Dad’s Final War

Mom and Dad

My dad passed away peacefully on April 22 after a nearly 40-year battle with heart disease.

He fought several battles in his life.  The first one, I imagine, was over the last piece of fried chicken at a dinner table surrounded by ten siblings.

I spent Dad’s 87th birthday with him and Mom.  They didn’t stray too far from home by themselves during his last few months because of his declining health, so I told him I’d take him anywhere he wanted to go for his birthday.  I knew he would want to go to an antique shop somewhere, which was fine with me because I inherited his admiration of things that were made when people appreciated beauty and quality of workmanship.

We ended up going to one of his favorite antique malls, located on I-55 south of Springfield.  To get there, we took the two-lane roads.  He guided me through tiny Illinois towns with names like Bullpitt, Kincaid, and Pawnee, places I was sure I had never been.  I had to chuckle because it so reminded me of those two-lane road trips we used to take when I was a child.  We ate lunch at a mom-and-pop restaurant where they had eaten before.  The food turned out to be very tasty, meaning it was also pretty unhealthy.  But on this day, I didn’t care.

Our excursion cost me $97.50 in antiques that I couldn’t live without, several dollars’ worth of gasoline, and three inexpensive lunches.  I would have spent a lot more to have that time with them.  Just the three of us.

Dad was contemplative that day.  Traffic was sparse, and I stole an occasional peek over at him as he watched the world go by.  This was his world – fields almost ready for planting, ramshackle farm buildings, smokestacks from a distant factory that puffed white smoke into a vivid blue sky, trees in full bloom because of our rare, early spring.  Rural areas where he grew up.

What was going through his mind?  I couldn’t help wondering if he knew that this would probably be the last time he would pass this way.   He commented about returning to the area next month to visit another antique shop that he was too tired to walk through this time.  His voice was wistful.  He knew it wouldn’t happen.

He was in deep concentration looking through the car window.  Occasionally he would point out something of interest with his aged, trembling hand that showed purple bruises from past IV attempts.  I can’t pretend to know how he felt at that stage in his life.  Was he absorbing everything around him as if he had never seen it before and would never see it again?

There seemed to be a calmness about him, as if he had accepted his own mortality and was approaching death on his own terms.  Oh, sometimes he talked about doing things months in the future, and I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that had optimism.  After all, he had defied the odds for years.  I knew the cold, hard facts as they were presented by the doctors, but even I wondered if he would overcome the obstacles just one more time.

Sometimes, he talked of the “lasts” in his life, in not so many words.  Something would be said about an upcoming event, and he would say, very matter-of-factly, that he wouldn’t have to worry about that anymore, or someone else will be taking care of that, or he’d never see that happen.  Was this his last birthday?  As it turns out, it was.

He said he had mowed his last lawn.  Reluctantly he admitted that he had driven his last car.  He’d taken his last trip to my brother’s house in Kansas, knowing he could no longer handle the 7-hour car ride.  He’d restored his last antique car, painted his last set of shutters, climbed the stairs in my house for the last time.  It was hard to believe, looking at his frail image now, that just thirteen short years ago, he was painting the inside of my new house.   He loved to paint; I did not inherit that gene.

He had seen his sister from Oklahoma for the last time.  He would no longer be making his annual Memorial Day trek to place flowers on his parents’ graves.   He would never again make us cry with laughter at Christmas as we played our corny gift exchange game.   He would no longer sit in the swing on his front porch.

This would be Dad’s last war.  I think World War II was part of what made him so tough, made him endure everything that had happened to him in his life, made him survive all his health problems for so long.

Determined to do his part, he enlisted in the Army during World War II and served with the Rainbow Division in Germany and France.  He was shot in the wrist and taken prisoner of war by the Nazis.  He was undernourished during his time there, watching the Germans pile bodies of his comrades who starved to death in a corner of the prison.  Dad was determined not to starve.

Each time the doors opened, the soldiers feared the Nazis were going to shoot them.  They heard and felt the bombing of Dresden five miles away, so close that they worried that the Americans might accidentally bomb their camp.

Dad never removed his shoes while in captivity because shoes were a valuable commodity to be stolen from the careless.  The Nazis marched them from camp to camp, so shoes were crucial.  After the war, they had to cut Dad’s shoes off his feet.

Imagine what all that was like for a young farm boy who had never been out of rural Illinois!

