Friday, January 01, 2016

Fanfare for the Common Man

This is the first New Year's Day without my father.  We buried him in early December, barely five weeks after his 100th birthday.  He led a long, full and blessed life that continued literally until his final breath.  My father remained active well into his 90s, and was driving a car barely a year before heart failure finally claimed his life.  His mind remained clear enough at the end to refuse treatment, a decision that was confirmed by my brother.  In so many respects, he lived life on his terms, right until the end.

His life spanned one of the most consequential periods in American history.  Seventeen Presidents occupied the Oval Office over the course of my father's life.  He endured two World War, the Great Depression, and the birth of the modern middle class.  He witnessed the civil rights era, the birth of feminism, and the advent of modern mass media.  When my father was born in 1915, commercial radio was still five years away; motion pictures were still silent and television remained a gleam in Philo Farnsworth's eye.  A century later, he was watching his beloved Cubs on a flat-panel TV, connected to cable stations that delivered 24-hour sports programming.  My father saw that as an advancement, even if other developments like personal computers and the internet remained incomprehensible and beyond his realm.

Similarly, my father came of age during an era when aviation was in its infancy.  Most Americans who traveled took a train, or another new-fangled contraption, the automobile.  He would live to see the advent of passenger flights on a mass scale, enabled by huge jets that could deliver someone to virtually any point on the globe within 24 hours.  My father also lived to see the era of manned space travel, with his fellow countrymen traveling safely between the earth and the moon and back again, not once but multiple times--less than 20 years after President Kennedy vowed to make the voyage.  

He was a member of The Greatest Generation, that cohort of extraordinary Americans who were born between 1900 and 1924, one of millions of men and women who endured the deprivation of the depression years, then were called to arms during the Second World War.  They have been lionized and rightly so; even today, as their ranks dwindle, their achievements inspire both awe and gratitude.  Not only did they save western civilization, they returned from the battlefields and built the most powerful and prosperous nation the world has ever seen.  Those of us who came later are forever in their debt, and our legacy can only pale in comparison.

My father's story was typical of his generation.  He was born on a farm in eastern Mississippi, in Lowndes County, the eldest of four children.  His father migrated to the Magnolia State from West Texas, lured by the opportunity of better farmland and the support of other family members who had settled in that portion of Mississippi.  Then as now, life on the farm was hard.  My father recalled missing schools for weeks every fall, during harvest time.  With only two sons to help with the farm, my grandfather was a very busy man with a volcanic temper.  My father sometimes bore the brunt of those outbursts, and tried to shield his brother or sisters from the wrath.

Despite the demands of farm life, Dad developed a passion for sports and his athletic skill was evident early on.  In a day when most communities had their own baseball teams, my father became the starting catcher at the age of 16, handling pitchers who were sometimes a decade older, and didn't always agree with his pitch selection.  There were a few heated arguments but Dad stood his ground.  Just over six feet tall and 190 pounds, he was big and tough enough to go toe-to-toe with teammates and opponents.  My father also excelled at football and basketball, starting at guard in both sports.

Ultimately, athletics provided his escape from the farm.  Dad earned an athletic scholarship at Copiah-Lincoln Junior College in Wesson, Mississippi, lettering in all three sports.  But his time at Co-Lin taught another lesson; scholarships for varsity athletes are renewed on an annual basis.  When the school made a coaching change, the new staff decided Dad didn't fit with their plans.  So, at the ripe old age of 22, he faced the choice of going back to farming, or trying something else.

He opted for that latter option, securing a position as a management trainee with the Kroger Company at a small grocery store in northeast Arkansas.  In 1937, that was no mean feat; nationally, the unemployment rate was still in double digits and there was plenty of competition for the few available vacancies.  Kroger was impressed by his drive and determination, and my father spent over two years in the grocery business.

In 1940, a new opportunity presented itself.  Dad heard about an outside sales position at an auto parts store in a small town in southeast Missouri, with the promise of better pay and travel, even if the route was within 100 miles of the store.  He had been on the job a little over a year when someone else beckoned--Uncle Sam.  With no student or family deferments to fall back on, my father was drafted into the Army and sent to Camp Polk, Louisiana.  He was there on December 7, 1941, when word of the Japanese attack in Pearl Harbor was received.  My father was never given to hyperbole or prophecy, but he offered a simple assessment for his buddies, who were only six months from demobilization.  "Well boys," he opined, We're in for the duration."  He would not return to civilian life for another four years.

