My father was a farmer. He was rugged, hard-working, not afraid to get his hands dirty. On most days, he was up and in his work truck before the rest of us opened our eyes, while the skies were still dark. And after a long, hard day, he came home and fixed the house and coached my softball team and attended church every Sunday without fail. To him, going to a doctor was something you did if you had a bone sticking out or needed stitches. Otherwise, you took care of your own problems — either with a shot of something from the liquor cabinet or a hit of something loaded with spices to clear the sinuses — and then off you went to do whatever was next on the agenda.
He and Mom went on adventures, living in farming communities all over California, Hawaii, and finally, upon retiring, as expatriates in Panama. In his “retirement,” of course he had to have a “small” garden, which eventually expanded beyond their property to the empty lots around them. In his 70s, he was still up first thing in the morning and out to the fields of artichokes, kale, and potatoes.
We joked that I got my stubborn nature from him. Occasionally that stubbornness had us butting heads — like the last time he came to visit. I brought up his and Mom’s healthcare, asking how long it had been since they’d had a physical. He responded in the quintessential Dad way: with a rude noise and a dismissive wave of his hand. Doctors were for sick people, and Dad was fit and trim and in better shape than I was.
All his life Dad cherished his freedom and independence, but what do you do when you lose your independence and that most basic freedom — the freedom to choose?
In November 2016, I got the call from Mom. Something was wrong with Dad. They were heading to Panama City for tests after the initial visit — to a dentist of all things — had come up with worrisome results.
Those tests revealed stage IV stomach cancer.
We were fortunate to have one of the nation’s best oncology hospitals in Pittsburgh, where I lived, so we decided they should come stay with me so I could look after Mom while he underwent cancer treatment.
Only 10 days had passed from the first sign of a problem to the day Dad got off the plane in Pittsburgh. He was shockingly thin and jaundiced, bent over and in obvious pain. He was exhausted. I pretended nothing was wrong as I hugged him and Mom. It’s how we handle these things.
We got Dad into the hospital right away. I could tell even without the hesitancy from his team that his outlook was not good. Further tests discovered the cancer was attacking his blood cells, thickening his blood and causing multiple and continuing strokes that were literally killing his brain. The disease was taking Dad away before he even had the chance to fight it.
It progressed, and he deteriorated, with shocking speed. Every day he was less able to speak, until he was unable to do so at all. And every day he made it clear he just wanted to be home with us. One night, he even fell while attempting to get out of bed on his own in his usual stubborn-Dad way. When I asked him why, all he had to say was “Go home.”
As his ability to communicate failed, Dad issued four last instructions for me:
1. Take care of Mom.
2. Take me out back and just shoot me.
3. I really want to have a sip of beer one last time.
4. Home. I want to die at home.
Eventually, the doctors agreed: There was nothing they could do. They would send him home with us and he would be made comfortable. I thought my years of experience as a caregiver would serve me well. I had taken care of the elderly for a number of years for very little compensation, but I liked it and felt I was doing a good thing.
We had a hospital bed brought in. Shortly after, Dad was brought in by an ambulance service. We used small sponge sticks to moisten his mouth and lips, as he was no longer able to drink anything. His eyes were open and he was looking at me, and I took care of instruction No. 3 by dipping the sponge in a beer from the fridge and placing it on his tongue. I like to think he was aware enough to enjoy the taste of it.
We arranged care with a hospice provider, but the most they could schedule was one visit a day from a nurse and once a day from a caregiver. My mind boggled, but I told myself I could do it — I had experience, after all. So I tried to remember how to change diapers and wet bedding with a person still in the bed, and how to calm someone writhing in pain and distress — someone who was unable to do anything for himself.
But this time it was Dad. And that made it all different. Mom was there, of course, but she was helpless and traumatized and unable to physically help in any case. Hiring other caregivers would have been too costly, and insurance wouldn’t pay more. Besides, I could do this last thing for my dad. As I said, I got my stubbornness from him.
As it became worse by the hour, I wrangled phone calls with doctors and the hospice agency. I called when the catheter fell out, and when he was in obvious pain and the meds were not enough. Sometimes the response was timely; other times it was not.
The nurses themselves were lovely — gentle with him and careful and soft spoken, sensitive to our grief and imminent loss. But they were frazzled and ridiculously overworked. One nurse told me she was the only nurse for all the cases in a service area that spanned two counties. She had a two-hour commute to see us from her last case. When I called the office to try to get more help, often I was made to feel I was being a pain by pestering them.
I was given the bottles of medicine to administer. It was hard keeping track of the different cycles for all the different meds in between changing diapers and bedclothes. If I was late with the morphine, he would be up moaning and crying out and thrashing in pain. The nurse told me, “It’s close now. Apply the medication as needed.”
This was never how I imagined it when I allowed my mind to wander the path of what would happen when a loved one was terminal — which, let’s admit, is something most of us shy away from in our musings. After reading about others who had gone through this, I always imagined a serene, peaceful process. I anticipated sitting by a bed and holding hands, meaningful final communication, and a chance to say goodbye amid conscientious nurses there for my loved one’s slightest twinge or need.
I know that was unrealistic, but after all I had heard about hospice care, I truly did expect there to be no pain. I expected my father to be spared embarrassment and shame. I did not expect to be so caught up in the minutiae of managing this process largely on my own, and that the caregivers I was able to access would be so overworked and frazzled, unable to invest themselves here in the moment with us. I never thought we would be just one stop on a long list for the day.
Perhaps, like almost everything else in our “healthcare” system, it all comes down to money. If I had more or better insurance, perhaps many of my expectations would have been met. But that is so wrong.
It was over in four days. Exhausted, I crashed hard. While I was sleeping, Mom had gone to administer Dad’s morphine and found he was not breathing. I walked into the bedroom and right away I could sense the difference. My dad had finally slipped away and was peaceful.
It’s a year later now. These are the lessons I learned from my experience — and everyone should heed them: keep having yearly physicals; make certain your final wishes are legally filed along with your will; please talk with your loved ones about what you want for your funeral and try to see it is paid for. Make sure your insurance is intact and is the best you can possibly afford. Your passing should be as easy as you can make it for your loved ones.
Though I’m glad Dad is at peace, I’m also left with a lot of anger. I am angry that Dad was never given the option to arrange his own end in a way he would have preferred. For a fiercely independent and iron-willed man, there was no option to take a pill and go to sleep to end the suffering. I am angry that his final days were so agonizing and ugly after he had led such an amazing, beautiful life. And I am filled with grief that so many in this country are left to watch loved ones suffer and die like this — usually for much longer than four days — with inadequate care from an industry staffed by some of the most compassionate, undercompensated, underappreciated, and overworked folks I know.
As Americans, we pride ourselves on our freedoms. It seems to me that we should also have the basic freedom to decide to pass as peacefully as possible when confronted by the fact that there is no hope for recovery. It’s how we “humanely” free our beloved pets from their pain. How can we deny that freedom from our human loved ones — and from ourselves?
What’s happening now is just wrong. All of it.
Dawniel Kupsch is a wife and mother of two boys; she has served as caregiver for the elderly and provided therapy support for autistic children.
This article is featured in the May/June 2018 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Ever since I could recall, there was a family photo that intrigued me: It showed my dad at about 10 months old, sitting on the grass, dressed in a fancy outfit, looking up at someone who was torn from the picture. Beside him, all that was left was a set of legs wearing pressed slacks and boots polished to a military shine.
Over the years, I asked my grandmother about the man missing from the picture. Her answers — “he’s no one” or “he doesn’t matter” — betrayed just enough emotion that I couldn’t let it go. Later, when I asked yet again, she said the man was called Lorris and then snatched the photo from me and replaced it with a much coveted, but completely off-limits, Harlequin Romance.
Growing up in western Canada, I had grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and a plethora of more-distant relatives, all of whom gathered regularly for a progression of holidays, weddings, baptisms, graduations, and funerals. I’m not sure when I started to notice that one segment of my family was entirely absent, but I learned if I asked my grandmother about my dad’s father, I got a blistering silence or a “mind your own business” in response.
One day, when I asked why she became a nurse, she explained that when she was young, women could be schoolteachers, nurses, nuns, or wives, and she hadn’t been in a hurry to marry. When I tried to ask her about a bombshell a second cousin had dropped — that Grandma wasn’t just a nurse but also a nun — she ignored my question by reaching high up on her bookshelf and letting me look through her much-loved book on the royal family. We debated whether Prince Andrew or Prince Edward was more handsome.
Because she was always reluctant to talk about herself, I had to piece together my grandmother’s story through rumor and family lore. She entered the convent as a young woman and became a nursing sister during World War II. Through the war, she was stationed at the University of British Columbia and worked with young soldiers. While there, she wrote her sister that she’d fallen in love with a soldier named Lorris Selkirk. Sometime later, she bore his child. The relationship didn’t last, and she was left with a fatherless son and a harsh bitterness that followed her through life.
She was excommunicated by the church for refusing to give her son up for adoption, and my dad’s early years were a blur of constant movement as she traveled to a series of remote northern Canadian communities under assumed identities. To hide her shame, sometimes she claimed to be a war widow; other times, she posed as a nun and found work in hospitals where the need for nurses was so great no one asked questions. To maintain this fiction, of course, she couldn’t have my dad around. They’d move into a boarding house and, having secretly made arrangements with the proprietors, she would disappear in the middle of the night without a goodbye, sometimes not returning for months. Later, she told my mum she did it this way so he wouldn’t notice and be sad.
As an adult, I visited a Catholic hospital on a remote First Nations reserve were she’d worked for a year or two. Sure enough, I found her name in the records — as a nun. My dad would have been 6.
By the time my dad was 12, their peripatetic lifestyle came to an end. My grandmother married and started a new life with the kind pharmacist I knew as my grandfather. She died when I was a teenager, and with her went the answers to many questions I would like to have asked.
Years later, I was assigned a magazine story on how to use the internet for genealogical research. All I knew about my paternal side was the Selkirk name. So I visited my dad to see what he knew. He cheerfully unearthed a baby book showing a family tree with both his father’s and paternal grandparents’ names. I was surprised these mysterious names even existed. But when I asked him about them, he said, “They didn’t want me and my mother. So I don’t need to know anything about them.”
The first few times I found new information, I shared it with him. He was fascinated to learn our Canadian history began with the arrival of Robert Selkirk, a Scottish farmer born in 1812. Robert, along with his wife Catharine, raised at least five Quebec-born children on an Ontario farm; one of them was my direct ancestor James.
