12/05/2010

My Father's House

Xmas is approaching. It's a season I've disliked all of my adult life. Of course, I love the break from work, in the few years that break occurred, but for most of my life Xmas meant suffering awful commercial music and phony sentiment and propaganda from the most unsentimental and least spiritual institutions in the history of humanity; American corporations. Outside of the togetherness and joy my family receives from Xmas, I'd rather skip the whole thing and hide out in a Montana hermit's cave for the whole second half of December. I am an atheist and if it weren't for Tom Jefferson's precious "separation of church and state" and that beautifully worded opening statement in the First Amendment ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion"), I suspect most of my love for the United State's Constitution would have been sorely tempered. Xmas is when most of the country ignores the First Amendment and we all pretend to be religious and loving. All of us except for those Americans who go on bombing and killing throughout the world in the interests of our favorite international corporations. It's a time full of contradictions, oxymorons, cynicism, and greed. It can't end quickly enough for me.

Part of the Xmas ritual for the last 35 years of my life has been an semi-annual trip to western Kansas to visit my parents. "Semi-annual" because of weather, distance, and the constant tension between my father's fundamentalist family and my secular nuclear family. Two years ago, my step-mother died. Last spring, my father died. Kansas is forever in my rear-view mirror. I still have a brother who lives in Kansas, but we've agreed to meet anywhere but Kansas from here out. Today's rant is the view from that driver's seat:

This is the Google View of my father's house, in Dodge City, KS. The home where he lived for the last 15 years of his life. Dodge City, KS is where he spent almost all of his adult life. Feel free to examine everything about that place. It's currently occupied by a free-loading minister who has convinced my step-sister he is improving the place by squatting there indefinitely. The housing market in Dodge has dried up so completely that this modern, well-cared-for home will probably sell for less than 50% of what it might have brought four years ago. Dodge is a wonderful example of the damage pseudo-conservative values have brought to the Midwest.

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My father was a high school math teacher for more than 40 years. Making a rough guess, based on his class sizes and typical course load, he taught 10,750 kids Trigonometry, Algebra I & II, Business Math, and, finally, Consumer Math (idiot math). Those years he was confined to teaching idiot math were supposed to be a punishment, incentive for him to quit, but when he lost his sight he was cared for and appreciated so much by "his kids" that he looked back on those classes as some of his best in a long career.

His last few years as an educator were doubly cursed by near-blindness brought on by chemotherapy, which he suffered in an attempt to suppress thyroid cancer, and a hostile school administration, which was endured because the new administration was hostile to older teachers. The cancer wasn't as malignant as the mismanagement, in the long run. My father loved teaching. He retired, reluctantly, at 73, and that pretty much marked the end of his life; although he survived almost 20 more years.

I think he would have enjoyed part-time assistant teaching, in a more enlightened community, or tutoring, but his last years teaching in the Dodge City School system were so miserable that he left the profession completely. He looked back often. In all of the conversations I had with him about his last 5 years, he had nothing but good things to say about the kids he taught (and those who taught him) and nothing but bad things to say about the spoiled brats in administratiion who mangled his city's public school system and squeezed all of the inspiration out of his career. I have no names to name, but I hope they know who they are. After spending more than half of his life in the same school, he left with about as much honor as if he'd been caught dipping into the school's petty cash.

My father's career was almost entirely in a small, rural area. He was a devastatingly conservative man in a completely conservative area. They were made for each other. Since nearly half of the city passed through his classes, you might say they were made of each other. Because of his perception of the Pendergast Democratic machine in Kansas City (mostly from the right wing editorials of Emporia's William Allen White) and his life-long dislike of Harry Truman, my father was a consistent Republican, regardless of how rarely Republicans lived up to his moral and philosophical values. It was a constant source of disagreement between us until the year he died. When I read Tom Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, I saw my father in every page. When I hear any version of Pat Metheny and David Bowie's This Is Not America, my father's logic and his patriotism and his unwavering loyalty and the constant Republican betrayal of all of those things are my mental videography to that soundtrack.

