Dad, what are you doing?

A typical view of the Cascades on a gorgeous sunny day.

I want to start by saying I am nothing like my father.

“Hey! Who are you people?”
“We’re your collective subconscious of the people that knew both you and your father, and unless you are going to state that this is a work of fiction, you are going to have to start again.”

Hmm. Okay, let me start again by saying I never thought I was much like my father, but I will admit I see more and more of him in me as I get older. I was the child who favored my mother’s side both in looks and temperament. Over the years, however, I took on this look. It wasn’t so much a scowl as it was a deadpan expression, neither approving nor disapproving. That’s my dad. (My mother constantly scowled, so this isn’t about her.)

My dad’s sense of humor was dry, droll in fact. He and his clan could sit and tell whoppers all day and never so much as smile. I remember a family reunion when I was a young boy listening to my grandpa and his brothers tell whopper after whopper, and I was captivated. After one particularly outrageous fish tale, I asked in all seriousness, “Really?” That got a smile out of them, and unbeknownst to me at the time, I made their day.

My father was kind of a loner. I don’t mean he didn’t have a lot of friends. It was more like he didn’t connect deeply with others. The one exception in his life was his mother. My grandma was the most caring, nurturing woman I knew growing up, and my father was absolutely devoted to her until the day she died. Other than that, he was typically kind of distant. And more than anything, I wanted to impress him. I think I did in some ways, but he never said so.

I remember one time coming up to him in the basement workshop where he was running the table saw. I was in junior high school and I approached him with my report card, my first one with straight A’s, and I said “Hey dad, what are you doing?”
“I’m building some shelves. What’s up?”
“I got my report card. You want to see it?”
He took the envelope and pulled out the slip of paper with the column of A’s, read it over briefly, and gave it back to me. Then he said, “I’m glad you got all A’s. I just wish it wasn’t so easy for you.”
When he saw the stunned look on my face, he said, “Mike, I would rather you had to work your butt off and got all C’s than to see you get all A’s without putting out much effort.”

To say my father was stoic would be a tragic understatement. But in all fairness, he was a product of his upbringing. He never got anything without effort, some might say superhuman effort. He was born in 1919 and grew up in Selah, a rural farming town in central Washington. He graduated high school (barely, from what I’ve been told) in 1937. There was no work except picking fruit in the summer, which he did. Later, he took a job with the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of the federal work programs during the Roosevelt years. Then, in 1939, he joined the Army to get out of the middle of nowhere.

My father was always well-read. He knew war was imminent. I think he knew before anyone in the country was even speaking about it. He landed a good job as a clerk at the Presidio in San Francisco because he was the only one in his unit that could type. He could have remained there and prospered in his new role, but he wanted to travel. He told his CO he signed up for a post in Manila, which he took. Anyone who knows a little history will know that was a bad decision. It was just over a year later that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Japanese troops next invaded the Philippines, and my father was on the island of Corregidor when it fell. Atrocities like the Bataan Death March followed, of which my father was a part. He always told me, “The lucky ones died first.” I didn’t understand that until years later when I read numerous accounts from the war.

My dad didn’t talk about the war until he was in his 70’s. His whole life was about living and getting the most out of each day. For him, every day not hiking and climbing in the mountain wilderness areas so near to our Seattle home was another day lost. He signed up for swing shift or graveyard shift as much as he could during his thirty years at Boeing in order to get up and take a day hike before heading to his job. Vacations were for weeklong mountain expeditions, and he retired at the age of 60 in order to spend all the days he could in his beloved mountains. As it turned out, he outlived most of the POW survivors from WWII. He gave up skiing at age 82 when he learned he had Parkinson’s disease, which he determined was what caused him to keep falling down. He still went for day hikes with his pet beagle for a few years until it became too risky to go alone. Both he and his wife, my stepmother, began displaying signs of dementia, and my stepsister moved them back east somewhere when he was 85. There was no love lost between me and my stepsister, so I lost track of him when he moved, and I have no idea when he passed or where his remains are. It doesn’t really matter, because he would not have remembered me by that time.

I remember on a four day hike in the Cascade Mountains I found an unspent .45 caliber bullet, which I picked up. That evening around the campfire, my dad said, “Let me see that bullet you picked up.” I handed it to him. He inspected it, and then tossed it into the campfire. “Dad, what are you doing?” I hollered. We looked at each other wide-eyed for a moment. Then we both jumped up and took shelter behind a log. About thirty seconds later, BOOM! We looked up and the entire campfire was blown out. We quickly ran to extinguish coals that were burning holes in our tent fly and the clothes we had laid out to dry. He never offered an explanation, and I never bothered to ask. It was the most spontaneous, goofy thing I ever experienced with my father.

To know my dad was to know and love the outdoors, which I did from a very young age, something I tried to pass on to my own children. I was 15 years old when I completed the Mountaineers Basic Climbing Course with my father. I climbed Mt. Rainier for the first time that summer of 1965, a milestone for any outdoorsman in the Pacific Northwest.
And that was the legacy my father passed on to me. More than anything, he taught me to survive. Granted, on Maslov’s hierarchy, survival is pretty basic, and there is much more to life than surviving. On a somewhat higher plane I will admit I have acquired some of my father’s sense of humor. And often to my surprise, I find myself quoting my father – some of his philosophy, as well as some of his brain farts. Here are a few that come to mind:
“Show me a man who plays good pool, and I’ll show you a man with a wasted youth.”
“Humility is something you have until you find out.”
“A good loser is someone who loses consistently.”
And whenever I asked where we were or where we were going, my dad always said, “We’re taking a shortcut.”

Looking back, I can recall sort of smiling when my daughters asked me, “Dad, what are you doing?”

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