But when I started to tell him about James, who was his great-grandfather and who was still alive when he was born, my dad said he didn’t care. When I offered to send links to the high school picture of his father I’d unearthed, he told me he didn’t need to know what his father had looked like. “We were hurt enough by that family. I prefer to respect my mother’s memory,” my dad wrote back. “So perhaps you could leave me out of your genealogical research.”
I thought I was done. Genealogy had given me what I expected: It had connected me to the long-dead past. But then modern media did its thing, and a surprise connection to a present-day relative arrived in my inbox:
Dear Diane, I am a great grandson of James and Wilhelmina Selkirk. My Grandma was Ola, who was born the year after Earle, your great-grandfather. —Tom
The fact that my grandmother gave my dad his father’s surname has always puzzled me. If she wanted, she could have easily hidden that information. But both my sister and I got the impression that, despite her reticence to talk about it, the Selkirk name was important to her. So much so that we both kept the name when we married and then passed it on to our own children.
So I quickly emailed Tom back. After all, he was family. And within a few minutes, thanks to a link he had sent, I was looking at photos from five generations and 150 years of my family’s life in Canada.
Then I got another note from Tom, apologizing for “letting the cat out of the bag.” He explained he’d been at a family gathering and mentioned meeting me to my dad’s 82-year-old aunt Marilyn, who was shocked. She told him she’d tried for years to find her older brother’s unacknowledged child.
Marilyn and I exchanged emails for several months. Hers were long, breathless streams of consciousness which jumped from childhood memories to old ancestral history to current stories about relatives I didn’t know. She would also send me packages in the mail filled with exuberant sketches, photos of her paintings, and other keepsakes. My letters back were briefer — the only history I had to share was my own.
I forwarded my dad all the emails, telling him he could always delete them if he really didn’t want to know anything. Marilyn had told me her deepest wish was to meet her long-deceased brother’s son. When my dad refused, I arranged for my sister and me plus our two teenaged daughters to meet her in his place.
When we arrived, Marilyn’s makeup was impeccable, and her clothes looked like they’d come off a fashion runway. She surprised us by planning a party for that first meeting. Her house was full of flowers and food, as well as a constant stream of people. I expected to encounter suspicion — or at least questions — about how I knew we were family, but instead we got a warm and happy welcome. It was joyful, but also heartbreaking. I couldn’t understand why my father and grandmother had never been wrapped into this loving family.
As the party slowed, Marilyn became pensive and nervous. Showing me photos, she told funny stories about her brother, including the fact that he hated sandwiches (a quirk that matched my own). She explained where my height, hair color, and love of bagpipes came from. My father, we discovered, looked remarkably like his father, putting to rest doubts no one seemed to have.
After asking our girls to leave the room, Marilyn finally filled me in on the details of the scandal. Her mother, it seemed, had been horrified her 19-year-old son had fathered a baby with a much older woman. (Not only was my grandmother 32 at the time, but she was of a different faith — it’s not clear if they even knew she was a nun.) While Lorris had initially taken responsibility for his son, his mother suggested he might not have been the only man in my grandmother’s life.
A humiliating court case followed. This was well before the era of paternity tests, and my grandmother was forced to swear in open court that Lorris was indeed her son’s father. Even with the court finding in her favor, the Selkirk family wouldn’t accept her. Lorris had child support garnished from his army wages, and his mother blamed my grandmother for the black mark this left on his record. Because of the dishonor, he never advanced the way he was expected to in the army. He went on to marry and have five other children — keeping my dad a secret from them all. My grandmother refused to ever let Lorris see his son again.
I had a new empathy for my grandmother. I could easily imagine her — that she’d found love and then had to go through such public rejection. Marilyn, who was only a child when my dad was born, felt guilty by association. The impropriety, which Marilyn thought was too racy for the girls to hear, seemed so insignificant in light of all the pain it caused.
People are warned when they reach out to solve family secrets that they might not always like the answers. Adoption agencies, genealogists, and now some of the companies that provide DNA tests caution that not all connections turn out to be happy ones. Love and forgiveness seem like such simple answers in retrospect — but it still took more than 75 years for my aunt to find her family.
Recently I sent my dad a note with a phone number, reminding him his aunt is now elderly and that if there’s a part of him that wonders about her, he might want to get on with it. I thought that my email would end up wherever the other ones about his family went, but instead, a few days later, I got a brief response back: “I called. She’s a fascinating lady. I don’t know why I waited so long. Thank you.”
Have you uncovered amazing tales about your ancestors? Leave your stories in the comments below.
Diane Selkirk’s last article for the Post was “Our Life on the Water in the March/April 2015 issue. For more about the author, visit dianeselkirk.com.
This story appears in the March/April 2018 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir. The Post will publish a new segment each week.
That day skiing those pristine slopes was magic. But even when real magic touches us, it is as ephemeral as a snowflake. The clock strikes midnight, the three wishes are gone, the genie put back in the lamp, the heroine awakes from what was only a dream.
Before the four o’clock winter violet had darkened the Lutsen ski slopes, Nancy and I were on the bus headed back home to Duluth. As soon as the door slammed behind me, my mother herded me into the breakfast nook, where Heidi and Lani were waiting. She seemed strangely calm, dead-eyed, like a pod person of herself.
“Your dad called. He’s coming by tomorrow to pick up some things and then he’s moving out to a place of his own.” My parents were breaking up. Lani ran off howling, “I hate you I hate you!” and locked herself in her room for three days. Heidi, who was six, shrugged this off as impossible, a silly story, and went back to watching television. Heedless of everyone else’s feelings, I pondered what this meant for me.
Back then, grown-ups and kids led such separate lives that I had no idea this was coming. My father had always been a shadowy presence, making himself known only when something unpleasant was required, forcing me to go to Sunday mass, mow the lawn, or eat those disgusting Brussels sprouts. I only noticed that my father had lately been absent for a good many evenings because Kentucky Fried Chicken and take-out London Inn cheeseburgers appeared regularly on the menu, when for years they had been a rare, delectable treat.
Encased in my own adolescent self-centeredness, I had given no weight to my mother’s sudden interest in going back to college. I assumed she was bored with delivering toothbrushes to rural schools with the Women’s Dental Auxiliary, cooking that damn meat, potato, and two veg dinner every night, and removing sharp objects from my sister’s hand.
It occurred to me that with one parent gone and the other replaced by her pod person, I would have even less supervision than I already enjoyed. I could stay out later, come home drunker or higher.
By the time I returned from school the next day my dad had come and gone. I don’t know exactly what he took from our house besides clothes and cufflinks; nothing at all was missing. It was as if he had never inhabited that big fancy house.
My dad moved into a crappy, barely furnished apartment in a shoddy building erected practically on top of busy London Avenue. It looked like the kind of place you went to score drugs. My one and only dinner there was punctuated with honking horns and screeching wheels and perfumed with car exhaust. We perched on wobbly folding chairs, eating take-out Chinese from Joe Huie’s off of paper plates. Through the doorway I saw an unmade bed, close enough to toss an egg roll on. I noticed there was no TV and wondered what my dad did when he wasn’t filling teeth.
After the “How’s school?” “Fine,” we ate in silence for a few minutes. Then my father began talking, and for once he wasn’t giving me an order. When he was sixteen, the same age I was, he and a buddy had traveled by freighter to Europe, where they spent most of their money on two bicycles, then headed off to explore, sleeping rough, drinking wine, eating at cheap cafes, and having adventures. “I thought my whole life would be like that, traveling, seeing the world,” he sighed. I shoveled in my fried rice, thinking, that does sound great. I felt a new type of longing, wanderlust, which made my feet prickle and my imagination soar: I pictured myself in a miniskirt in London, a beret in Paris, a toga in Athens.
My dad was still talking, interrupting my daydream.
“But first there was college and then my dad insisted I go to dental school. That’s where I met your mom.”
Somehow I knew that already, as I knew about the unplanned and unwanted — but back in 1953, the un-abortable — pregnancy that resulted in me. My birth had derailed my mom’s college education and crushed my dad’s dreams of exotic journeys. For the past sixteen years, the most exciting events in his life were madcap dental conventions and family car trips undertaken with no hotel reservations.
After years and years of being stuck in Duluth, staring down people’s mouths, my dad in true 1960s style, was going to drop out. He would cross the Pacific on a schooner, hike the Alps, go spear fishing in the Keys, eat strange spicy food at questionable restaurants in dusty Central American towns.
He had me mesmerized; I too was dying to get out of our tiny insular town and run off to Haight-Ashbury or a commune full of sex and drugs. Maybe, I thought, maybe dad will take me with him to Europe or back to Mexico. My imagination now pictured me in a Parisian beret, dad next to me in a big glittery sombrero.
When my mom came to pick me up, he gave me a fatherly pat on the back, as affectionate as a Minnesotan gets, and for a ridiculous moment I felt everything was going to be fine.
I don’t know whether my dad was lying to me or to himself. The next week my mother took me aside to confide they were definitely getting a divorce, as my father had impregnated his fat nineteen-year-old assistant, Donna. Either even adults were too embarrassed to buy rubbers or Donna was too stupid or too wily to go on the pill.
My dad was not going island-hopping in the Caribbean; he had sentenced himself to more years of diapers, tantrums, and runny noses.
I was still unsure of my filial feelings — did I feel sorry for my dad? Was I mad at him? — when we had an unexpected visitor. My paternal grandfather, who never left Carlton except to shoot an animal or catch a fish, appeared in our living room and asked my younger sisters to leave. “I think you’re old enough to hear this, Gay,” he said. He puffed himself up like a toad as he put on the mantel of patriarchy and laid down the law to my mom: “You cannot divorce Jack.”
My ultra-Catholic grandmother, a regular at daily mass, was so distraught by the idea of her son getting a divorce that she was unable to get out of bed. My grandfather shook his finger at my mother and scolded, “She even missed her bridge game.”
He said he knew about my dad’s girlfriend, and wandered into some claptrap about wild oats, men’s little peccadilloes, chickens coming home to roost, that left my mother looking as bewildered as I felt. He urged her to be patient, patted both our knees, and sat back, satisfied with his work. My mother said, “So you know Donna’s having Jack’s baby?” My grandfather did not know, and rendered speechless, he picked up his homburg and rushed out of the house.
