The lucky man at four score

On my honor, I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my Country and to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”

— Scouts’ Oath

Be prepared.”

— Scouts’ Motto

I do my father a disservice by drawing attention to him, this I know at the outset. So this may be a short post, depending on how long it takes to say as little as possible about the fact that we celebrated his 80th birthday last Saturday. I get the feelilng from old photographs (many of which were on display on a table at the entrance to the church multipurpose room where we had gathered only last month to celebrate his sister-in-law’s 100th) that my dad had something of a hambone in him when he was younger, but for the nearly half-century I have known him he has not been one to seek the limelight.

A good friend gets a good laugh out of Dad.

We his family and his friends are exceedingly glad that he was here to be celebrated Saturday. He comes into his 81st year beset by breathing difficulties that oblige him to be always within a few yards of a tank of oxygen, which he inhales through a nose-tube. This and the wheelchair (because it exhausts him even to walk) make him perhaps even less eager to be the center of attention than he would be anyway, though he does not say this, and in the tradition of his WASP heritage he does not complain very loudly or very often about the wheelchair or the oxygen tube, which he often holds coiled up like a cowboy’s lariat so that he can lend out slack when he walks from his chair in the living room to the breakfast nook, and not at all about the curtailment of his once-favorite activities — dancing with Mom, rebuilding pianos, walking the trails at Mount Rainier. And since he has lived well past the five years he was “given” when doctors discovered a slow form of pancreatic cancer eating at his internal organs, he actually considers himself lucky. Indeed, it is not the cancer that troubles him now — it has all but receded with the adminstration of annoying but non-invasive treatments — but the shortness of breath caused by emphyzema. The lack of breath is the only thing that he seems willing to own as a tribulation.

Dear friends drove long distances on the freeway and crossed large bodies of water to be present for Dad’s celebration, and some of these folks are people for whom travel is a discomfort or even a hardship. My Mom’s brother and his wife, Uncle Jack and Aunt Lil, flew out from what Jack calls “the right coast” for the occasion (both my parents are from Baltimore, Maryland), and my brother Ben brought his family down from Alaska. Two of Ben’s children, the twins Emily and Jack (yes, named for his great-uncle) were also celebrating their birthday that day (Dad’s was a few weeks ago, theirs was that very day), and so there were several cakes and we sang multiple renditions of Happy Birthday.

On leave in Switzerland (probably Zurich), early 1950s.

Dad and me, late '60s.

Dad brought his Boy Scout sash with him. He’s very proud of the fact that he made Eagle Scout back in the day. I have only seen this accessory a handful of times — maybe fewer than five — but it means a lot to him and it has obviously been kept rolled up or folded in a safe place throughout my entire life. As I googled the Scouts’ code of honor online (that’s a sad picture, isn’t it?) it became clear to me that my father has never stopped being an Eagle Scout. The Scouts’ Law describes my dad to a fare-thee-well.

What meant even more to him was that several people attended his party from “the old neighborhood”, the one in south Bellevue where he and Mom raised us kids. I spent most of the event flitting around from one table to another saying hello to people I hadn’t seen in years but whom I had known, or rather who have known me, since I was two days old. And because my century-old aunt Evelyn was able to attend — this had not necessarily been a certainty — brother Ben got to see her at last. He was not able to be here for her do last month.

It's all here.

Mara was once again happy to spend time with her Alaska cousins, who despite turning eight years old are near enough to her own age as to be a new kind of cousin in her mind (all but one of her “adult” cousins on my side were also present). Mara has quickly bonded with Jack and Em, especially Emily. They spent the afternoon playing together and eating cake. 

In my father’s lifetime, American society has evolved from an essentially agrarian world to a digital one, in many ways a virtual one. When he was born, cities were surrounded by and supplied by farms and most people in America still lived in the countryside. I think about this all the time, what has changed, what has been lost. In some respects, the America I long for is one that I don’t really remember but that he does. People stayed put more and were more interdependent on one another, community supplied what has been replaced by money now. Planned obsolescence was unheard of and would have been regarded as the insanity that it is, and things made were made with pride and with the intent that they should last as long as possible. If my dad has ever reflected on the remarkable transformation of the world he has lived in for 80 years he has not done so out loud, nor is he a glass-half-empty man like myself. My dad has cheerfully accommodated the plastics and high tech polymers and fabrics that have emerged and taken over the world once made of iron, tin, aluminum and wood, meanwhile simultaneously keeping his own love of more traditional materials alive in his piano rebuilding work. 