Dad was never lazy.  He worked hard after the war, making a good life for Mom, my brother and me.  Though we were by no means wealthy, we always had food on the table, clothes on our backs, a good car, and a nice house.  We had our fair share of treats.  Santa never missed a visit.

Dad was smart, sensible and energetic.  He worked well with numbers and became a bookkeeper and a salesperson at a local lumber yard, where he stayed for 44 years.  Building contractors would seek him out to figure estimates for their projects and ask his advice.  He was a man of his word and bent over backwards to help people.  He earned the respect of all those who knew him.

He was also a skilled carpenter and passed on his knowledge to my husband and my brother.  Dad had built his last house, remodeled his last room, repaired his last antique table.  Those who he taught helped him with his projects in later years, repaying the favor.

My three grandchildren adored him.  My young grandson would take his hand and pull him towards his workshop, where all types of old toy cars and trucks were housed in an old glass-front cabinet.  Dad collected the toys from antique shops and allowed his great grandchildren to play with them.  Dad’s face would light up when they visited, and I’m convinced that he lived longer because of them.  Dad recognized the important things, and I know he was happy with his life.

I’m confident that he’s in a good place, probably hugging my beloved grandma and being followed around by my ornery cocker spaniel.  I’ll miss his mischievious smile as he tells me about the bargain that he got at an antique shop.  I’ll miss his sense of humor.  I’ll miss how he couldn’t keep from chuckling when I’d give him a skeptical look as he was trying to put one over on me.  I’ll miss cussing and discussing the Cardinals game with him.  I’ll miss walking into their living room and seeing him in his recliner.  I’ll even miss the same stories he told time and time again, as if I had never heard them before.  I miss him already.

Driving a Two-Lane Road in an Interstate World

My mom and dad still use a wall phone with a long, curly cord.  They’ve never been on an airplane, except when my dad was in the service.  “If God wanted people to fly, He would have given them wings.”  They still spend good money on gasoline and postage stamps to pay their bills, even though I have offered to do it online.  “You can’t trust computers.”  They don’t own a GPS, preferring to rely on a stick-on car compass.  Some would say that my parents are a bit old fashioned.  Ya think?

My parents still prefer two-lane highways, too.  Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

I grew up taking vacations before the interstate system was totally finished.  Two-lanes were the only way to get anywhere.  At least that’s what my dad told us.

Car air conditioners were expensive luxuries, not standard fixtures.  Windows down and hair blowing, we had to hold on to anything light-weight, or it would fly out the window.  When a semi passed us, we’d feel the whoosh of wind on our faces, and the car would waltz toward the shoulder of the road and back. 

As we barrelled down the road in our tank of a car, my brother and I argued and hit each other in the back seat, with Mom yelling at us from the front.  No seatbelts were there to contain us.  “She’s touching me!!!”  “Get your smelly feet out of my face, you little runt!” No video games or built-in DVD players to keep us mesmerized.  We played license plate games mostly.  Or we’d see who could spot the first green car or yellow truck. 

The two-lane passed through the hearts of small towns that still bustled with activity.  Woolworth’s Five and Dime, mom-and-pop shops and restaurants, and corner drug stores with soda fountains prevailed.  No malls.  No Walmarts.  No fast food joints.  No McDonalds!  How we survived is a mystery.

When we stopped for gasoline, it cost about 20 cents a gallon.  That’s right.  A conscientious, uniformed teenage boy would hurry out to the car, fill it up, wash the windows, check the oil, check the tire pressure, collect our $5.00 in cash AND GIVE US CHANGE.  Makes me want to cry.

Between towns, today’s dilapidated barns were new.  Tractors worked the fields as we sneezed at the pollen invading our open windows.  A cow or a chicken might trespass on the road, slowing our pace.

Lazy dogs slept in yards.  Women hung clothes on the line.  Old men in bib overalls rocked in swings on the porches of white clapboard houses, drinking lemonade and waving to passing motorists.  Bells from courthouse steeples could be heard on the hour. 

Kids with holes in their jeans played tag and baseball in their yards or rode their bikes on the sidewalk, streaks of dirty sweat rolling down their faces.  “You go play outside and don’t come back in until supper time.”  No need for a mother to guard them back then.

The two-lane roads were usually narrow and bumpy.  When we’d get behind a slow-moving car, Dad would gun it and go around at the first opportunity.  When we got behind a string of slow-moving cars, my brother and I would be exposed to a whole vocabulary of words that we knew we’d better not repeat. 