Dad was part of the initial cadre for the 3rd Armored Division, which was originally earmarked for the invasion of North Africa.  The division spent the first half of 1942 in the Mojave Desert before being re-assigned to the invasion of Europe.  He shipped out for England in early 1943, part of the massive flow of manpower needed for the greatest amphibious operation in history.  It would be his first--and only--trip outside the United States.

My father received infantry training during his early days at Camp Polk, and qualified as a driver on a Sherman tank crew during exercises in the Mojave.  But, like so many members of his generation, Dad was, in the words of author James Bradley, "crafty with his hands," able to repair complex machines with very little training.  Being a "shade tree mechanic" was a necessity on a farm, and the Army recognized the value of such skills.  My father was classified as a vehicle mechanic and after being promoted to Sergeant, he was put in charge of a tank retriever platoon.

The unit's job was simple; pull damaged tanks (and other armored vehicles) off the battlefield so mechanics could make necessary repairs and return them to service.  It was vital work, and a key reason for Allied victory in Europe during World War II.  The 3rd Armored Division entered combat in late June 1944 with 232 M-4 Sherman tanks.  Over the next 11 months, the unit would lose over 700 Shermans in combat, but thanks to the miracles of American logistics and maintenance, many of them were returned to service.  The M-4 was decidedly inferior to the newest German tanks, the Panther and Tiger, but German commanders and their panzer crews could only shake their heads at the seemingly endless supply of Shermans, including hundreds that were repaired and sent back into combat, sometimes in just a matter of hours.

My father was something of a rarity among World War II veterans; he would talk at length about his service, but concentrated on the lighter moments of his Army days, like the night at Fort Polk when a friend smuggled some moonshine in the barracks.  "I woke up," he told me later.  "The bed wasn't spinning but the rest of the building was."  Or rolling across western Europe, not far behind armored and infantry battalions that liberated French and Belgian towns after four years of German occupation.  Happy villagers often thrust bottles of their best wine or cognac through the windows of their vehicles, a gift to the liberators.  Tank retrievers carried as many as a dozen large tool boxes; Dad and his troops quickly improvised, tossing the tools into the cabs of their vehicles and converting the boxes into liquor cabinets.  They had plenty of liquid refreshment during infrequent breaks from the Allied push across western Europe.

He spoke less about the grim episodes associated with armored warfare.  Dad once mentioned that one of the first tasks in repairing a damaged Sherman was repainting the interior.  I was puzzled for a moment; surely patching up holes in the armor or replacing a damaged engine, transmission or cannon was more important.

Then it hit me: a German 88mm shell entering the crew compartment of an M-4 often caused horrific damage.   Painting the interior--after a thorough scrubbing--was a way to cover reminders of the human cost when the tank was turned over to a new crew.  I never asked my father how many crew compartments his men repainted.  He also alluded to close calls with enemy artillery while removing damaged tanks from the battlefield.  A Sherman weighed 37 tons and tank retrievers moved at a crawl when pulling one across open terrain.  On more than one occasion, German spotters observed Dad and his assistant dragging an M-4 through an open field, and tried to "walk" rounds onto their retriever.

But it wasn't until the last year of his life that I learned the biggest "surprise" from Dad's military career.  As his health declined (and the subject of a nursing home entered the conversation), I was asked to look for a copy of his discharge papers, needed for a potential application for VA benefits.  The discharge form was near the top of the stack; I knew most of the details, but under his awards and decorations, I found the Combat Infantryman's Badge (CIB).  Thousands of American soldiers have earned the CIB over the past 74 years, but recipients must meet three criteria: first, they must be an infantryman, satisfactorily performing duties associated with that specialty; secondly, they must be assigned to an infantry unit at the time it is engaged in active ground combat and finally, the solider must actively engage the enemy in ground combat.