One of my favorite shots of Dad. Cannon Beach in the late '70s. He bought himself a kite.

At a lookout point south of Cannon Beach, late 1970s.

I think one word that fairly describes my dad’s outlook on the world is acceptance. That alone wins him not only my highest admiration, but also a measure of vexation. More than any other, this is the man whom I am more likely to resemble in all ways as time goes by, no matter what I do. I am filling the space where he walked, the stages his face has gone through, the shape of his body — my brother saw a recent photo of me and said I even stand like him. But other than the fact that he values, still values, the mores listed in the boy scout’s code — being trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent — I know him so little. More than anything I want to know who my father is and it is mainly by what we are passionate about that we are known. His passions he has held close to the vest, and that’s just how it is. He is, after all, descended of English and German farmers.

I do know that he considers himself to be a lucky man in more ways than not, and that’s a posture in which I am happy to follow him. 

Dad sat  in a high-backed chair like an old and well-loved king, and because so many people wanted a chance to talk with him he ended up clutching the same half sandwich in his left hand for about an hour. He held up well, though, and afterwards a small subset of family and close friends retired to my folks’ house in Issaquah to finish off whatever cold-cuts didn’t get eaten at the party and to prolong the togetherness before plane flights the next day.

Some of the clan. And this doesn't include the many friends who attended.

King for a day!


17 Responses to “The lucky man at four score”

  1. 1 Janet October 14, 2010 at 16:43

    This is a fascinating post. I am not all that much younger than your dad so I share his generation so to speak. Congratulations and Happy Birthday as he enters his 81st year.

  2. 2 Librarian Girl October 14, 2010 at 16:54

    Happy birthday to your dad. He sounds like a remarkable person.

  3. 3 Kip October 14, 2010 at 18:42

    Many happy returns to your dad my friend! I must say (probably for the tenth time since I’ve started reading these posts!) that some of the fondest memories of the day were spent at the house in south Bellevue, and some of the best dinners around the family table! The picture from the late 70’s certainly looks familiar. I was not there, but the people sure look like people I know! I certainly hope the next time we are in town, I can invite myself to see your folks again. We were so close to seeing Ben!

  4. 4 Marni October 14, 2010 at 22:02

    The fact that I really don’t know your family well except through your writings would normally bother me…but because you always paint such a vivid picture of who they are and what they stand for, I feel like I know your dad well…and I kinda want to hug him right now! Happy birthday to him, and I’m so glad you had this joyous celebration of family. Love you!

  5. 5 Louis October 15, 2010 at 07:12

    I never got past my wolf badge in Cub Scouts…Happy Birthday to the Eagle scout!

  6. 6 jstwndrng October 15, 2010 at 12:03

    Thanks all for the good wishes. I’ll pass them on to my dad. I guess you guys aren’t big picture clickers…I was sure somebody would say something about that picture of my dad and me in the dining room — either about my glasses, which would be cool now but were a severe blight on my cool back then, or about my Johnny West action figure, or the Fanny Farmer Cookbook on the shelf — what, your family didn’t have that? — or if nothing else, about the shadowy figure of my sister haunting the background of the image (when I saw it I got the willies).

  7. 8 Louis October 16, 2010 at 04:38

    I loved all the photos, particularly that one with your dad flying the kite as it appears the kite is flying straight above his head, and yet he is distracted by something else..The photo of you and your dad is a wonderful holiday pic..but you know the one thing that catches my eye?..those cool blue salt n´pepper shakers!

  8. 9 jstwndrng October 16, 2010 at 16:42

    Marni, your restraint is exemplary.

    The photo with Dad and the kite is a fave of mine, not sure why, maybe because it seems elemental somehow: a man fills the sky, tames the wind with his toy, and as you point out, isn’t even that concerned about it. My Dad as Paul Bunyan.

