16 July 2015

Happy Birthday, Dad!




Today would have been my father’s 100th birthday. If he were here – and who’s to say that he isn’t – he’d love turning 100, because in spite life socking it to him too many times, he was an optimist.  “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha was one of his favorite songs.

 He was born in a little town on the Illinois River where his father’s German family had settled. When he was 6 months old, they moved to Niles, Michigan, just across the state line from South Bend, back to his mother’s hometown, and he lived in Berrien County for the rest of his life, save three years in WWII. He considered himself a Niles native, though, and was an abiding Notre Dame fan to the great consternation of his offspring, who preferred Michigan and Michigan State.  While Knute Rockne was making his legacy in the 1920s, radio was the hot new medium, and the ND Fighting Irish became the first ‘America’s team’.  The school didn’t grant exclusive broadcast rights for its football games, so stations from coast to coast came to South Bend.  Guys like my dad could share in the glory.  

He was a golf caddy in his teen years, and he played the game from that time on, even as a serviceman in England during the Second World War. There he somehow got to play at a course in Henley-on-Thames.  He had kept a souvenir brochure of the town with his WWII memorabilia, and the town came up quite a bit in his WWII canon.  Usually with the Henley golf story, he’d bring up the time he and a buddy wandered onto the grounds of Windsor Castle whereupon a cordial Guard showed them the way out.  Dad was never a jerk, so his encounters with the British and Europeans during the war were recalled with delight.

There may have been a country club in Niles – I don’t know for sure – but Dad also caddied for Chicago gangsters from time to time.  I remember one caddying story featuring a hoodlum:  “Hey, kid, how d’ya get to Dow-a-guy-ack?” (Dowagiac, a town in neighboring Cass County - Natives pronounce it Do- wa’-jack.)  He wanted Dad to accompany him and serve up woods and irons. I think Dad was cautious about traveling anywhere with one of Capone’s wise guys, so he gave directions and received a generous tip anyway.  (A hood with a heart of gold) Berrien County was an open territory for rival gangsters, The Purple Gang from Detroit and Capone’s empire from Chicago, so there were mobsters everywhere while the Eighteenth Amendment was in effect.  (and afterward, as the criminal networks proved useful for other endeavors.)

Another job he had was to change the marquee of the Niles movie theater and to carry the heavy film reels up to the projection booth.  For this he may have received a small wage- probably not, because it was the early Depression years - but was allowed to watch the movies gratis.  The Marx Brothers were an absolute favorite, W. C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton.   He and my mother saw the later Marx Brothers oeuvre together.  Dad had a terrific memory and could quote Groucho for just about any occasion.  

When he was a little kid, he ventured outside for a walk and took a nap in a field accompanied by the family dog, a Collie, if I remember.   His mother found both of them, the dog keeping watch and Dad sound asleep.  She was nominated for a Carnegie medal for rescuing another of her sons from a well he’d tumbled into, but because it was her child, she didn’t qualify for the honor.

Grandma Weiss was Irish.  Totally. Niles had an Irish section, the 4th Ward, removed from the local patricians.  Because they stuck together, Dad absorbed the Irish-American cultural point of view, and his innate story-telling ability was enhanced by listening to tales of the O’Connell clan, McGee, who “didn’t have a leg under him” most of the time, the Slatterys, Aunt Mary and Red Bill.

 Dad’s mother’s cousin, Billy Casey, ran a saloon there, and he prospered.  His house still stands, a gothic  oddity probably built in the 1880s.   He was generous to my grandmother and to my dad, plying him with ham sandwiches and pie and a little money on occasion.  Billy gained a bit of posthumous recognition in a biography of Niles native and legendary sportswriter, Ring Lardner.  Lardner’s aunts received a weekly bottle of spirits delivered to their home by Billy Casey, courtesy of their famous nephew.  Mom and Dad lived in Ring Lardner’s house when they were first married, and the aunts were their landlords.  I suppose Billy Casey may have arranged for them to have that apartment.  

