Wednesday, February 27, 2019

A Eulogy for My Father


Below is the text of the eulogy I gave for my father last Saturday, February 23, 2019.

My father grew up in the hills of South Carolina, in a place called Central, not far from Clemson University. It was a switching station for the railroad. His family's house, which his father had built, was on the other side of the cemetery from Mt. Tabor Baptist Church. He grew up there with his seven brothers and sisters.

His father, my grandfather, was a carpenter. He was one of the many workers who worked to build the textile mills in Greenville, South Carolina, mills that later shut down when the jobs went to other countries and which have in recent years been given new life as restaurants, shops, and office buildings.

When my father was five years old, he convinced his mother to let him go to school (that was apparently considered early back then). So early one morning, he turned from the window of their house, from which he could see the one-room schoolhouse across the street. He told his mother that the smoke was coming out of the school chimney. They had stoked up the wood stove, which meant school was about to start. He ran down the hill and snuck in the back door, sitting in a seat in the back row, near the water barrel. When the teacher asked him who he was, he wouldn’t tell her. The teacher had to find out from another student who he was.

He went home that night and read through the entire reader and brought it back to school. On days off, he would sit on a stool in the middle of the yard and loudly and obnoxiously read his schoolbook until the other children complained to their mother to make him stop.

He did so well at school that he was promoted ahead of his older sister. When his mother found out, she grabbed him by the arm and marched him down the hill to the school, where she demanded that the teacher put him back where he belonged.

In that time and place you had to grow up fast. Like his brothers and sisters, my dad helped in the farm chores from a young age. His first car accident was in a Ford Model A. He was six years old.

My grandfather was by all accounts a good person. He would frequently lend money to people. One day my grandfather was away--probably working at the mills, and my grandmother, who was apparently aware of who owed him money, drove my dad to the saloon, handed him a pistol, and told him to go in and collect. My dad, who was sixteen at the time, was told to leave the pistol sticking out of pocket, where people could see it. The strategy apparently worked.

The people who talk about strong women as if they were a recent thing had apparently never heard of my grandmother. In addition to being poor and raising eight children, she was known, when my grandfather would leave for any extended time, to walk out the back door and fire off a couple of shotgun rounds just to let the neighbors know that she was armed.

When we all came down for my grandmother's ninetieth birthday, I saw my father get down on one knee in front of her chair, take his mother's hand in his, and address her as "mother."

She was truly the matriarch of the family.

When my dad graduated from high school, he had no plans to attend college. One day he was at church (where he claimed he went only to meet girls), and an older couple who had taken a liking to him asked him if he had signed up at Clemson. He told them no, that he couldn't afford it. The man told him to go sign up, and that he would take care of the rest. 

He walked into the admissions office one day during a break from laying cement with a job crew on the Clemson campus. They told him to come back when he had a shirt and shoes and they would take his application.

That couple at church, Mr. and Mrs. Masters, paid for his entire college education. I met them once when we were visiting my grandmother.

After a couple of years at Clemson, my dad contracted tuberculosis, and was put in what was then called a "sanatorium." For whatever reason (probably because his mother had her hands full with his brothers and sisters) he had to take a taxi there. When the taxi driver pulled up in the driveway, there were people in pajamas, wandering around aimlessly and, he said, hanging from the trees. The driver had taken him, not to a sanatORium, but to a sanatARium. Fortunately they realized the mistake in time. 

When he got out of the TB hospital almost two years later, he returned to Clemson and got an engineering degree. Shortly thereafter, he met my mother, whom he married 1958. In 1960 he and my mother moved our family to southern California and he took a job at Convair Aircraft.

"I took that job," he once told me, "but I could have had forty others." It was the "space age," and the nation needed good men to build airplanes to take us across oceans, and rockets to take men to the moon. My father was among them.

One of my aunts tells the story of when my dad took the scraps of wood his dad brought home from his carpentry jobs and built an airplane, complete with wheels. He never got it to fly, but, she said, they had fun riding down the hill on it. It was a premonition of things to come.

When I was growing up, I never really knew what my dad did for a living, since his job involved mostly top-secret projects. In fact, I never once visited his office, which required a high-security clearance even to get in. But over the years, I did manage to piece together a few facts about what he did.

One day, when I was rummaging around in a supply closet, I came across a paperback book titled The Nike Zeus Propulsion System. It didn't sound too exciting, but at the bottom was a name: "Lawrence E. Cothran." When I brought it in and asked him about it, he snatched it from me and said, nicely but firmly, “You’re not supposed to have that.” The Nike Zeus was the nation’s first anti-ballistic missile (a missile that shoots down other missiles). He had apparently—I later learned—designed the rocket delivery system.

That explained his frequent visits to Vandenburg Air Force Base, from which test missile launches were frequent, their vapor trails visible in the south bay of Los Angeles County. And it explained why he could frequently be found in the garage at night, firing different materials to test their melting points.