I was stunned, having always assumed my father was a maintenance troop.  During a subsequent conversation, Dad told me he had trained as an infantryman during his time at Fort Polk.  His discharge papers confirmed assignment to an armored infantry battalion that was part of the 3rd Armored Division.  As for that third requirement, my father would only say "we got in a few scrapes."

As one of the peacetime draftees from 1941, Dad was among the first to be demobilized after Japan surrendered in August 1945.  Before returning to his job at the auto parts store, he spent a few weeks at home in Mississippi where he met a stunning young brunette in the town of Columbus.  A whirlwind courtship ensured and less than two months after they met, my mother and father were married.  I have a copy of their wedding photo on my desk; they were a handsome couple, their smiles conveying the hope of so many young men and women who were eagerly looking to the future, after years of depression and war.  My mother had three brothers; all enlisted after Pearl Harbor and one of them never returned.  A Marine rifleman, he died at Peleliu, shortly after his 21st birthday.

The post-war years were a happy time for many American couples, my parents included.  They worked hard and saved their money, but they sometimes splurged on a weekend trip to St. Louis for a Cardinals game, or a big band concert.  Dad paid cash for their first house in 1951, following a pattern so familiar to young men who came of age during the Great Depression.

There was heartbreak as well.  My older brother was still born in 1952, and mom suffered a miscarriage two years later.  Given her medical history, I was considered something of a miracle baby when I arrived in 1958, and my brother earned the same title at his birth three years later.  We settled into a rather ordinary middle class existence in our little ranch house.  My mother remained at home to care for us, while my father worked six days a week to support his family.

Dad's career was rather remarkable.  He was a very successful salesman for almost 50 years, despite having a rather reserved personality.  With customers, he could turn on the charm, but it often vanished when the sales call was over.  He had few close friends and avoided civic groups and service organizations like the plague.  But my father was active in the local Methodist Church, serving as an usher for years until the denomination's increasingly liberal theology prompted his conversation to Catholicism.

I always assumed Dad would have been more engaged if he had more time.  But his workday typically began at 6 am and continued for at least twelve hours, five days a week (with a half-day on Saturday).  The owners of the auto parts store had decided years earlier that an outside sales rep could add greatly to their profits and my father certainly delivered.  He called on the same repair shops, car dealerships, farm implement dealers and other clients for five decades, and they bought huge quantities of parts, welding supplies, paint, electrical equipment and other items from the store's inventory.  Dad delivered some of the items himself, typically in a battered, company-owned station wagon.  But eventually, the store had to add a full-time delivery driver to deliver the rest of orders to my father's clients.

He followed this routine for years, always without complaint--another hallmark of the World War II generation.  But occasionally we saw glimpses of dissatisfaction, or mere speculation about staying on the same course for the rest of his working life.  When I was in elementary school, my father took a long, hard look at buying a cattle ranch near Starkville, Mississippi, not far from his boyhood home. My mother, brother and I were somewhat shocked and prepared for a possible move, but eventually, he decided against it.

Three years later (in 1967) my Dad made a decision that assured the rest of his career would be spent in the auto parts business.  The store's owner was killed after delivering a new car to one of his daughters in Illinois, and the heirs had no interest in retaining the business and its associated real estate holdings.  My father was given a chance to buy into the business, for the worldly sum of $50,000.  Dad's response became something of a legend in our hometown.  Then as now, $50K was a lot of money, but years of saving left my father in an enviable position.  "Do you want cash or a check," he asked, underscoring his desire to become a part of the ownership group.

With Dad on the road, the business continued to thrive, but his marriage grew strained.  My brother and I could never quite pinpoint the cause (and Dad refused to talk about it), but by the time we reached middle school, our mother and father were leading separate lives.  Dad was up early for his route and Mom took a job with the local school system.  At the end of the workday, there was little interaction between our parents, dinner and TV watching were quiet affairs, though there were occasional, loud arguments.  Our parents had apparently decided to stay together "for the good of the kids," but there were times we wished they go their separate ways.  Of course, divorce was out of the question, since it would be an admission of moral failure, another hallmark of their generation. 

