My earliest memories of my Dad are two: a horrific spanking for spending bread money on candy, and his Ho-Ho-Ho coming in a window as Santa Claus. I was about five, my brother had just been born, and we were living in a suburb of Minneapolis, where Dad drove a city bus.
My Dad later drove buses in Seattle (with his buddy Charlie) and in Los Angeles, where he met my stepmother Kay. Dad and Charlie later became truck drivers in Los Angeles and had much to do with hauling the gravel and rock that built the LA freeways in the years from 1954-1964. After that period, he made an abortive attempt to sell real estate, discovering that this is chancy if you don't have any capital to get you through the lean times between commission checks. He even took the Dale Carnegie course and did his damnedest to make it work, but the worries about money led to a heart attack.
He was awful with money, anyway. One of the last and saddest things I remember about him was the son (me) having to loan the father (him) $600 that he didn't have for new truck tires. As the Jewish proverb says, when something like that happens, both weep. I owe my worries and whatever success I have had managing my financial life to my Dad's fecklessness in that regard and my Mom's craziness. Dad went through bankruptcy; Mom had to give her hoarded money away. (I was determined to be neither and have succeeded, providing food, clothing, travel, and education to my daughters, as well as decent security to both my wife and myself, even in divorce, mirabile dictu).
All that aside, despite only an eighth grade education, Dad did the best he could, and most important, he was one of the sweetest men ever. Everyone loved him. I only lived with him for four years during high school from 1956-1960. He did all he could to inculcate in me the importance of the kind of education he never had; he constantly encouraged me to study in high school, and the fact that I not only did that but went on to get the first college education on either side of the family--plus a doctorate, to boot--was a lifelong source of pride to him. He felt very bad about the fact that, because of his long hours building LA's freeways, he never heard one of my band concerts, saw me prance as a drum major, or saw one of my basketball games.
He did watch me play baseball twice. (One of the first things I did upon arriving in California was to join a Pony League baseball team in town. My dad bought me the glove, a ball, the spikes, and a second-hand bike to get to the practices and games). I was a pitcher (slow, but with a fine curve and a devilish, wild knuckleball), and Dad watched a game where I was not only the winning pitcher, but hit a double in the last inning to help myself win. The second game was the next summer in Babe Ruth League ball, where I got shelled 12-0. He consoled me and loved me anyway.
The reason that he had to perform sedentary work all of his life was the result of a war injury to his back; he couldn't lie on his back and straighten his legs. He landed in the second wave on Normandy's Omaha Beach on D-Day (6 June 1944). He was injured driving in a Jeep near St. Lo with his fellow Sergeant, Cratchett. They were both drunk, but that wasn't the problem, a German mortar shell was. It hit the back of the Jeep, throwing them both out and to the side of the road. Cratchett was unhurt, but my Dad was seriously hurt, transported to a field hospital and home, where he first saw his first son, who was just two. Dad reckoned that if they hadn't been drunk they both would have been killed--booze does loosen one up (Cratchett had emptied one of the Jeep's fuel containers and filled it with Calvados--look it up). He received a disability check from the Veterans Administration of about $120/month for the rest of his life, which dwindled with inflation as time went by and never did anything to ease the pain and/or discomfort in his legs and back. He rarely if ever complained (he was born and raised in Minnesota), and certainly never felt sorry for himself.
Oh, and he also received a Bronze Star for bravery, which he would never talk about. Most soldiers don't; the lines that separate courage, fear, stupidity, instinct, and terror are very fine and they all know that. One thing he did talk about was D-Day. We saw the movie The Longest Day together and he said it was fairly close to what he remembered, absent the blood and gore. The first twenty minutes of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, by the way, are exactly what he described to me on more than one occasion. I wish I could have seen that with him, too, though he would probably describe the rest of the movie and it's premise as a bit silly.
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So around 1971 Charlie decided to try long-hauling and moved his family and his tractor to Carthage, Missouri. Dad followed him and they both pulled loads to the four corners of the country until Dad died in 1979, after a second heart attack that left him alive for a few months but to which he succumbed in April of that year. He was not yet 60. (Kay followed him in death five years later and was buried with him in the veteran's cemetery in Springfield). We had a great wake at Charlie's house with Kay's sisters present. That was as fun as it could be, but before that, immediately after the funeral, where I touched my Dad's hand in the coffin and just said, "oh, Dad . . . ," I walked the streets of Carthage and cried at the unfairness of such a sweet man spending his life that way, never having realized the potential that goodness, the most beautiful handwriting I have ever seen, and a capacity for seeing the best in everyone ought to bring to anyone. At least he got to see my daughters as lovely young things, and his first-born married to a beautiful woman and on his way to professional success.
The final irony? When I arrived in Carthage after Dad died, Charlie and I went over to the company where they worked, hoping to cash in the insurance on Dad's truck so that Kay would have some financial security. We were shocked, appalled, you-name-it, to find that Dad had not paid for insurance on the truck and Kay would get nothing from its sale.
Oh, Dad . . .
Charlie and his wife took care of Kay until she died. Charlie left his long-time unhappy marriage a few years later, marrying one of his long-time road lovers--happy as a clam--when he found out a year later that he had cancer. He was dead in months, dying at one of the happiest times of his life. I loved Charlie almost as much as Dad, and remember playing poker with the both of them and a few of my friends on numerous occasions (Dennis remembers this. Terry would, too, were he still alive). Charlie was also a hell of a mechanic and replaced the u-joints on the only BMW I ever owned. I cried for Charlie when he died almost as much as I had for Dad; to my mind, they were one person. I think they felt the same way--they had been together since their days in Minneapolis after Dad's divorce in 1947.
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After that divorce, I didn't see Dad often until moving to live with him nine years later. He was living in Seattle and then California, and would come back occasional summers to see his parents, his sisters and us boys. I remember him being at the door, my opening it and him hugging me, smelling of tobacco and aftershave, his Chevrolet coupe parked outside in the street. I only really remember this from a few times because it didn't happen much--long vacations like that were expensive and bus drivers don't make a lot of money.
I truly feel that he made up for those years, though, by helping me through high school, doing what he could (very little, as it happened) to help me through college, and by being a fine example of a man and a human being. He loved me and my wife unreservedly, doted on my daughters, was kind to all he met, and was unspeakably proud of what his first-born son had accomplished in the thirty-six years that he knew him.
If there were such a thing as a second chance at life, another go-round, no one would deserve such a thing more than he.