Fatherly Inspiration

gaylord0001 (2)This coming Monday is Veterans’ Day. My father was a veteran and a week from Wednesday is his birthday. He would’ve been 95. It has also been 20 years since his passing, in September of ’93, just two months short of his 75th birthday. So he’s been on my mind.

Brothers of the Greatest Generation: It’s become a bit of a cliché, but I honestly think the WW2 generation deserves the moniker, and will keep their special place in history. And it wasn’t just that they grew up in the depression and fought and won one of the greatest conflicts the world has known. It was what came after, too. They came back, educated themselves, and got to work. They managed this, in part, through a couple of attributes that my dad exemplified: quiet courage and humility.

My dad grew up on a farm in south-central Michigan. He and his brother Gordon, just one year younger, both joined the army before America entered the war, right out of high school. By all accounts, my dad and Gordy had always been very close.

Quick story to illustrate. After my dad passed away and while I was still doing outside sales to lumberyards, I called on a little, old-time lumberyard near my dad’s childhood stomping grounds. I entered and a bell clanked on the door, but there didn’t seem to be anyone around. I navigated aisles of nail bins on creaky wood floors, making my way back to the contractor’s sales desk. There sat the lone elderly employee, leaning back behind the counter reading a newspaper. He didn’t say a word as I introduced myself, and barely glanced up after I gave him my card. He squinted down at my card through half-glasses, and finally said, “Any relation to Gaylord or Gordy?” I told him that I was Gaylord’s son and said, “You knew my dad?”

“Oh, we met,” he said with a wry smile. “Your dad made a block on me that I’ll never forget. Took me clean out of the play, which allowed your uncle to score the winning touchdown for our division championship. I’ll never forget those two. They really packed a one-two punch. Never was sure which, but one of ‘em broke my nose that night.”

I’d known that my dad had been a fullback in high school, and that his brother had been the quarterback, but I’d never heard such a story. Although he loved the game his whole life, my dad had always waved off any football prowess, saying something like: “I was just a blocking back. Gordy was the real athlete of the family.”

Dad & Gordy mugging for the camera before Gordy shipped overseas.

Dad & Gordy mugging for the camera in front of my grandmother’s house before Gordy shipped overseas.

My dad started his service in the Airborne, but as America’s involvement in the European theater increased, he was transferred to the Blackhawks—the 86th Infantry Division. While he was training to be shipped overseas, he learned of his little brother Gordy’s death. Gordon’s ship was torpedoed in the Mediterranean Sea, on its way to invade North Africa. There were no survivors.

Respect Gained Too Late: I don’t mean to imply that I didn’t respect my dad when he was alive. We shared a very special relationship. My parents divorced when I was fourteen. I’m the youngest, and my sister went with my mom, leaving Dad and I alone in the house. All through my high school years, my dad and I learned to cook together. Shortly after the divorce, I helped to paint the house to earn money for a new stereo for my room. He went with me to pick it out. I would pull one of the big speakers out into the hall and crank it up while we made and ate dinner. This ex-GI, a big band lover and fan of The Lawrence Welk Show, indulged my every musical obsession, from The Who to The Clash, at floor-thumping volume, during dinner! Now that’s a cool dad.

But I’ve gained a much deeper respect for him and his life since his passing. He was always just dad. I’d always been a history buff, and read scores of books on WW2 during my teen years. He knew of my interest, and I knew he didn’t want to talk about it. He’d always say things like: “We were just doing our job. All we wanted was to get the job done, so we could come home.”

I once convinced him we should watch the movie Bridge at Remagen together on TV. He knew that I knew that the story centered on his division, the Blackhawks. Even knowing he didn’t want to talk, after an intense action sequence I couldn’t restrain myself. I ventured: “Did you shoot at them like that?” With hooded eyes, he gave me a half-nod. I saw his discomfort, which made me squirm. He finally said, “When they said march, we marched. When they said shoot, we shot. I decided a long time ago that it’s something I don’t want to dwell on.” We watched the rest in silence, and I knew the film was forcing him to dwell.

Over the years, I gained a few additional precious tidbits regarding his war service. One memorable one relates to his unit’s transport to the Pacific theater. The Blackhawks were one of the first divisions pulled out of Europe in late ’44. They were to be the “seasoned veterans” on the front lines for the invasion of mainland Japan. My dad told me that while they were en route, their commanding officer lined them up on deck and told them to look at the soldier on their left, then on their right. They were told that one of the three of them would not survive the first day of the attack. While they steamed toward a sure bloodbath, news came that America had dropped the bomb, and that Japan had surrendered. You can only imagine their relief. It was short-lived. They were rerouted to the Philippines, for “cleanup operations,” rooting out Japanese that would not believe the war was over. Can you imagine putting your life on the line, watching your buddies become casualties, knowing that the war was over? The Blackhawks didn’t make it home until December of ’46.

