Monday, September 17, 2012

I Miss You, Daddy, Happy Birthday

It is September 17. Today would have been my father's 90th birthday.

Difficult as it is to believe, Daddy has been gone for thirty-five years. I still miss him. He was my fishing buddy, my movie buddy, my science fiction enabler. He was the one who taught me the love of books and that everything - and I mean everything - is interesting, one way or another.

He was also the most intelligent person I've ever known. He only had a high-school education, but that didn't stop him from reading everything. If there wasn't another book around, he'd go off and pick out a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica and read that. He and my mom bought me that set of encyclopedias when I was in the eighth grade, from a vendor at the Ventura County Fair. But I suspect that I was only an excuse so that he could buy them for himself. The books, and the bookcase that came with them, lived in my room, but he helped himself to a volume on a regular basis. All that reading, in encyclopedias and elsewhere, must have paid off. I have witnessed him more than holding his own in conversations with people with vastly more formal education than he ever had the opportunity to get.

I think I've probably written here before about how Daddy was always arranging educational experiences for me. When I was five and we went to the drive-in one summer night, he arranged for me to get a tour of the projection room so that I could see exactly how the movies got onto the screen. We made regular trips to places like Griffith Park, to the observatory and planetarium, to the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum and to the county art museum. He gave me books to read.

Actually, before he gave me books to read, he gave me reading. You see, when I was very young, Daddy made sure he told me a bedtime story every night. Except, I kind of got stuck on one, and started insisting that he tell me the story of "Rumpelstiltskin" every single night. It didn't take that long for him to get bored, telling the same tale night after night after night. So, he started improvising. He'd change the story around and add bits, trying to make it more interesting for himself. Except that I knew how the story should go, and I'd insist that the tell it "the right way". Finally he got tired of that, and told me, one night, that if I ever wanted to hear that story again, I was going to have to learn to read it to myself. Which is how I ended up reading by the age of three.

By the time I was about seven or eight, he had started giving me science fiction novels to read. I had tested out as reading on an adult level when I was seven, at least partly thanks to the availability of a bookshelf full of Readers' Digest Condensed Books that my mother received, volume by volume, every three months but never really read. So, when he started handing me Bradbury and Clarke and Heinlein to read, I was ready. He'd already primed me by introducing me to science fiction films much earlier. But he also encouraged me to read other things, especially non-fiction.

He didn't just give me books to read and leave it at that. We discussed what I read. When I said I thought something was boring, he would tell me why it wasn't. His mission wasn't a complete success - there are still things that don't interest me that much - but he did succeed in instilling in me an appreciation for the whole world around me.

He also made sure I grew up knowing that all people are valuable. He had friends and acquaintances in many different ethnic groups, and he taught me that it is important to judge people by who they are, not what color their skin is or where their ancestors came from before Dr. King ever gave his speech to that effect. He had no tolerance for prejudice and made it clear that he expected me to follow his lead in that respect.

On the other hand, from the time I was able to do so, Daddy respected my right to disagree with him about things, including politics. I knew so many kids when I was growing up who were expected to parrot their parents' beliefs and who were punished when they did not. But Daddy always said that as long as I could defend my position on something intelligently, it was all right for me to hold that position. It's possible that this only worked because we agreed on most things. On the other hand, we argued about a few things on an ongoing basis. One of the things we argued most often about was the necessity for the use of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II - he believed it had been necessary and I do not - but even in those arguments, he didn't try to use his parental status to shut down my arguments, even though the subject was a lot more personal to him that it ever could possibly have been for me.

You see, Daddy spent two years as a prisoner of war in Europe during World War II. Or, as he sometimes called it, his time as "a guest of the Germans". He was a radio operator on a bomber operating out of North Africa and one day his plane was shot down over Italy. Parachutes being what they were then, he landed in a walnut tree (perhaps fitting, since that's what the family had on their land at home in California). He was taken prisoner and shipped off to Stalag 17 (yes, the one the movie was about), in Austria. He never talked about the bad stuff, only the things he found amusing. Things like the time he was shot in the leg by a guard during a baseball game. Forgetting momentarily where he was, he started over the fence to retrieve a ball that had been hit too hard. I suppose it was understandable why the guard shot first and asked questions later, since people were always trying to escape. I'm not completely sure why Daddy thought that getting shot was funny, but he laughed every time he told that story. I don't know if that was the wound that earned him his Purple Heart, but I kind of hope it was.

I suspect that his time as a prisoner of war is what made Daddy as laid back about most things as he was. Oh, things would get to him and he'd get angry once in awhile, but mostly he just sort of went with the flow. One of the things he didn't talk much about was the end of the war, when the Germans marched most of the thousands of POWs in the camp clear across Austria, trying to get away from the Russians, who were on their way. He mentioned that it had happened, but it wasn't until I did some research a few years ago that I discovered that the march was clear across the country and that when prisoners couldn't keep up, the guards just shot them and left them to die. It seems to me that an experience like that, once survived, could tend to lead to the feeling that most of the frustrations of everyday life weren't really much to worry about in comparison to that life-or-death situation. I suspect, also, that the experience had a lot to do with Daddy's unwillingness to have firearms around. He'd probably had more than enough of guns by the time his POW experience was over.

Even without the guns, being in a German POW camp had to have been an iffy situation for Daddy. After all, he had been born in Germany. Although his family came to California when he was just two and a half years old and he didn't speak German, he understood it quite well. He always talked about how it had been very, very important that the guards and other camp officials not discover that he could understand what they were saying when the spoke German. It could have, he said, been very, very bad for him if they had known.

That experience probably led to another of the important things that Daddy shared with me, although he also got a healthy dose of it from his father. Daddy always instilled in me the belief that it is important to always question authority. He made sure that I knew the difference between questioning authority and flouting it, explaining that challenging authority was not about just ignoring it for the hell of it and doing what you wanted to do instead. But his belief that it is not healthy to just do what you are told because someone in authority told you to do it probably also came, at least to some extent, from having lived under the authoritarian Nazis during his time as a POW. He taught me that it is always important to find out why someone in authority wants you to do something, and then evaluate whether that thing is in your best interests, or simply in the best interests of the authority who wants you to do that thing. This went double, he always said, if the person is a politician. He didn't like politicians much.

So, yes. It's been thirty-five years, and I still miss my father. I am the person I am because of him, because of the time he took to teach me thing things he did...that everything is interesting. That you have to be able to support your opinions logically. That other people don't always have your best interests in mind. Also, that fishing is fun even if you don't catch any fish. That everyone matters, not just the rich or the famous or the powerful. That it's easier to be kind than to be rude. That history matters. That science is a good thing. And, oh, so much more.

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