Cracker Barrel: A pretty good life
At a recent family get-together, talk turned to memories of Dad. As usual, the memories proved refreshing and made us measure our own lives against the long arc of his.
Pops made it to the age of 91 and died in the spring of 2002. Had he lived until August of that year, he and Mom would have celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary.
Born in Chicago in 1910, Dad lived through many changes. Blessed from birth with an eye for detail and a voluminous memory, he often enchanted family and friends with stories of times gone by: begging chips of ice from the milkman's horse-drawn wagon on a hot summer day; shinnying up one of the trees that used to grow along the right-field fence at Wrigley Field to snatch a free view of a Cubs game; walking at the age of 9 or 10 to the neighborhood tavern to fetch a pail of beer for his immigrant father.
The stories poured from his memory like water from a spring.
He early succumbed to the magic of baseball and spent much of his youth playing sandlot ball. He loved snagging flies in the outfield and was, by his modest admission, a pretty good hitter; good enough to play semi-pro in his teens and early 20s for a team called the Buccaneers.
Like millions of his peers, Pops lived through half a dozen wars and endured the Great Depression. Because of the latter, he was a lifelong fiscal conservative. Thanks to the former, he grew weary of nationalistic chest-pounding and in his later years evolved into an anti-war liberal.
As a combat infantryman who marched across Europe with Patton's army in World War II, his credentials for judging the wisdom of warfare were rarely questioned.
Dad married Mom in 1936. Out of their union came five kids and an unwavering commitment to nourish and encourage the family. It never occurred to any of us kids that either of our parents wouldn't always be there for us. The steadiness of their marriage imparted to each of us a sense of abiding calm, for which we are profoundly grateful.
Aside from his absence during the war, the only times Mom and Dad weren't together were when he was gone trout fishing. He got hooked on that during his middle years and, like baseball, it became a passion.
For many years summer vacation meant a trip to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where we'd establish base camp in tents on the shore of Fortune Lake and from which Pops would make daily forays to the middle branch of the Ontonagon River, into which he would wade in search of the wily brookies and rainbows and browns.
A week before his 50th birthday, Dad was felled by a major heart attack. He survived it, and to guard against it happening again, he began to walk. A few hundred feet at first, then a few hundred yards, and eventually two miles a day, rain or shine. With his customary common sense and discipline, he modified his diet, kept his weight in check and lived an
additional four decades.
In later years, whenever we'd talk on the phone and I'd ask how he was doing, his reply was the same: "I'm still breathing."
To the best of my knowledge, Dad made a lifelong habit of seeking the truth and respecting it. He never fudged on his golf scores, hardly ever bragged and rarely raised his voice in anger. He loved to read, kept up with current events and saw the humor in just about everything.
When asked in old age why his marriage was so enduring, he said the secret was a division of labor.
"I let Marie take care of the little things like buying a car or a house, where to invest the savings, stuff like that; and I take care of the important stuff like whether to raise the prime rate, how to solve the Mideast crisis, and so on."
At Dad's funeral, my brother, Dick, said that Dad was the only guy he knew who, when telling about the fish he caught, shrank, rather than expanded, their size. Which just about sums up the kind of man he was and the way he chose to live.
All things considered, his was a pretty good life.
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