Our world changed forever during my junior and senior years in high school.  Mother had ignored warning signs for years, then finally went to the doctor.  The diagnosis was grim; metastatic breast cancer.  She underwent two mastectomies, along with chemotherapy and radiation, but it was a forlorn battle.  Mom died in January 1976, on a cold, clear afternoon.  There was something of a reconciliation between my mother and father before her death, but we were left wondering if the damage might have been repaired years earlier.

Dad found greater happiness in his second marriage, which lasted for 38 years.  By that time, I was in college and my brother was finishing high school.  We had wildly divergent interests and career plans, but we agreed on one thing: the auto parts business was not for us.  I always sensed that Dad was disappointed in that choice, but he never challenged our decision.  After five years in broadcasting, I embarked on a military career, while my brother became a CPA, eventually based in Atlanta.

My father and his partners sold the business in 1984, the same year he retired.  The new owner was only slightly older that my brother and I, and he quickly announced sweeping changes for the store.  The outside sales position was eliminated, along with the successful sidelines in electrical and plumbing supplies.  Despite the presence of other retail parts outlets in our hometown--and the advent of national chains like Auto Zone--the owner thought he could dominate the local trade.  My father shook his head as he deposited the check for his share of the business.  "He won't last three years," Dad predicted.  A little over two years later, the store went under.  The successful enterprise that my father helped sustain for over 45 years was gone.

Dad's retirement plans were predictably modest.  While he had accumulated a sizable nest egg, there would be no exotic trips or a winter home in Florida.  He was content tending the large garden that took up most of my stepmother's backyard, and did all of his yard work, despite advancing years.  He was cutting his own, half-acre yard (with a push mower, of course), at the age of 94, and took daily walks until his 97th birthday.  A few years earlier, he terrified all of us by announcing plans to go up on the roof and patch a small hole, saving a few dollars in the process.

As you've probably surmised, my father was extremely stubborn, a quality illustrated by two episodes from the end of his work life and the beginning of retirement.  Just months before selling the business, Dad was involved in the only serious traffic accident of his life.  At the end of his route, he was t-boned at an intersection in Dunklin County, knocking him (and that worn-out station wagon) down an embankment.

A good Samaritan happened on the scene, and panicked when she saw my father.  "There's a big piece of glass sticking out of your head," she screeched.  "Well, pull the damn thing out," Dad replied.  She refused, and so did the EMTs that arrived a few minutes later.  Predictably, he refused a ride to the hospital, announcing he would hitch a ride with the wrecker back to our hometown.  Once the vehicle was deposited at the junk yard (and Dad's personal effects were removed), he finally sought medical attention.

This created a minor problem, since my father had already outlived his long-time general practitioner.  So, he sought treatment from the town's pediatrician, the same doctor who treated my brother and I as children.  We could only imagine the reaction from that waiting room full of kids and their parents when an elderly man, his head covered in blood, sat down and awaited his turn with the doctor.  That pediatrician (a former neighbor) treated Dad for the rest of his career.  My father outlived him as well.

The other example of Dad's stubborn ways was entirely his doing.  Just retired, he decided the roof of my stepmother's house needed some work, but he saw no reason to waste good money on an extension ladder.  His "solution" was a jury-rigged contraption that consisted of a overturned 50-gallon drum,with his step-ladder sitting on top of that.  With a little luck, Dad calculated, he could step off the top of the ladder and onto the roof.  My stepmother was horrified at his plan, but my father dismissed her concerns, instructing her to proceed with her trip to the store. "I know what I'm doing," my father exclaimed.  "Go about your business and I'll take care of mine."   

You can guess what happened.  After his wife departed, Dad tried to climb up the barrel/ladder combination.  He was a step away from the roof when the entire thing gave way, sending my 70-something father plunging to the ground.  Here's how he later described the incident:

"When I came to, there was a man standing over me." (A motorist driving by the house saw Dad's tumble).  "I thought you were dead," the man told him.  "So did I," Dad replied.  "Do you want me to call an ambulance?" the man asked.  "No," my father replied, "I'll just lay here for a while, then crawl in the house."  And that's what he did.  After a week in bed, and bruised over most of his body, Dad resumed his normal routine.