And that explained why he said with such authority when we sat on our living-room couch watching CNN as the Israelis launched American-made Patriot missiles to shoot down the Iraqi SCUD rockets during the first Iraq War, “Oh, that’s nothing. That technology is at least twenty years old. You should see what we have now.”

I later found out, through various conversations with my father and others, that he had headed the project to put the first three spy satellites into space. After being released from their cargo bay, their wings folded out into a 150-foot wingspan that had to be positioned within the accuracy of the width of a nickel. “We nailed it every time,” he said. 

That explained why he occasionally came home in a dark mood, sometimes saying, "You wouldn't believe what's going on in the world."

Had I known all this at the time, I would have been even more comforted when, as a college student having just read an article on the nation’s missile defense system and the various strategies the Air Force employed to make sure we could launch our ICBMs in the face of a massive Soviet missile attack, my dad, to whom I was reading it while he was shaving, finally lowered his razor, looked at me, and said, “Marty, don’t worry about it. You have no idea what we have,” and calmly finished shaving.

One night, during the time when he headed payload processing for the Space Shuttle, my dad came home somewhat aggravated. As it turned out, there was a problem getting the cargo out of the Shuttle cargo bay if a launch had to be aborted. The cargo was inserted in the cargo bay with the Shuttle standing on its end, vertically, on the launch pad. If it had to make an emergency landing on some other continent, how could they get the cargo out of it so it could be transported back to the U.S.?

For three nights we heard hammering and drilling in the garage. After the third night, he came in holding a board with various hydraulics and pulleys and other things I would never be able to identify. “I figured it out,” he said.

In his later years, before he had lost the ability to speak, we were sitting, watching a television news report on the Iranian nuclear centrifuges, which are the only way to produce weapons-grade plutonium. “They must have somehow gotten a paper I wrote on that,” he said.

“What do you mean?” I asked. He proceeded to inform me that he had written the design specifications for the nuclear centrifuge.

 "I never told you that?" he asked.

"No," I said with some impatience, "I you did not tell me that."

Everything he did, from missiles to satellites to nuclear centrifuges, he did with a bachelor’s degree. He was part of the "greatest generation" of aerospace engineers--the people who devised the means of our safety during the Cold War, and sent probes to Pluto.

But those were all things I found out later. What I remember most vividly about my father was not the things he did for the country, but the things he did for me and our family, like going camping seemingly every weekend. My dad would strap our camping equipment and food to the top of our Ford LTD station wagon with fake wood side panels and we would set out for some national or state park in California, or Utah, or Colorado.

I remember hiking trails in the Sequoias, feeding bears in Yosemite, or watching the eruption of Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park.

When we went on vacation, we never seemed to have a plan. When I think about it now, it seems to out of character for a man who, in his professional life, was responsible for planning so much. We just got in the station wagon (and later the camper he put on the back of a pickup truck) and headed for the open road. There was no GPS then, of course, and we never knew where we would end up. 

We found ghost towns, and rivers, and sand dunes, and oases in the desert. We went to Kings Canyon, the Grand Canyon, Carlsbad Caverns, Lake Powell, Pismo Beach, Yellowstone, Hearst Castle, and countless other places.

I remember seeing a postcard with a bright Kodachrome picture from the 1960s of a station wagon with camping equipment strapped to the top, heading out on the great American road. That was us. We were in that car, full of excitement--and anticipation of what we might find around the next corner.

One day we went to the Palm Desert so my parents could look at rental property in the morning. On our way back in the afternoon, we stopped in the mountains and had a snowball fight, and later stopped by the beach and waded into the waves. All that in one day.

On one trip, we drove until after the sun went down. We ended up somewhere in California's high desert. I remember my dad taking a turn off the main road and driving along what seemed a precarious dirt road, looking for a place to camp. There were turns that brought us close to the edge, over which it was very dark. The next morning, when we got up and drove out, we discovered that what was over the edge of those dark places were ravines hundreds of feet down. We had just missed going over the edge in the night.

My father showed me how to pan for gold in the Kings River, and how to put up a tent; how to start a campfire and cook eggs and bacon on it. Later he taught me how to drive, so I could take my place behind the wheel on our expeditions.

My father showed us this country as his generation saw it: as a place of beauty and wonder. Many of us have sung about spacious skies, amber waves of grain, and the majesties of purple mountains. But we saw these things. It was gift I will cherish for the rest of my life.

It isn't in the big things the world knows (or in this case didn't) that constitute a person's real achievements. It's the little, everyday things that your family remembers about you that are the most important.

My dad helped design rockets—and showed me how to make a paper airplane. He launched satellites into space—and showed me how to drive a nail. He was on several space shuttle launch teams—and taught me how to throw a baseball.

