Monday, August 27, 2007

Centenary

If he'd lived this long, this Friday, August 31, would have been my father's 100th birthday. In fact, he died in 1994, at the age of 86; but the 100th anniversary of his birth has me thinking about him and his life.

He was the youngest of 5 in a hardscrabble Missouri farming family; he was the only sibling to finish high school. It took him until he was 21, because he had to work to support his mother. Issues I won't discuss here caused my grandmother to leave my grandfather when Dad was around 3 - they got back together, and then separated again, off and on for most of his childhood, which was not easy; as I said, he worked through high school. In fact, he worked most of his life; by the time he was old, he defined himself by the work he could do, which got to be a problem when he began to fail physically. He was never good at relaxing.

As the youngest son, and the last child to marry, he was the one who helped support his mother through the Depression - and half the time, the rest of his family and their children as well, since only one of his sisters married a man who would reliably support her, and his oldest brother was in and out of work. My grandmother was, in fact, quite capable herself - family legend says that she once ran a sawmill, and we know she worked in a cafeteria for the telephone company in Wichita, Kansas, because while doing that she injured her back and couldn't work any more. And none of the jobs they had ever paid what we'd call good money. So my dad worked - in an ice cream factory, in a shoe store, in whatever job would pay him. The ice cream factory was across town; he had half an hour for lunch, and it was a 10 minute trolley ride each way, so he rode the trolley home, ate lunch in 10 minutes, and rode back. He could clean a plate faster than anyone else at the table. He tried working in the fields in Texas but couldn't take the heat - he always had trouble with dehydration - so, back to Wichita and the shoe store.

The mantra today is that we must have a job that we like, a job that fulfills us - we're told to follow our passion. Dad's passion was to have any job he could get. This was before the safety net: no welfare, no SSI, no Social Security. If you didn't have a job, you could starve on the street, unless a private charity helped you. Hence all the people lined up for the soup kitchens, in the photos from the 30's, all in overcoats and hats because that was what you wore in public then.

His life wasn't all work and no play; in fact, he had quite a reputation. They called him "Wild Bill" (but his first name wasn't "William"!). He loved to dance, and he'd go to the dance on Saturday night with a half pint of whiskey in his pocket, and take a drink out behind the hall. He was a ladies' man, a real charmer, and a very sharp dresser; he liked to play cards, canasta and penuchle. He got into the occasional fight; in fact, my sister says he once told her he got into his last bar fight at the age of 55. Apparently, he knocked the guy down, dusted off his hands, and came home, and never said a thing. I remember him as a very calm and peaceful man; but that was at home. I know that at one point in the Twenties, the most obnoxious of my uncles came to the house where Dad and Grandma lived, and where my aunt was staying with her children (to get away from the uncle); and Dad pulled a gun on him, and told him he would see his wife only if she agreed to it. Dad also told me of the prank he played on a friend who had a Stutz-Bearcat car: the car was garaged in a shed, and Dad and some friends went one night, picked the car up, and put it down sideways in the shed, with only about an inch clearance front and back. Then they watched the guy try to get it out of the shed.

At the end of the Thirties, war was looming in Europe; and while a strong current of opinion in this country said it was none of America's business, nonetheless, the military shipyards on the coasts were booming. Like many other people in the Thirties, my dad came out to California, sometime in 1940, to work in the Navy shipyard at Mare Island, in Vallejo, California. He stayed at Mare Island for 31 years, doing everything from chipping paint, to driving a forklift, to moving officers in and out of quarters, to
supervising a team of men in the stockroom. In 1957, the Navy gave him an award for 10 years of supervision without a lost-time accident; he was a very careful man, and he trained his men to be careful. To the end of his life, he could get more stuff in a U-Haul trailer than anyone else I ever saw.

Because he wasn't a veteran (too young for the first war, too old for the second), every time they had a cut in funding, he got knocked back to laborer, so the better-paid jobs could go to veterans. He complained, but not much; he had a job, and by then he had a family too. (He actually had an earlier wife, but I never knew much about her. I don't think his mother liked her.) He met my mother through Mare Island - she was the bookkeeper at the Vallejo USO, and he met her through a sailor they both knew at the Navy Yard. They weren't sure at first they would marry - their mothers were both horrified. He was a Baptist, and a divorcee; my mother was a Catholic, and a Canadian emigrant. But eventually he told her that he had gas money to get to Reno, and asked if she would go - and she said yes. The "gas money to Reno" actually got them to Sacramento, and they caught the train over the Sierras the rest of the way. That was in 1944, and it was typical of Dad that he had gas coupons; he was always doing favors for the sailors and they'd pay him in gas coupons. (Both mothers ended up living with them. At the same time.)

In 1950 he bought a house in Napa, 15 miles away from the shipyard, and set up a carpool to save gas money driving to work. He always drove; his riders paid him. He paid $6,000 for that house and lived in it for 43 years, until he died. He rebuilt the inside of it himself, in his spare time. He floored it with 1 by 4 oak planks that he bought when the Navy tore down the married servicemen's wartime housing in Benicia - all the units had had solid oak floors, covered with linoleum! He paid $150 for a truck load of the boards and floored the whole house, upstairs and down, except for the kitchen, back hall, and bathroom; he had enough left over to build a fence around the back yard. He laid the floor boards himself - it took him 3 days to position the first one. Then he hired a man to finish the floor in one room, watched him do it, and did the rest himself, with rented equipment. I remember crawling on that floor on my hands and knees, with a can of paste wax and a steel wool pad, polishing the wood.

