I started the day with that song in my head. Oddly enough, the song has nothing to do with Monterey, California, or even a good event (it’s about Monterey, Mexico and losing out on a great love) but when Frank Sinatra is belting it out it is powerful. Never mind its message (or locale) when Diana and I were in Monterey, CA a few years back, we had it blaring.
But thinking of those good times cruising in the land of my birth with my lovely wife reminded me of why Monterey is important to me. And it reminded me that my Dad passed away 24 years ago today.
Dad was born and raised in Sacramento, CA. His mom had 12 kids but no means of support. Seems my grandfather, whoever he is, abandoned the whole brood. Dad always referred to him as a German horse thief and that was about all I ever knew of him. So Dad grew up hardscrabble – they always had to work hard to just eat. But his mother did her best for him and his siblings and he spoke fondly of her and amazingly they all turned out to be productive citizens.
He was Catholic by birth and tradition but Protestant by choice. During catechism as a young lad the priest informed him that he would not make a good Catholic because he asked too many questions. So in pursuit of the truth he embraced what would then be called Protestantism before we had so many divisions. Dad had a solid underpinning of spirituality that took many forms throughout his life, but it underscored all he did. He knew who his God was and what that should mean but never forced it on us – more like offered us the opportunity. He knew the score: the faith of our fathers might sound like a good idea but unless you discover it for yourself it has no power. As a young adult I did just that and Dad was always there cheering me on in my pursuit.
With a solid foundation under him Dad looked around at the opportunities for a poor boy from the wrong side of the tracks and decided that Uncle Sam would take care of him. He joined the U.S. Army just in time for the Korean War. He never cared much for being shot at, or doing the shooting, so he joined the Army Corps of Engineers and ultimately became a maker of maps. Uncle Sam did indeed take care of him and most of what happened from then on out to shape his life was Army related.
Like meeting my Mom. Not everyone knows this, but Dad was married briefly before he met her. He actually had a son, named Arthur like himself, up in Chicago. It was so not-talked-about that I did not find out unit I was an adult! Seems she left him for another man… So that aside Dad found himself stationed at Fort Knox, KY. For entertainment in those parts and in those days, they headed to the roller rink. Mom was a classic early-fifties country girl looking for some fun, complete with bobby socks and saddle shoes, and Dad was a young GI on the prowl. They met and skated and fell in love and lived happily ever after. No kidding. When he died, he had been married to my Mom for 44 years and never regretted a minute of it.
Mom never regretted it either. Her little soldier opened the world to her. He took her all over this country and overseas, always taking the best care of her he knew how. Which was difficult at best because in those days enlisted soldiers had it rough. They were poor, but then they had always been that way, so actually by their standards they were rich. And it is hard to feel poor driving around Germany or visiting the Swiss Alps or walking the coast in California. By the time I was born, in 1958, they had lived in a half dozen places.
And it happened in Monterey.
Me, that is, oddly enough being born in my Dad’s old stomping ground. He was taking pictures for the Army and one of my true treasures is an award-winning B&W photo he took the year I was born, of ships in Monterey Harbor. He had rented a tiny house near Pebble Beach that was across the street from, and with a clear view, of the Pacific Ocean. My Mom says to this day it was the prettiest place she had ever lived, and that on a poor sergeant’s pay, but he always did his best to make Mom happy. Ultimately, I was born at Carmel-By-The Sea Hospital, making me a Californian, but not long after was whisked away for further travel adventures courtesy of the U.S. Army.
My childhood was filled with new places, new faces, new schools as we relocated on one Army move after another. But it was never a chore or even depressing. Dad made it plenty of fun as he a had a penchant for travel and knowledge, two things that go well together, so wherever we lived we soon found ourselves immersed in whatever one could be immersed in locally. We were always piling in the station wagon, first a Rambler than a Plymouth, and heading out to see what was there. And those were good memories of Castles and monuments and parks and oceans and windmills and gondolas. And little green felt hats, covered with pins of places we had been, just like Dad wore.
Eventually he retired from the Army and I think he missed his Uncle Sam. After a few jobs – real estate sales, insurance, deputy sheriff (!?) – he ended up back in civil service, teaching what he had served 24 years in the Army doing. He taught young soldiers the fundamentals of photography and reprographics at the Defense Mapping School. And went back to college and got a degree in the same. Dad was always moving forward, never content to just sit around and let life come at him. He had a plan and worked it.
He didn’t plan on being sidelined by serious medical problems but finally was told to retire. So he did, and he and Mom retired to Elizabethtown, KY and bought a house on King Arthur Circle (coincidence? I think not). We used to love to make the long tortuous drive, four kids and us screaming away in a minivan, because they loved to see Opa (as he was called, by German tradition). He always had something for them and would take them riding around in the trailer of his lawn tractor. And when he wasn’t spending time with us, he was driving Mom around the country, always traveling, always ready to see what was around the next bend. He had no illusions as to who was in charge – “I just work the pedals” was his motto – and Mom loved to travel.
Dad could never truly retire so he adopted many community causes and activities. He was a lay preacher for the Methodists, filling in at parishes without a preacher. He visited the nursing homes to read and play games with the residents. If there was a guy at your door collecting money for hearts or cancers or whatever, it was him. Mom was glad because otherwise his retirement would have killed her!
Way too soon, at the prime of his retired life, Dad was felled by a massive stroke that left him paralyzed and unable to do even the simplest tasks. His condition deteriorated and in a few months, he was gone. The nursing home called to say he had a heart attack – but his heart was never a problem – and I like to think he checked out. Not from his problems, as he wasn’t a quitter. I think he knew his condition was grave and would be far too much a burden on those around him – especially his beloved wife. So he weighed his options and, knowing what was on the other side, went on home.
We cried all the way to Kentucky in December, 1997, just before Christmas. The funeral was magnificent, reflecting all his pursuits, with full military honors, a complete Masonic service, and a solid Baptist ceremony. The place was packed with people I had never met, but they knew me as they had met my Dad through one of his multi-faceted activities. Dad was laid to rest on a cold but clear December day leaving a big hole in our lives and our hearts.
But you know, I am glad to have had the life I had and wouldn’t trade my childhood for anyone’s. I had a Dad who cared about me, cared about what I learned and saw and did and experienced. I had a Dad who was proud of me, and my family, and whole-heartedly supported our every move. I had a Dad who, while his life was cut short by a couple of decades, lived it fully and gave it his all. He is missed deeply, I think about him constantly, I hope I have lived up to his expectations, and I know I will see him again.
So here’s to you, Dad. You were gone way too soon but while you were here, you were here all the way!