Pop was older than I. He was 46 when I was born and I was the oldest of five. That made him older than all his kids - a fact that took us a while to accept.
His grandfather was a Civil War veteran, successful businessman and member of the Nebraska Legislature. But, unfortunately, Pop’s own father preferred the bottle to success.
Since Aid to Families with Dependent Children did not exist, Pop, the oldest of seven, left school after the sixth grade to support the family. Ultimately, they succumbed to the lure of free land and settled in the Poplar Valley of central Alberta, Canada.
Free land, however, does not come free. Building a productive farm is not easy when done with a horse and a breaking plow. When the war came, Pop left the “homestead country” and moved to Seattle, where he met and married my mother. A year later, I became a reality.
My closest brush with the “homestead country” came when we moved to western Montana. We had little money and rent subsidies did not exist, so my folks did an ingenious thing. They bought the most rundown house in the neighborhood and made us kids clean it up - said they could build equity that way.
With no plumbing, we took baths in a round tub on the kitchen floor. The system worked fine, except for one problem. Baths were given according to age, the youngest going first. True, we got to add a kettle of hot water between bathers, but that only replaced the water that was splashed out or swallowed.
I didn’t mind the age discrimination, but I never understood the logic of bathing in water where I came out dirtier than I went in.
Self-esteem hadn’t been invented. The folks didn’t know spanking would turn a child into a molester (or at least into an unhappy camper). Their system consisted of a belt that was longer and thicker than we could measure. During my nurturing years it hung on a hook over the kitchen door - directly under Pop’s rifle!
This belt was well used. We learned to defend ourselves by sliding a magazine inside the pants before the whipping began. I’ve often wondered if Pop knew. I presume he did.
However, the main deterrent to our misbehavior wasn’t the sting of the strap. It was “the vision thing.”
Pop attended one parent-teacher conference. As I recall it, he told the teacher that if I misbehaved, she should give me a good spanking and call him. He would then spank me twice as hard when I got home.
I never misbehaved in school. Anytime I was tempted to do so, I had the vision: Pop’s belt, hanging on a hook over the kitchen door, directly under his rifle.
When I stole a neighbor’s pocket knife (my only crime spree), I had the vision. I gave the knife back.
We had a pink Case tractor, and a field I was supposed to harrow. I figured that if I shifted to high gear, I could finish early and be on my way.
Trouble was, the tractor had no brakes. I lost control and hit a stump, knocking the wheels off the tractor. I covered the 100 or so yards to the house in about an hour. Every step brought a new showing of the vision.
I told my father what I’d done, and he said one thing: “Are you OK?”
That was it. The matter went no further, and the vision never came back.
Pop seemed to know when we misbehaved. Claimed God told him.
Our community was originally settled by Mormons - wonderful, hard-working people who had built a church that once stood on the back of our property. The only thing left standing at the time of my boyhood was a hole the shape of an outhouse. In consultation with the Keller boys, devout Mormons, we dubbed it the Old Mormon P Hole.
One summer day while Pop was gardening, Terry Ward and I lit a fire in the Old Mormon P Hole. We soon found that dry fir branches make more smoke than you can imagine - and I had the vision.
I covered the 1,000 or so yards to the house in approximately 90 seconds. I don’t remember how but I got Pop into the house until the smoke was gone. He never found out what we’d done. God never told him a thing.
If I learned anything from my dad it was a sense of duty and work ethic.
One December night in 1972, he went to bed early. About 11 p.m. a local bar called with a stopped-up toilet.
Pop didn’t approve of drinking. He was sick and tired, and he was 75 years old. It would have been easy to say no.
But he was the town plumber and had a duty to help, so he and I went to work.
After about 20 minutes, we determined that we couldn’t do the job and went home. But because we hadn’t solved the problem, he didn’t even charge for a service call.
Recognition comes in many forms. None is more deserved than that which is unsolicited. None is more welcome than that which is unexpected.
Pop died at 86. The funeral was held on a Monday morning. It hadn’t been announced in the paper or advertised, yet he had the largest funeral in the history of the church. Not just the usual contingent of widows and old folks, but men and women, friends and customers taking time off from work to attend the old plumber’s funeral.
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