    Yes, the powder blue shakers are cool. The table is full of interesting things that I actually remember the feel of in my fingers. My dad’s ceramic ashtray is in front of him on the table. It has a cool design of small brown, tan and white squares and there are ashes in it. His metal lighter and smokes are stacked to his left, half-hid by the teacup, and those will be Camels (he quit when he retired, but the piper has a long memory, whence the emphyzema). The twirly holiday tapers are set in star-shaped glass candle-holders and the brass snuffer, also twirly, is lying with its sooty conehead on one of them. The bizarre little wax figures are also candles and that’s why they rest inside coasters that were normally used for our big frothy glasses of milk and that in my memory I think of as metal but they were glass somehow, with lots of light-refracting spokes and ridges. The centerpiece of evergreen foliage is in a ceramic white container that barely shows here against the tablecloth, but it might be in the shape of a train driven by a snowman. The edge of a casserole with potatoes au gratin might be visible in the lower left corner, but I’m not sure. It took my a while and I had to zoom in on the original scan to see them clearly, but the items on the table upper left are a little craftsman’s hammer and a red-handled coping saw and maybe some third thing, like a small file, in a flat blue package, gifts to Dad opened that day. Beyond them is a yellow metal Matchbox brand toy truck with green plastic slats in the bed. The little huddle of brown things are Johnny West’s coffee pot, lock box, and maybe a skillet, all recently clipped or twisted loose from the little plastic mould tree (I forget what those are called), which is visible between the candles. The cook book is actually called the New Cook Book, which means it’s not Fanny Farmer’s after all but Better Homes and Gardens. That bookshelf, built by my dad as were so many of the items with which my young parents furnished their first home, has seen better days but it was built tough and it is now in my possession. I think this is Christmas 1968, which means I’m six, Jeni is just eight, and Dad is thirty-eight.

  9. 10 Ben October 18, 2010 at 13:25


    I’m just now getting back to normal and the Internet has not been on my list of high priorities, but I wanted to thank you for what you have written here. I won’t say much more, you know how much I love him.
    As for your photos, the one of you and Dad is great, I really don’t remember it. But I will add that the camp coffee pot and chest in the Johnny West kit are things I remember as well as Mom’s coaster’s and the candles/snuffer. Also, the table cloth itself saw service for many years, I think into the ’90’s.

    @Kip and Marni – Sorry to have missed the opportunity to meet with you all. I really would have enjoyed it.

    • 11 jstwndrng October 18, 2010 at 16:09

      Ben, you were 2. You wouldn’t remember that one. I think you inherited Mr. West eventually, didn’t you? That would have been cool to pass down to Jack if it was still around. No luck, though, I bet. Yes, I remember that table cloth, too, and there was an even groovier one with little utensils and stuff, but the memory is dim.

      Incidinkly, it now is clear to me, looking at that photo, why I have always favored Palominos among the horse breeds. I never made the connection before, but Mara’s first horse-ride was on a Palomino and I was really satisfied about that for a reason I didn’t understand at the time.

  10. 12 Ben October 19, 2010 at 06:25

    Yes, incidinkly. I did have your Johnny West, but I also obtained one of my own by the earliest of the 1970s. I think I absorbed yours later. I also had a George Custer and a Geronimo. My favorite of course, was Custer, although not because of the man, I liked the uniform, even at a younger age. His Colt Navy revovler and sabre were extemely cool.

  11. 14 Ben October 19, 2010 at 18:46

    Surely you remember that by the time I recieved the senior Johnny West, he had aquired a rather dubious moustache and lost one of his two arms. He naturally had to suffer the role of the “bad guy”.

    • 15 jstwndrng October 19, 2010 at 20:34

      Uh…yeah…the blue-ink moustache. Hmmm, well. See here, he just looked like such a beancounter with his perpetually freshly shaved face. I had to do SOMEthing to toughen him up. As for the missing arm, that wasn’t me. But wait…you said “senior”. Did you have a Johnny West, too?

      • 16 Ben October 19, 2010 at 20:49

        Aye, that I did. He remained facial hair free all of his days, but I think now I would perhaps have followed the elder brother’s example. If for no other reason than to hear someone say, “Excuse me there, uh, Johnny..You’ve got some left over pork and beans in yer stache there….”

  12. 17 jstwndrng October 19, 2010 at 21:21

    The inevitable reply…”some for the trail. I get a little peckish on them longer rides.”

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