Thursday, January 27, 2011

Dad

The other day, I was telling someone something my Dad used to say when it occurred to me I've done that quite a lot over the years. As often as I've gone to that well, you'd think he lived a hundred years. But he didn't. 

He died of cancer about 22 years ago when he was just over the age of 53. Actually, he was 53 years and a little less than 6 months old when he died. I'm particularly conscious of that today because I sit here at this computer 53 years and a little less than 6 months old, keenly aware he wasn't as old as he once seemed. Where he once seemed to have lived a long and full life, my perspective on that is a little different now for obvious reasons.

He did do a lot of living while he was with us. He was born in Watsonville, California in 1935, the son of a former Texas public school superintendent, turned labor leader in the bloody lettuce strike in Salinas, California in 1936. My Grandfather's obituary records that as the strike was heating up, he pulled my Uncle Smitty out of school because the school put students to work on a project making clubs for the volunteer police force to use against my Grandpa's striking members. As difficult as it must have been for a former school superintendent to make such a protest, as a leader, he seemed to know he had a greater duty.

Once the union was all but broken in the aftermath of the local government's response and the violence of the strike, he moved his family away from all that turmoil and ended up in the Arkansas Ozarks where Dad did most of his growing up. His Mom taught school there and his Dad turned to farming. His Mom was a tough one too. Dad told us once of the time he put a snake in her desk drawer when she was his teacher. He sat there at his desk patiently until she finally opened the drawer to retrieve something. She looked into the drawer, calmly closed it, looked up at him, and motioned him outside where she whipped his butt without saying a word. He said she didn't know for a fact that he had put it in there but knew he must have been involved, and that was enough. He was guilty on all counts.

Once he was old enough, he left the farm and the hills and enlisted in the Marines during the Korean War. He met my Mom while he was stationed in California after the war and they ran off to Arizona to get married, in part because he figured his family wouldn't be too keen on him marrying an Italian Catholic girl. He might have been right about that. After struggling immensely with the decision whether to leave the Marines or go to college, he left when his three year enlistment was up and he went to college in Chicago to become a chiropractor. Mom and Dad didn't have money so they moonlighted for the railroad to make money for school and to live on. I guess all of that wasn't difficult enough so they had three kids while he was in college too. I was (and still am, I guess) the oldest of what eventually became four of us.

He graduated from college and moved to southern Illinois with the family where he built a practice from the ground up. He was successful after working his tail off to get there, but I never had the sense that we had money because our parents refused to spoil us that way. Dad's lessons were often hard and he was decisive - tough love, no doubt, but love nonetheless, and always values-centered. He was very concerned we would become immersed in the negative aspects of the 60s culture if we weren't grabbed by the ears and steered in another direction. The lessons have lasted well beyond that era and sure have been valuable along the way for me, in spite of my own efforts to the contrary here and there.

He was a good neighbor in his community. A good number of his patients couldn't consistently pay the going rate for his services because they were farmers who sometimes hit hard times with the weather, corn blight, or any of a number of other difficulties farmers faced sometimes. He probably came by his affection and affinity for farmers honestly with his father's history with growers and pickers in California and his own upbringing on a farm. He often accepted produce for payment from farmers who had trouble paying. He didn't feel he needed to have his pound of flesh in the deal; he wanted merely to exchange value for value, in part because of the basic value proposition. He also knew the people in our community worked hard and they wouldn't accept something for nothing. He figured he'd get his some day, but it wouldn't come without a dose of goodwill first. We ate relatively little of the food he accepted as payment because there was too much of it. Instead, he gave most of it away to other patients and friends who needed it. It was an interesting economy he was operating there.

Dad was a good man in other more subtle ways too. He didn't have a prejudiced bone in his body. We didn't have many non-whites where we grew up, but we still had many lessons in fairness and the evils of racism in our home. He told us we came from such a mixed up lot that we couldn't afford to be prejudiced against anyone. It's probably true of all of us if we think about it. It just never happened in our house and I suppose that's why it's been so easy for my parents' kids to grow into adulthood blind to the trivialities of skin tone and be able to judge ourselves and others on a more substantial basis.

He was really pretty simple in most ways, and he had a sense of humor. He's the guy who took my brother and me snipe hunting and we still somehow trusted him enough to go into the woods with him to go mushroom hunting after that (but we did make sure he got out of the car with us after that). Before he took us snipe hunting, he went as far as to show us photographs of snipe in the encyclopedia to prove they were real before leaving us in a farmer's field miles away from any other living soul. We eventually figured out he wasn't chasing snipe to us and we walked back to the house where we found him playing cards with friends and my Mom. My Mom. She was almost as much to blame. The lesson? Trust, but don't be ignorant about it.

He used to take us frog hunting too. We started out in a jon boat, hunting on rivers. Then, we took to the lakes and ponds near home. He always seemed to have a scheme for improving our game. He had the idea that we ought to hunt frogs from a canoe so we could sneak up on them better; never mind all of the jostling that goes along with frog hunting and the possibility that someone - or all of us - could end up in the water. Ending up in the water didn't happen until his next generation of frog hunting schemery when he thought my brother and I should wade in after them and not bother with a boat at all. That got more interesting than we preferred at times, but we went along with it anyway. Such was the nature of trust in our house. You trusted your parents, except when it came to snipe hunting.

There was another facet of him too. He was in a local burger place in our home town one day when a truck hauling a chemical tank overturned outside. As dangerous vapors wafted through the homes along the street, he and a friend rushed into the houses and pulled the residents out. Years later as we speculated on what had caused the cancer that killed him at such an early age, I learned that he and his friend from the chemical spill died within just a few months of each other with the same cancerous affliction. He never complained or lamented any of it. Not all of his lessons came with words. I learned that when you serve or give, you do so the right way. You do it nobly. You don't complain about the hardships and sacrifice involved because whining and fussing about it drains the good right out of whatever you've done.

So, he was a good Dad and he had a lot of important things to say and teach in his 53 years and just under 6 months. It's funny how you can spend a lifetime trying to live up to a standard, and as you do, you continue to lean on the words and examples that guide you along the way. They seem to live inside of you. When I step back from it now, I see I'm admiring the wisdom and goodness of a man who lived his entire life in fewer days than I've been alive, yet I still draw on the lessons that younger man taught me.

I guess it's a reminder that it's best to find wisdom where it is rather than where your vanity says you should be willing to find it. It's not always found in the older, the wealthier, or the more prominent. We find it in a lot of places. I look at my own wife, sons, brothers and sister, nephews and nieces, the students I taught, the Marines I served with, and the people I work with every day and I see that I've learned and continue to learn so much from them, even when I haven't set out to do it. It seems if you don't get caught up in who the teacher and scholar are in this whole thing, it's easier to make the most of what you end up with.

That's probably the big lesson - one of many - from my Dad. Learn and don't be afraid to learn from anyone or anything. Do it right and you'll be in a better position to give back more than you ever received. As I said at his funeral - admittedly after a bit of a struggling to choke out the words - "You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bushel. Instead, they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others."

My Dad did not put his lamp under a bushel and I am thankful for that. While we don't have him here physically any more - and I wish we did - we do still have his lamp on its stand. It continues to give light, so I guess I'll just keep on telling folks what my Dad used to say and let that light burn on a bit longer.