My father died yesterday. He was 88. The probable cause of death was an aneurism. He owned a rare bookstore in Scottsdale AZ called The Antiquarian (which will continue, by the way. He arranged for that.). He had been at work yesterday, in good spirits. He was having dinner with a companion. Had a bit of stomach pain. And died.
This is a history blog, so I justify my highly personal intrusion by mingling his life with his times. He was born to a ranching and banking family in the Texas panhandle. They believed in education, and a good part of the tuition for him, his brothers, and his sister came from a small cherry orchard that his mother tended. They were horrible, sour cherries, but in an age before year-round fruit, people bought them (and a lot of sugar).
Dad went to the University of Texas in the early depression. He had planned to graduate and become a lawyer, but he met my mother, Lucile Bruce, and love intervened.
They married despite her family’s objections and lived for a time in southeast Texas, where he managed an oil well unit. When World War II came, he volunteered. He went though OCS and became a lieutenant. He was stateside for most of the war, but eventually he worked his way into a combat unit. He was in a troop transport on the Pacific in early August 1945. When the Bomb’s fell, his unit was diverted to the Philippines. I believe he returned home in 1946.
His reaction to the Bomb was interesting. One time he told me that when they got the news he was disappointed that he never got a chance to be a hero. Another time he told me that he and everyone else were ecstatically happy. I’m sure both were true.
In an extremely frank moment, he told me something else. He told me that he hoped that if he became a hero that everyone would forgive his drinking. Alcoholism ran though the family. He told me he knew he was in trouble with the first sip that he ever took. The sensation he described was very different from what most people (including me, thank goodness) feel when they take a sip.
He joined AA in the late 1940s in Dallas, and with their help he quit. When I was very little, he even took me to AA meetings. (I don’t remember this clearly; I wish I did). At any rate, I was born in 1952, and I never saw him take a drink.
Unfortunately the rest of his life in the 1950s and 60s did not mirror that success. He went through a series of businesses that were increasingly unsuccessful. His best was an insurance agency. Money problems, bad relations with my mother’s family, the dynamics of an alcoholic household that don’t always stop with the drinking, these took a toll on my parent’s marriage.
By the early 1960s, Dad hit bottom in terms of how he viewed himself. His brother Kelly suggested that he start a used book store in Scottsdale. At the time it was a resort in winter and a sleepy desert town in the summer, but Kelly saw potential. Dad decided to try. He moved out there in 1963. My parents’ marriage collapsed soon after. He remarried, and Roberta turned out to be the love of his life. I remained with mother in Dallas.
Building the new store was hard. It was 1972 before he felt they had firmly turned a corner. By the 1980s, the rare books became, in terms of money, the dominant part of his store. He had become well known in book circles and was well-regarded in his community. He had finally achieved success, and he kept that for the rest of his life.
The store kept him pretty close to home, but he liked coming to Rice Lake. He liked the trees and the water. He even came up in winter a couple of times, because he liked to see the snow and the frozen lake.
His last visit in winter was at the turn of the Millennium. When I was little, I had once written something that said that I hoped that my family (or those who were still alive) would get together for that New Year’s Eve. So Dad flew up, and we spent that time together.
So many changes in his lifetime. He was born while men were fighting in trenches. His father took his family on car trips from Texas to Canada in the 1920s, and he remembered their stopping at farms and paying for a chance to wash clothes and maybe for some milk or some eggs. He was in the Texas oil business, when it was at its height. He remained an unrepentant New Deal Wallace Democrat (though he voted for Truman in 1948), and he did not like the recent trend of politics. (I’m sure he did not mind missing today’s inauguration.) Of course, the shift to the Sunbelt that has helped conservatism so much also helped to fuel his business and his success, but I’m glad I never pointed that out.
I fly down tomorrow. I’ll miss him badly, but I will always love and admire him. He was a good man, a flawed person (as we all are) who worked hard to make himself a better human being. That the major success of his life occurred after he was 45 I still take as a source of hope for myself.
I will miss his voice. We talked yesterday. I am glad that he told me the weather was beautiful.
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Hugo Schwyzer - 1/21/2005
Even if you made me puddle up a bit this afternoon, I am so thankful you shared this. You and your family are in my prayers.
Anne Zook - 1/21/2005
My condolences to you and those your father left behind, and my thanks to you for sharing his story with us.
Ed Schmitt - 1/21/2005
Thank you for sharing your dad's story, Oscar. I couldn't help noticing that I share a birthday with him. It shouldn't, but it still sometimes amazes me how the things we teach about in the classroom really do leave marks on real, individual lives aside from the "celebrities" of history. Clearly, your dad also left his mark. My best to you and your family.
Timothy James Burke - 1/21/2005
All my best to you. That was a lovely essay.
Hala Fattah - 1/21/2005
Thank you very much for such a wonderful rememberance, and best wishes to you and your family. As they say in Arabic, "May this be the last of your sorrows".
Oscar Chamberlain - 1/21/2005
My thanks to you all.
Manan Ahmed - 1/21/2005
My heartfelt condolences to you and your family.
W. Caleb McDaniel - 1/21/2005
My sincerest sympathy for your loss.
Ralph E. Luker - 1/21/2005
Thanks, very much, for this, Oscar. It is very moving. Best wishes for you and your family.
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