In 1918 dad’s grandfather, Richard O’Connell, who had come to Niles via Chicago from County Kerry in 1870, died in the flu epidemic. The family was away for an extended period visiting relatives in Illinois, and dad’s mother didn’t find out about her father’s death until months after it happened.  They had been estranged because of my grandmother’s marriage to a German Lutheran.  When she returned to Niles, she discovered that all of his property had been divided among the shirttail relatives, because those good Irish Catholics all had lied and told the probate court that she, her father’s only child, was dead.  Her lawyer petitioned to reopen the file, and she was awarded her due. Dad remembered sitting in the posh anteroom of the lawyer’s office, wood-paneled and upholstered, waiting for his mother.

 Someday I’ll have to order the probate file.  Billy Casey was one of the people who told the court my grandmother was dead.  Dad always thought that Billy’s generosity may have been partly out of guilt.

About 1928 Dad and his brother Gordon both won the spelling bee in their respective schools, Dad in the junior high and Gordon in high school, and the newspaper, The Niles Daily Star, wrote a little story about them.  He and his two brothers were plenty smart, quick witted and of good cheer.  Their father died in 1928 of a probable brain tumor, and by 1930, they lost their house and eventually all the contents, which had been placed in storage, including first editions of Charles Dickens.  As I relate these vignettes, I can’t say for sure whether the books were first editions, for example, or just really nice old books, but their loss impacted Dad and his mother both because they each had a way with words.

Dad didn’t relay his history to solicit sympathy or to shame us with tales of his hardscrabble experiences.  The Great Depression was a Major Subject for people in my father’s generation as most of my contemporaries can relate.  I probably know as much about it as I do the 60s.   Dad’s main motivation I think, aside from an opportunity to tell a story, was to pay tribute to his mother, who was a brick.  And also to zing a few hypocrites who did absolutely nothing to aid his family, even though it was in their power to do so.  Both he and my mother had a hard time, but they weren’t bitter or nasty.  Quite the opposite.  They tried to be to other people what they wished people had been to them.  

After they lost the house, Dad found a job – lucky, that – working in a hotel restaurant in Niles where he made a dollar a day plus room and board.  His mother went to live with her Aunt Mary O’Connell, who had quite a lot of money for those days, but who was close with a dollar, having been a maid on Boston’s Beacon Hill before coming to Michigan.  She lived to be 95, and her estate was worth $250,000. in 1935.  For a time Dad stayed with her, too, and every morning she went to early mass at St. Mary’s Catholic Church.  Many of those days she’d hit my father up for the offering.  “Say, Nor, you wouldn’t happen to have a dime now would you?”  One had to give the church silver coins, and dimes were still silver in the 30s.

On one of our trips to visit the landmarks of Dad’s youth in Niles, we went into St. Mary’s.  I’m not sure he’d ever actually been inside, but his Irish relatives (all except his mother, that is) were buried in the Catholic cemetery nearby.  My sister started looking over the stained glass windows and discovered that three of the large panels had been donated by Dad’ s family, his grandparents, the O’Connells, his great grandparents, the Slatterys, and by good, old Aunt Mary.  He was so touched by that serendipitous discovery, even though the Church had shunned his mother for raising little pagans outside the sway of Catholicism. 

Grandma eventually went to work for the Tyler family in Niles.  They were pretty near the top of the heap socially and materially.  She was their private secretary and Girl Friday. I think she may have acted as housekeeper for them, too, and managed their household when they went to Florida for the winter.  I remember they came to her funeral in 1964 in a chauffeured limousine.

Dad and Mother met in 1935 and were married in June, 1936.  She was in Benton Harbor, so they courted up and down US-31 in Dad’s Nash automobile.  They went to the House of David, the local movie houses and Jean Klock Park.  I think their first date may have been there.  Benton Harbor was the happenin’ town, more so than Niles or St. Joe, which were straight-laced and sober, towns which nonetheless had a fleet of rum runners during Prohibition.  