On down the two-lane we would drive… and drive and drive and drive some more.  We would stop at places called trading posts and buy cheap souvenirs that probably even then were made in China.  I spent my saved allowance and amassed a modest collection of little Indian dolls on our frequent trips to visit my aunt in Oklahoma.  I wish I still had them.  Sometimes I’d buy a rabbit’s foot keychain for good luck.

I don’t remember where we stopped for restroom breaks, but I do remember squatting at the side of the road a few times, which was totally acceptable in the late 50’s.  We’d be arrested today, of course

Motels were one-story, roadside, no reservations needed, outside entrances only.  Buzzing neon signs advertised names like The Sunset Motel, Mabel’s Family Inn, Starlight Motor Lodge.  No Hyatts or Hiltons or Holiday Inns. 

Mom always asked to see the accommodations before any money was paid.  She would inspect the room and try the bathroom faucet.  If everything stood up to her scrutiny and the price was right, we would stay.  We could park right in front of our room, which was good because our plaid suitcases had no wheels.  Very few places had air conditioners; I remember many a sultry night.   

We would visit tourist traps as well as scenic places.  One time we pulled off the side of the road to watch the airplanes take off and land at the Madison, Wisconsin, airport.  That was as exciting as it got.

Dad, being the typical male chauvinist of that time, did most if not all of the driving.  There was one notable occasion.  We were headed east across Kansas.  Dad was getting tired and he handed Mom the car keys.  My brother and I were aghast.  We had never seen the right side of Mom’s head from the back seat.

As we approached Kansas City, my brother and I thought it best to be vigilant and help Mom with the traffic signs – she surely was not capable of reading Big City signs all by herself.  After all, we watched and learned from “Father Knows Best” every week on our black and white TV. 

We missed the bypass and drove straight through the heart of town.  Good-bye two-lane.  When Mom discovered the error, she panicked, in traditional early 1960’s housewife fashion, and decided that Dad needed to be awakened.  Bad move on Mom’s part.  I would have kept driving and hoping that he stayed asleep.  We had another vocabulary lesson.  I can’t remember Mom ever driving on vacation after that.

On their two-lane excursions now, my parents come home with good deals they’ve found in interesting little antique shops offering remembrances from their past, like plaid suitcases.  They frequent local eateries serving high-calorie, artery-clogging, home-cooked food.  Occasionally they will take a wrong turn and end up finding surprises in an out-of-the-way town that they’ve never visited before.  And Mom drives.

I frown today when my grandkids load up in their van with their iPods and headphones and DVDs.  I wonder if they even notice the beautiful land that is America passing them by.  I know long trips are challenging for children, especially young children, but still I think a little time looking out the window would be worthwhile. 

And forget about conversing with them on a trip.  Sometimes we can go for hours without hearing a peep out of them, so engrossed are they in their music or video games being played on all those hand-held devices known only by initials. 

I’ve definitely inherited my father’s wanderlust, but I prefer the interstate over the two-lane roads.  I’ve succumbed to a faster pace.  Occasionally, though, I’ll push it to the edge and venture onto a two-lane just to see where I might end up. 

I have my limits.  I book my hotel reservations online when traveling overnight.  I avoid the greasy spoons in favor of healthier cuisine.  Going to the bathroom at the side of the road?  Definitely not an option.  That’s why God gave us McDonald’s.

The Ghost of a Cocker Spaniel Lives Here

Brandi

The ghost of a cocker spaniel lives with me.  I’m not in the least embarrassed by that admission.  Dog lovers will understand.

My husband had always insisted that he wouldn’t have a dog…his specific reasoning was that he didn’t want anything living in his house that ate better than he did.  He had a point.

But, after 20 years of marriage, for reasons I can only guess, he one day pointed to an article in the classifieds advertising cocker spaniel puppies.  He knew I was partial to cocker spaniels.  Before he had time to come to his senses, I ushered him to the car and we were off to the kennel.   

I selected the cutest one from the litter – a lively, buff-colored ball of curly fur with big brown eyes.  She and I immediately bonded. 

From the get-go, Brandi was a stubborn little handful.  My husband insisted that she was untrainable, which was pretty close to the truth, although I managed to teach her to sit and stay (when she felt like it, of course).  He questioned his decision to get a dog after just a few weeks, but I persevered, and she lived with us for twelve years. 

