Yesterday was my dad’s 86th birthday. Eighty-six seems like a pretty significant milestone and he’s in pretty good shape for his age. He has COPD and a couple of years ago he had surgery for prostate cancer, but overall he would tell you he’s, “fair to middling for an older feller.” My father has seen a lot in his day and I thought it only right and fitting to pay tribute to him in honor of his 86th birthday.
Born in 1927, he was a child of the depression. Being from a poor family, he experienced first-hand what a hard-scrabble life is like. I don’t think he holds much sympathy for today’s twenty-somethings when they complain about how hard they’ve got it. He knew hunger personally and later in life he seemed almost compelled to feed the whole world, growing massive vegetables gardens (I got more than one sunburn hoeing corn, I can tell you) and sharing the bounty with anyone – family, friend or co-worker – who had a need. I still love to hear his stories (he told us one just last night at his birthday dinner) of being an eight-year-old boy harnessing and driving a team of horses to disc a field. Not many eight-year-olds doing that these days.
Dad was drafted into the army at the end of WWII but never saw combat or served overseas. But he did learn to drive big trucks and all kinds of heavy equipment, something he would fall in love with. That love of trucks and all things mechanical would serve him well as he worked in the ready-mix business for 40 years as a mechanic, working on cement mixers and also operating cranes and boom trucks and setting up batch plants. He could drive anything with a stick shift, and back that pony up straight between two other rigs without batting an eye. In the mid-50’s he went into business for himself, but went broke a short time later. That’s still a bitter pill he can’t quite swallow.
In 1946 my dad married my mother and they remained married for 50+ years until my mom’s passing in 1997. Their marriage was not always easy as my mother suffered with severe depression, something that was neither diagnosed or treated until the very end of her life. But Dad stuck with her through thick and thin. Perhaps his most impressive accomplishment was raising seven daughters in a three bedroom, one bathroom house and living to tell about it. When strangers hear about all the females in our family, they inevitably express sympathy for my dad’s plight, to which we always reply that he didn’t have it so bad – he was the only one who ever got the bathroom to himself!
Being mechanically inclined meant my dad could build, fix or rig just about anything. Like the camping box he built atop a Ford Falcon station wagon for taking my mother and six sisters cross country all the way to California in 1960. I still remember the wooden cap he built for the back of his big dooley work truck so we could haul our ponies up north. And he built a five-horse horse trailer from scratch from the axles up. If I close my eyes I can picture walking out to his shed and seeing Dad with his welder’s mask pulled down, the blue arc of flame sending up sparks as he fashioned some part or another.
Horses were always a big part of our lives, from the time my oldest sister won a pony at a country carnival. The four older girls enjoyed the pony but it was my two closest-in-age-to-me sisters and I who were truly horse crazy. Dad hauled us to horse shows and the county fair, and the Michigan State fair, for years. He would drive us to the Monroe County fairgrounds early each morning on his way to work (which happened to be conveniently close to the fairgrounds), sometimes just dropping us off in the chilly early-morning air, sometimes staying a few minutes to make sure we got our chores done, but never doing them for us! He always tried to take a bit of time off work to watch us show. He gave me my first brand new bridle, the first piece of tack I ever had that wasn’t a hand-me-down from one of my sisters. I still remember the thrill of that day!
Dad enjoyed camping and fishing in up north Michigan. He also went hunting (allowing me to tag along a time or two) but I don’t recall him ever shooting anything. My mom always opined that Dad didn’t really like hunting, he just wanted to wander alone out in the woods. After spending a good amount of time in a tiny house with eight females, I can’t say I blame him. He bought an old Polaris snowmobile from a guy at work, fixed it up and taught us how to drive it. We spent many a winter after that cruising the trails around Westbranch and Atlanta.
My dad was good about indulging my mother’s whims. Mom loved to travel and he drove her from east to west and north to south. Once all us girls were grown and gone, and finances got much better, he allowed her to shop to her heart’s content, buying whatever she wanted for the 21 grandchildren. He took round dancing lessons with her and learned to play the electric organ.
Dad was always one to help anyone who needed it. I remember stormy winter nights when Dad would get home from work very, very late – because he would stop and pull anyone out of a ditch who needed it. (These were the days before 4-wheel drive SUV’s.) He would drop anything to help my grandfather, or my mother’s elderly aunts and uncles, crawling under their houses in the dead of winter to thaw frozen pipes. One of my favorite memories is when one of my sisters and brothers-in-law built a log cabin home. Dad operated the boom truck to set the higher logs and the trusses in place. He was like a cat in cream! He loved to operate anything with a gear shift and levers!
Dad retired in 1992 and when my mother passed away five years later, he was a bit lost for a time. My mother had suffered with a long illness, going in and out of the hospital for several years. By this time she was on oxygen full-time and Dad was her primary care giver. After she died, he didn’t quite know what to do with himself for awhile, trying to come to grips with a new normal. But he was blessed to find love again, marrying my step mother in 1999.
My step-mom is a little banty hen with enough energy for three people. Even though they are both in their 80’s, she refuses to get old. They are always on the go. They love to camp and hunt mushrooms. Up until just a year or two ago, my dad was still pulling a 17 foot travel trailer up north. They still grow a huge garden, and despite their different health concerns they have enough energy to babysit their six-year-old great-grandson. She had enough gumption to get him to quit smoking after nearly 60 years, and he did it cold turkey, too! So, don’t anyone tell me you can’t quit. If he can quit after smoking for 60 years, anybody can!
It’s pretty amazing to me to consider all that my dad has seen in his 86 years. From the depression to the computer age; from plowing a field with a team of horses to remote-controlled drones. He raised seven daughters on a shoestring, saw them marry and raise his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He never took a dime of government assistance in his life or accepted a handout, even when times were tough. (And believe me, there were some pretty tough times.) He’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. He probably worked too much – another by-product of growing up in the depression – and he had a red-hot, terrifying temper. Boy, that sure has mellowed in the past fifteen years! He was never a kissy-huggy type of daddy, but here in his later years he’s gotten pretty good at saying “I love you” and telling his girls and grandkids that he’s proud of them. He gets real worn out at big family gatherings, but he loves it when individual family members come to visit him. And he loves to tell his stories about the past. Now that he’s in the twilight of his life, I wish I would have helped him write some of them down. What a legacy for his family – the legacy of a life well lived.