- 3 Things My Mother Taught Me
- Friday the 13th, or, Why Some People Need to Lose a Driver's License
- Mom Frmrnyis
- For Someone Who's Supposed to Be So Smart...Ways in Which I Am Stupid
For My Dad, on His 94th Birthday
The day my dad was born—November 3, 1917—was the day the first engagement involving U.S. forces in Europe took place near the Rhine-Marne Canal in France during World War I. This seems appropriate, somehow, for my World War II bomber pilot dad, who was to take part in some incredibly pivotal battles that he never talked about to me and who may well have flown over that same canal, since he flew in the European theater.
I really only learned about the significance of my dad’s war activities when my brother Jim got him to talk to a video camera a few years ago as part of an oral history project. The final edited version places Dad’s actions in context with a historian’s perspective, and left me in awe of his accomplishments and those of his fellow members of the Greatest Generation. My sister Jan put together an amazing scrapbook and did research about his unit, but none of this was anything Dad ever really told us about. “I did my duty,” was all he said when asked.
I had known a bit, sure, thanks to Mom. That it was mostly college kids who made it into Officer Candidate School and that my dad, who had only completed high school, studied on the bus all the way there while the college boys drank and whooped it up, and he passed the entrance exam. That he became a pilot because one day, slogging along in infantry training, he looked up at the planes flying overhead and thought that looked like a much better place to be than down on the ground. That he flew so many missions that Mom knew when he left on the one that, statistically speaking, was “the one he wouldn’t come back from” (but he did). That he lost a tail gunner. That he landed a plane with the engine shot off. (And took a picture of the plane afterwards.)
My favorite story was about the time he smuggled my mom (shhh, don’t tell the Pentagon) aboard one day disguised as a member of the crew when they were testing some kind of secret equipment back in the U.S. (I don’t know what—maybe radar?) and she got to find out what it was like to ride inside a B-24 (or maybe a B-17 “Flying Fortress,” since that’s what he trained in).
Mom wrote an amazing letter describing it, complete with him slapping her hand gently as they walked out to the plane—her trying to walk like a man in the jumpsuit and heavy equipment—and saying, “The pilot and the co-pilot do not hold hands!” (Back then, children, people wrote by hand, with pens, on paper, and if you were my mom you first wrote a draft copy to compose the letter and kept that for your children to marvel over decades later. Good luck with my emails and blog posts.)
One day I asked Dad why he didn’t become an airline pilot when he came home. I thought that sounded like a romantic job, an exciting job, unlike his mysterious work in management at Potlatch Forests Incorporated (“PFI,” for those of us who grew up as Potlatch kids in Lewiston, Idaho). He looked at me and said dryly, “I didn’t want to be a bus driver.”
So he came home a captain and went back to the mill, where he had worked since high school. He worked his way up, he took Dale Carnegie courses, he rose through the ranks, and he ended up managing the Lewiston mill and having some kind of oversight of a bunch of little mills sprinkled around North Idaho. His career with Potlatch is the reason I’ve been to places like Headquarters, Jaype, Pierce, and a bunch of little towns you’ve never heard of, some of which may no longer exist, and walked in the St. Maries Paul Bunyan Days parade as a little kid. I got to ride on the last log drive on the Clearwater River thanks to Dad’s job, on the wanigan (cook boat)—possibly the last major whitewater log drive in the United States, according to one history.
I learned that the smell of sawdust—and the not-so-pleasant smell of the adjacent pulp mill—meant the livelihoods of half the town, or so it seemed.
I learned (although not firsthand—just through listening when the men came back at the end of the day to the hunting camp we went to near Salmon each year) that you only shoot when you know for sure what you’re aiming at, you make sure you shoot to kill, you put a wounded animal out of its misery, and if you shoot it, you pack it out. (And—not that I’ll ever use this knowledge—that when you hang and gut a deer, you want to be careful not to perforate the bowel.)
I learned the rules of gun safety: Treat all guns in the house as if they are loaded (although you never put one away loaded) and never, ever point one at another human being in “fun.”
I would have learned to fish, but he made me clean the first one I ever caught and the squishy guts put an end to my trout-fishing career.
He started jogging sometime shortly after I was born as a “late in life” baby (he turned 45 three days before my birthday), thanks to Dr. Ken Cooper’s book Aerobics. He ran on the track around our barn that had been created for my brothers’ motorcycle riding antics until one night when he stepped on a porcupine in the near-darkness. That day I learned some new words as he pulled the quills out. He switched to running in place indoors, counting his steps silently to himself until near the end when you’d hear him call out the last few numbers as he finished, soaked with sweat.
I remember him startling younger sister Julie and I any number of times by honking the horn if we passed in front of the car while getting ready to load up and go somewhere—particularly if we were all dressed up in our finery for a big night out at the Elks Club, where he was a member and was once named “Elk of the Year” for the state of Idaho thanks to leading the drive to build the new club.
At the Elks Club he’d say, “Mrs. Greene?” and lead my mom to the dance floor, where they waltzed and did the foxtrot to whatever combo was playing covers of Charlie Rich songs and big band-era music.
The “Elk of the Year” plaque hung in the basement near the pool table, where all of his kids learned to play and where we learned what a wily pool shark he was. “Rrrrrrack ‘em up!” he’d call out with delight after once again sinking the eight ball while half our balls sat forlornly on the table.
He taught us to play gin rummy and pinochle, too, and usually won, although I’m pretty sure he was secretly delighted when we mastered enough of the strategy of the game to take a hand or a game.
I learned many folksy sayings from my dad, whose parents hailed from the hills of North Carolina. “Whatever smokes your drawers” was a favorite when he was happy to leave a choice up to us, and I still remember the smile I got one day when he said that in the kitchen and I jumped up to hold myself suspended in a sitting position over the kitchen sink, saying, “Tsssssss.”
And in recent years, I’ve learned that he will answer with infinite patience as my mom asks a dozen times in a row when it will be time for dinner, or where they live now. Her dementia has left him without the full companionship of the woman he has been married to for 67 years or so. Fortunately he can turn down his hearing aid and miss some of her many laps around a short track, as I put it. And fortunately, one of the things that remains steadfast in Mom’s memory is that he’s her husband and she married the right guy, who happens to be a terrific dancer.
Thanks, Dad, and happy birthday.