She did have her good qualities:  She didn’t ask for money, she didn’t borrow the car, she was always excited to see me when I came home, and she kept my feet warm in bed.  After some shredded throw pillows and a large, ugly hole chewed in an even uglier sofa, she finally settled down…somewhat. 

Yes, I know her ghost lives with us.  Not that I have actually seen her since her demise in 2007, but I often feel her presence.  The irony is that when she was alive, she would hardly come to me when I called her…unless I had a doggy “cookie” in my hand.  Some might say she was obstinate, and that would be an accurate description. 

She shows up at odd moments now.  For example, she loved spaghetti and would hover at the kitchen table whenever I’d serve it, ready to scoop it right up when a piece “accidentally” fell on the floor or was dangled about 6” above her head.  Of course, she got the leftovers in a bowl, sans sauce.  Now whenever I serve spaghetti, I can feel her presence, sitting by my chair, lifting one paw and then the other, impatiently waiting for her opportunity. 

Whenever I drop a pill on the floor, I hurry to pick it up before she can get to it.  Then I remember.

When our doorbell sings “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” I wait for the chorus of a little tornado that would tear through my house, ferociously barking and clawing at anything that got in her way until she reached the door.  Nothing I ever did could stop her from so passionately protecting her domain. 

Uniformed men were most vulnerable to her growling assaults.  UPS men feared her.  Thank goodness we didn’t have any close-up encounters with police officers.  Girl Scouts ringing our door bell would backpedal three feet after being startled by the attack taking place on the other side of our glass front door.

I get a feeling of dread during a heavy snowstorm, subconsciously thinking I will have to make my way out into the freezing cold with that four-legged, furry creature on a leash and rescue her after she has sunken in the snow, when all the poor thing wanted to do was pee.  She’d sniff for half an hour if I’d let her, hunting for the hopelessly buried blade of grass where she could perform her duty.    

Ice was another story…well, actually two stories.  She loved to slurp up ice that would fall on the floor when I pushed the ice button on the freezer.  It was almost as good as a doggy cookie for its crunchability. 

In the other sense, ice was her enemy when it was on our driveway and she had to do her duty.  I remember her sliding on her bottom or her belly more than once when she became a little too eager to rush outside. 

Once in a while I will trip over or step on something on the floor, and for just an instant, I’ll expect to hear a little yelp and the jingling of dog tags as she scrambles to get out of the way.  Then I’ll remember. 

If I go to the bank drive-up, I look for a dog treat with my receipt.  My right arm instinctively swings out as I try with no success to block Brandi from anxiously pacing between the passenger seat and my lap, climbing all over me and whimpering until the canister is returned so that she can dive in and grab her prize.  The bank clerks thought she was so sweet.  Looks can be deceiving.

For some reason, she would bark and growl at the drive-up people at fast food places, even though she could hardly wait to get her share of the fries that they would pass through the car window.  So what’s the difference between the fast food people and the bank clerks?  I never could figure that out.

Not surprisingly, Brandi was not fond of children, either, her strategy being to hide and avoid them.  She tolerated my first two grandchildren, but she must have sensed that she would be the one to go if she ever displayed any hostility towards them.  I believe that God might have timed her death to somewhat coincide with the birth of my third grandchild, the one most likely to challenge her. 

My husband, the tough guy, continued to ineffectually profess his dislike for having a dog, but he was fooling no one.  She would tear down the hallway, tail wagging fast and furious, when she heard the garage door open, signaling his return home from work.  She could be found on his lap during their mutual naps.  He affectionately referred to her as “Wide Load” because of the weight she gained, possibly from all the spaghetti leftovers. 

Brandi didn’t dislike everyone.  She liked my daughter, of course, and my parents.  Two of her favorites were our neighbors, Betty and Lowell.  She must have sensed that they were dog lovers.

I knew when the time had arrived that I “had to do something” because I did not want to see her suffer.  It was an awful day.  Most of my female friends had told me that they couldn’t stand to take their dog to the vet for that final moment, that they made their husbands do it.  But I couldn’t do that, to her or to my husband.  She would follow me anywhere, and I felt guilty knowing that I was leading her to her death.  But I knew in my heart that it was the right and humane thing to do for her.  I couldn’t let her go without being there and holding her myself.  My husband went, too, and stood quietly sober throughout the process.  Our adult daughter, fraught with emotion, sat in the waiting room.   

But Brandi is still with us in spirit for sure.  If you come to our door and ring the bell, you might just hear, “Take me out to the ballgame…grrrrrr.”