This was an easy essay for me to begin some years ago, the main theme seeming obvious to me, but it proved to be a difficult one to finish, following Dad’s death on February 26th, 2017 at the age of 100 years, two and a half months. As memories of my father kept washing over me during a period of mourning more stories came to mind, gradually making it easier to talk about him and not just about his impact on my life. Thankfully this blog format has let me return to the subject and add to this story any number of times.
My father lived nearly his entire life in Hawley and for his last 20-30 years was probably one of its better-known citizens as he outlived high school classmate after classmate. This was home, his place, where he grew up, went to school, hunted and fished, made life-long friends, helped to support his family, and, as a young adult, led the local boy scout troop. He graduated from high school in the middle of the depression and held a variety of jobs that I know of, at the railroad for a short time, at a local grocery store, etc. before landing a more permanent position at the local post office that he reclaimed after returning home from the war. He was aware of things going on in the world despite the insularity of small-town life, though. One of the most surprising things he ever told me was that he and a friend had considered and began making plans to go to Spain to fight on the Republican side in their civil war, against Franco and fascist Italy & Germany. My dad?
I think he saw World War II coming, having been troubled by world events like the Spanish Civil War, and I believe that he understood something of what this would mean for the world and his country, for he moved ahead of events to do his part, Dad enlisted in the army 8 months before Pearl Harbor, in April 1941, all 5’10” and 123 pounds of him. He served honorably, first at training bases at Fort Snelling, MN and Forts Des Moines and Fort Dodge, Iowa and later in the Southwest Pacific Theater, part of McArthur’s Army, as a sergeant at Guadalcanal, New Britain and other islands in Melanesia, and in the Philippines Islands, in a transportation company handling ship-to-shore logistics, without any fanfare but with great competence, I know. When he was finally discharged on November 29, 1945, he returned to his home town, with my mother, and began having children (this part went on for a long time), and never moved away.
About 10-15 years before he passed away, I asked my dad why he had not taken advantage of the GI Bill to go to college as so many veterans did upon discharge from the service, because he surely would have made a fine teacher, or accountant, or any number of things. His answer was that when he was finally released from the army he felt that he had lost too many years to the war and wanted to get on with his life, to make a home with my mother, and to have children and raise a family. We children and my mother were his priority after those years of sacrifice. He came home and got on with life and by all measures that count, I think it was a good life, lived well and with care and compassion for others, and without any need to tell anyone else (aside from his children!) how they ought to be living their lives. It was never important to him to be in a position of authority and tell other people what to do – a result of his war experiences, perhaps. In most all things, he was a wonderful example, and in the others, I think he was a person of his generation, born in 1916, with traditional notions of family roles that frustrated his spouse and daughters until greater enlightenment eventually dawned on these matters. Or, maybe, until he learned the right things to say to avoid most conflict with them. To us, he was a quiet, decent man of intellect, integrity, and strength, and above all, in my estimation, endurance.
My father was the hardest-working man I ever knew. For most of my childhood, from Monday through Saturday his workday started at 6:15 a.m. when he left the house and drove to the post office to begin sorting the mail he delivered to the farms on his route, route #2, north of town until I was in about 6th grade when he took over route #3, south of town. Route #3 was a longer mail route, 90 miles rather than 65 or so, that paid better but of course took him more time to drive each morning. It also covered more interesting country, the rocky, wooded Rollag hills settled by the Norwegians who must have been the last immigrants to arrive in to the area and got the worst ground, in contrast to the flatter lands to the north and northeast of town with richer soil, dotted with prairie potholes and sloughs, some fields ringed by windbreaks planted back in dust bowl times.
The curved, sometimes hilly roads on his new route made it a little more difficult for him to steer the car with his knees as he drove the gravel road, reading whatever magazines, catalogs and postcards he was delivering that day that looked interesting to him. On days when there were no storms or blizzards, he returned to town in time for lunch at around 12:30, so we often saw him at that point in the day in the years we ate lunch at home and not at school. School was only a couple of blocks away from our house and it was easy to walk home to eat; school hot lunch was a luxury not available to us every year. Dad usually hugged my mother hello when he came through the door and gave her a kiss, ate lunch quickly while visiting with us, and then left for his afternoon job.
