Sunday, June 21, 2009

Father's Day 2009: My Dad

                                  Vic Reading to David & Steven

Dear George,


Vic was never much into holidays, and we never paid the slightest attention to Father’s Day in my youth.  Now it’s more on my mind.  I tried recalling what my dad was like in our childhood.  Initially I drew a blank. Then memories started emerging.  The first were of rewarding things.  My Uncle Kent ran the Menominee drugstore, which had a full-scale soda fountain.  Every couple of months, my dad would take our family there after hours and let the kids loose behind the fountain.  The rule was that we could make any ice cream dish of any size that we wanted, as long as we could eat it the whole thing. We loved ice cream.  Steven and I would bring bananas from home to construct banana splits.  We would use seven or eight different scoops of ice cream, multiple toppings – chocolate, butterscotch, strawberry, pineapple, etc. – and top it all off with whipped cream, peanuts, and a cherry.  We never had difficulty eating it all.  It still makes my mouth water.


My dad inherited my grandfather’s Marinette drug store, an unintentionally low-profit firm, and he put all his children to work there when they reached 14.  It was a less a matter of child labor, more a matter of exposing his kids to the world of work.  My starting salary was 25 cents an hour which was sufficient for my early adolescent expenses.  This was the era of the cold war, and one of my dad’s projects was to build and stock an atomic bomb shelter in the basement of the drugstore.  People in Menominee were convinced that the town looked nearly identical to the Soo Locks from the air and that the Russians might bomb us by accident.  My Uncle Ralph managed the drugstore, and Vic tried to talk him into eliminating tobacco sales for public health reasons, but Ralph insisted that the business would go under if they were to do this.  Later, when Katja and I visited Menominee, my dad invited us to go to the drugstore and pick out any merchandise that we wanted.  Katja spent a lot of her time in the makeup department.  We didn’t know it then, but Vic charged our haul to his own bill.  


My dad was a man of many interests.  He was an excellent photographer and we still have his wonderful albums that documented our childhood.  He and Doris toured Menominee County, digging up wildflowers on the roadside, so that Vic could paint watercolor renderings of them.  He did many oil paintings of scenes in the twin cities, and later he worked in stained glass.  Vic was an excellent writer, publishing columns in the local newspaper, writing stories which he used in advertisements for the family drugstore, and, in our adulthood, producing a family newsletter of events of the day.  He loved music and would come home at the end of the workday, put on his earphones, and listen to classical music on the state of Wisconsin FM station.   He encouraged all of his children to pursue artistic ventures of various sorts, and his grandchildren have done so as well.


When I turned 12, my dad volunteered to be a boy scout leader. Our troop had a bunch of tough kids from St. John’s school that Vic thought needed discipline.  He recruited an ex-Marine sergeant who had been a drill instructor, and we practiced military marching drills each week in preparation for the Memorial Day parade.  The kids were much less enthusiastic than my dad was.  Later Vic helped found the first Menominee unit of the Air Scouts, a teenage version of the Boy Scouts.  The high point came when our troop spent a week at O’Hare Air Force Base in Chicago.  We slept in tents at the end of the runways, and, years later, my dad recounted how he took a valium to go to sleep, though he had no water to wash it down.  He thought he would choke to death as the pill, stuck in his throat, slowly dissolved.  On the last day of the trip we spent several hours at the Maxwell Street flea market in Chicago.  A prostitute approached my dad and offered to do the whole troop for fifty dollars.  He declined. 


My parents had a rich social life in Menominee and Marinette with many friends – the O’Haras, Worths, Jacobsens, Caleys, St. Peters, Sargents, Steffkes, Sawyers, Burkes, Mars, Smiths, and many others.  Pre-TV and lacking the distractions of the big city, these folks generated their own entertainment in their social life, and it was much richer than anything I’ve ever seen since.  They performed community theater at the Menominee Opera House.  My dad was instrumental in generating a Great Books Discussion Group program in the city and inaugurating a summer music festival on the bay.  My parents held wonderful parties for their friends at our home, with themes centered upon art projects, poetry, jazz (with imported musicians), costumes, or theatrical performances. One annual summer highlight occurred each July 4th when dads and sons drove over to Peshtigo and stocked up on fireworks, returning to the Caley’s home at Northwood Cove on Green Bay and ending the evening with a fantastic aerial display on the beach.


My dad delighted in playing with standard English, replacing it with a language of his own.  Some of it was faux French, e.g., cottage cheese became “Chez du la Coutage.”  When tired, he would utter “Oh my po’ gungas, my po’ queagaterla’s.”   My dad was an excellent conversationalist, shy by nature but outgoing by deliberate choice, and he and his friends delighted in debating the many issues of the day.  Vic had great intellectual curiosity.  He was an avid reader and a board member of the public library.  He subscribed to numerous magazines, e.g., the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly. W (to keep abreast with the fashion world), the Smithsonian, and many others.  When I was in high school he bought us the World Book Encyclopedia and asked questions each day so we could look up the answers.