My grandfather’s weird tirade, my parents’ divorce, the looming baby: I wrote all this off as proof of the insanity of the adult world. They were the straights, the squares, responsible for Vietnam, racism, and everything bad. The future was Woodstock, the Age of Aquarius, Haight-Ashbury, the Fillmore East, tune in, turn on, drop out. To hell with them. I had my own world of sex, drugs, friends, and school.
As befogged with love and LSD as my brain would be on Saturday nights with Michael, by Monday I was again the sharp-eyed, clear-headed, serious scholar. I couldn’t smoke a cigarette, I was a terrible dancer and a middling skier, but I could ace a test and write an essay that always came back with a bright red A+ scrawled on the top.
My favorite teacher, everyone’s favorite teacher, was Mr. Burrows, a Hollywood-ready character who had somehow, up in the Northern woods of Duluth, acquired not just an English accent, but a whole British persona. He had the proper squire’s paunch, not quite hidden by his baggy tweed suit. He lectured without notes, hundreds of years of history and literature nestled inside his head, as he almost danced about on his tiny feet, scribbling dates and names on the blackboard.
We smart kids were handed over to Mr. Burrows as sophomores, where we started with the Sumerians. We lucky few memorized many, many facts — ask any former student of Mr. Burrows when Menes united the Upper and Lower Kingdoms of Egypt and we will automatically spit out: “3400 B.C.” We learned big chunks of the Iliad and the Canterbury Tales by heart, and wrote many, many papers: on the Fertile Crescent, the birth of democracy in Greece, the fall of Rome. In his deep plummy voice, Mr. Burrows acted out his favorite scenes from history, which in his mind ended in 1900.
As juniors we spent two hours each day with Mr. Burrows, as he insisted that American history and American literature must be taught together. Nancy Erman and I sat with three other girls, surrounded by boys, as it seemed to be an ironclad rule that the ratio of smart boys to girls was 5:1. Michael Vlasdic and Needle sat together at the back of the class; in front of them the quartet of smart jocks sprawled loose-limbed at their desks, in all their nonchalant square-jawed handsomeness; awkward nerds in checked shirts and too-short pants made up the rest of the class.
Along with hours of reading a night, thrice weekly papers, and monthly quizzes leading up to a two day final, Mr. Burrows demanded that we retype the works of American authors from Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” to Emily Dickinson’s poems (“I heard a fly buzz when I died,” “There is no frigate like a book,” “A bird came down the walk” — all nice and short), ending with Mark Twain and a chapter from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Mr. Burrows believed that retyping all this deathless prose would help us grasp each writer’s style and salient points. By the end of the year, I had an eight-inch pile of paper, American Literature’s Great Hits, interspersed with my essays, all marked with that red A. I took all those typed pages to a print shop where they were bound in fake leather into a pair of two hundred-page books, my name gilded along the spine.
I adored Mr. Burrows even though he was the squarest of the square, the epitome of the conservative old fogey. A devout Christian, he even sang in the Congregationalist church choir, probably the only basso in the bunch. He was untouched by time. The tumultuous arrival of the ‘60s in Duluth did not faze him a bit. He had thirty years of teaching behind him, and behind that, three thousand years of history, which had taught him that this, too, shall pass. He ignored the “Make Love not War” and peace sign buttons Needle, Michael, and I wore, and the five girls wearing minis that barely covered their asses did not perturb him the least. (A decade later, I realized that Mr. Burrows had been the world’s most closeted homosexual.) What offended him was ignorance, stupidity, and ugliness, which was pretty much the entire twentieth century.
When as seniors we finally moved into Modern History, as required by the Duluth School Board, Mr. Burrows’ lectures became less spellbinding; unlike the Crusades or the American Revolution, the horrors of World Wars I and II were still too close to be romanticized. It may have been that Mr. Burrows didn’t care for the subject, or it may have been a brilliant teaching tactic: he actually passed a lot of the instruction over to us. Each student took turns researching a topic in current or recent affairs and presenting to the class. Youth in revolt, I chose the most leftist subjects I could find: the Cuban revolution, the rise of Ho Chi Minh, the election of Salvador Allende. While I spouted my idiotic admiration for these Reds, Mr. Burrows, the most hidebound of Tories, silently sat and stroked his ponderous lower lip.
Mr. Burrows was also the editor of The Open Mind, our high school’s “literary” magazine, filled with the pretentious and god-awful poetry and prose of disaffected, snotty teenagers like me. Supposedly all students at East could submit their work; in reality we never published anything by anyone who was not one of the elites in Mr. Burrows’ class.
The staff of The Open Mind met over tea and cookies at Mr. Burrows’ home, a two-story brick nearly as big as my family’s, which he had inherited from his parents (those were the days). His huge, old-fashioned living room, with scratchy horsehair furniture and ottomans, was clean and neat as a pin except for the books. The walls were lined with floor to ceiling bookcases, yet stacks of books covered every flat surface. We had to remove books from chairs before sitting, and re-pile books on other tables or the floor to make room for Mr. Burrows’ sterling silver tea service. We would pass around the pages that had been submitted that week to The Open Mind drop-box outside Mr. Burrow’s room and pass judgment. The bravest of us read their poems aloud, which we listeners inwardly despised and outwardly praised. Mr. Burrows used these meetings as an opportunity to further mold our impressionable young minds by playing his favorite opera records.
The Metropolitan Opera had long since crossed hick Duluth off its touring company’s itinerary, so once a year Mr. Burrows organized bus trips to Minneapolis to expose his lemming-like pupils to high culture. On Saturday, the Met performed two different operas. We made the three-hour road trip to Minneapolis, arriving at the immense Northrop Auditorium on the U of M campus in time for the matinee. As soon as the curtain rang down, Michael and I dashed over to the wonders of the Electric Fetus record store and head shop. Hookahs and chillums! Lava lamps! Books by Aldous Huxley and Carlos Castaneda! Black light posters! Michael bought strawberry flavored rolling papers and we went to eat.
Between operas I finally achieved my dream date of dinner at a real restaurant, sitting across from Michael at a white clothed table, wearing a pretty, opera-appropriate dress, even if I did have to pick up the tab for both of us. It was a quick date; we had less than an hour to enjoy our meal at Murray’s The Home of the Silver Butter Knife Steak before running back to Northrup for the evening performance. After the tragic death of Tosca or Mimi or Carmen we piled back in the bus and fell sound asleep, waking at three in the morning in the parking lot of East High, groggy and stiff from spending six hours in a bus seat and a day and night at the opera.
“Dad came home from dinner and put one sock in the toilet. He put his shoes in the oven and the other sock on the sofa. And now he’s putting his pajama tops around his legs,” my mother whispered in one of our nightly phone conversations. The previous week she told me that my father took all the pictures off the walls. The week before that he would not stop pacing around their apartment.
“His Alzheimer’s is scary and makes me feel like I am living with a stranger,” she said after the here’s-the-bizarre-thing-dad-did-today portion of our call.
“His disease has made him a stranger,” I said, holding back tears and wondering if my dad feels like he is the one living with a stranger.
The dad of my childhood was stern, unemotional and distant. When I was thirteen and on the Bar and Bat Mitzvah circuit, I watched from the sidelines as fathers and daughters were invited to the dance floor. While my girlfriends and their dads, all watery eyes and smiles, waltzed to a recording of “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof, I sat next to mine waiting and hoping that he would ask me to dance, but he never did. We rarely interacted. Instead, my father, who worked hard and took his roles of provider and disciplinarian very seriously, preferred to communicate with my three brothers and me through our stay-at-home mom, unless it was to reprimand us for bad behavior or sub-par grades.
After my first marriage failed and I realized that I married someone as emotionally distant as my father, I worked to understand his childhood and any parallels we shared. I learned that my grandfather was also a hard worker, and was just as reticent and uninvolved in my father’s childhood as my father was in mine.
I wanted to alter the pattern I had with my dad, for me and for the two of us, so I made an effort to build a different kind of relationship with him. Instead of letting him automatically pass me over to my mother whenever I called, I engaged him in conversations about my job, my current boyfriend, or how to fix little things around the house. I told him when I struggled at work or suffered from a broken heart, and he consoled me. We grew closer as the dad of my adulthood became softer, more relaxed, and even affectionate.
We were saying goodbye at the end of one of our weekly phone calls when my dad caught me by surprise and said “I love you” to me for the first time. I do not recall exactly when that was, but he said it every time after that until Alzheimer’s stole the words from him, and consequently, me.
His disease snuck up on me. Almost six years ago, while visiting my parents in Florida for their annual Super Bowl party, my mom and I were out grocery shopping when she said to me, “I think there is something wrong with dad.”
“What do you mean,” I asked. My parents, both in their early seventies, were healthy and hale. They were still working and enjoying active lifestyles.
“He couldn’t put together a little cabinet we bought for the microwave and you know how handy he is. He tried over and over again before he finally asked our neighbor to help. And, he’s forgetful. He sometimes asks me the same question I just answered. I’m worried he’s getting Alzheimer’s, just like his mother.”
“Mom, we all forget stuff sometimes,” I said, dismissing her concerns. I did not want to believe that I was losing the father I just found.
The following day, I was in their kitchen making a cup of tea when my dad came to me with his cell phone and asked me how to turn it on. It is an older model flip phone that he has owned for years. I pointed to the button with the green plus sign. “This button turns it on,” I said, trying to sound as casual as possible. Inside, my mother’s voice from the day before was an echo of doom. My dad smiled and thanked me, then went back into the den and sat down in his TV chair. Five minutes later he found me again and we had the exact same interchange. He thanked me again and this time I hugged him and held him tight, wishing I could hold onto him forever and realizing for the first time that I could not.
Not long after that my parents went to a doctor who gave them the deadly diagnosis. My father asked my mother to not tell anyone, including my brothers and me, but she confided in us anyway and asked us not to let on that we knew. Maybe my dad was embarrassed or ashamed, holdover emotions from his childhood when older generations whispered about sickness, as though talking about it would alienate them from their friends and the rest of society.
Conversations with my father got shorter and shorter as he started to withdraw. I felt like he was pushing me away. Sometimes people do that when they feel unworthy of being loved. I will come to regret that I never told my dad that I knew, that I would love him through this disease until the day he dies and beyond, but I was too afraid of humiliating him and exposing my mother’s breach of his privacy to say anything.
Last year, my parents moved up to Northern Virginia to be near my brothers and me, but eventually, my dad’s disease progressed past my mother’s ability to care for him at home. In addition to making him confused, Alzheimer’s caused him to be belligerent, mean, and a flight risk.