The man who owned the local furniture store also owned the funeral parlor and the ambulance service, and it seems there was enough to be done among those businesses to keep my father in a part-time afternoon job for most of the year. Dad came home for dinner after that, sometimes taking a short nap before supper and then, 5 or 6 nights a week at about 6:30 at night he would leave for his evening job at the movie theatre (we didn’t call it a cinema) in town, running the projector for one or two showings. He finally returned home at the end of his day at 10:00 – 11:30 p.m. On weekends, there was a Saturday matinée and two shows on Saturday night, and usually only one show on Sunday evening. (I think none were shown on Monday nights, and sometimes Tuesdays.) This left Sunday afternoon open to him for an occasional family trip to the beach in the summers, or for a nap after church the rest of the year. Between the mail route and his afternoon and evening jobs, his was an 80-90-hour work week, year after year.
Given all this, I did not get to know my father very well before I left home for college. He simply was not around for me to spend any time with him. I learned to bat, catch and throw a baseball from my mother: Thanks to Iowa’s belief in girl’s athletics she had played softball as a girl. He missed most every school conference, football game and concert that was scheduled during his work hours, which was almost all of them as I was growing up. When the cub scout father/son weekend camping event came up I had to go on my own, although a high school kid was assigned to me. Since becoming an adult, I understand the ramifications of a parent having to work from early morning to late at night to support a family of 9, and believe I was pretty understanding as a child as well, because I don’t recall being resentful about his absence. But I noticed, it mattered to me.
It isn’t surprising given his schedule that we took only two family vacations during my childhood, both short camping trips. The first was a family trip where we drove across the state to Jay Cooke State Park and tented overnight. We continued to Duluth (where I ate my first real Chinese food), went up to Hibbing to see an open pit iron ore mine, then briefly visited Ely, and drove straight home. The other was a cold weekend at Leech Lake, camping and fishing with my brothers Scott and Eric, and dad. Several weekends every summer, though, we packed up the car and spent a Sunday afternoon at a beach at Pelican Lake, and these are still very special memories for me.
A good side to my dad working at the movie theatre was that I did not have to pay for my tickets, and for a solid dozen years or so I attended every movie that came to town that Parent’s Magazine said was appropriate for my age. Want to go to the movie? Find a review and read it to Mom. Arguing the editors’ taste or judgment with my mother was futile, but in the average month there were usually at least a couple shows I could attend, especially as I got older. This led to my lifelong interest in the movies – strange how long-term, free entertainment will set a pattern for life!
At a certain point, perhaps when I was a junior in high school, the cinema business went downhill and the owners of the theater could no longer afford to pay my dad to work there, and they ran the projectors by themselves. They owed him back wages when they laid him off. I was told by my dad when it happened that I had to pay for admission going forward, but the proprietors always refused to take my money at the window, so what could I do except spend the ticket money on larger bags of popcorn and on more candy for myself, just to make everyone happy.
When this part-time job ended the ambulance and funeral business seemed to pick up for him, and it was only in my later high school years that I sometimes saw him at home in the evenings. If there was not a visitation at the funeral home, or a body to prepare for embalming, or an ambulance run out-of-town in the evening (we had a second phone line installed where he took emergency calls) he would usually sit in the living room and read books rather than join us to watch television; he was working his way through the Great Books, or reading Steinbeck, or a volume of history or a biography, instead. There were no games that my dad played with us that I remember, no card games or board games and no playing catch. I think he was just taking advantage of the opportunity to have some time to himself. I adopted this attitude and practice more than I should have in my own home life; solitude has always been welcome and a necessary balancing factor for me.
