Honoring my father on his 100th birthday
"I'm doing the best I can."
Invariably, that's how my dad answers when I ask him how he's doing. I've been phoning him every Sunday morning since the early '80s, when my mom passed away. He was living in New York City then, and my younger sister and I were both in California; she in the Los Angeles area while I was in the Air Force, stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base up the coast. I'm writing this on Sunday, New Year's Eve 2017, just after my wife Veronica and I talked with him earlier today.
My dad now lives in Santa Maria, Calif., a picturesque city of a little over 100,000 people near the coast about 70 miles north of Santa Barbara. He lives by himself, but he's seldom alone, having a great circle of friends and neighbors. Physically he feels great but, as a performing pianist, he wishes he had a gig scheduled for tonight. He still keeps in shape by lifting weights and often going to the mall for long walks. He's also looking forward to his next birthday. On Jan. 11 my Dad will be celebrating his 100th birthday. And what stories he could tell!
Dad's parents emigrated from Czechoslovakia early in the last century and settled in New York City, where he was the firstborn, followed by a younger brother. In 1939, he became the first in his family to achieve a college education, graduating from Manhattan College with a degree in biology. During World War II he was a B-24 bomber pilot in the Army Air Corps, completing 35 combat missions over Germany and France, and earning five Air Medals. As a kid, I remember asking him about his experiences but, like so many combat veterans, he would downplay his own role, saying things like, "I think we killed a lot of cows." When I pressed him for more, he finally admitted that he had fought with Eisenhower, Patton and MacArthur. I was very impressed until he added, with a smile, "I just didn't get along with anybody." So much for the sense of humor I undoubtedly inherited and can still blame him for.
My dad put his college degree to good use in his job as a salesman of scientific and medical equipment for a laboratory supply company. On just about every weekend he would play piano with a band, coming home with a tuxedo smelling of cigarette smoke that I would find on Sunday morning hung by my mom in the bathroom to air out. He spent a lot of time with me and my sister, helping us through our math homework and school projects. It sounds pretty idyllic and, looking back on it, it really was. But all was not perfect.
Like many families, we had relatives we could just not get along with, often leading to shouting matches and hurt feelings. My mom could shout with the best of them, but not my dad. He was usually the peacemaker, calming down my mom and being a soothing influence overall. I remember sometimes being disappointed that Dad didn't tell our relatives off, but years later I realized that he had done the right: and often more difficult: thing.
Also during these years, Dad would go to the gym three nights a week after work, developing quite a physique. And was he ever strong! In 1949, he set a personal record in a weightlifting movement known as the bent press, lifting 200 pounds over his head with one hand, which was 54 pounds over his body weight. He could do not only handstands, but handstand push-ups! Sure wish we had videos of these feats!
It's great to watch my dad age so gracefully. His secret? One of them is undoubtedly his lifelong love of music, of constantly learning new material and entertaining the public. It's still a vital part of his life.
It's funny. While I was growing up, my heroes were for the most part characters I watched on TV, such as Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett and Wyatt Earp. Now I realize that I didn't have to look far for a real hero, since I was living with one.
"I'm doing the best I can."
You always did, Dad, and you still do.
The West Linn Adult Community Center is located at 1180 Rosemont Road. The center will be closed Monday, Jan. 15 in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
The lunch menu this week features chicken parmesan, garlic butter angel hair pasta, green beans and cream puffs on Friday, Jan. 12 and ham sandwiches, beef barley soup and sugar cookies Wednesday, Jan. 17. Cost is $5 per person.
John Ferenz is a volunteer in the Little Shop on Rosemont, the gift shop at the West Linn Adult Community Center. THE LITTLE SHOP ON ROSEMONT (the Gift Shop located in the West Linn Adult Community Center).