The day before we moved my dad into a facility that specializes in caring for people with dementia, we took over his TV chair and hung a handful of family photographs on the beige walls of the sparsely furnished room where he will live for the rest of his life. Maybe the pictures will help him remember us for just a little longer.
To get him to the assisted-living home, my mother, brothers, and I, after a great deal of discussion and negotiation amongst ourselves, lied to him by telling him he had a doctor’s appointment. The nurse manager calls this “lying with love,” a common practice for dealing with people with Alzheimer’s. It felt more like betrayal. After we led my dad into the building on a crisp and bright blue sky October day, we were escorted through two sets of locked doors. The staff quietly coached us to walk away without saying goodbye and asked us to not visit for at least two weeks so my father could get acclimated to his new environment without being tempted to leave. They told us that his disease will allow him to adapt as though he has always lived there and that he will not remember that we banished him from his home, his wife of almost sixty years, and his faithful dog.
The nurse manager called every evening with a report. “Your dad’s integration was a little bumpy,” she said at the beginning of the second week. “He looked for the exit and asked about going home at first, but things are getting much better. He should be ready for visitors soon.”
I try to imagine what my dad must feel like and wonder if he is just as upset about his situation as I am. Maybe I should start to mourn him — the distant father of my youth and the loving father of my adult years — even though he is still living, because I feel an unrecoverable loss, an emptiness created by his wrenching displacement. The nurse manager, who hears me cry during our conversations, reassures me that my dad is adjusting. She tells me to try to see my dad’s world through his eyes, not mine. “Not only would that make the situation easier to understand and accept,” she says, “but it will make your upcoming visits more enjoyable for the both of you.” I am grateful for her advice and soon learn that she is right.
“There you are,” my dad says every time I visit, as though he has been looking for me since the last time I wandered away without saying goodbye. I always find him in one of the wide hallways on his secure floor. Sometimes he is trying to remove pictures from the walls or dragging a chair behind him from the dining room to some location that he feels would be more appropriate. He is nicknamed “the redecorator” by the friendly staff that is not fazed by the same behaviors that seemed so dangerous and disruptive at home. My dad hugs or high-fives every nurse and aide we pass as though they are his new best friends, which I suppose they are.
On one of my recent visits I found my dad, now calm and content, patrolling the halls. As always, he greeted me with a big hug and kiss and we held hands as I walked with him. This has become our new way of enjoying each other’s company, and even though we rarely talk, I feel closer to him than ever before. Eventually, we arrived at one of the common rooms where a piano player was entertaining the residents with songs from the forties and fifties. Nursing assistants were coaxing people to dance, but I remembered all those Bar and Bat Mitzvahs from years ago and was afraid to ask my dad. As the piano player started to sing “Young at Heart,” my dad stopped and turned toward the music. While still holding my hand, he snaked us through the crowd and right there, in the middle of everyone, he put his arms around me and smiled a broad, breathless smile that I had not seen since Alzheimer’s invaded our lives. In that instant I became a thirteen-year-old girl again, but this time, my dad pulled me close and led me around the dance floor while I wished the music would never end.
In 1930s, humorist J.P. McEvoy wrote the Post column “Father Meets Son” presented to readers in the form of letters filled with advice for navigating life’s rocky road. Employing a mix of wry humor and tough love, Dad doled out life lessons on everything from work to women. Readers loved it.
Dad actually agrees with his son for once: Society has changed. However, some things never vary, like how Dad is powerless against his wife and daughter.
Father Meets Son: Times Changing
By J.P. McEvoy
Originally published on November 14, 1936
Dear Son: Well, I am rather pleased with you this morning. Your letter came, and it fairly sizzled through the envelope. I am mighty glad that finally you got up enough nerve to answer me back. These loquacious fathers get to be something of a pest, and a little mauling from the cubs is good for them.
Allow me, then, to agree with practically everything you say. Things are different now than they were twenty years ago, when I was such a bear cat — to hear me tell it. They were also different twenty years before that — and another twenty, and so on. I vaguely recall that Benjamin Franklin once walked the streets of Philadelphia looking for a job, and there wasn’t a single opening for a crooner, an auto mechanic, a typist, a soda jerker, or even a mother’s helper. It seems that mothers helped themselves in those days or raised their own helpers. And yet there were many more opportunities in Philadelphia in Franklin’s day than there were in 1492, or 1206, or even 500 B.C.
Someday you may get a letter from a young man telling you what a cinch you had in your day and how tough it is for him. “Things were different back there in 1936, dad,” he will say, and you’ll be kind of floored, because you won’t be able to deny it, but you will probably lash out at him and tell him to get busy and go to work at anything he can find—that’s what you did — and keep on working at it — that’s what you’re doing — and stop squawking — which, come to think of it, is good advice.
I’ll grant you there are more people looking for jobs than there are jobs available, but has it ever occurred to you that new jobs are being invented all the time by bright young men and women who realize the hopelessness of looking for jobs, many of which have disappeared forever? The blacksmith’s son is an auto mechanic. If his son discovers there are too many auto mechanics, he should realize that television is around the corner and start doing something about it. If there is one thing that is typically American, it is the desire for change. The paint is hardly dry on a building before we tear it down and put up a bigger one. Most of the time we don’t even stop to raise the mortgage on the first one — we just slip the other one under it. While the workmen are finishing a two-lane road, another gang is at the other end, tearing it up to make a four-lane one. In your own short lifetime you have lived through a complete revolution in transportation, communication, industrial and rural development, city planning, public welfare, medical science, mass entertainment and politics. Perhaps the last two are interchangeable, but there are many others.
Your complaint that you are in a blind alley interests me. You tell me your friends say you are foolish to be working in a filling station, when you were trained to be a lawyer. Their conclusion being, I take it, that a job in oil can never lead to law. The fact is that any kind of job can lead you into a law office these days. Someday as a lawyer you may be glad you know something about oil. It would be the same if you went to work in a real-estate office. In a bank. In a sardine fishery. There is maritime law too. Life is not a collection of air-tight compartments. All the rooms lead into one another, from the attic to the basement. And the whole place is run on the American Plan, which means you have the run of the house.
Start at anything and, while you are learning all about that, be preparing for something else. If the old opportunities are scarce, discover new ones. If you can’t discover any, invent them. Don’t be satisfied to read about the old pioneers. Be a new one. They were hardy; so can you be. They were fearless. And the principal thing they were not afraid of was work, hard work. They could take it. They could give it. So they got it.
Your last sentence, however, was the one which I am sure you felt would finish the old man. “That was all very noble advice on how to handle women,” says you, “and I hope you will pardon me if I wonder why you don’t practice a little of it on our Dorothy. It seems I get all the lectures and she gets all the gravy. Yes, little sister does all right. Three manicures a week, and now she has a new car. It would be just like her to drive up one of these days and give me a lecture on industry while I wipe her windshield.”
Well, you got me there, pal. But you can’t say I haven’t tried to handle your sister. The spirit is willing, but weary. Like most American men, I am the victim of a cunning conspiracy. From babyhood I have been passed on from one feminine hand to the other — all gentle, to be sure, but each a hand of iron in a velvet glove. Mother passed me to teacher, who cowed me so that my first sweetheart had no trouble at all. From her I was batted like a volleyball from one little tyrant to another, until your mother stepped in and took all rights, titles and interests in and to what was left of me. Nominally, I was the party of the second part, but I lost even that favored position when your sister was born. I think she was about five when she took me over from her mother, and she has been taking me over ever since. I am now waiting with complete resignation for the day when what is left of me will be tossed into the nursery for my first granddaughter to play with.
Next: Being Fired
In the 1930s, humorist J.P. McEvoy wrote the Post column “Father Meets Son” presented to readers in the form of letters filled with advice for navigating life’s rocky road. Employing a mix of wry humor and tough love, Dad doled out life lessons on everything from work to women. Readers loved it.
Originally published on June 27, 1936
McEvoy starts his series at the beginning of his son’s adult life: college graduation. As his son enters the real world, Dad doesn’t so much let him fly free as kick him out of the nest.
Originally published on September 5, 1936
Dad hopes to inspire his son to view his lowly new job as a life lesson in human nature that will teach him the most effective ways to undermine his superiors.
Originally published on October 3, 1936
Dad continues to encourage his son to find the best in his humble job by expounding on the wisdom of Grover Cleveland, how to weed out good advice from malarkey, and why boring people are more interesting than his so-called friends.
Originally published on October 31, 1936
When his son raves about a girl, Dad attempts to explain true love to him, saying it’s like seeing 10-foot-tall daisies, or, even better, like stepping in front of a truck.
Originally published on November 14, 1936
Dad actually agrees with his son for once: Society has changed. However, some things never vary, like how Dad is powerless against his wife and daughter.
Originally published on December 26, 1936
Dad remains unmoved by his son’s firing. It’s the war not the battle that counts most, he says, especially if you make a habit of shooting yourself in the foot.
Originally published on January 30, 1937
Watching his son grow in his new job as a chauffeur, Dad gives his sage advice on how to study and deal with man’s most important problem: woman.
Originally published on February 13, 1937
Now that his son has some money coming in, Dad offers his financial advice: Ignore the recommendations of bankers, the government, and businessmen to save your money. Spend it instead. Spending wisely is more difficult than saving wisely, but its rewards are much greater.
Originally published on March 20, 1937
The Other Fellow is terrible and crazy, Dad writes after his son is in a car accident. But so are you.
Originally published on May 1, 1937
When his son is in the romantic deep end after becoming the focus of the boss’s daughter, Dad offers little help on how to hold off the girl and hold on to the job.
Originally published on June 5, 1937
The son’s relationship with the boss’s daughter is getting serious! Dad encourages his son to talk to the boss about turning him into a father-in-law, but to find the emergency exit first.
Originally published on June 26, 1937
While his son suffers under the terrible taskmaster that is his new supervisor, Dad reveals the two words that can win almost any argument with one’s boss.
Professionalism and Appearances
Originally published on July 17, 1937
Dad’s “far-flung network of inscrutable spies” has reported that his son is, in short, a lazy slob, so Dad feels obligated to explain how to be a civilized adult.
The Difficulty of Marriage
Originally published on August 21, 1937
Dad wonders if his son will fall on his face when he is married, but decides that marriage is really just another kind of job — the skills he has gained from one can transfer to the other.
Originally published on October 30, 1937
Popularity is poisonous, Dad says, encouraging his son not to place too much worth in the admiration of people his own age. Instead, focus on earning the attention and approval of older men and women — especially older women.
