Old Geezers Out to Lunch

Old Geezers Out to Lunch
The Geezers Emeritus through history: The Mathematician™, Dr. Golf™, The Professor™, and Mercurious™

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Final Memory Before Shifting Gears....

I wanted to express thanks to those of you who listened and responded so kindly to my reveries and observations around the terminal illness of my father, and to close out the story for you.

Dad passed away three weeks ago, quietly in his sleep. Altogether, it wasn't a bad death—several months from diagnosis to ending allowed us to say our goodbyes in all necessary ways. And it was swift enough that Dad did not suffer for very long from a disease (pancreatic cancer) which is known to be rather brutal. His steadfastness and dignity during this time was notable, and gives me something to shoot for somewhere down the road when I face the end game myself.

Dad wasn't an unusual man, really—not a fascinating or heroic figure, except in the way that fathers always seem heroic and larger than life to their sons. He certainly had his flaws. But he was an exceptionally devoted and dependable man, a good and decent human being. In the final measure, we should all be so lucky as to leave that reputation when we pass away. And his final month or so was spent in a very dignified, almost elegant manner. As the minister (who happens to be my step-sister) said at his funeral, his example taught us much about how to die well.

So I'll leave you with one final memory of Dad before leaving it be and returning to other subjects in the future. It's time to get back to the business of living, as there's no reason to obsess on what is inevitable anyway.

In 1958 my father left his stint as a Navy helicopter pilot and moved back to Minnesota to take a job as a math teacher in a small county-seat town in the bluff country of southeastern Minnesota.  Raising a family with two young boys (soon to be three) was challenging, to say the least. Public school teachers have never been paid well, and in the late 50s the pay was so lean that he struggled took a second job as a county assessor to get approved for an $6,000 mortgage to build our first house. Though he had very little money, this first-generation son of inexhaustible Norwegian immigrant farmers had unlimited energy, and he would need it. Young boys need a lot of attention, and my mom was an insecure turbulent, 20-year old girl barely past childhood herself in those days. Dad had his hands full.

Before the real house, our first home in Red Wing was a small used house trailer plunked down on a small piece of land he bought from a local dairy farmer seven miles south of town. The setting was a wonderfully picturesque ancient river valley nestled among limestone bluffs. Many thousands of years ago, the deep valley was carved by melting glaciers—the same geologic action that carved the nearby Mississippi River valley.  When I climbed those bluffs as a boy, I could see the entire geologic history like it was yesterday’s story.

The little township we lived in was called Hay Creek, aptly named because the tiny stream running through the bottom of the valley on its way to the Mississippi River was (and still is) lined with alfalfa hay fields attached to the lovely dairy farms scattered about.  It was an ideal location for my Dad to settle, for it certainly must have reminded him of the diary country in the far northwestern portion of the state where he was raised.

If the geographic location was ideal, the economic conditions where a struggle. The two-acre garden Dad established wasn’t a hobby, but the source much of the food we ate in the early days. I recall times when, if we wanted to drive to town and have root beer floats at the local A & W, we had to search the cushions of the couch, the crevices of the car seats, for spare change. We couldn't afford a private phone line yet; we shared a party line with three other neighbors in the area. I was approaching high school before I had my first store-bought haircut; until then Dad clipped our hair himself by seating us on a stool and shearing us with an electric trimmer. This wasn’t poverty, really, just a lean, young family making ends meet in the late 1950s and early 60s, like so many others. It's not a lifestyle my own kids ever knew, though. Sometimes we forget how well-cushioned the typical middle-class lifestyle is today. 

The small mortgage Dad qualified for in 1959 was enough to start the little one-and-a-half story house nestled near the base of the bluff, but not to finish it. We lived in the basement at first, as Dad painstakingly finished the small second-story himself, where the two small additional bedrooms and a half-bath would be located. A few years later he would then be able to afford to add a small room addition to the back of the house, where we would enjoy the luxury of a family room with an actual fireplace.

The location was ideal for boys growing up. We roamed the fields and nearby woods, played with the kids with other young families who also bought building sites from Howie, the farmer. It’s that home that gave me a familiarity and love of natural landscape that remains with me today. The nearby pastures were filled with huge, gentle Holstein dairy cows that trimmed down the dense brush and turned it into nicely groomed groves where young boys could play without the constant fearful supervision that plagues today’s families. The only danger was from stepping in cow dung, or more accurately, stepping in cow dung then forgetting to clean off your shoes before going indoors for the night.  The many farm animals around the area, and especially the huge gentle horses and dairy cows, made nature seem like an immense nurturing maternal force, and to this day I’m never so relaxed as when roaming somewhere deep in a rural countryside.

A particular memory about my dad stands out and speaks volume about the kind of man he was. Directly behind our house ran a deep watershed gully that separated our house from the farmer’s fields running up to the edge of the big bluffs. We owned the wooded land just beyond the gully and just before the alfalfa fields began, so one summer as diversion for sons he couldn’t afford to regularly treat to ballgames or movies, Dad cleared a large camp site a fifty yards or so from the house. He build a diagonal picket wind-break fence, constructed a big fire-pit from limestone rocks carried up from the bottom of the gully, then found a big camel-hair couch and armchair and somehow hauled them by hand across a thirty-foot deep rocky gully, back up onto the flat area of the camp site. He did all this himself, because at six years old I wasn’t much help.   My dad couldn’t afford a lot in the early days, but he sure did have energy to spend.

There’s where we spent our family evenings in the summer and warm autumn days hearing stories of Irish and Norwegian immigrants, hearing tales of the WWII years—which were recent history in those days—and listening to my mother tell ghost stories vivid enough to scare the bejeesus out of you. We heard Dad talk about the atom bomb tests he witnessed as a pilot in the Nevada desert; about what occupied Japan was like in the years after the wars. We sat there deep into the night until the embers faded and the greenish flicker of fireflies filled the woods, then threw waterproof taps over the couch and chair, and followed the dark trail back through the gully and up to the house.

Eventually we boys became engaged in school sports, found girlfriends, then went off to college.  My parents moved away from Hay Creek township and into a real town, and we lost track of the old neighbors. Howie, the nearby farmer, got sick and passed away, and the dairy herds that had groomed the woods were sold to other farmers. The gully transformed back into a wild, bramble-filled ditch, no longer suitable for kids to play in.

Many, many years later after my mother died, I returned back to that valley one day and climbed the bluff to look over the valley again, high above the old home. Then I hacked my way down through the thickets and tramped around the place where I thought the campsite must have been located. There was nothing left that I could find, really. The windbreak fences had long since decayed away, as had the wood and fabric of the old couch and armchair. I could not even find the rocks of the fire pit, and I began to wonder if I had imagined those wonderful times.

Then, kicking through the thick layer of decayed leaves and  vegetation, up poked some rusty metal. I picked it up and realized that I had found a section of coil spring from the cushions of a big overstuff couch, the couch that a young school teacher had carried on his back across a deep gully in 1961, as he tried to build a place for his young sons to have fun.

That rusty old metal spring now hangs in my garage to remind me of those times. When I glance at it, I always wonder  if, when I’m very old, my own kids will have some memory of me that even hints at the level of energy and sacrifice that was an everyday thing for my father.