Yesterday would have been my father’s 89th birthday. Even though he died 16 years ago, I still feel as if it were just yesterday. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of him or miss him. I loved that man more than words could ever describe. Yesterday I found myself a little more quieter than usual, a little more solemn as I reflected on his life and his death.
If I had to describe my father in one word, I think that word would be “gentle.” He was just such a gentle soul and quite honestly, one of the kindest people I have ever known. I have never met another person like him and don’t think I ever will. While his life was not always an easy one, I guess you could say, in his eyes, his glass was always half full. He ALWAYS looked for the good in other people and always believed that people are inherently good. I’ll never forget the time shortly before his death, when someone drove down my parents’ neighborhood street and knocked down just about every single mailbox with a baseball bat. My parents’ driveway and mailbox were right at the “T” junction of two streets. My father had been partly bedridden for almost two years after he had suffered a stroke and been diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer. Both the cancer and the stroke caused him much pain and suffering, both physically and mentally. The stroke left him with periods of confusion, which would come and go and at times were severe. I remember the mailbox incident really angering my mother because their mailbox post had been completely “whacked” in two which sent her badly battered metal mailbox sailing halfway across the yard. As if she wasn’t busy enough and stressed enough caring for her terminally ill husband, now she had to summon the help of one of her son-in-laws to purchase and erect a new post and replace the mailbox. I recall her anger as she relayed what had happened to my father. I will never forget the look on his face as she told him. My father’s reply was that “it was probably just an accident” and that someone had just not turned the corner of the intersection sharp enough or had driven a little too fast, thus accidentally hitting the mailbox. I remember my mother trying to explain to my dad that it was NO accident since 5-6 other mailboxes on the street had also been “victims.” My dad appeared puzzled. At first I remember thinking he was just having a “bad day” (meaning a day in which his confusion was a little more prevalent than most days) and that he just wasn’t grasping what my mother was trying to tell him (that some idiot had driven through the neighborhood with a baseball bat attacking mailboxes). Then I realized that he understood perfectly. It was just my dad’s kind nature and how he chose to look at people, that made him want to deny that this had happened the way my mother had said it did. He just did not want to believe that anyone could be that downright malicious. It was the part of him that wanted to believe that no one’s heart could be that evil. I loved him so much that day for being like that and how he chose to think of people. And in truth, I even envied him and wished I could be more like him.
My father was always a nut about aviation, even as a kid. He used to say that he would feel this ache inside himself when a plane would fly overhead, because he wasn’t in it. He longed so badly to be up inside that plane. And not only inside it, but FLYING it. In the 5th and 6th grade he wore glasses and he worried that because of his vision, he wasn’t ever going be able to fly. He got a job at the airport in his hometown doing odd and end jobs such as cleaning airplanes and selling plane rides. This earned him enough to take flying lessons. He took bookkeeping in high school and later he began keeping the books at the airport. He was only 15 years old when he started flying and 16 when he took his first solo flight. Later he became a flight instructor at that same airport. Flying was his love. It became his passion, his hobby, his career. He had a long and distinguished career in aviation. During WW II, he served with the Air Transport Command as a civilian pilot. In the early 50s, he graduated from the USAF Pilot’s Instructor school, Craig Airforce Base near Selma, Alabama. Later he became a test pilot for North American Aviation in Columbus, Ohio. He also authored a book, Your Jet Pilot Rating, and enjoyed writing for various aviation magazines. He was a flight and ground instructor and flew corporate jets right up until the time he was diagnosed with cancer. My father dearly loved going to work in the morning. How many people actually can say they love getting up to go to work every morning? How many people can have a career that is also their hobby and passion?
When I was in college, I had a fantastic history teacher. History has never been one of my favorite subjects, nor one of my better subjects. It was always a class I struggled with. I’ve never been very good at memorization and having to memorize dates in history always killed me. But I had this marvelous teacher in college. She was fast-paced and tough and she gave us quizzes every single day over what she had lectured on in the previous class period. I studied my tail off in her class, and I learned. Towards the end of the semester, I found myself on the borderline of an A and a B. And being the perfectionist that I am, I desperately wanted an A. This professor, who by the way was also very fair, gave me the option of doing some extra credit in her classroom to earn that A. It was a notebook on the history of my family. I could make a notebook about the lives of my parents and grandparents, telling about their childhood and adolescent life, education, their marriages, religion, social life, how they spent holidays, etc. So I did the notebook. I remember it being a lot of work. Both my grandfathers were no longer living and both my grandmothers lived far away in different states, so I had to get all my information via letters from them and long distance phone calls. It wasn’t easy. I remember when I was working on it, I did not enjoy this little project. I was not happy with the teacher for assigning this little project. In fact, I held quite a little grudge towards her. Yet I had to do it because I HAD to get that A. It was taking up much more time than I had and it was tedious work. With my parents, I interviewed each of them and tape recorded the interviews so I could listen to it and translate it on paper at a later date. My father had a unique sense of humor and I remember sometimes finding it difficult to get him to be serious when he answered the questions I asked him. After writing about both sets of grandparents and my parents, I gathered pictures from all and I put all of this together in a lengthy little notebook. It was completed. I was done. I was proud of my hard work. And apparently my history teacher was too, because I earned an A in her class. When I went to her office to pick up my notebook, she complimented my work, told me she had enjoyed reading about my family and hoped I didn’t mind that she had also copied some of my very old photos. I think I recall she even told me she had discovered that she and my mother had gone to the same high school at one time. After that, my notebook got packed away in a box and put in the basement. It had served its purpose…. I had gotten my A.