The letter that would change my father’s life — and eventually lead to his recent induction into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame — arrived in 1964, at his high school in Nara, Japan. Addressed to Yoshi Hayasaki, it was from an American.
My father, 17 at the time, could not make out a single sentence typed by Eric Hughes, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. He asked a campus English teacher to translate. “It sounds like he is trying to invite you to come to America,” the teacher told my father.
Hughes, as it turned out, had started a men’s gymnastics team at the University of Washington in 1956, a time when the sport in the U.S. lagged behind Japan and the Soviet Union. While on sabbatical in Japan 1964, Hughes scouted for talent. That was when he first spotted my dad, a 5-foot-3 city and regional champion, ranked as one of the top five gymnasts in Japan.
The letter stated that if my dad earned admittance to the University of Washington, he would be guaranteed a scholarship to the school, and could compete on its team. All my father really knew of America at the time came from watching translated episodes of Rawhide. Coaches and teammates could not understand why my dad would even consider competing in another country — in the U.S. of all places — when Japan was already the gymnastics superpower. Everybody was against the idea, including his father.
Still, the thought of America electrified my dad. He had been offered scholarships to Japanese universities, and saw that many former champions became physical education teachers, while others became foot soldiers for corporations. “I saw my future,” he told me. “It was like a blueprint.”
There is a Japanese proverb: “The nail that sticks out will be hammered down.” It is a saying I’ve thought about throughout my own life, as someone who feels like I’ve at times stuck out, even in America. Here, however, it is possible to find your own way, and embrace the road less taken. Back then, in Japan, my dad could practically see the hammer’s face.
For him, America was uncharted territory that seemed to offer an escape, or at least an adventure. Grudgingly, my grandfather assented, telling Dad: “Do not come back until you have accomplished something.”
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If there were a 12-step program for my particular problem, I’d introduce myself this way: “Hi, my name is Cheryl, and I’m a recovering nature-phobe. It has been 38 years since my last traumatic hiking experience.”
I was 8 years old at the time, and finally deemed mature enough to join my father, his buddy Bert, and my older sister Michele on their annual backpacking trip along the Tuolumne River. As I trudged down the foot-wide trail through a forested canyon, my dad walking ahead of me, my sister and Bert behind, I was puffed up with pride and full of questions like How long is this trail? When can I eat my snack? When do I get to sit down? When are we gonna get there?
Each question received a one-word, grunting response from Dad, which confused me until my sister hissed, “Shut up,” through gritted teeth, indicating that my chattering was a major breach of some unspoken backpacking etiquette.
So I shut up. Until I heard an unusual sound, coming from a trailside bush that my dad had just walked past. Something like a rattling sound. I stopped beside the bush and said, to my dad’s back, “What’s that sound?”
My half-deaf father turned his good ear toward me and asked, “What sound?”
I pointed to the bush, “That sound.”
I don’t remember anyone actually saying the word rattlesnake. All I remember is my dad launching into this series of slow-motion ninja moves. He swept his left arm around and placed his palm on my chest, easing me away from the bush, while his right hand reached for the holster on his hip.
Oh yeah, the holster. The gun. The fact that my dad was packing heat didn’t faze me. He carried a firearm on every family car camping trip, every daytime fishing excursion, every family vacation in a condo at Lake Tahoe. Why? Because you never know. That’s why.
So I was used to guns, but I had never actually watched my dad shoot one. When I saw him reaching for the holster, his eyes laser-beam focused on the unnamed threat coiled in that bush, my 8-year-old brain said, Something very dangerous is happening.
And I responded like any seasoned hiker would. I screamed, burst into tears, turned tail, and sprinted back up the trail toward the Pinto station wagon we had left parked on the remote dirt road up there. That is, I intended to sprint, but a fist gripped my backpack holding me in place, and my sister, to whom it belonged, hissed in my ear, “Stay here,” with such authority that I stayed.
Hands pressed to my face, I watched through splayed fingers as my dad aimed the pistol toward the bush, his face transforming into an expression that could only mean I’m gonna get you sucka, and shot two canon-loud blasts into a snake I never did see.
Then, pulling a page from the trauma manual entitled If You Pretend Nothing Happened No One Will Be Scared, my dad turned toward me — my tear-streaked face, my trembling body — and said, “What’s the problem?” He shrugged and continued walking toward camp.
Now I realize that my response to this situation was probably personality-specific. Some kids would be all “Dude! My dad’s a freakin’ hero!” I, on the other hand, thought this: “Oh my god, nature is trying to kill me.”
Enter nature-phobia. I spent the rest of the backpacking trip terrified. Every stick on the ground was a snake. Every leaf that fell from a tree was a poisonous insect flying at me. Every rustle in the bushes was a rabid badger thirsty for my blood.
That weekend I learned that nature was a dangerous threat. But I learned something else, too. At night, lying in my sleeping bag, looking up at the sky, I learned that out beyond the light pollution of the city I could see more stars than I ever knew existed. And they seemed closer somehow, like I could reach out and touch one. Seeing that made me feel both expansively large and very, very small. Under that glittering canopy, I listened to Bert, somewhere in the dark of our camp, playing his harmonica, songs I’d never heard before, their slow notes rising to the heavens, until I fell asleep.
I had no word to attach to that feeling back then, but now I do: reverence. I grew hungry for it.
And therein lies the problem: I loved nature as much as I feared it.
This conflict has played itself out in many ways throughout my life. But it really came to a head in college, when I was hanging out with a group of friends who loved to go hiking. I wanted to love to go hiking — wanted the reverence, finally, to eclipse the fear — so I tagged along.
Those hikes would start out peacefully enough. I’d have my backpack looped onto my shoulders, my snacks, my water bottle, my birding book, my binoculars — ready to love the great outdoors. I’d be chattering in my head about the crisp beauty of the fresh morning air, the hyper-blue sky, the birdsong emanating from the canopy of trees, and then WHAM! Something would startle me.
“What was that?!” I’d gasp.
“A squirrel?” my friends would say.
Oh, yeah, squirrel, I’d think. Then I’d start chanting: just a squirrel, just a squirrel, just a squirrel, my heart pounding like shoes in a dryer. I’d take a few deep breaths, start to calm down and then WHAM! Something would skitter across the trail and I’d be all, “What was that?!”
“A lizard?” my friends would say.
“Oh, yeah, okay,” I’d nod. And the whole process would start all over again.
After several near misses with squirrels and lizards and butterflies and mourning doves, a half-mile into the trail, my adrenaline would be pumping so hard that my eyeballs would be pounding to the rhythm of my heartbeat, and I’d know there would be no calming myself down. So rather than twitching my way along the trail like a junky in withdrawal, I’d abort the hiking mission, choose the most patient friend in the group, and ask him or her to walk me back to the parking lot, where I would eat my bagel and sip my water in the relative peace of my Mercury Lynx.
Ugh. The frustration. So badly, I wanted to revel in my love of nature without the knee-buckling fear. So I started reflecting on the origins of said fear. One day, while hiking up near Bolinas (the town where Alfred Hitchcock filmed — ahem — The Birds?), I shared some of my thoughts with a friend, “You know what’s weird?” I asked.
“No, what?” he responded.
“When we go hiking, we don’t carry a gun,” I said.
“You know what’s weird?” he countered.
“What?” I asked.
“Your dad does.”
Revelation No. 1: Apparently, most people don’t carry guns while hiking well-marked trails in state parks. Huh. So, as logic might follow, maybe what we were doing wasn’t actually all that dangerous?
I decided to press the issue, asking, “But what would we do if we saw a rattlesnake?”
“We’d turn around and walk the other way?” my companion suggested.
Revelation No. 2: You don’t need to go storming through nature, guns a blazin’; you could just, you know, respect it.
Okay. Now I was getting somewhere.
High on my two revelations and eager to put them into play, one day I decided to try a solo hike. This wasn’t a well-thought-out plan; it was more of an impulsive, Hey, there’s a trailhead, and I have 20 minutes free sort of a thing. So yes, I was wearing flip-flops and a sundress, and I had no water or snacks, but I figured all the better. Maybe hiking didn’t need to be a big expedition? Maybe it could just be like a peaceful walk around the neighborhood?
Up the trail I went.
To my surprise, I was feeling pretty darned comfortable, enjoying the early summer breeze, hiking amongst the mountain bikers, runners, and lunch-hour walkers on this truck-wide fire trail. So comfortable, in fact, that when I noticed a shed snakeskin alongside the trail, I challenged myself to stop and take a look at it. Then, just to prove to myself how very brave I could be, I decided to crouch down for a closer look. And just as I was mustering up the courage to reach out and touch the scaly thing, out of a hole about two feet away from my left flip-flop came the skin’s former occupant.
Holy mother of …
My sister would be proud to know that this time I did not actually scream or burst into tears. I did, however, turn tail and sprint down that hill as fast as my feet could take me, kicking up more dust than a Ford F-150.
But then something interesting happened. In my state of panic, I felt myself astrally project upward, and suddenly I could see myself, this crazy young woman with wild red hair, flying down a hill in her sundress and flip-flops, and I thought, I look ridiculous.
I stopped in my tracks and realized what I was doing: I was sprinting like my hair was on fire, because I actually thought the snake was chasing me. Chasing me. Like I was what, a Looney Tunes character? Snakes don’t chase people.
Enter Revelation No. 3: Most of what I feared would happen in nature doesn’t actually happen. Squirrels don’t go for your jugular. Turkey vultures eat you only if you’re already dead. And bats don’t actually want to get tangled in your hair. That’s when I realized what I needed to combat my nature-phobia was not a Colt .45, but more information.
So I did a little research, learning things like “venomous snakes have diamond-shaped heads,” and “if you see a mountain lion, don’t turn and run,” and “if you get bitten by a black widow you have plenty of time to get to the emergency room before your leg shrivels up and falls off.” Slowly, over time, I became aware of nature’s actual dangers and released the unnecessary fears.
Like all recovery processes, the work has been challenging and often maddeningly slow, but the payoff has been gorgeous. I have hiked in bamboo forests; I have watched seals teach their pups how to swim; I have sat quietly, completely alone, on the tip of Tomales Point, listening to elk whistle into the wind. Each of these gifts has felt hard-earned and therefore so incredibly sweet.
In the past two decades, nature has become my church. To quote Paul (McCartney) and John (Lennon), “when I find myself in times of trouble,” all I need to do is head for the nearest hill, and by the time I’ve climbed to the top, I have received whatever wisdom I need. Whether it’s a metaphor like a wildflower growing out of a rock or an inner truth revealed when the physical activity of hiking pulls me down out of my endlessly whirring thoughts into the quiet home of my body, the message I need to hear finds me, every time, without fail.