At boot camp at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri, at the initial assembly of the men, the officer in charge announced, “One of you has experience as a cook.  Don’t make me go back upstairs to find out who you are. ”  So Dad went to cook and baker’s school and was assigned to a medical collecting company whose commanding officer was a physician from Philadelphia whom Dad recalled with particular fondness.  He became fast friends with two company medics from Kentucky and Indiana, and they stayed in contact for the rest of their lives.  On the night of Dad’s wake in 1997, his friend from Indiana happened to call the house, not knowing that Dad had died.  My brother talked to him for a long while.   That’s the last link we had to his WWII interlude.

I might be able to write a book containing all Dad’s war stories I heard again and again through the years.  The sad thing is, I didn’t get him to write them down himself.  The War was the signal experience of his life, more even than marrying and having a family, perhaps – at least equal to those events. War does that to people.  It usurps other experiences and persists in a person’s mind and heart.   

One of his best stories concerned a General who’d broken an ankle, probably not in the line of duty.  Dad and another medic transported him through a field somewhere in Holland in pitch darkness, lost their bearings and fell, General in tow, into a garbage pit.  The next day they went to pay their respects, and the General said, “Some lousy sons-of-bitches dropped me into a garbage dump last night, and when I find out who they are, I’ll have their asses.”  

His company went into Normandy at Omaha Beach on D+4 (four days after D-Day).  He didn’t ever talk about the carnage, but he doubtless saw plenty.  After Paris was liberated in August, 1944, Dad and his company went there on a pass, and someone took their picture in front of the Arc de Triomphe  alongside a Parisian who’d insisted on acting as their host.  In Dad’s experiences the French were wonderful to the “Yanks”, and he always wanted to go back with my mother.  Of course, they would have had to swim, because my mother would not fly.

Back home Dad stayed in the food business. He worked in, managed and owned several restaurants and ended up running the food service department at Mercy Hospital in Benton Harbor.  He really loved that job, I think.  The people who worked at the hospital were a community, corny as that sounds. 

 Dad and mother joined the Twin City Players, an amateur theatre troupe that’s still going strong today.  Around the mid-50s Dad was president of the group, and they’d have meetings at our house.  I remember the names of some of the other Players:  Babe and Virgil Lewis, Marian Tiffiny, Gladys and Henry Johnson, Keitha Dasse, Marilyn Birner, Roy and Muriel Mulhagen, my mother’s sister, Donna Anderson …    I don’t know how tight a group they were, but from where I sat, it sure looked like they were having great fun.  My mother was a pretty darned good actress.  Dad knew how to run things and make it fun.  Back when I was a kid, adults were allowed to engage in adult activities, and the kids could sit quietly on the sidelines and learn something or else stay home.  I certainly participated in a boatload of activities, but the folks had their own time, as well. 

In the days following Dad’s death when we were planning the funeral, my brother heard the poem “Shifting the Sun” by Diana der-Hovanessian on Garrison Keillor’s radio show, The Writer’s Almanac.  It ends thus:
“When your father dies, say the Armenians,
your sun shifts forever
and you walk in his light.”

I was spoiled being raised in a home where the man of the house was a true gent.  He never complained about anything to speak of, was enthusiastic about the family without being overbearing, was a great chef and great wit, and he gave a damn.  He always showed up, as the saying goes.  Maybe the Greatest Generation business is a bit over the top, but it’s a generation that I think that we could learn from.  Dad had insight into people and wisdom about life.  How I miss it and him every day.








22 December 2006

Friday bird blog

OK. I know I said I wasn’t going to post anything else here.
I subscribe to a list-serv for a bird enthusiasts’ group, and it’s fun for me to receive emails about various sightings in places I know of but can't see as much as I might like.

