Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Remembering Dad--1

I guess I always took it for granted that Dad always had plenty of money and could give me anything I wanted but didn’t because he felt that it would not be good for me, so he was inclined to be chintzy, supposedly for my own good. Mom, on the other hand, would always give me anything I wanted--if she could, but most of the time she couldn’t because she was as dependent upon Dad as I was and it seemed to me that he was rather chintzy with her as well. I assumed it was probably because Dad recognized Mom’s weakness toward me and had to hold back on both of us "for my own good". As I say, I felt that way until the Christmas just before I turned eight.
The first Christmases I remember were as a very young boy when we were living in Germany. I don’t remember much about them, but I do remember that I thought they were absolutely wonderful. We always got a few little toys and our wooden shoes were filled with candy--mostly hard tack, but because we didn’t get very much candy in Germany, it was a real treat. Later, after we had returned to the US I came to resent the amount of hard tack candy in my Christmas stocking, feeling that it took up room that would be much better served with jelly and chocolate candies--a feeling that I shared--rather pointedly--in a letter to Santa--a feeling he must not have sympathized with because the amount of hard tack was not diminished. Nor did he dispense with the orange--a suggestion I also made pointing out that we had plenty of oranges in the kitchen.
I always felt that if our situation could be described, it would be described as one of "plenty". I suspect that part of the reason for that feeling was that although, in a sense, we were part of the occupying US forces, we were not military, and, therefore, lived among the German people. Our situation, compared with theirs, was one of great fortune.
Many years later, Dad told me what happened when we came back to the US. Dad had always been a civil servant, and, I suspect, planned on always being one. After he graduated from George Washington U. with a law degree, he was hired as the head of Social Security for the state of Arizona. But at the meeting with the senior senator from Arizona in which his appointment was announced, the Senator looked over his resume. "How can anyone from Idaho be over Social Security in Arizona?" he bellowed. "He is far and away the best qualified candidate," the Federal Social Security administrator assured him. "I don’t care about that", the Senator roared. "I don’t care if the guy over Social Security is blind, can’t read, can’t write, and has to use an X for his signature, all I care about is that he be from Arizona!"
So Dad’s appointment was rescinded and he was made the director of Social Security for Southern Idaho with offices in Pocatello instead. It turns out, that was probably a good thing, because Loni and I were born there and it seems that the only place Mom could ever have any children was in Pocatello. But Dad was ambitious and eager to get ahead. The chance came when the position for assistant Federal Attorney (or whatever they call the District Attorney for a State) became vacant. He applied and got the job, so we moved to Boise. We hadn’t lived in Boise very long when Dad got the chance to work with the war crime trials in Germany and he jumped at the chance.
I think the two years we spent in Germany were among the happiest of parent’s married life. They got to travel. Mom got to buy some really nice figurines and other beautiful things that were always so important to her and Dad really enjoyed his work. Of course, there were concerns as well, especially during the Berlin Airlift, when it looked like we might go to war with Russia and out family was in the place most likely to be first attacked. It was, in fact, the tension created by the Berlin Airlift that created the problem for Dad that resulted in his not being a permanent civil servant. If we were involved in a war with Russia, obviously, we wanted the wholehearted support of the German people. Amongst those people, Dad’s activity--the war crime trials--was very unpopular. They were halted and Dad came home.
When he went back to Washington to apply for a field position, he was told that because of his involvement with the war crimes trials--now a politically incorrect activity to have gotten oneself tied up with--they didn’t feel that they could send him "out into the field". Dad told me that his old boss at Social Security told him, "We certainly owe you something, but it will have to be here in Washington."
Dad told me many years later that after he heard that he went out and traveled around Washington. He said he looked at the people and the businesses and other things that were going on and said to himself, "I can’t do this. I can’t raise a family in this kind of environment." So he cut ties with the government and "hung out his shingle" in his hometown, Pocatello.
But it was pretty tough sledding in the first few years. Most of the time Dad was working. We hardly ever saw him. When he did come home for dinner, it was in, out, and back to the office. I can remember several occasions when Mom would hand me a little paper bag and say, "Take this to your Dad. It is his dinner. He is studying in the law library at the courthouse." (The courthouse was only a couple of blocks from our house.) Every year in those first years back from Germany Dad would call together shortly before Christmas and say something like, "I don’t want you to expect much from Christmas because we simply don’t have much money this year." Of course, that never bothered Loni or me (or, at least, it never bothered me) because all we ever got from Mom and Dad for Christmas was clothes. All the good stuff came from Santa Claus. I didn’t care that much what I wore, so even if Dad couldn’t afford to buy us anything, it was fine with me. I knew for one thing that if we ever ran out of clothes (which didn’t seem likely) that our Grandparents would come to the rescue before we had to go school naked.
All that changed shortly before the Christmas of my eighth year. Dad, as usual, called us together and said that we should not expect much for Christmas that year. I was a little uneasy because I had asked for a bicycle--something I knew to be quite expensive. So the next day I said to Mom, "Tell Dad not to worry about Christmas. Santa will take care of it for us."
Mom paused for a minute or two and then said rather deliberately (and I wish I could remember her exact words) something like, "I’m afraid that when people are poor, Santa doesn’t give them very much because he doesn’t want poor children to be spoiled and become dissatisfied with their parents." This was rather a shock to me, to say the least, but I more or less gave up on the whole idea of a bike.
Christmas came and I got my bicycle and several other things, smaller toys candy, and, of course, clothes. There was a hitch--a very bad hitch. The bicycle was an "American Flyer". I had seen it in a catalogue, so I knew that Santa Claus had not given it to me--it was Dad.
The next day I asked Mom, "What happens if someone can’t afford something and they tell the man at the store that they will pay for it later, but they really don’t have the money to pay for it?"
"Why they send the police to take the thing back and sometimes they put the person in jail." Mom sounded to me that she was as worried as I was about Christmas.
For the next few days, indeed, until I had to go back to school, I would sit by the front window. Every time a police car went by, I was sure he was coming to take back my bike and would demand to know where Dad was, so he could arrest him. After a while, of course, I ceased to worry and when spring came, I simply enjoyed the bike. Indeed, I think it was one of two Christmas presents I received that I remember with real fondness.
Years later I asked Dad why he always called us in and gave us the "don’t-expect-much-for-Christmas" lecture and then always bought so much to insure that we had a wonderful
Christmas. "You know," he replied with obvious pleasure as he reflected back. "That was the most amazing thing. When I called you in and told your mother and you kids not to expect much, I was in real earnest. I was almost desperate. But every year in those first few years when we were struggling, clients would come in just before Christmas--in a few cases, clients I had sent so many bills to that I never really expected them to pay me at all, and they would pay their entire bill. Generally, they would say something like,’I’m sorry this has taken so long, but I want to clear this out before the end of the year’. So we always had a nice Christmas. It’s a miracle really, or at least, I always thought it was."
Some people deserve miracles--Dad was one.