I fully admit that I am still a bit of a nature-phobe. For example, when my friends announced their plans to hike across South America, my first question was “Isn’t that, like, the home of the world’s largest rodent?” When they confirmed my suspicions, I scratched “Hiking Across South America” right off my bucket list. So yeah, my name is Cheryl, and I’m still a nature-phobe, but I’m recovering. And that’s what matters the most.
Enter the prosperous 1950s, when Dad was king of his suburban castle. The nuclear family had followed the new interstate system right out of the city and settled into small communities of manicured lawns, picture windows, and Sunday barbecues. And Dad outside the city limits proved to be a perfect character for the situational comedies portrayed on Post covers. Join us in a fun look at ’50s dads (or should we say daddy-os?). They just may remind you of someone you love.
Pop vs. Pup
Sending out smoke signals has made this dad popular with more than just his family. Artist Ben Prins got the idea for the cover while outside feeding his children’s three cats. Post editors wrote that dogs would “drop around to pass the time of day” during chow time at the Prins residence.
“This is my favorite Post cover for Father’s Day,” emailed reader Bob McGowan of California. “It’s best known as Sunday Morning, but I’ve nicknamed it ‘Bad Dad,’ as he knows he should be dressed in his Sunday best, also headed out the door to church with Mom and the youngsters.” [See how to get your favorite covers featured below.]
Rockwell’s obsession with detail shows in this 1959 cover. He went to several furniture stores until he found just the right chair for this “bad dad” to slink in. And, if you click on the image for a close-up view, you’ll see a more mischievous detail: The artist arranged “horns” into the sinner’s disheveled hair.
Is there no sacrifice too great for Dad? The problem with proving that the medicine is not so repulsive is that Pop is a lousy actor. Even without the giveaway expression, editors noted, “Junior wouldn’t have fallen for the treachery. Every youngster learns at the dinner table to mistrust what his parents say tastes fine until he finds out for himself.” Artist George Hughes, who did 115 Post covers, knew all about parental scams: He had five daughters.
Gone Daddy Gone
“It is heartwarming,” wrote Post editors of this Hughes cover, “to see how this boy trusts his father to halt that vehicle before both teacher and pupil land on their ears. It is heart-chilling to see how the father doesn’t.”
Father Knows Best?
“Old folks are so fussy about noises at night,” wrote Post editors of this 1955 cover. “They hear a burglar, and they grope downstairs, and there is none, or they hear a pillow fight, and grope upstairs, and there is none. If [artist] Thornton Utz’s father doesn’t stop fussing around, he’ll wake those boys up.” Right. This dad isn’t buying it; the readers aren’t buying it; and, admit it, neither did your dad.
Do you have a favorite Post cover? Tell us about it and we’ll feature it with your comments in an upcoming cover art piece! If you don’t know the date or artist, just give us a brief description. Send to [email protected].
The staff of the Post is pleased to announce the winner of the Jul/Aug Limerick Laughs Contest, Karen Davis of Camden, Arkansas! For her poem describing the picture to the left, Karen wins a cash prize—and our gratitude for a job well done. If you’d like to enter the Limerick Laughs Contest for our Nov/Dec issue, you can submit your limerick via the entry form here. Now, without further ado, here is Karen’s masterpiece:
While Big Mike was getting a tan
His son got the watering can.
He tipped it and poured it.
Dad snuffled and snorted.
Mom laughed while the little boy ran.
Of course, Karen’s limerick wasn’t the only one we liked! Here are some of our favorite runners-up, in no particular order:
I’m sure that mom carefully chooses
The playthings her little son uses.
But here there’s no doubt
Dad soon will find out
That he who snoozes, loses.
—Eleanor Stratton, Dubln, Ohio
In Mom’s garden the weeds will be gone,
But she said I could water the lawn.
I’ll just give Dad a spray
’Cause it’s hot anyway,
But he may soon utter more than a yawn!
—Virginia R. Wilson, Port Orange, Florida
He had planned a long bask in the sun,
But his boy thought he’d rather have fun.
Though his dad was asleep,
That cold splash made him leap,
And his nap in the sun was all done.
—Mary C. Ryan, Bradford, Pennsylvania
It is clear that the man who lies sunning
Has a son who is bored but quite cunning.
With his face-soaking deed
(And himself in the lead)
He is bound to get Dad up and running!
—Belva D. Sheaf, Pittsford, New York
The family summer vacation
Was spent in backyard recreation.
While Mom planted flowers
Dear Junior sprayed showers
And Dad woke with a “What in tarnation…?!”
—Roberta Nottingham, Greenville, South Carolina
It was such a very small chore
That turned out to be a big bore.
So instead of the flowers
He directed the showers
To where there was more fun in store.
—Edward R. Harvey, The Villages, Florida
When Mom plants and waters her flowers
It seems to have magical powers.
So I’ll try it on Dad,
And I know he’ll be glad,
After all, he’s been sleeping for hours.
—Dorothy Braisted, Staten Island, New York
Dad’s chores for the day were all done.
He chose a short snooze in the sun.
While Mom potted flowers
With no thoughts of showers
Dad’s snooze was rained out by his son!
—Burton Longenbach, Hingham, Massachusetts
From the look on kid’s face I surmise
Dad’s in for a real big surprise.
When hot under the collar
He’s liable to holler
Some words his son won’t recognize.
—Joan Verdeal, Adrvada, Colorado
In his 1960 article “My Dad’s Best Crop Was Music,” [PDF download] Lewis Nordyke told how his father, and his fiddle music, revived the flagging spirits of his hard-working family and neighbors.
When dad played his fiddle, the world became a bright and morning star. To him violin was an instrument of faith, hope and charity. Some of his neighbors deep in the heart of rural Texas at the turn of the century had been brought up to believe the fiddle was the devil’s music box.
But dad could tuck his old fiddle to his shoulder, wave his bow almost magically and then bring it down lovingly across the strings, and the agonies of plowing with diabolical mules, the catastrophe of burning drought, the mutilation of buffeting winds and pounding hailstones, the memories of all the ills that flesh is heir to—the harms and hurts of dirt farming—would disappear. It was as if dad in his old blue-billy overalls, but with his hair neatly combed and his hands as clean as homemade soap and well water could make them, had sat down square-dab on Pandora’s box and put the devil to shame.
Dad furnished music for school plays, picnics, Christmas programs and nearly every get-together at the schoolhouse. At home his fiddle never gathered dust. When the chores were done or when he needed to express his joy in life or play away the blues, down came the fiddle. And what dad could do for himself he could do for others. He applied the Golden Rule to music.
In the early years of the century, the boll weevil began devastating the cotton farm in the south. Like everyone else in his stretch of Texas, Charles Thaddeus Nordyke relied on cotton to keep the family farm solvent.
Everything on Nubbin Ridge—and on a majority of the small farms in Texas—was built around cotton as the money crop. A man could mortgage his first bale by the time the seeds that would produce it had sprouted and buy essential supplies at the store on fall credit. The weevil was changing this.
For years the bug had been creeping northward from Central America, devastating cotton in the Old South and in southern Texas. By the time it hit Nubbin Ridge the Government was estimating that the insect was causing an annual loss of $200,000,000 to cotton farmers in the South.
When the day came that Charley Nordyke found weevils in his cotton, he seemed to lose all hope.
Dad wandered around the yard as if lost. After a while he walked into the house and tuned his fiddle. He started playing sad pieces in tones that tore at the heart—Darling Nelly Gray, Carry Me Back to Old Virginny, Little Old Cabin in the Lane, When You and I Were Young, Maggie.
Gradually the music quickened. Listen to the Mockingbird sounded a bit cheerful. Then came Little Brown Jug with considerable zip, and the same for Boom-ta-ra. Dad finally ended with a rousing rendition of Turkey in the Straw. When he came out of the house he was whistling the tune…
At least a thousand times, [my mother] said, “Your papa would play his fiddle if the world was about to blow up.”
And once dad came about as close to that as could ever be possible. In May of 1910 the folks at Turkey Creek, and all over the nation, were in a space-age state of turmoil over Halley’s comet. It had been predicted for seventy-five years, and it had appeared on schedule. There were all sorts of frightening stories about the comet, the main one being that the world would pass through its tail, said to be millions of miles long, or else the wavering, fiery plume would switch, like the tail of a milk cow at a fly, and swat the world, sending it winding and everybody with it.
Between the threats of comet and weevils, the farmers were running low on optimism. One night, they gathered at the Nordyke farm to discuss what to do.
When the some thirty neighbors had found seats on the front porch and in the yard, Will Bowen suggested, “Charley, how about getting down your fiddle and bow and giving us a little music?”
“Aw, I don’t think anybody’d want to hear me saw the gourd tonight,” dad replied.
“Come on, Mr. Nordyke,” one of the younger women urged, “why don’t you play for us.”
Dad had a knack for getting people in the mood for his music. Knowing of the scattered prejudice against the fiddle, he eased into a song titled Gloryland. It was a church song with church tones, but it was fairly fast with some good runs. He shifted from Gloryland to The Bonnie Blue Flag, a Confederate war song, which created a big stir — foot stamping, hand clapping and a few Rebel yells.
Dad was ready for his next move — an old familiar heart song, Nelly Gray. He started the tune a bit mournfully and gradually brightened it. Then he shifted to trilling The Mockingbird and went from that to My Old Kentucky Home. Almost before anyone realized what was happening to the music, dad was “eating up” Turkey in the Straw, and every foot was lapping and every body was swaying.
Will Bowen, apparently having forgotten Halley’s comet, shouted, “How about giving us Sally Goodin?” Dad played the old breakdown with vigor. Several men jumped up and jigged around.
The next tune was a novelty number called The Wild Indian, a fast one which raced up to a break — just long enough for a sustained yell, something like “Hooooo-ho!” Dad gave the yells. Pretty soon nearly everyone was joining in. Children gathered around and gazed wide-eyed at the performance.
All our neighbors went home whistling or humming. Very few remembered to look toward the northwest to see whether the comet and its wicked tail were still around…
One evening Will Bowen called dad on the telephone and said, “Charley, I’m downhearted and blue. I was out in the cotton patch today. Got a few little squares showing up. Every time a square forms, there are four boll weevils waiting there to pucncture it with their snouts. Just wondered if you could play a tune or two for me?”
