My father was born Aug. 26, 1904, in Leander, Texas, the first son of a farming family; of a tough Scot mother and a vigorous, entrepreneurial father. He was, I’m told, a bright, ambitious boy who loved learning and dreamed of being a writer, traveling the world, spinning stories about those adventures.
By 1918, the family owned two farms, two mule teams, two plows. One of those farms led my grandfather to board a train for Port Lavaca in late October 1918. By Nov. 8, my grandfather was dead of Spanish influenza. He was 42 when they buried him in a family plot at Oatmeal, Texas. With him was buried my father’s dream of an education and the writing life.
He was 14, had become the man of the family and a farmer.
By the late 1920s, by means unknown to me, he had enrolled at Tyler Commercial College and, despite contracting rheumatic fever, sometimes fatal in those days before antibiotics, graduated with a business diploma. He had married by then and had two sons. He got a job at a bank. It was 1929. Soon, the bank and job were gone as the world sank into the Great Depression.
He spent those early Depression years doing whatever he could; worked as a ranch hand and a traveling tombstone salesman.
“Lots of people were dying,” he told me once. “But nobody could afford a tombstone.”
Peddling grave markers in New Mexico, he contracted scarlet fever, also a killer back then. A family of strangers who ran a boarding house nursed him back to his feet, helped him to his old car and sent him back to Texas with a brown bag full of sandwiches.
When the New Deal rolled out, he got jobs through the Public Works Administration building dams, bridges, schools and hospitals across Central Texas. Life improved.
In 1936, though, he stood again in that Oatmeal cemetery as men of the family lowered coffins containing his wife and an infant daughter into the hard Hill Country dirt; they too victims of influenza.
In December that same year, he married the 18-year-old girl who decades later would bear me. Little by little, life improved.
He managed to buy a Gulf service station along U.S. 281 in Burnet, Texas; a good spot on a main road between Dallas and San Antonio. The war came and with it rationing of gas, oil, tires, parts; the whole inventory. The venture sputtered, then died.
And that old foe, disease, was still around.
He would spend six months in a San Angelo sanatorium where people with tuberculosis were quarantined. The fear and humiliation of being unable to protect and provide for his family must have been profound, for those were his real calling.
After the war, he had to stand by helpless as polio took down his own first son; left him with a withered leg.
My father was 56 when I arrived; his accidental son. He was a carpenter, much in demand for his skill and devotion to the craft. He had never left the United States, never would. He read Wanderlust magazine, devoured crossword puzzles and books.
He never wrote a story, that I know of; but he could spin them and he spun them for me.
I see now each contained a lesson for his accidental son, the son he might not be there to guide.
Some of those morals I find relevant today: Good people are everywhere, among all kinds; the converse is equally true; your family and your health alone are worth worry; all honest work is good and an end as much as a means; learn, especially to do; what you know and can do are yours forever; collect nothing except tools; avoid debt; anything you make should be square, plumb and true; help when you can, accept it when you must.
I don’t know what my father would think of the world today. I doubt he would be afraid. I know he would not bend on principle, character, values or any of the few other similar things we truly own.
I think he would get up and face each day; do what there was to do. I will try to do that too.