The other day someone sighted a snowy owl at a most auspicious place – where the St. Joseph River pours into Lake Michigan. It was there that I saw six American Avocets one autumn while accompanying Arthur on a walkabout. He couldn’t stand to be on the same beach with a creature more unusual than he, so he was rude to them, and they flew. Avocets generally don’t generally come this far east, so it was a big deal for me, never having seen even one before, but I had to keep my enthusiasm in check. A pouting Corgi is a sorry sight.

The snowy owl has only one known breeding spot in the United States, that being Barrow, Alaska. They stay above the tree line unless their main menu choice, the lowly lemming, is in short supply. Lemmings reproduce early and often, but they are subject to boom and bust cycles like the oil well drillers who populate their breeding ground. Here and there on the Great Plains and Canada one can find a solitary snowy owl in winter. There have been notable incursions into the lower 48, but they still are a rare sight for most of us.

If, for example, someone like Arthur were to happen upon snowy owl young, the adults would show his Corgi highness what rude is all about. The female, who is the larger of the sexes, weighs about five pounds and her wingspan is about six feet. Those talons are plenty sharp, and she is fearless, searching the wolf-dominated tundra for provisions, never straying far from the ground.  Spooking an Avocet is one thing.  An encounter with a Snowy Owl Mama is quite another.

The blue skies photo here is from an Audubon chapter in the northeastern lower peninsula of Michigan, not far from Alpena. They’re also near the world’s only nesting territory for the Kirtland’s warbler, formerly known as the Jack Pine warbler.

http://kirtlandswarbleraudubon.org/

03 November 2006

Friday Bird Blog



Being a 365 days per year walker of shores yields much bounty, most all of it pacifying and inspiring. Today, however, I have sad news to tell. Traveling along the expansive beach at Grand Mere State Park, I found two dead great blue herons, an adult and a juvenile. They had been shot.

The Great Blue is a magnificent bird, a friendly giant of the Great Lakes waterways, graceful and remarkable for its blue legs. The other giant is the Sand Hill Crane, which flies with its neck extended, where the Great Blue holds his close to its body in flight. That's the way I was taught to tell them apart at a distance.

Grand Mere is a wonderful 1200 acre reserve with giant dunes and woods and a passage to the shoreline which one can travel for several miles. The Cook nuclear plant is the southern-most limit. Unfortunately, hunting begins in late September, and as far as I can tell, hunters can shoot in any part of the park. You'd have to be pretty drunk or blind to mistake a heron for a duck, and killing a juvenile may be against the law. I do know that there is no open season on herons, and I'm pretty sure that shooting something along the Lake Michigan shoreline is verboten.

Some stupid kid or crazed testosterone poisoned jerk killed these birds. One day earlier this fall, I was entering the wooded part of one of the trails, and ahead of me was a fat, lumbering hunter with a shot gun slung over his shoulder, looking like Elmer Fudd, except he was wearing a neon orange stocking cap. I retreated and called the local police not realizing that it was A-OK for him to shoot at will. There were and are no signs advising mere walkers and bird watchers to wear red or orange clothing. It's nuts. but the Michigan DNR is very pre-occupied with revenue, and hunters' license fees must add up.

There are spent orange shotgun shells littering the woods, and no park rangers are present a lot of the time.  Park management is haphazard.  Michigan used to be a most intelligent state regarding its landscape and resources.  If hunting and park uses were combined, there would have been signs advising the public of the facts and probably segregated sections set off  for each.  It's jarring to observe what has happened to Michigan which once understood the importance of keeping up appearances.  More than once I've encountered people from out of state who are spending money in hotels and restaurants and gas stations in the area and have chosen the spot because of the proximity to the lake and ample public access.  If Michigan wants tourist dollars, a few simple improvements to the lakefront parks would reinforce the state's commitment to making outsiders feel welcome.