When he finally retired from Mare Island, he didn't stop working - he had a civil service pension but no Social Security, so he got a job as a roustabout in an auto body shop, washing cars and sweeping up, to work his minimum Social Security quarters. It would have been wasteful to pass it up. When he finally retired from there, they begged him to stay - they said he did more work in an hour than most of the "boys" did in a day. After that job he just stayed home, doing repairs on the old house (built in 1907), doing favors for neighbors who needed them, and worrying about his daughters, since at that point neither of us was married.

Getting old is hard on a man who defines himself by the physical work he can do. I remember him complaining to my husband, shortly after we married, that he was past it - he couldn't haul a 100 pound sack of cement out of the car trunk any more. I believe he was 80 at the time. He began to get little strokes; his whole family had a problem with atherosclerosis; and eventually one killed him. The real trouble was his quality of life; he wouldn't fix himself up. He had cataracts, and was almost blind when he died. When the doctor diagnosed the cataracts, Dad asked if he needed to have them fixed; if the doctor had said yes, he would have done it. The doctor said that Dad would decide when to get them fixed; and Dad never said the word, because he was an "old man", and "worthless." I could have killed that doctor. I predicted what would happen, and I was right; but I couldn't get through to Dad. He would have been so much more comfortable if he had been able to see. He was also pretty deaf (one of his jobs at the shipyard had been chipping paint, and without ear protection; but, of course, the Navy said it wasn't related); but he felt it was "a waste" to pay good money for hearing aids and of course he couldn't see to manipulate them. How do you teach a man to value himself?? He'd never have let a car get into such a state for lack of maintenance. He was never really the same after his best friend died; they only saw each other every couple of years, but they'd known each other since they were 11, and when Walt died, a piece of Dad died too.

Well, he's gone now; but he lives in my memory, and in my sister's, and the rest of the family. He was a good man; an honest man; a kind man; and he paid cash for everything. (He may have bought one car on credit once, I'm not sure.) If you needed a shirt, he'd give you his; if your car needed fixing, he'd fix it. He paid special attention to the car repair needs of "widow women." People I didn't even recognize turned up at his funeral. The Mexican family that rented the house across the street came to the funeral and said he was the only one in the neighborhood who came to talk to them; he called them "neighbor".

Rest in peace, Neighbor.

7 comments:

  1. Anonymous7:00 AM

    hedera, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this celebration of your father, a fascinating man. My biological father, who was also from Missouri, and also both a determined worker and a sharp dresser, would be 118 in December, were he still alive. He was 52 when I was born, but left when I was 2 because he and my mother simply were not compatible. He died in 1957 in Orange County, California.

    My stepfather, who raised me, an artist and a wonderful human being who worked his ass off as a carpenter to provide for his family, would be 100 in January, were he alive. He died a year ago July.

    I do confess to looking around at society and wondering where the common humanity and the toughness went. Perhaps they are not strictly functions of basic human nature, but are also functions of when, where, and how we grew up. I guess I have to conclude that there must be an inherent potential and conducive circumstances to produce tough-minded but essentially decent people.

    You got me thinking about this again).

    Anonymous David

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  2. Anonymous David,
    The toughness may actually be there, buried, waiting for the need. You never know. Our fathers lived through the Depression; they had to be tough. Many people never find out how tough they really are until they are challenged by something. I think I'm agreeing with you that tough-minded, essentially decent people are a product of their times and their circumstances.

    I am worried about the common humanity. The "me" generation that came out of the '60's (yes, I'm part of it) seems to have lost sight of the fact that we are all in this together; Robert Putnam discussed this in Bowling Alone, a book I should probably read now I'm retired and have time ;-) The phrase I use for this is, "There but for the grace of God go I", and I sometimes think I'm the only person around who still thinks that.

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  3. Anonymous12:13 PM

    And Joan Baez, god love the woman, her music, and her soul.

    This post really set some thoughts in motion for me, hedera. I find myself reflecting back on it when I'm cleaning up and like activities, when the mind is free to mull.

    Anonymous David

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  4. Anonymous6:17 PM

    This comment is a test.

    ReplyDelete
  5. As my sister has pointed out, our father was a remarkable man. He never walked by someone he could help. There was always food on the table and room for one more. He never quit in the face of adversity. He made his calls with no regrets and no apologies. I can't say that they broke the mold when Dad died, but there are few like him. May he rest in peace.

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  6. My Mom and Stepfather met during the War years too. They lived in the same boarding house in Oakland. The shipyards were gearing up, and people were coming from all over the country to work there. My real Father, who'd been a CO from Wisconsin, was a student at Berkeley in architecture at the time. My Mom walked out on him to marry my Stepfather.

    KI, you're right about that old populist spirit. That generation was much friendlier and felt a common bond. They'd lived through adversity in a time with no safety nets.

    Someone should write a series of novels about the transition from the pre-WWII generation to the post-. I think those of us who felt that social consciousness during the Sixties picked up the flavor of Thirties' social conscience. Today's kids don't have a clue--glued to their cell phones and I-pods.

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  7. Anonymous8:32 PM

    "I think those of us who felt that social consciousness during the Sixties picked up the flavor of Thirties' social conscience."

    I think you're on to something here, Curtis, and I think it's why the conservatism, and more so the reactionary anti-communism, of the 50s was not definitive of us, but rather something we felt compelled to stand against because there was something else in the fabric handed to us by our parents, even our conservative parents (e.g. Hillary Clinton).

    Anonymous David

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