Someone Else’s Memories

Every night at five minutes until seven, I call my father in Nebraska. Often, he doesn’t answer the phone at other times because it is very frequently charities that he has never heard of asking for money. So 6:55 p.m. is our little code. He know that it is me and he picks it up. If you have been to the “About” page and seen my picture, you are undoubtedly doing the math and wondering how old my father must be. He is 87, and comes from a long line of people who live a very long time.

We talk for a half hour every day. That is a half-hour of my life every day in which I have pleasant family contact. I am (no surprise here) the black sheep of my family. I got an education. I left Nebraska at the earliest opportunity. I went into the computer software business, whatever that is. I lived for a long time in California. In short, I was different than the rest of the family, and where I come from that is enough to paint the sheep black.

My father was a military man. He served in World War Two in the Navy, first as a part of an experimental unit that we call the SEALs today, and then as a Seabee after he concussed his ears by blowing up too many things underwater while he too was underwater. He was in the Navy for 36 years, finally getting out after a cancer operation made him unfit for active duty. He had perhaps the best job in the Navy. He was a Chief, and a Super-Chief at that, a rank in the E-8 class and one of the people that really runs the Navy.

At the end of his career, he was the chief model-maker for the US Navy, building mainly items for recruiting, like 15-foot-long F-14s for parades, 3-foot-long submarine models for recruiting offices, and 60-foot-long aircraft carriers based on WWII LSTs, one of which he sailed from Omaha to Minneapolis up the Missouri river. He was a prolific worker and the only way I normally saw much of him was to go to work with him when I could.

He was also a child of the depression, and an orphan of that time, to boot. He may have been the most stoic person that I was ever associated with. His father died when he was six. His mother followed when he was eleven. He spent some time in orphanages in three states, before running away from one at fourteen. He spent more than a year on the streets and finally showed up at the door of an uncle in Omaha when he was just under sixteen. My father was a hard man, of a class known in the service as a hard-ass. He has mellowed some, but not a lot.

My dad’s memory, at eighty-seven, is not reliable about what he had for breakfast today, but he can remember things 1944 and 1971 (and other years before about 1995) in exhaustive detail. Once I can get him started down a path from the past, he is much more lively and awake than he is when he first picks up the phone. So we talk about the Pacific in wartime, and California when we both lived there, and other things that I was there for or that I wasn’t, and the time some nights just flies.
And sometimes it is easy, looking up at the stars from my deck and listening to him talk about New Guinea and Quonset huts, to think of him as the young man that I never knew much about. At those times I know that those same stars look down on us all and have been doing so since we first ate cooked clams in a cave in South Africa a hundred thousand years ago. I suppose what I am saying is that it reinforces a certain continuity that we all know is there, that we sometimes lose track of, and which is important to us all.

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