When I got the word that he only had a few days left to live, I rolled up my clothes to conserve space in my suitcase like he taught me. When I tucked in my shirt before leaving for the airport, I did it like he told me they showed him when he was in the National Guard.

The tie I am wearing now is his.

My father's siblings all spoke highly of him. When she found out he had passed away, one my aunts texted me, saying, "He was my hero."

His three great passions were our house-- which he spent a good part his life remodeling, riding his Harley Davidson motorcycle, and Clemson football. 

He began remodeling our house when I was sixteen years old. I remember because I was dating the girl who would later become my wife. It turned into a life-long project, and more. In fact, he never finished it. Several years ago, when he could still walk, he took me around the house to show me the things that were left unfinished, in case anyone ever wanted to finish them after he was gone. After showing me around for a while, he said, "Let me show you one more thing." He led me over to a wall, where he pointed his old and shaking hand at a piece of molding that only came partway down. "This," he said,"is where I stopped."

The house remains unfinished, partly because my father was a perfectionist.

Several years ago, when I was visiting, he took me out to the pool, which he had just had redone and which was still empty of water. "Let me show you something," he said. We went down the steps and to the bottom of the deep end. He pointed up and said, "Do you see that?" Underneath the tile, which you could only see from underneath, was a small flaw. "What do you think?" he asked.

"Honestly? I said. "I think you are probably the only one who could ever possibly notice that, and you probably just need to let that go."

He nodded his head.

He loved his Harley. A number of years back, he and Donna decided to participate in the "Ride for the Wall," the national motorcycle trip to Washington, DC for Memorial Day. The motorcade was scheduled to stop at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Frankfort, Kentucky, just an hour from our home. So we went to meet them. 

A line of several hundred motorcycles snaked up the hill to the memorial, and we tried to spot them. We finally determined which one he was. And on the back of the bike was what looked like a biker chick he had picked up along the way, but who turned out in realty to be my step-mother Donna. 

We stood there talking for a while, and up walked the political reporter for the state's largest newspaper, a friend of mine. "Al," I said, "this," gesturing to my father, who was wearing a red head scarf, black leather pants and boots, "is my father." 

I'm not sure what he thought.

And he loved Clemson football. My dad and his friend Victor argued repeatedly over the relative football merits of Clemson, my dad's alma mater, and USC, Victor's alma mater.
I am glad that my father lived just long enough to see that issue finally settled.

We visited my grandmother a number of times when I was young, but I didn't know much about my grandfather, who had died when I was about 4. All I knew was from the stories my father told me. My favorite is the one about him being pulled over by a police car while he was coming home one day. He was drunk, so the officer took him to the Central Jail. Unfortunately for the jail, no one had bothered to take away the carpenters hammer in his work belt. The next morning he was back home, having hammered a hole in the jail's cement wall and escaped. The folks at the jail were not amused, and the next day they made him come back and repair the hole.

I mention my grandfather because I once asked my mother what he was like. She paused for a moment and then looked at me and said, simply, "He loved you." That was not the answer I was looking for, but it was all I needed to know.

Love is a funny thing. It is unbound by time, space, and circumstance. It is the one thing that is really infinite and never-ending.

My father died this last Sunday. This is where his life on earth stopped. This is where all of us stop. The project of our lives is never finished, not in this world.

My father was never an outwardly religious person. But God is merciful. Although the long illness surely seemed to him a trial, I believe it was also a mercy. I was there when the minister from Hospice stopped in and spoke with my father and told him the story of the Gospel. He explained to him who God was, and what He had done for him. But the most important thing the minister told him, and possibly the only thing my dad really understood at that point in time, was what God was like. "He loves you," said the minister.

My father accepted that. It was all he needed to know.

In the end, love is all there is. Whatever we have done, whatever we have thought, whatever we have felt--all these things pass away, and all we have is love. It is the first thing we know in life, and the last thing we can understand. When all our mental and physical powers have left us, when we have nothing that we can give anyone else, we have only love--and trust in the love of others.

My father suffered through a long disease that took its time in draining everything from him. But he was surrounded in the end by the people he trusted--my stepmother Donna; his neighbor Victor, who stopped in every day to see him and say a cheerful word (and sometimes eat a doughnut); his weekday caretaker Joey, who faithfully stayed by my father's side to make sure he was comfortable and content; and Linda, who arrived every Saturday morning like an angel from heaven, bearing small gifts of food and an unceasing smile that would brighten my dad's day.

I just want to say thank you all for everything you have done for my father. I know he not only trusted, but truly loved every one of you.

Thank you.

1 comment:

Richard de la mora said...

Marty, I am sorry for your loss, though pleased to have learned so much about your Dad from this beautiful eulogy. I met him perhaps five times, and recall well his affinity for the pursuit of perfection in remodeling and thrift in accommodations. Although his work is now complete, it continues to be pursued in you. Rick