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The Gift of a Unique and Wonderful Dad

My dad has been gone for almost 28 years now, and yet there still isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about him. At only 60 years old, he died way too young, but his faith and love of family, as well as his humor and daredevil spirit, have proven to be a powerful and lasting influence in my life. I am particularly grateful for the fact that he chose a job that not only fulfilled his dream of how he wanted to earn his keep but also allowed him a great deal of free time, which fortunately for me, he chose to spend with his family. I remember being shocked as a teenager when he said, "What's so great about working, anyway?" What? My dad said this?? What he went on to explain was that the ideal thing was find a way to do something you love and figure out a way to make it pay well while working as few hours as possible instead of being a workaholic. Pretty idealistic, but he pulled it off, and we, his family, were the grateful beneficiaries!

Dad and me

Dad was born in 1929 in the middle of ten children in northern Iowa, right at the beginning of the Great Depression. He used to tell me funny stories about his earliest memories, like when he lived on a farm and fell in the pig water, and then his mother yelled at him in Norwegian. Sadly, they lost the farm to the bank, like so many other people did during that time, and they had to move to a small cabin owned by a priest that was near a river. It had no electricity or running water, and they had to get their water from the river and heat it over the wood stove for cooking, bathing, and washing clothes.

Eventually they moved to southeastern Iowa, where he met my mom. She was four years younger than him, and although he was a devout Catholic, he looked more like James Dean with his cigarette, leather jacket, and motorcycle. They married when she was 18, and he was 22, and a few days after the wedding, he was sent to the Korean War for six months as a Navy fighter pilot.

Navy pic

He had joined the Navy to learn to fly, and they also paid for his physics degree at Notre Dame. My mom dutifully earned her PHT (Putting Hubby Through, although she later went on to earn her own degrees in business), and after graduation, he got a desk job as an engineer. That lasted a short while, as he discovered that he hated desk jobs; he really just wanted to fly. So he quit, and then he and Mom decided to go prospecting for uranium in Colorado. That was a big thing at the time, as it was the beginning of the atomic age, so off they went to the area near what is now Keystone, Colorado, to stake their claim and attempt to strike it rich in this new "gold rush". They had a great adventure but didn't exactly strike it rich, so they hung up their geiger counters and moved back to Iowa, where he tried a couple of other things and eventually found a job as a crop duster.

If you've never watched a crop duster, well, they're pretty awesome to watch. They fly just a few feet above the crops while dropping their load of sulfur, pesticide, or weed killer. At the end of the field, they pull up abruptly, barely missing the power lines, and then repeat back and forth until the whole field is done. The work is done early in the morning before the wind kicks up.

Many crop dusters, like my dad, were fighter pilots in the war, and just wanted to keep flying. Nothing else was quite like it, and nothing else fed their daredevil spirits in quite the same way.

My dad flying his 1920's biplane crop duster, as featured in the book Crop Dusters by Henry Rasmussen.

One day in 1957, he was reading a pilot magazine and saw an ad for a crop duster job in California. He hitchhiked his way out there, did the interview, got hired, and hitchhiked home. Then he and my mom packed up all their stuff and made the big move out to the farmland of northern California, where my brother, sister, and I were born.

They bought a house in the middle of the grape vineyards of what has since become one of the hottest wine destinations, Lodi, California. Back then, it was just a sleepy little town with only three wineries and more table grapes than wine grapes. Dad used to dust the vineyards surrounding our house with sulfur, to stop the growth of mildew, on a regular basis. As a little girl, I would hear his biplane coming and run outside to wave to him. He would lean out and wave back, and then I would run upstairs and watch him out the bedroom window as he dusted the field next door, flying right at our house and then pulling up at the last minute and roaring right over the rooftop. As I think back on that, I probably should have been terrified, but it was my dad. I knew it would be ok.

crop duster

My dad fueling up his plane, as featured in the book Crop Dusters, by Henry Rasmussen

When I was a teenager, I saw him fly past one day to dust the field about a half mile from my house, and then suddenly I didn't hear him anymore. We all ran down the street and saw his plane flipped upside down with grapevines sticking through the wings. The cockpit was sitting there suspended in midair about 3 ft above the ground. He wasn't hurt at all and tried to reassure us that the plane had just, "stubbed its toes on the grapevines and tripped," but it was still pretty scary. From that day on, I was always a little nervous whenever he went to work.

The best part about his job was all the free time he had. He only had to work about half the year (it was seasonal work, determined by the calendar of planting and harvesting), and of the days that he worked, he was often home by 9 or 10am because the wind would kick up, and that would determine the end of the work day (they started at sunrise, when the winds were calm). The pay was good, and he and my mom were very frugal and invested wisely, always keeping in mind the lessons of the Great Depression.

Fortunately for me, he was the consummate family man. He spent the vast majority of his time with my mom and us, doing things that he loved, like reading together, playing cards and board games, taking family bike rides, telling stories, and talking about family history.

One of the things he loved most was water-skiing. We got a boat when I was six years old, and we all learned to water-ski right away. Because of his work schedule, we were able to go boating as much as two or three times a week all summer! When my brother and sister came along, they learned to ski, too, and when we brought friends with us, it was always fun to have them drive the boat and take pictures of all of us skiing at the same time!


My whole family waterskiing

Something else that I really appreciated was that Dad taught us about gardening. We had our own small orchard with several kinds of fruit trees, and he and I planted a sizeable vegetable garden every year. We harvested our own fruits and veggies, and my mom made delicious pies, jams, and canned fruits out of them, as well as fresh salads from the garden for dinner every night and freshly picked fruits for dessert.

When I was little, he made the most wonderful swing for me out of an old parachute rope on a very high branch of a tree in our backyard. I don't think anyone in the history of the world ever had a better swing than mine. When the tree died, I tearfully watched it get cut down, and he had it cut into stumps that he put into a circle in the orchard around some cinder blocks for a make shift fire pit, where we did many summer barbecues. Some of my fondest memories are filled with hot dog and marshmallow roasts on warm summer nights under the stars.

Running through everything he did were his sense of humor and his Catholic faith, and it seemed like they flowed seamlessly into each other, which leads me to believe that God has a great sense of humor. I remember when I was about eleven, he would read the children's Bible aloud to my much younger brother and sister every night, purposely tripping over some of the names, like Nebuchadnezzar, much to their delight. They would ask him to read the same story over and over, just to hear him mess up the names. Then he would follow it with a story from a series of stories that he made up. These stories were very dramatic to my brother and sister, and they hung on his every word, but the stories were also filled with inside jokes that only my mom and I understood. It was all we could do not to burst out laughing. I'll always remember our dinner times, too, where we often stayed around the table for a good half hour after we finished eating just slinging one-liners back and forth and laughing uproariously.

When I was 23 years old, Dad was told that he only had six months to live, and I learned then just how deep his faith and strength really ran. He never complained about the pain as the cancer spread throughout his body, and he fought his disease with everything he had, lasting for three years beyond that fateful diagnosis. He took some of that time to have long talks with me about life and faith and to make sure that I received as much wisdom as he could impart.

At his funeral, I was blown away by the comments from his old Navy buddies and crop-duster friends. The common thread was that no one had ever heard him swear or tell an off color joke, and that he was among the funniest and most decent people they had ever known, as well as a true representative of his Catholic faith. All I knew was that my favorite person in the whole world had just departed way too early.

This Fathers' Day I will be remembering him and his life well-lived. If I can leave even half the impression on my own children that he left on me, I will feel like a massive success. Happy Fathers' Day, Dad! I love you and miss you every day!

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