My Kind of Coach: But it hasn’t just been his war experience that I’ve gained respect for. My dad was a postman for almost 30 years. He trained so many letter carriers, the whole post office called him Coach. He walked from the post office to his route and back every day, never taking a truck although he was offered many. He went to work at 5:30 every day, often before the snow plow had come by. When he had a heart attack at age 64, he had accumulated enough unused sick days to carry him to his retirement—over a year’s worth.

I’ve already written about my dad’s love of gardening, here. He grew up on the farm, and his inner farm-boy remained intact throughout his life. He loved big family dinners after a hard day’s honest work. His dedication to hand-turning the compost into the soil of his expansive vegetable garden each spring was uniquely definitive of his character. Dedication and patience yields results. There was no use jawin’ about it, or searching for a miracle cure (those motorized tillers were “for the birds” according to Dad). Just dig in and get the job done.

Image (22)Parental Guidance Has Been Suggested: Even though my dad passed away a decade before my writing journey began in earnest (almost to the day), I’ve been thinking about his influence on my work. I may not have become a gardener, but in regard to finishing manuscripts, I know that I learned my tendency to “just dig in and get the job done.”

And, in hindsight, I see so much of him in the work itself. It might seem strange to those who’ve read my work, as the primary protagonist of my trilogy feels his father’s legacy is a curse. But that is not where I see him. My MC’s grandfather and elder mentor are both calming and steadying influences. They remind him that what really matters can only be found inside. I see Dad in these elder mentor figures. My dad was 44 when I was born, so many of my most powerful memories of him are from when he was in his fifties (my age now). In a way, he was always very grandfatherly with me (since I was the baby, I’m certain my elder siblings would agree that he was much sterner and stricter with them).

My protagonist abhors the glorification of war. He is honor-bound to creating a peaceful existence for his people, even in the face of being named a coward for his principles. From his elders he’s learned that what other people say about him means nothing, that staying true to himself is all. But when there is no other recourse, he knows there’s no sense jawin’ about it or hoping for a miracle. He digs in and gets the job done.

Yeah, there’s quite a bit of my father in my work. So thanks, Dad. Miss ya, Big Guy.

Do you see your parents in your work? Care to share? 

37 comments on “Fatherly Inspiration

  1. Julie Luek says:

    Vaughn, what a touching post. Just yesterday I was talking with a man who told me about his siblings and in-laws and their experience in WWII. I said to him, “It doesn’t seem like they wanted to talk about it much. My dad never did.”

    He replied, “We didn’t know about PTSD back in those days. There was no help for it. But I can remember as a little boy, after my brother-in-law got back from the war and he and my sister lived in our house for a bit, I’d wake up in the middle of the night to screaming. He was having nightmares. We never did talk about it, but even as a boy I knew something was wrong.”

    Maybe there was healing in not dwelling in the past, but I wonder how much just got shoved inside but managed to manifest itself in other ways.

    Your dad sounds like an amazing man who taught you the best way he knew how.

    • My dad would’ve been one to consider psychiatrists quacks. That is, until Bob Newhart played one on TV (he LOVED Newhart and that show!). But it does make you wonder what they endured in silence, doesn’t it. And it was such a huge percentage of that generation. It sort of makes it even more awe-inspiring, seeing how so many of them managed to “get back to it” afterward.

      I’m sure it manifested itself in other ways, but my dad was such a rock. He was one of the kindest souls you would ever want to meet, so I can only imagine what a toll the war took. Thanks for enhancing the conversation, Julie. Good food for thought.

  2. deedetarsio says:

    Oh Vaughn, what a great tribute! My Midwestern parents both just turned 80, and the things that used to drive me crazy about them when I was little are now what I admire most. My dad still parks his car in the farthest spot in the parking lot to save the closer spaces “for the old people.” My mom still quirks that damn eyebrow in response to “questionable choices” my sisters and I may be considering. I’m happy to report suffering is alive and well in Ohio!

    • Don’t get me started on parking spots! “Why would you take that spot? Look how close the cars are on both sides. They’re going to ding you with their doors. Besides, walking will do you good.”

      When I was in college I had a 10 year old Monte Carlo (that he bought me, and that I proceeded to trash). When I came home to visit, he would get up at 7am on a Saturday and take my car in for much-needed service, and was always back before I even got up. Never said a word about it.