“’I sure could, Will,” Dad said. “Could you come over?”
“No. I mean play on the phone box.”
“The phone box?”
“Sure,” Mr. Bowen said. “I can hear you talk. Why couldn’t I hear the fiddle?”
“I hadn’t thought about that,” dad said, “but I can try anything at least once.”
Dad hurried to the mirror and combed his hair. He took the fiddle to the telephone and thumped the strings. Putting the receiver to his ear, he said, “Hear anything. Will?”
“Sure can,” Mr. Bowen said. “Just as plain as day. Now try a tune.”
“What would you like to hear?”
“Could you try Sally Goodin and play it just like you did the other night?” Dad handed the receiver to me. He stepped up to the mouthpiece on the wall box and cut loose on Sally Goodin. I could bear Mr. Bowen whistling and yelling.
By the time the tune was finished there were half a dozen neighbors on the line, and they talked about how wonderful the music sounded over the telephone. They made numerous requests; I relayed them to dad and he played the numbers.
The central girl at Cottonwood had a call for our line. She asked the caller if he’d like to hear music, and he was willing. Then she cranked a long ring on each of the party lines. That brought down nearly every receiver. With all the lines hooked up with our line, dad was playing for people as far as ten miles away. I don’t know whether this was the nation’s first broadcast of entertainment, but it was certainly one of the pioneers. Moreover, with all the lines linked, we had a network. And it lengthened.
Our party line broadcasts became regular features of community life. On rough-weather days of winter when farm folks were forced to remain in the house, someone would ring us and ask dad to play, and usually it developed into a network affair. At times, though, dad played over the telephone for an individual—someone who was ill or an old person who was shut in. Our phone kept ringing with requests for music until radio came in.
If you think Dad has been neglected, you haven’t looked at our great collection of Saturday Evening Post covers.
Soldier and Daughter by K.R. Wireman – December 14, 1918
#1 – The Grateful Dad:Dad was often a prominent feature, like this WWI soldier coming home to his daughter. It’s a rarely-seen remembrance of this era from a great artist little known today: K.R. Wireman.
Dad at Bat by Alan Foster – June 1, 1929
#2 – The Sportsman: This is one of those covers that resembles the style of Norman Rockwell, but it was by artist Alan Foster. Dad must have just come from the office, according to his clothing, but he’s game for the game. Good batter stance, Pop.
Tea for Grandpa by C. Gager Phillips – February 18, 1933
#3 – The Good Sport: If tea is served in a doll-sized teacup, then by golly, dad (or granddad) will do his best to drink it. If it’s the 1930s, you can bet the little girl will have a Shirley Temple-type hairstyle. This beautiful cover is from February 1933 and was by little-known artist C. Gager Phillips.
Report Card by Frances Tipton Hunter – March 25, 1939
#4 – The Intimidator: If your report card was not up to snuff, you would hear about it. It’s 1939 and somebody may be about to lose his radio privileges. Even the dog is concerned. We just hope the news in the evening paper isn’t that bad. Artist Frances Tipton Hunter did a number of Post covers featuring adorable children. For more of these, go to: http://www.curtispublishing.com/artists/Hunter.shtml
Bike Riding Lesson by George Hughes – June 12, 1954
#5 – The Teacher: Remember all the things Dad taught you. This 1954 cover shows a kid having a great time on his bike. But Pops seems a little panicky about the stopping part. Oh, just wait, Dad. In a few years you’ll be teaching him to drive a car.
Happy Father’s Day by Howard Scott – June 19, 1943
#6 – The Deserving Dad: And which dad isn’t deserving of special recognition? We think getting that cake into and out of the lunchbox in perfect condition displayed a bit of artistic license, but the sentiment is spot on. If you can’t read “Pop’s” button even after clicking for a close-up, it is his ID badge to show he works at Plant 46.
It was 1962. We lived in Ohio in a working class neighborhood. Dad was out of work—again. His most recent job as a fund-raiser for a democratic candidate ended after the man running for governor was defeated. The defeat was not a narrow one. And Dad’s unemployment checks were not enough to pay rent and put food on the table for a family of four.
Here sat the O’Malleys on a Sunday morning. My little sister, Annie, was sick with tonsillitis, Mom was mad at Dad—whose name was also Dan—for making inappropriate employment choices, and I was running late for a conscripted appearance in the Pope Pious X boys choir at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, as directed by the very eccentric Sister Marion.
“Dan, Danny’s going to be late for Mass and here you sit, all hung over and no job,” Mom said very sternly to Dad, who liked drinking. “At least you could have the decency to get out of that chair and take the boy to church. It wouldn’t hurt for you to go inside the church either.”
Dad looked at me with a painful squint in his eye, and said out of the corner of his mouth, “Son, why don’t you go to Mass yourself today?”
An eruption of Mount St. Hannah—Mom’s name—quickly occurred.
“Take the boy to church, and you go to Mass, too, and I want to know what the sermon was about—now go!” Mom screamed at the top of her lungs.
Dad never said a word, cross or otherwise, on the way to Mass. Usually, he stood in the back of the church and went outside when the priest gave his sermon. This time I saw him sitting halfway toward the front listening intently as Father Connelly implored the congregation to give more money.
The inviting aroma of Mrs. O’Malley’s usual Sunday dinner of roast beef and mashed potatoes greeted us upon arriving home from church.
“I said five rosaries while you two were gone. Annie’s temperature is down to 99, Dorothy (Mom’s sister) called, and Jack got a promotion, dinner’s almost ready, Danny, you go change your clothes, and Dan “Mr. I Want To Raise Money for the Governor,” you can help me set the table if it wouldn’t be too much trouble,” Mom said in her special way.
Sunday dinners were usually pleasant in our house. This one wasn’t. Between passing the peas, mashed potatoes, and serving delicious homemade apple pie, Mom verbally threw everything but the kitchen sink at Dad. His work habits, drinking habits, personal hygiene, and things I didn’t understand were tossed across the table. Dad, to his credit, kept his steely World War II veteran cool and casually defended himself. I just kept eating through the Hannah and Dan bickering show.
Dad had a special way of pushing Mom’s buttons. After dinner, when her 25-minute nonstop rapid-fire tirade came to an end, Dad said coolly, “That was one of the best conversations I’ve never had with you. Dinner wasn’t bad either.” He flipped his napkin on the plate and slowly walked out of the kitchen.
Since my little sister was sick in bed, I helped Mom with the dishes. She mumbled to herself the whole time. Even at the age of 9 I could tell her mental wheels were spinning rapidly.
Dad had his face buried in the Sunday paper as Mom regally entered the living room.
“Dan, you’re going to get a job, and you’re going to get one today,” she said officially.
Dad looked at her over the top of his paper as if he heard something, but wasn’t quite sure of what he heard.
“I’m calling the White House,” she announced.
Our family had a distant connection with the Kennedy administration. My grandmother was a grammar school classmate of President Kennedy’s mother Rose. My grandfather was the local ward boss during the Kennedy for Congress campaign. My father served in World War II with JFK’s family bodyguard, John J. “Mugsy” O’Leary. My mother, along with 150 other women in our neighborhood, had lunch one day with Jackie Kennedy. That’s what I knew about our family Kennedy relationship.
My dad dropped the paper on the floor.
“You’re what?” he said as if he wasn’t hearing properly.
Before he had a chance to utter another word, Mom was on the phone. This was back in the days before direct dial long distance.
“Operator, I’d like you to connect me to the White House in Washington D.C., please,” she said in the sweetest honey coated voice I had ever heard.
My dad had an “I really can’t believe you are doing this to me” look on his face as Mom sat there and smiled a Jack Nicholson “Shining” smile at him while the call was going through.
“Hello, White House? Hi, this is Hannah O’Malley calling from the O’Malley’s formerly of Clinton, Massachusetts, how are you? I’d like to see if Mugsy O’Leary is working today,” Mom said to the White House operator as if she’d known her for years.
Dad’s eyes were rolling back in his head. His face was flushed. He was embarrassed beyond belief. Men’s wives don’t usually call the White House to beg favors from old Army buddies or the President of the United States on a Sunday afternoon.
We all sat silent. Mom was on hold with the White House. Cool; I thought. The operator must have told Mom she was going to put her through to someone because she said a very sincere, “thank you, honey”.
“Hello? Well, hello, Mugsy. Yes, this is Hannah. How have you been? We’ve been reading about you. Oh Dan? Dan’s fine, except he’s temporarily out of work. He had applied for a Federal Marshal’s job, but it looks like someone else is going to get it. They told him Friday he was out of the running. They? I guess it was the head Federal Marshal. I don’t know. Here I’ll let Dan tell you all about it”.
Mom thrust the phone at Dad with an all-powerful glance of “don’t screw this up,” as she handed it to him.
“Mugsy!” Dad said with confidence in his embarrassment. “Mugs, we’re doing fine; just a little setback. Well of course I wanted the job, but it’s too late now. They’re going to announce the guy’s appointment tomorrow. Sure; I’ve got time.”
I sat in wonder watching my Dad talk to some guy named Mugsy who worked at the White House for President Kennedy who Mom called after Sunday dinner because she was mad because Dad hadn’t gotten a new job yet.
Dad suddenly looked as if he had been struck by lightning. He sat bolt upright in his chair.
“What?” he exclaimed “Yes, yes, hello to you, Mr. President.”
We all sat straight up. Now my mom looked as if she too had received an electric shock.
“Yes, Mr. President, my mother was Annie O’Malley. Yes, I’m John E’s son. Yes, Jack O’Malley of B.C.’s my older brother. Yes, I was in France and England with Mugsy.
“With all due respect, sir, don’t believe everything Mugsy says about me. Well, Mr. President, basically I applied for the Southern District Federal Marshal’s position and was informed that I’m no longer a candidate. Oh, yes sir, I certainly feel I was the best man for the job. Thank you very much, Mr. President. (pause) Mugsy! What’d you do that to me for? For gawd sakes; the President didn’t need to hear my troubles. Okay. Okay. Yeah. Okay. We’ll hold tight.
“Me too. Thanks.”
With a blank look, Dad got up, walked around Mom, and gently put the phone back on the hook.
We were all silent. Mom was the first to speak.
“Honey, what did they say?” she asked.