It's little wonder we viewed him as almost indestructible.  Dad was blessed with remarkably good health well into his 90s; his mind remained sharp and clear, virtually to the end. I always told my father he would live to see 100, and that prediction proved accurate.   The last day I spent with Dad was on his 100th birthday; he had been moved to a nursing home (due to mobility issues), but still remembered the names and faces of players from his basketball team at Co-Lin, 77 years ago.

The end was expected, but it still came with shocking speed.  My father was diagnosed with heart failure almost a year ago; at the time, his physician gave him a year to live, perhaps two.  He entered the nursing facility in January 2015 then rallied, allowing him to return home for three more months.  But, as his condition declined, he suffered a series of falls at home.  None resulted in serious injuries, but it affirmed the progression of his disease.  He entered the nursing home for the second (and last) time in June.  His condition remained somewhat stable until he reached 100; it was if he was striving to achieve that one last goal.  After that, he was ready to go, and made that desire known to the family.

Early in the morning of December 4th, the nursing home staff discovered he was bleeding from his rectum.  Dad was rushed to the county hospital, but he refused treatment, affirming his desire to let the Lord take him home.  Initially, the doctors and nurses ignored his request, assuming Dad was suffering from dementia and could no longer make decisions for himself.  That required my brother's intervention; he had arrived in town a few days earlier, after our stepmother was rushed to the hospital.  My brother told the staff our father was rational and coherent and capable of making this decision.  Dad requested a sip of Dr. Pepper (the only soft drink he would touch), and was given morphine to make him comfortable.  Twelve hours later, just before 4:30 pm, my father passed.

The funeral service was brief and simple, per his request.  Two members of the Missouri National Guard rendered military honors, in tribute to Dad's service during World War II.  The shadow box with his Sergeant's chevrons, ribbons and medals was on display during visitation at the funeral home.  Dad was proud of the box--and his military record.  I cursed myself for not putting it together years earlier, instead of five months before his death.

Almost a month later, the pain and loss is still raw.  The man who was the greatest influence in my life is gone, leaving a void that will never be filled.  He was an extraordinary man and a common man, the embodiment of the finest generation this country has ever produced.  Most of them have already departed and the rest will be gone before we know it.  I had a chance to thank my father for all he did before his passing; it was a simple, tearful acknowledgement.  At a moment like that, words fail and you're left with the love and gratitude a son feels towards his father.  Dad nodded in acknowledgement.  There was nothing left to say.                       



Tim said...

What a wonderful story, thank you for sharing just one of many stories of the greatest generation.

Czech6 said...

Your father sounds like a good man. Thanks for sharing his story.

James said...

I kinda know how you feel, both of mine are still here (in their 80's) seemingly immortal for so long, then not. It really impresses on one how life is a one shot deal to make of it what you will.

Ed Bonderenka said...

Excellent story. Sorry for your loss. Glad you had such a man for a father.

Meca Jon said...

Thank you for sharing. I'm sure he was as proud of your service as you are of his.

Joshua Tolley said...

Thank you for writing this, and for choosing to share it.

Neil said...

Shades of my grandfather. A few years older than your dad, he bought a farm and got married in 1929. Grandma, who was sweet as pie, had only a few acidic words for the next decade--and my mom recalls picking lead pellets out of dinner on more than one occasions.

But he left his children wealthy, by any reasonable definition, and farmed 'till he was 94. We have a picture of him, at age 92, climbing up to repair the shingles on the barn cupola. He wouldn't let my cousin do the job because it was "too dangerous".

LarsPorsena said...

Sorry for your loss and our nation's. Such men are national assets.

D.L. Jenkins said...

Nate, I was both sorry and glad to read this. I would have like to have known your father.

Gaffer said...

I am honored to learn about your father. It's clear that he means a lot to you and your love for him comes through your writing.

Thank you for sharing

The Savage Possum said...

Mixed emotions war. Sorrow for your loss and joyous that there were indeed people of such caliber walking among us. Those sort are now too far and few between.

Aaron Crutchfield said...

Thank you for that.

RussInSoCal said...


John said...

Thank you for sharing your father's story.

ASM826 said...

Linked back to you from my site.

drjim said...

Thank you for sharing this wonderful story.

May God be with you (and him) during your time of grieving.

Old NFO said...

Thank you.