Several months ago I found that box and the long forgotten family history notebook. I hadn’t laid hands on it or seen it in 29 years. I pulled out the notebook and sat in my den late one evening long after the rest of the family had gone to bed and read it with tears in my eyes. I had forgotten so much of what was in it. I had forgotten the pictures and I had forgotten the stories. That night I felt so grateful to that history teacher for giving me the opportunity to make that notebook. I don’t even know if that teacher is living now, but if I could see her, I would hug her and thank her. I loved reading how my father was a big admirer of Charles Lindbergh, his recollection of the Lindbergh kidnapping when he was in the 5th grade, and how he had met Charles Lindbergh in Willow Run airport in Michigan during World War II. I loved his stories of how as a kid he would buy a big sack of chocolate peanut butter kisses for a nickel. I laughed when I read about the time he had played hooky from school and the trip his father made him take to the woodshed for a whipping when he found out he had played hooky. I laughed at the story of his dad taking him out to that same woodshed to present him with a pocket knife (done in secret in the woodshed so his mother wouldn’t find out). I loved hearing about the dancing he did back in his day… the square dances, the Lindy Hop, the Waltz, and the Fox Trot. I loved reading about “Bank Night” at the movies, and about his family’s first purchase of a General Electric table model radio in the 1930s. I loved hearing about how he bought his first automobile in 1940 which was a 1936 Ford. I loved hearing him tell about how he remembered parachutes in World War II that were issued to parachute troopers and pilots that were equipped with first aid kits that contained morphine in them and how people would try to steal the kits to get the morphine. I loved the tales he told of family outings to swim, hunt and fish. But most of all I loved hearing about his love of aviation. Yes, I am so grateful for having recorded this piece of my father’s life and can’t wait for my kids to read it (some of it they already have).
I sometimes wonder if I will ever quit grieving my father’s death. I don’t think so. Do we ever really quit grieving the loss of a loved one? Do we ever really have closure? I am not even sure what “having closure” means. Although the pain is not near as strong as it was when he died, it is still there. Sometimes it just seems to sneak up on me, like yesterday, on his birthday. I felt weepy. I felt sad. I felt restless. What would he look like now at 89? Would he still be flying? Something tells me he would. What would he think of his grandkids? What would he think of my oldest son, his 2nd grandson, who is following somewhat in his footsteps and majoring in Aerospace Engineering? Would he be helping him with his Fundamentals of Aerodynamics class? Something tells me that he would and that he would receive much joy from it. While all this was going through my mind yesterday, I also felt thankful, (as I have a million times since his death), that I had the chance to say goodbye to him. While I wouldn’t wish a terminal cancer death on anyone, it did allow me time to say things to him that otherwise would probably never have been said. I knelt by his bedside one day and told him how much I loved him and how grateful I was to have him for a father. I told him that God had blessed me with the dearest gift of all…. the love of a most precious father. I leaned over and kissed him on the forehead. And I remember seeing the glimmer of tears in his eyes. I was with him a few weeks later when he died. And to this day, I have no regrets.
It was about 11 months after my father’s death when the Oklahoma City bombing occurred. All I kept thinking as I watched it on TV was how the families of the victims of that horrible tragedy didn’t get to say goodbye (as I did). My heart and prayers went out to them. That day left me wondering why it is that we always wait for a terminal illness or the blast of a bomb to express our love to people. It bothered me terribly. It still does. It shouldn’t be that way. I guess that is one thing I took away from my father’s death. I no longer “wait” to tell people I care about how I feel about them. Maybe that makes people uncomfortable sometimes. I’m sure it does. I guess it’s not always comfortable for me to be so open. But it leaves me with no regrets. And that’s more important.