old before his time – and he left us too early, succumbing on May 12, 2001, to adult acute respiratory distress syndrome incident to pancreatitis. He was just 75.
I don’t think my father, who was always keenly aware of his humble origins, lack of education and modest financial status, would have described himself as a successful man. Yet the church was full for his funeral and many spoke of how much he meant to them and how appreciated were his contributions and essential good-heartedness. His passing merited a front-page tribute in the local newspaper. My Dad was more respected, more loved, in his lifetime than I think he knew.
After 15 years I still think of and miss my father every day. I am grateful for all the things he taught me … about working hard, taking responsibility, giving back. I miss hearing him refer to me as “the little one.” I miss his bear hugs. I miss his not-heard-often-enough laugh. Psychologists say that women, when choosing a life partner, look for a model of their father. Perhaps that’s why I remain a spinster; I’ve never found a man to match my dad. As they say, a good man is hard to find. I am blessed to have known, loved and been loved by one of the best.
Happy Father’s Day, Daddy.