At different periods in his teaching career, he was a basketball coach, a football coach, and a tennis coach. He coached a state championship runner-up basketball team in 1955 and '56. Several of his tennis students had successful college careers and a couple became college tennis coaches. At times, my father was a famous man in Dodge City. At times, he was almost an outcast; as when he publicly and loudly opposed the installation of the teacher's union in Dodge's public schools. For most of his life, like most 1950's K-12 teachers, he held several part-time and summer jobs to make ends meet; manufacturing company and department store accountant, farm laborer, filling station attendant, newspaper delivery, and various Amway-style (including Amway) pyramid marketing scams. In fact, when I looked at Wikipedia's list of "multi-level marketing companies," I saw more familiar names, from boxes and literature in my parents garage and basement, than unfamiliar. When my father was 60, he was working a 7-day work week, putting in an 18-hour workday five-days-a-week, with a 5-hour weekend break. When he retired, his teacher's pension, Social Security, Medicare, and some veteran's benefits provide him with the only security he'd enjoyed in his life. He had, practically speaking, next-to-no money in the bank, although his home was paid for and he had no debt. The fact that two decades disconnected from an active life was all that it took for my father to fall from a valued member of this small society to someone who's death was barely noticed is evidence that if you want to be remembered, die young.

He was a WWII Navy veteran, although he believed that FDR had unnecessarily involved (possibly through conspiracy) the United States in an Old World war. He had been an LST officer in three European Theater invasions (North Africa, Italy, and Normandy) and, later, became a gunnery officer on assorted aircraft carriers in the Pacific. Colonel S. L. A. Marshall's "military efficiency" book, Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command in Future War, that described how our military could "improve" training so that new recruits are willing to kill on first contact at a much higher rate. Marshall complained that only 15% of WWII soldiers were willing to shoot to kill on first contact. Tyler Boudreau describes the resulting campaign of "improvement" in his column, To Kill or Not to Kill. My father was one of the 85%. In fact, he hoped to stay in that group throughout the war. When he accepted his Navy officer bars, he promised that he would never return fire if he was in a "kill or be killed" situation. Fortunately, he didn't have to. He sort of managed living by that promise by not having to directly fire a gun, although he targeted his aircraft carrier and LST gunnery crews. He told me about this promise in the 1990's, two-and-a-half decades after our Vietnam War battles that had seemed to place us in opposite camps regarding war and organized murder.

After the war, he returned to college, finished his teaching degree, got a job as a business teacher and football coach, started a family, and tried to put everything about war behind him. Eight years later, the love of his life, my mother, was diagnosed with liver cancer and one year later she died at age 34. I don't think he ever recovered, although he remarried four years later and added three more children to his responsibilities.

Our relationship was always a war zone, mostly over religion but also politics. We, honestly, loved to argue. We wanted to understand and "convert" each other, especially during a particularly verbal and intellectual period during his late sixties and through his seventies. I learned more about this complex, reserved, intelligent man in that decade than I imagined there was to know.

My father's (and my mother's) collection of 78 rpm Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Spike Jones, Duke Ellington, and big band and dixieland records introduced me to music and jazz. His 1950's appreciation for the Everly Brothers (in the midst of his general dislike for R&R and country music) taught me that music is mostly about pleasure and humor rather than some serious concern. That attitude has helped preserve my love of music through some pretty difficult times. It also allowed me to make a generally cantankerous character, Stephen Temmer, into a friend instead of someone who was convinced I was a musical idiot.

His mathematical approach to analysis, eventually, found its way into my career when that mutated into electrical engineering. His willingness to debate philosophical and political issues (a trait that came late in life to him) without fouling personal relationships became one of my life's ideals. His idealism, honor courage, work habits, loyalty, pursuit of knowledge and career goals all set standards for my life that are beyond my capabilities.

He was a small town farm-boy who lost countless friends who poured out of his LST into WWII enemy fire, left the career he loved, unrecognized and unappreciated, buried two wives, and suffered the loss of his incredible vitality and lived another 30 years practically as an invalid. Partially out of self-protection and more out of practicality, he absorbed those injuries and kept going. My father was my connection to Kansas and now that he is no longer there and there are so many things wrong with that place I happily relinquish and sever that connection. On this first anniversary without an obligation to ask me to consider that 1,000 mile trip to a place that is as foreign to me as any European country, I acknowledge that my ability to let that place fade into my life's rear-view mirror is a gift from my father.

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