      I know the quirked eyebrow from my mom. Yeah, I still get that one (she’s 84). Suffering lives in the Mighty Mitten, as well. I love your comment, Dee! Thanks for sharing!

  3. M.L. Swift says:

    Vaughn,

    What a wonderful memory to experience with you…going back to your dad’s stomping grounds and being recognized due to your last name, hearing an old football player regaling his glory days that took a hit one Friday night from your father or uncle. I was chuckling as I pictured the old man bend your ear, for I’ve been there. It’s a “time to stop and smell the roses” kind of moment.

    My parents come through in my work ethic: Dad’s diligence; Mom’s critical eye and attention to detail as well as aesthetics. Of course my protagonists reflect them (and me) with a good moral sense and willingness to do the right thing. The antagonists live out my dark side. ;)

    Nice to see a snapshot of your childhood and family. Happy Veterans Day.

    • The incident at the lumberyard really caught me off guard. I was very willing to “have my ear bent,” if you know what I mean.

      About a year before he passed, and after I started selling the lumberyards in the area where he grew up, he needed to be taken to the University of Michigan med center, for a routine check on his (at that time, very new) pace-maker/defibrillator. I volunteered to drive, but needed to make a few stops at yards on the way through. We stopped for lunch in a small town about 15 miles from his hometown. He pointed at the old hotel across the street, and said, “Behind that building is where my father was killed.” At lunch he told me how, during the depression, his father had been forced to drive a produce delivery truck to make ends meet. My grandfather’s truck’s brake had slipped and he was crushed to death against the loading dock. It had happened while my dad was overseas. And less than a year after his brother had been killed. It certainly gave me knew empathy for my grandmother! He very rarely spoke of my grandfather, but he did then. I was very glad to have shared that day.

      I’m glad you can so readily see your parents in your work, Mike! (I agree about the fun of exploring the dark side through antagonists, too.) Thanks for reading and for a great comment!

  4. Love this, Vaughn. It’s a beautiful tribute and an insight into the warrior (both in your real life and in your writing).

    • As with many young men, there were years I wouldn’t have appreciated any comparisons to my father. But I wise enough now to know that I should aspire to such comparisons, and still don’t quite deserve them. I sort of picture the countryside around my dad’s family’s farm when I picture Oium, where Thaedan thinks he’ll find “a simple way of life” for the Gottari. Thanks, B!

  5. katmagendie says:

    For so so many reasons I love and adore this – and your father has a kind face, one that says I bet I’d have liked to have met him.

    I feel choked up . . . .

    • I got choked up, too. I had to stop a couple of times while writing this.

      I think you have good intuition, Kat. My father’s funeral was a moving experience for me, in part because so many people–many of whom I’d never met–came to tell me how kind he was. I know he would’ve gotten a kick out of you! He loved to laugh!

      Thank you for telling me that the post moved you. It means a lot. :-)

  6. Love this tribute to no end. Thanks for sharing your story, and your dad, with us.

  7. ddfalvo says:

    I think you must be a lot like your dad. You show the same courage, constancy, and work ethic in what you commit to; there’s a bit of the coach in you too–in your inspiring posts and the way you care about your tribe.
    This is a beautiful tribute, and I’m very sorry for the loss of your uncle in the war. It must have been a terrible heartbreak for the family, but especially for your dad. I can’t imagine losing a sibling that is also a best friend.

    • Aw, shucks, D – that’s such a great compliment. I remember the first time I to work with my dad, and hearing everyone call him Coach. After he told me why, it always made me sort of proud.

      It’s very sad that we never got to know Gordy, but even sadder for his daughter. He went off to war when she was a tiny baby. She never knew him. Whenever he came up, my dad got wistful. I know it was a deeply felt loss, for the rest of his days. There is a statue of a WW2 soldier in their hometown cemetery, with a plaque commemorating his life and service. It’s put a lump in my throat every time I’ve seen it.

      Thank you, D, for your kind words and your special comment!

  8. sugaropal says:

    Very moving tributes to your dad, both your post and the ways you incorporate him into your work. What great ways to keep his spirit alive in you and to share it with others. True immortality. My mom was a good sport about my musical choices too. I took her to her first (and last) rock concert when she was probably around 60 (U2). She had a ball ;)

    • You put a lump in my throat, Rhiann, talking about my work being a tribute. I often wonder what he would’ve made of the trilogy (he was a big reader, but mostly nonfiction and periodicals). However he felt about it, I’m certain that he would’ve been proud of me.

