Happy Birthday Dad

Today is my Dad’s birthday. He’d be 94 today. Born December 3,1926 at his childhood home. He was the last of five children my grandmother had. She lost two of those children to still birth. Dad was nine year’s younger than his brother Wendell and six year’s younger than his sister Virginia. He was by all accounts spoiled as many “babies” of families are.

I’ve got pictures of him as a child living with my grandparents. Most of my recollections of Dad’s childhood as he saw it came from stories he shared with me as a young man growing up. We share the same first and last name and many of the same looks especially in adulthood. His stories nearly always painted a comic and tragic childhood that was marred at times by my grandparents squabbles.

Dad graduated high school in 1944 and enlisted in the US Navy. He went to recruit training at Great Lakes IL and later radio school in Chicago at a junior college that the government had taken over during World War II. Eventually he shipped out to naval base San Diego where he contracted rheumatic fever. That illness saved him from deployment to the Pacific fleet and perhaps harm from the war. He convalesced at a naval hospital in Corona CA and was eventually honorably discharged hone in 1946.

Like many returning GI’s he got a chance to enroll in college. He was admitted to the University of Buffalo Dental School eventually graduating in 1952. It was while he was a student there that he met my Mom who ate dinner at the same boardinghouse he lived at. They fell in love and were married in 1951. I came along fifteen months later followed by three siblings one of which died soon after birth.

We had a good life together marred at times by Dad’s bouts with depression. Back then very few people understood depression as they do today. Though undiagnosed I believe Dad was bipolar. When he was up he was great but when down he was miserable and violent at times. We all suffered but I think he suffered the worst as he was truly remorseful for his bouts. I know that he loved us very deeply though at times his behavior belied it.

Being most like him we frequently clashed especially as I grew older. At one point I moved away from the house for a week or more after one of the more violent outbursts. Relief came when I graduated high school and enrolled at college. Dad frequently demeaned me growing up. He told me that I would never rise to the professional ranks like he did. That’s quite damaging to the psyche of a younger person but now as a much older adult I can see that this was borne of his own severe insecurities. His frequent attacks on my integrity left me more determined than ever to excel.

Like him I got drafted and decided to join the US Navy where I served as a hospital corpsman eventually rising to the rank of third class petty officer in less than two years. I was named Command Sailor of the Quarter at one point thanks to the relentless drive for excellence and perfection. I got some leave after graduating from Hospital Corps school and had made no plans to visit my parents who were living on the west coast. I got a phone call from Dad begging me to visit and I’m glad I pocketed my pride and took the trip. I spent a week with Dad and Mom in northern California where they lived. It was the best week Dad and I had as adults. Then it was over and I was returning to the east coast and a new duty station. I can still remember that morning standing in the departure area of the Eureka airport. We embraced and he told me how much he loved me and how proud of me he was. I told him I loved him too and then turned and walked to the aircraft. I had a huge lump in my throat and tears welled in my eyes as I looked out the window of the plane toward Mom and Dad in the terminal.

Little did I realize then that would be the last time I saw him. He died after a short illness five months later. His life was cut short at forty-six. Time and therapy has healed the wounds and I forgave Dad long ago. I think of him often. I see him in our children. I walk by his childhood home often. Our children attended the same school he did and graduated from there too. Happy Birthday Dad!

About Don Watkins

I'm a FOSS advocate, writer, educator, Python coder, Linux user, US Navy Veteran, Secular Franciscan, husband,father and grandfather. I blog about my life and experiences that give it meaning.
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