My dad carried himself with confidence, I thought, and as boys will do I tried to walk like he did, briskly with a long stride, toes always pointed forward. It seemed like we were marching when we walked together, usually to church. He was friendly to people, controlled in what he said, and almost always kept his temper. I remember one time that he did not, when I was probably 8 or 9 years old. I had been sent down to the hardware store one morning on an errand for my mother but when I got there, I could not remember what I was supposed to get, despite looking up and down the aisle a few times trying to jog my memory. (The same thing happens today when I go to the grocery store.) When the store clerk asked me what I was looking for and I told him I didn’t know, he said, “You’re kind of a dumb son of a bitch, then, aren’t you”? I went home and told my mother and burst into tears. When Dad got home from the mail route a while later and heard this he took me by the arm and we drove to the hardware store where he had me repeat what was said to me in front of the clerk and the store owner. Voices were raised, let me tell you! I recall him saying quite loudly, “You called my son a son of a bitch, so you’re saying my wife is a bitch!” And it went on from there for a while. Whew! They were polite to me in the hardware store after that. Not much chatter, though. He believed in direct action, my dad. When my science teacher, Mrs. Anderson, did not give me credit for an answer, probably in 8th-9th grade, because she believed my handwriting wasn’t good enough: I actually swore at her. I don’t remember what exactly I said but knew I would be in trouble and confessed to my mother after school. When dad got home, I was immediately driven to the teacher’s house and made to knock at the door and apologize to her. Confess what you did wrong, apologize, move on, and do not repeat.
I think that my father’s absence from the homefor most of my childhood, working most days from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. as described above, followed by his absence in the home, and therefore growing up with my mother and with sisters as next older and next younger children, all of us caring for the little ones, is what made me handy with babies of my own, and generally being more comfortable around women than around men, as an adult, and accordingly having more women as good friends.
I have left out from the list one of my father’s extra jobs, though, and one that involved me closely. He was caretaker and then sexton at the local cemetery, located about a half mile out-of-town to the west. (The town has since expanded to encompass all this land.) This resulted in seasonal work for me that began each year in the spring after the ground had thawed and the grass, browned by the fall and winter, had grown long enough to need mowing and clipping. Starting at a rate of 10 cents an hour when I was 8 or 9 years old and moving up as my labor became worth more to $1.25 per hour when I was a senior in high school, working at the cemetery was dependable employment and a source of pocket money for me. Work with my dad began in late April or early May and ran through mid-July when the lack of rain parched and hardened the ground and there was no longer a need to clip grass around the tombstones, or trim around the stones with a push mower to clean things up after my father came through on the riding mower.
There could be other work for a while, for example, loading a wheelbarrow by shovel with black dirt and hauling it around the cemetery to fill in gravesites sunken by the collapse of long-buried wooden coffins, and occasionally other special projects, but when the height of summer came the work dried up along with the grass.
In addition to providing me with pocket-money the job was welcome because it gave me a good excuse to drop out of track every year, “to help my father.” The truth is I never succeeded in getting into shape as a runner during my high school years. I never stopped hurting once training began and was happy to have the excuse of something else I had to do instead. I didn’t become a runner until I was in my early 30’s, or a marathoner until my late 30’s.
When you worked for my father, you worked hard if you wanted to be paid. There is no surprise in that for most people who worked for their parents, I have learned. “No one is paying you to sit around” was his general train of thought, freely expressed, and after several trial experiments I accepted that time would pass most quickly for me if I kept working until all the work in front of me was finished. On the bright side, there were the shared hot, sweaty days of working together that, in place of conversation, pass for bonding among men and boys, and I got an occasional treat at the end of a long, hot afternoon, an ice cream cone or root beer float at the drive-in and maybe even a word or two in the car, driving out to the cemetery after lunch or home again for supper. Speaking to each other? In words? It just didn’t happen very much. Working with him was the closest we ever got in my first 40 years of life. After that, I was continually surprised and delighted to know him as a friendly, very talkative guy who was liked by most! Who knew?
The example my father provided of endurance and dedication to his family have, I think, kept me from feeling sorry for myself about having to work hard to support myself and those I love and care for. I have complained about many other on-the-job issues but never, I think, about having to work hard. It is what we are supposed to do. I miss you, Dad.