Some memories are of photographs and not the incident itself, but some feel to the rememberer like they are of a photo, with the details so clear and so accessible. There is one memory … I could count the rocks in the creek bed if I would just take the time.
My father was born 80 years ago this Saturday. If August 15, 1935, is known for anything, it is not the birth of my dad but for it being the date Will Rogers and Wiley Post died when Post crashed their airplane north of the Arctic Circle near Point Barrow, Alaska. (They may be the first celebrities to have perished in a plane crash.)
When I was a boy in the 1970s, Will Rogers, Jr. appeared in television ads for Grape Nuts cereal. Because of this coincidence of my father’s birthday being the same exact date that a one-time star died, this felt meaningful …
Nowadays, outside of Oklahoma (Will Rogers’ home state, where his tomb is enormous), few will note the 80th anniversary of the movie star’s passing.
But this was a fact I knew, like every other one I assembled in my child’s brain, my protective fort of facts: my dad was born the day a famous star died. I almost remember him saying something self-deprecating about it, something like, “It figures I showed up with bad news.” (Because I was surrounded by old books when I was a little boy, I actually had a book about Will Rogers, along with my Hardy Boys books.) He himself no longer remembers this fact, and he thanks me politely every year on August 15 when I post a Happy Birthday on Facebook with the famous facts of the date. His memory is changing.
(Both my parents are on Facebook and read this website, which I am happy about.)
My dad was 33 when he and my mom started a family and I showed up in 1968. He was third out of four brothers, so my paternal grandparents were already in their 60s when I was born; in their 70s by the time I was aware of anything. (They each lived into their 90s; my grandmother Aldrich passed away only six years ago this summer, weeks shy of her 99th birthday.)
He was raised on a tiny farm on the side of a rocky hill in a tiny community split by a tiny river in Vermont. Books from the 1800s sat on bookshelves and even sometimes on tabletops because they were being actively read into the 1970s and beyond. On a visit with my grandmother in the mid-’90s, I looked at a book she was using to copy a knitting pattern: it was from the previous century. Until high school, he attended a three-room schoolhouse.
He wrote me a letter this year with a bit of a start of a memoir in it:
My grade school building was in the building which is now the Londonderry Town Office. The building was set up with three classrooms, and three teachers were employed for the eight grades. Desks were set up in rows by grade. I do not remember anymore how many kids were in each class, but I do recall that when I was in the fourth grade I had six different teachers. The one thing I do remember is that the school is on a hill and the playground was at the bottom of the hill. I had one classmate who did not like me and he always tried to push me down the hill when the bell rang. There came a day that I decided to push him first and of course I got caught and sent home with a note.
It was as if he grew up in the 1840s and not the 1940s. Those 33 years between my father and me sometimes felt much larger. On occasion, I suppose I treated him like someone from the Victorian Era. “He can’t relate to me,” I would think. Of course, just as I was typing his memory above, I remembered that I have an identical incident from elementary school, except I did not get caught when I knocked a bully into the mud, and I never had to tell my parents or anyone. If I had known his story in 1976 or whenever it happened, maybe I would not have been inclined to keep a secret.
He wrote one other memory for my sister and me this year:
On January 6, 1947, I was walking to school mid-morning (I guess that I must have been sick and stayed home, and Mother sent me to school because I was not sick enough to stay home) and was on the bridge over the West River when I heard a very loud noise coming from the mill next to the bridge. I then saw a large amount of fire coming at me from the mill. I started running off the bridge and down the street to where my Father worked and told him about the fire. I then ran back up the street to home and the other buildings and told them all about the fire. I then finished my walk to school. When my Father came home from work that day, he came over to me and gave me the biggest hug I had ever had from him and that I have never forgotten.
My grandfather was a man of few words, but in his obituary I wrote that when he hugged you, you stayed hugged. He died in December 1995 and was buried the following spring. After the funeral I saw my father and his two surviving brothers sitting together and laughing in the living room of the home they grew up in; it was the only time I saw the three together. My dad has outlived them both. Later, I walked down the hill to town with him, still wearing his jacket and tie. We approached the bridge he writes of above.
The West River is a tributary of the Connecticut River, and at South Londonderry, the tiny town my father is from, it is shallow and narrow; the days one can call it a river are the days it is about to wash out the bridge. This day was not one of those days. It was more stone than running water.
Like his father, my father is a man of few words, and when we approached the bridge he simply told me to continue on the bridge. He was going to cross the river from stone to stone, like when he was a boy. He loosened his tie and took off his jacket. (I guess he trusted himself on possibly slippery rocks with the jacket more than he did me, a 26-year-old newspaper reporter at the time.) He crossed the river, dry stone slab top by dry stone, and met me on the other side.
It was glimpse in 1995 of his childhood, whether 1947 or 1847 or whenever it was.
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