Vic was not all fun and games.  As a second generation American, his Swedish heritage was evident in his often serious and sometimes stern manner.  We heard a lot of “Jump when I say jump” or “You’ll do it because I say so.”  He and Doris would frequently instruct the children to “straighten up and fly right.”  Probably the most lasting lesson my dad taught me was the oft-repeated maxim, “if you want something done right, do it yourself.”  He put great emphasis on school achievement and scrutinized report cards.  He was such a perfectionist that Vicki came to always preface performances of any sort with “This isn’t my best.”   In my teen years my Dad would now and then invite me to take a walk out on the road.  This always made me anxious, because it was inevitably the time and place to address some dereliction on my part.  While his criticism was always called for, I knew that going for a walk on the road meant I was in trouble.


My dad was a lawyer in Menominee and served as a judge and as Prosecuting Attorney.  His personal rule was never to discuss work at home, so we knew next to nothing of his professional life.  In our young adult years he became a member of the board of directors of a local chemical company, and this opened up new worlds to my dad, particularly in terms of international travel.  Katja and I were the direct beneficiaries of this when he met us on the French Riveria and hosted us for a week at a fancy hotel in Roquebrune.  Another legendary family trip occurred years earlier when Vic took me down to Miami Beach to drive my grandfather back to Menominee.  We spent three days on the road, and my dad claimed that the three generations of male Swedes in our family never spoke a word to one another.


When I came of age, my dad took me to hunting camp at Jean Worth’s camp in Cedar River, along with other fathers and sons, including Skipper Burke, Billy Caley, and Frankie St. Peter.  The men drank beer or whiskey, while Jean told the teenagers wonderful stories about Cedar River characters.  When they’d drunk enough, the adult males would go out and write their names in the snow with pee.  We’d get up at 6 a.m. and use flashlights to go out to our posts in the freezing woods in the dark.  I never saw a deer on these trips, and, to my knowledge, nobody in this group ever shot one.


In the 1970s my folks began restoring an old farm in Birch Creek, and they became completely engaged in that project.  My father’s life dreams became tied up in that property and its 240 acres.  He created a flag to symbolize our family empire at Farm (“The Sun Never Sets on L***”) and minted coins in our family name at a local foundry.  He and Doris hosted annual family reunions there for many years, and J and my adult nieces and nephews still retain strong emotional connections to Farm.  My siblings and I have commented from time to time that Vic proved to be a better grandfather than he was a father.  His generation’s maxim was that child rearing was women’s work, and, like his cohort, he alleged that children were of the lower orders.  Steven joked that the family photo of Vic reading to him and myself must have been some sort of one-time promotional stunt.  Times change, and years later Vic was a much more mellow, affectionate grandfather.


While my mother did most of our actual parenting, my dad had a lot of influence on how we grew up and who we became -- we all were attentive to his ideals for us and eager for his approval.  In my view, my father embraced four main life values involving: (a) the law, his chosen profession; (b) education, reflected in his involvement in the Menominee school system and the Marinette UW branch campus; (c) finance, where he served on the boards of local businesses and loved investing in the stock market; and (d) the arts, reflecting his nonconventional bohemianism and his many artistic pursuits.  Interestingly, I, as his firstborn son, became an academic.  His second born son, Steven, chose law.  Peter, his third born, had a successful career in finance.  And Vicki, his fourth born child and only daughter, embraced the counterculture of the 1970’s and followed hippie/bohemian culture to Santa Cruz.  While we chose very distinct life paths, we collectively acted out and realized my dad’s major dreams and aspirations.


My mother died in 1986, and Vic began showing signs of senility several years later.  Eventually he moved to Cincinnati to the Alois Alzheimer Center, where I spent a lot of meaningful time with him.  He remarked, “I used to be the father, but now I’m the son.”  A few weeks after he moved there, the Center held a big event for families.  As the show was ready to start, Vic just walked up onto the vacant stage and began the proceedings as emcee.  The organizers didn’t know what to do, so they just let him go ahead and conduct the whole program, using the schedule available on the podium.  That’s my dad.  Never at a loss for words.  Vic hung in there at the Alzheimer Center as best as he could, and the staff often voiced that he made it a more positive and rewarding place.  He invited everyone he met to come to visit him at Farm when he returned home.  He died on November 8, 1993, a couple of days after his 85th birthday.  I miss him.






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