15 October 2006

Hawkeyes


Iowa City is a most pleasant place. Really. Home to the University of Iowa, its intelligence is in evidence everywhere.  The University boasts the largest teaching hospital in the United States. There is wonderful original art in all of the State facilities, including the University properties.  Downtown offers artsy amenities in view of the state capitol's shining golden dome. 

Today we drove to a University park, the Macbride Nature Recreation Area, which hosts a raptor safe habitat for injured birds which cannot survive in the wild.

Here is Spirit, a bald eagle, who has been there for 16 years. She was found in Minnesota. Her house is cozy, with a great view.

A Saw whet owl was a resident, too, the cutest thing I've ever seen. Several hawks, other owls, including a bard owl named Cyprus, have separate cabins. Even blind birds live there. All have benefactor people or institutions.  The Macbride Raptor Project was founded in 1985 under the joint auspices of Kirkwood Community College and the University of Iowa.

08 October 2006

Two hours apart




Trekking around the bottom tip of Lake Michigan in opposition to the recreating hoards, I find myself smack dab in the middle of a beautiful, practically perfect slice of autumn.  It's the day of the Chicago Marathon, though the crowds have moved on.  October in Chicago can be ...  exquisite.

20 September 2006

Yesterday













We're experiencing October in September this week. A stiff breeze swept the lake into whitecaps and threw sand in our eyes. Undeterred we walked down to the shore to spy any birds who might like their picture taken and to see of the lake had produced any treasures.


I love the lake 365 days a year. Still, clammy ninety-degree heat is problematic, and extreme cold and wind make you glad you own longjohns and fat mittens, but they won't keep me away.

15 September 2006

RAM tough




I enjoy feeling cranky once in a while. Today has given me several opportunities to indulge. It’s not exactly one of “those” days, but a heavy offering of Me-Me-Me!! Syndrome has presented itself.

First off, I’d like to thank the sophomoric master of the universe who drove his truck onto the beach, first traversing its length in between the road and the lake and then going for it, grinding all the gears (except the ones in his head) in a muscular push to motor it along the shoreline. Behold the result.

Moneyed beach combers informed us that four years ago a brand new $80,000. Hummer and its owner found themselves in similar straights. Fortune smiled upon them in that instance, because beachcomber’s husband propelled his old time Hummer onto the sand and pulled the $80,000. Hummer team out of the drink. They actually went all the way into the water.
Ha ha. Are you laughing yet?

(There is a squiggly red line under the second ‘ha’. That’s annoying me, too.)
Second, my gratitude extends to the six (6) females departing the caffe with two f’s, who allowed me to hold open the door for them with nary a peep of thanks.


Last, I'd like to recognize the Mercedes SUV which awaited my removal of myself and my car from a desirable parking space. The driver - license plate ‘Funzini’ - grew impatient at my needless, seconds-long stowing of my purse and laptop and gunned the accelerator in disgust.

Just then I felt an urge to dust the dashboard and powder my nose. She screetched her vehicle around the corner on 2 1/2 wheels while failing to heed the stop sign, blazing past the retirement hotel in a cloud of diesel
fuel searching for another slot.


It’s Friday on the sunset coast.

Friday bird blog



Meet Mrs. Mallard Duck, mistress of the North Lake, an adorable pond, where she apparently lives by herself, except for frogs, herons and other passers-by. She greets everyone with uninterrupted quacking, paddling all through the reeds and lily pads, commenting on affairs of the day and night with an occasional dip to grab a snack.

Here she waddled out of the pond to get a closer look at me. It would have been bad manners to come to me straight away, so she groomed herself for about 10 minutes, ignoring me and my camera. She must have many callers, because she didn’t hesitate one bit before emerging from the water. Her regulars most surely bring her gifts and goodies. I had only friendly chit chat to offer.

As a rule the female mallards I have observed are hard working and harried, managing multiple ducklings in their care while the males are off in a group smoking cigars and quaffing cognac. Per haps the guardian of North Lake sent her mate packing. The kids were nowhere in sight. All grown up.