“You heard it, I was telling Mugsy about not getting the Marshal’s job. He happened to be in the same room as the president. Mugsy put me on hold and told Mr. Kennedy who I was and where I was from. Next thing I know I’m talking with the man. He remembered Mother going to school with his mom. He said my mom was a childhood friend of hers. He said he also remembered Daddy from his congressional campaign and knew brother Jack from following B.C. football. What a memory! He told me Mugsy often talks about me from our days overseas. Then he asked me what happened and if I thought I was the best man for the job. Then he said, “We think you’re the best man for the job, too.” Mugsy gets back on the phone and then tells me to sit tight and wait for a phone call. Hannah, if this thing comes through, oh baby,” Dad said out of breath.
I jumped up to run out and tell all the kids in the neighborhood that my dad just talked to President Kennedy. Mom had other ideas.
“We’re all going to sit here and pray until someone calls us back,” she said piously.
Dad picked up the paper and buried his face in it. Mom got out the rosary beads. We prayed while Dad read the sports pages.
Several hours later the phone rang. Mom answered it.
“Hello, this is the O’Malley residence. Yes, this is Mrs. O’Malley. Yes, Mr. O’Malley is right here. I’ll get him for you. It was nice talking with you, too,” she said.
Mom handed the phone with a smile on her face to my father. It was the head United States Federal Marshal.
“Oh, hello, Mr. Howard. Fine, sir. I’d be honored to have the position. Yes, sir. I’ll be in your office at 8:30 sharp. Thank you, sir,” Dad said in the most serious and professional manner.
The phone rang again several minutes later. It was Dad’s friend from the White House, Mugsy. He called to ask if Dad was offered the Marshals job and if he accepted it.
Dad enthusiastically told him he was offered the job. Mugsy told my Dad that the head Marshal had made a mistake and it was Dad who they wanted all along, per the United States Department of Justice. The President had called his brother Bobby at home, Bobby called the Justice Department, the Justice Department called the head of the United States Marshal Service, and the head of the Marshal Service called the Marshal in Ohio to inform him that he had the opportunity to do a favor to his country by appointing one Dan O’Malley to the position of United States Marshal, Southern District.
“Mugsy, how can I thank you for what you did for me?” Dad asked.
“You can’t. You can thank your wife. She’s the one who made the phone call,” he said.
The next day, my dad’s picture appeared on page two of the local paper with the small headline, “Local Man Chosen for U.S. Marshal.” The article went on to mention how Marshal Fred Howard was proud to have found such a champion of justice and war hero to fill the void in that tough territory known as Southern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania.
Marshal Howard was fortunate to have found exactly everything they were looking for in a candidate.
On Sunday, Dad’s broke with no job. On Monday, his picture is in the paper; he’s the new Marshal—all because Mom decided to call the White House. Behind every successful man is often a woman like my mother.
—“Both my parents passed away in 2005, just a few months shy of being wed 57 years,” says author Dan O’Malley, now a successful businessman. “This is my tribute to what would have been their 65th wedding anniversary.”
In the 1920s and ’30s, Hollywood changed from a sleepy suburb of Los Angeles to a world power. And in those days, there were giants: studio executives who wielded immense power over every aspect of movie production. People like Sam Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, the Warner Brothers, and the team of Chaplin-Pickford-Fairbanks churned out hundreds of movies that shaped the tastes of movie-goers around the world. They also created powerful corporations that perpetuated their names long after their deaths.
We’ve come a long way from those days. The great studios are now capital investments traded between corporations — sold, repackaged, and sold again. One exception remains, though. It is the empire — or, rather, the Magic Kingdom — of Disney. Family members, particularly the son of Walt Disney’s partner and brother, Roy, still exert a strong influence over production and the Disney brand.
Walt’s birthday, December 5, prompted us to look back at the early Disney, long before Disneyland and Mickey Mouse, back the very humble beginnings of an American tycoon. Walt Disney began with little more than a public education, a few art courses in Chicago, and a year’s service as an ambulance driver in France. From this, and $500 of poker winnings he’d made overseas, he tried to become an animation studio in Kansas City.
His daughter, Diane Disney Miller, described “Dad’s” discouraging start in a Post biography:
“Sometimes he’d hear from his older brother, my Uncle Roy, who’d gone West to recuperate from the lingering effects of exposure endured in the Navy in World War I… If he hadn’t heard from Dad recently, he’d write, “Kid, I have a hunch you could use a little dough. So I’m enclosing a blank check. Fill it out for any amount you need up to thirty dollars.
“Dad always filled it out for thirty, and used the money to appease two Greeks, owner of a restaurant where he ate on the cuff…
“When Dad’s restaurant tab climbed past sixty dollars, one of the Greeks came up to see him. ‘Walter,’ he said, ‘believe me, I’d give you unlimited credit. But my partner says fun’s fun; we’ve got to cut you off.’
“‘All right, Jerry,’ Dad said. ‘I understand.’
“Two days later Jerry… saw Dad sitting on a box, eating cold beans from a can and dry bread. They were picnic leftovers, abandoned in a photographer’s studio next door. Dad had lived on beans and bread for two days.
“When Jerry came in and saw him munching that dismal meal, he melted. ‘Walt,’ he said, ‘I don’t care what Louis says. You come down to our place and get something to eat.’
“When Dad was telling me this story, I asked, ‘Wasn’t that about the low point of your life?’
“‘No,’ he said, ‘It wasn’t bad. I love beans.’
“When things seemed blackest, [a doctor] asked Dad to make an animated cartoon to teach children to take care of their teeth. Dad told him he could do the film for $500. One night the doctor called Dad to say, ‘I’ve got the money… Come over and let’s set this deal.’
“‘I can’t,’ Dad said.
“‘I haven’t any shoes,’ Dad said. ‘They were falling apart and I left them at the shoemaker’s. He won’t let me have them until I can dig up a dollar and a half.’
In Kansas City, Walt landed a job in an advertising agency after showing cartoons he’d drawn while in France. He quickly learned his academic studies hadn’t prepared him for the commercial world.
“‘When you go to art school you work for perfection,’ he says now. ‘But in a commercial-art shop you cut things out, and paste things over, and scratch around with a razor blade. I’d never done any of those things in art school. Those are time-saving tricks. I learned them in six weeks.’”
“Dad began to work for the Gray Advertising Company in December, 1919. In November, when the pre-Christmas rush was over, he was laid off. He went to the Post Office and got a job carrying Christmastime mail. At night he worked in his bedroom, drawing samples, using tricks he’d learned at the art shop.
Walt began making cartoons, which he sold to a local theater owner.
“being so young, he made mistakes. He’d figured the cost of his raw film and its processing at thirty cents a foot. When Milton Field asked, ‘How much does this cost?’ Dad blurted out his basic cost price. He forgot to add a margin of profit. Field bought the cartoon and Dad was stuck with doing the job at cost. But he consoled himself; what he got would pay for more experimentation.”
The idea never caught on, and Walt quickly exhausted his savings. Abandoning cartoons, he set out for Hollywood in 1923, hoping to find work in the movies.
“When Dad stepped aboard the Santa Fe’s California Limited in Kansas City, bound for Hollywood, he wore a threadbare pair of pants and a checkered coat. He didn’t own a real suit of clothes. His imitation-leather suitcase contained one shirt, two pairs of underdrawers, two pairs of socks and some salvaged drawing material.”
He found, to his chagrin, that animators were thriving in Hollywood.
“Dad thought, ‘I should have hit the cartoon business six years ago. Now it’s too late.'”
The beginning of Walt’s success came with his “Alice in Cartoonland” series; a mixture of live action and animation, which he produced with his brother, Roy.
“Dad shot the little girl who played ‘Alice’ against a white backdrop. Then he drew the cartoons that went with her, and re-exposed the negative, frame by frame. He had trained his Uncle Robert’s police dog to take part in the proceedings, and organized a gang of neighborhood children to act as Alice’s pals. These kids were paid fifty cents each.”
Even with minimal costs, these productions soon exhausted their savings.
“When the young firm of Walt and Roy Disney got to the point where they had to borrow money or go under, Dad thought of Uncle Roy’s girl, back in Kansas City. Uncle Roy had been going with her for a long time before he’d headed west for hospitalization. ‘Why don’t you write to your girl Edna?’ Dad asked. ‘She’s got money.’ Uncle Roy wouldn’t hear of it. So Dad sent her a letter: ‘Don’t tell Roy I’ve written, but we need money. Can you lend us some, and if so, how much?’
“She had a job and she was living with her family, so she’d managed to save a little. Also, she was mighty fond of Uncle Roy. She sent dad a check; he can’t remember how much it was, but it came just in time.”
“Then dad told Uncle Roy what he’d done. ‘You’re going to be mad, but here’s her check. It’s money and we need it.’ Uncle Roy swallowed his pride.
“I’m sure that he has repaid his girl by this time, for later on he married her.”
Walt and Roy had secured a contract for 12 of their Alice cartoons, but the series hadn’t been very popular. After they released the sixth episode, the New York distributor tried to cancel the contract.
“He almost persuaded Dad and Uncle Roy to drop the whole thing, but a final conference stiffened their backbones. No cancellation, they said, because they’d already made Alice No. 7.
“When that one was delivered it was a smash hit.”
“I have asked Dad what the difference was between Alice No. 6 and Alice No. 7.”
“‘I honestly don’t know,’ he told me. ‘Maybe I was getting smarter at throwing gags to the audiences.’”
“Success changed everything. The distributor picked up his option for a second series of twelve films. Dad and Uncle Roy kept getting more money per reel each year, and the Alice in Cartoonland series lasted for three years. Dad can’t remember just how far the price went up, but he does know that five years later, when Mickey Mouse was born, his cartoons were bringing $2250 each.” (roughly $24,000 in 2009 dollars.)
The success continued throughout Walt’s life and far beyond. Today Disney Corp. is arguably the largest corporation in the entertainment industry. Its $60 Billion in assets include motion pictures studios, music studios, ABC television, ESPN, theme parks, and resorts in the U.S., Japan, and Europe. And just a few months ago, Disney acquired a new stable of animated heroes when it purchased Marvel Comics.
Today, the Disney family continues his legacy with senior Disney executive Roy Disney helping to maintain the dreams and principles of his uncle and his father.
When the Post recently asked Roy Disney about his thoughts on the company’s future, this is what he told us:
“I am an optimist by nature, but recognize that the Walt Disney Company of tomorrow will not be, and cannot be, the Walt Disney Company of yesterday.
“Enormous technological innovations across the media and entertainment landscape in the years ahead will probably result in a fresh, unique Disney. I am confident, however, that Disney’s unique values will remain in place no matter what the future brings.”