      Oh how I love that your mom went to U2 with you! Thanks for sharing that! :-)

      • sugaropal says:

        Yes, he most definitely would have been proud of you. Modest people, like your father, so often feel uncomfortable acknowledging their own positive attributes, but being “ambushed” by his doppelganger in your story, he might have felt a little blaze of pride for himself :)

  9. Your post brought a tear to my eye. Well, maybe more than one. My dad was a Korean War vet, and, like yours, he was reluctant to talk about it. I know very little beyond how scary it was to walk point, how he survived hemorragic fever (and that I learned from my mother), and how his comrades in arms used to tease a guy with the unfortunate name of Lt. Darling. My dad became a policeman after the war and also held strong, stoic midwestern values. I got my toughness in equal shares from him and my mother. My dad passed 4 years ago last month. I miss him and my mother. Acutely at times. I learned to work hard from them, and to never give up. Good training for a writer. :)

    • I think the Korean War vets are some of the most unheralded of all. I know it was a particularly brutal engagement. They were sent in ill-equipped and short-handed. America had had its fill of war. And even when they turned the tide and got the job done, the politicians turned it into something less than the victory it truly was. I love the tidbits you’ve gleaned about his service. Our next door neighbor growing up was a motorcycle cop who’d served in WW2. He and my dad were cut from the same cloth–so rugged and yet soft-spoken. Just a true gentleman, but not to be crossed!

      Wonderful lessons you’ve learned from them, Lisa. Thank your for sharing!

  10. Peggy says:

    LOVE this piece. My Dad loved to teach. Yes, Latin was his educational background but it was more. Whether it was a game of chess, darts, kicking a ball, he loved to get the mind into the process, the journey. I’ve found that passion is with me. My Mom, unique, goofy, thoughtful. You need an Elvis stopwatch that ran backwards? She’d find it and drop it off on your doorstep. So many things I cringe that my parents have bestowed (cursed) on me. They all make me laugh, they gave me that too.

    • I can perfectly picture your dad making a mental test out of everything! I so regret missing out on having him as a resource for my writing. And I was just joking about your mom’s extraordinary gift for finding whatever you might have mentioned, like, six months ago, that you might have needed once in a blue moon. It ALWAYS made its way into your bag (you know–the bag each of us had going at all times, to take after each visit).

      Having been lucky enough to know them, I am acutely aware that each of you is uniquely blessed for the pieces of your parents that are a part of you. Thanks, Peg–so glad you found the post thought and memory-provoking. :-)

  11. Jan O'Hara says:

    I read this on Feedly, V, and as I read this phrase I thought of how he’d likely be so proud of the man you’ve become. “Just dig in and get the job done.”

    A beautiful tribute!

    My own parents weren’t involved in the war, but both grandfathers served in administrative or technical capacities. To my eyes, the Great Depression shaped their characters more than any global conflicts.

    As for my parents being in my work, my mom is a huge optimist when it comes to the capacity for people to learn and grow. I see that theme in much of my work, both fiction and non. My father is the ecologist, ever mindful of the legacy we’re leaving future generations. When I write of the outdoors and set my characters against a natural backdrop, that would be due to his influence. Interesting thought. I’ll have to ponder more.

    • How could the Great Depression not have shaped everyone who lived through it? I’m sure it had much to do with my parents’ frugality. I love that your mom’s optimism and your dad’s conservation have shown up in your work.

      I must admit, your opening paragraph put a lump in my throat, Boss. High praise, indeed. Thank you, Jan. Have a great weekend!

  12. karenrsanderson says:

    This brought tears to my eyes, Vaughn. Such a loving tribute to a wonderful man.
    I see my Mom and my Aunt Agnes in many of my characters – usually those that are standing up and defending others less fortunate or less able. After reading this post, I will probably write MORE of them in my stories.
    Thank you.

  13. What a wonderful and touching story! And one I could certainly relate to.My Dad was in the Air Force during WWII and I was born while he was in Isle of Capri Italy.Similar in age to your Dad, he passed away when he was 76 in 1991 after a 9 year struggle with early onset Alzheimers disease.He meant much to me and your story gave me pause to stop and remember.Thank you!

    • Hi DiAnne, Wow, the fly-boys in Europe had a tough role to play. As you probably know, they had one of the highest casualty rates of any of the armed forces. I’m so sorry to hear of his Alzheimer’s. That had to have been tough on you and your family. And after all he’d come through. I’m so glad to have given you a reason to reflect. Thank you for sharing. Stop by anytime!

  14. Normandie says:

    Wonderful tribute, Vaughn. Veterans surround me: my father (Marine pilot, deceased), my step-father (Navy navigator, deceased), my uncle (Navy commander, deceased), my husband (Navy pilot–alive, thank God). I agree that the Great Depression seems to have affected the elders in my family as much as their war-time experiences. As you said, how could it not?

