Very nearly four decades ago, a cousin and I were roughhousing in the kitchen of our South Dakota farmhouse. In the early evening, Mom and my uncle and aunt returned from another of what had been frequent visits to my father at the hospital. Mother was clearly upset, and all his brother could manage was “He left us.” At that time, prevailing thought decreed that one could not prepare children for such an event, so almost no one, professional or otherwise, tried.
Dad had tried. My cousin, who lived as a sister raised with us, got a hug during that last visit. I got a handshake, as a peer would, and my father told me that I would be the man of the family. I had no idea why anyone would expect a ten-year-old to do such a thing. I can still hear the accompanying words from Mother to this day. “He doesn’t know what’s happening.”
Later that week, the cattle sold, and with his last concerns resolved, my father died—seemingly of his own will—from a burst aortic aneurysm. He kept track of the clock throughout the day, not needing the eyeglasses that used to be so necessary. When the time came, he had his brother help him to the restroom in preparation, returned to his bed, and faded out. He was pronounced dead too early, and his eyes opened and closed one last time to the sound of my mother’s voice. Afterward, he was gone.
My father was raised by in an unremarkable environment by a family of farmers who, as far as I can tell and with only a few notable exceptions, have always been just that. His service record says that he worked as an auto mechanic on induction. He served with the same Engineering battalion all through the second World War, first building the ALCAN highway across Canada and Alaska, then participating in the Normandy invasion and pushing on into occupied Belgium.
He rode what was probably a deuce-and-a-half down a mountainside after a mishap on a treacherous piece of road in Canada. He stood as a sergeant on a bridge under construction in Belgium and kept his men working as fellow soldiers dealt with the German snipers targeting them. For that action, his officers recommended he receive the Bronze Star. He returned home rather than wait for the commendation to be processed, but the paperwork is one of my most treasured heirlooms.
He raised a family, and tried to tolerate carpentry work in the Black Hills, but returned to the farm that was his home and built, from the basement and foundation work up, the first house I knew. Less than twenty years later, he was gone at the age of 54. My mother said often that he could accomplish anything that needed doing.
My memories of him are so sparse. The lessons of his life have had to be uncovered year by year. They are eclipsed by the lessons of his death. The lesson remains that we are obligated to live so our inevitable doorway does not intimidate us when it opens. The lesson endures that we may have to die, but we do not have to be afraid. The lesson embeds that faith and character are the basis of our last dignity.
I had a lot of questions left unanswered in 1974. I addressed those one by one through the writing of my chosen surrogates: the authors of the Bible, Tolkien, Cooper, Keith, Roosevelt, Capstick, Hemingway, Homer, Asimov, Heinlein, and many others. They were all archetypes to be sure, but only shadows of the one I knew too briefly.
Because he expected me to learn the gun, I became a prodigy. Because he was a dedicated husband, I have been with the same woman for more than three decades. I read because I had to seek out the voices of men who wrote, and because I admired them, now I write also.
Since then, I have ranged farther than some do where I originate. As a result, life for me has been more than snowscapes in the winter and tended fields with contented animals in the summer with spring’s work and harvest on either side. Life found me where I was, and made me what I am. One can only view the purpose of it all through the lens of faith and hope that I am being used … as I often pray.
So, Dad, here I remain, more than half an allotted lifetime later. The times and my circumstances may well never let me achieve your category of manhood. Still, I have the intention, and those unreachable goals will take me as far as I can travel. What others said, I repeat: well done, sir. We remember you. You stand tall, just as you did in life, now with Mother again at your side. I would not be surprised to find that there, you have built another house.
Choose to Love. -DA