    But a lovely thing happened the other day while we were on our boat in Washington, NC. An elderly man (88) wandered down the dock and asked if I were a ___ (my mother’s family name). He’d read about me in the newspaper and figured there weren’t too many Normandie Fischers floating around, so he’d come looking. And the floodgates opened as he told of serving under my uncle from the commissioning of their ship, on to D-Day, through the Panama Canal, and to the war in the Pacific. He’d been looking for my uncle for years, for someone to reminisce with him, someone who got it. My mama was so moved to hear stories of her big brother, who died a few weeks before his 95th birthday.

    It’s important to remember and to give tribute for what these have given to us and for us. Thank you, Vaughn, for letting us into your memory bank.

    • You really are surrounded, Normandie! And, wow, how cool that this man sought you out, and shared with you and your mom! I love that. And it had to have been so cathartic for him, too.

      You’ve reminded me of a lovely gentleman I met since I moved here, who also recently passed. His son owns a local cottage furniture store, and my wife and I have gotten friendly with the family. I saw that he was selling his father’s self-published book in the store, his recollections of his navy years before and during WWII. It was fascinating! He had also participated in D-day, and went through Panama canal, however he served in the Pacific before the Atlantic. He described how their cruiser had been an escort for munition ships to Britain for FDR’s lend-lease program, and how they had so many fire-fights with Germans before we were “officially” in the war. He said it was all very hush-hush then.

      Anyway, I saw him at an Independence Day picnic, sitting with his daughter-in-law, wearing a baseball cap with his navy ship’s name on it. We’d never actually met, so I went over to their table and said, “Is this the famous author?” You should’ve seen him light up when he realized what I was talking about! A short while after he passed, we were in the store, and his son thanked me and told me how I’d made his dad’s day, sitting and talking to him about his book and his experiences. He’d talked about it for days afterward. I’d loved every minute, so what a win-win!

      Thank YOU, my friend, for sharing your story. It’s up to us to keep their spirits alive. I’m glad the post resonated.

      • Normandie says:

        Oh, Vaughn, I can just picture the delight on that man’s face. What a blessing you gave him–and so like you. Rufus, the fellow who served with my uncle, had a baseball cap with their ship name on it, too. I wonder if my uncle ever had one… Rufus didn’t want to leave, but his poor wife couldn’t climb on board–so I sat with her on a park bench. She wanted to buy a copy of Becalmed, but how could I let her? She’s family. We’ll see them again.

      • Seems the ballcap with the ship’s name is a prerequisite. :-) When I went to tour Pearl Harbor, all of those vets wore them, too. I really like that. That’s cool that you sat with his wife, and that she wants to read you. Of course she does! You were so sweet to her. They ARE family now. Such a cool story. Thanks again, Normandie!

  15. Nicole L. Bates says:

    I absolutely love this post, Vaughn. What a beautiful tribute to your father. My own dad served in the army during the Vietnam war, and my husband is currently a service member, so I have heard all sorts of stories about their experiences. Your post makes me want to write those stories down.

    I know that my parents have both been a huge influence on me as a person and the way in which I accomplish things. I think one of the greatest things they ever did for me is that they always, always started their sentences with “when” and never “if”. “When you become President…”, “When you have your own business…”, “When you go to college…”. I always felt like I could do anything, and that they would support it. They still do it to this day, “When your book gets published…”, just one simple word that can change a person’s whole perspective.

    • Oh how I love this comment. Your parents “when” not “if” is so brilliant. I am so certain that they are right–their daughter CAN do anything she puts her mind and her heart into.

      I hope you do write their stories down. You are such a gifted storyteller, Nicole. Thank you for sharing your wisdom. Happy Veteran’s Day to you and your family!

  16. shirleyhs says:

    Your story touches many chords with me, Vaughn. First, I had a baby sister born on Veteran’s Day who died before Christmas her first year of life. Second, I begin my memoir with two chapters: one on my mother’s dream and one on my father’s. You might also enjoy this quote from Jung: “The greatest influence in the life of a child is the unlived life of their parents.” Paraphrase from memory.

    This is is beautiful post. Are you writing a memoir?

    • Oh, such a sad story about your sister, Shirley. Sorry for your loss. Cool Jung quote–that really resonates for me now. But I don’t think it would’ve a decade ago. Funny how these things get clearer with time, isn’t it? No, I’m not attempting memoir, but I certainly admire writers who tackle that elusive muse and do it well. I’m glad the post touched a few chords for you. Thanks for sharing. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, Shirley!

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