There were whitecaps on the bay today. They were nothing like the waters of the North Atlantic, or typhoon in the Pacific that my Dad survived aboard ship as a Merchant Marine in World War II. He died, Saturday, September 19, 2015 after a long life of hard work mixed with enough play. He helped raise three sons, including me, and will remain an example of a frugal life and an internal honesty.
He lived a version of the American dream. Born in coal mining country in southwestern Pennsylvania, got out as soon as possible by joining the Merchant Marines because he was too young for the other services, survived (except for a broken nose from a softball game in Marseilles), came home, became a trucker to avoid being a miner (which was wise considering he was over six feet tall), worked his way up through union management as one of the earliest shop stewards in the Pittsburgh area, then worked hard enough in successively higher paying jobs to help all three kids get through college (and me without any debt), then switched jobs at 58 based on a moral choice, worked until a retirement, became active in the Merchant Marine Veterans Association, cared for my Mom as she fought cancer (misdiagnosed until it was too late), found love and married again which required moving to California, cared for Doris as she fought cancer, then returned to Pittsburgh after her death to take care of himself as best he could. In the end, my brothers and their wives, all who still live in the Pittsburgh area, took on the role of caregivers for someone who took care of enough others. At many levels, I am sorry I couldn’t provide the care I’d hoped to before my financial troubles.
He was not a saint. He was human. This is not the time for imperfections.
Throughout his life, he never had the wealth of those around him. And yet, he knew when to work, how to save, and how to make time to play and take vacations. None of the vacations were particularly grand (until after I, the youngest, went off to college then they went on cruises). If it took a second job to save up for a week on the Outer Banks, he worked it. For a while, he had three jobs and Mom had at least one until the doctors told her she shouldn’t work (and then she ‘volunteered’ by creating a local ambulance service with Dad’s help.) During that time, as my brothers were transitioning from high school to college, I saw him on Wednesday nights, Saturday afternoons, and Sundays. Strict Catholics (he converted from Presbyterian to marry Mom), they made sure we went to church every week – and actually tried to bring us up to those standards. Usually though, he was at work because that was his duty.
And, they knew how to throw a party. House parties were a reason for me to stay downstairs in the family room that he built. As we grew up and out, they went out with friends, and also went dancing. I can’t remember seeing them dance, but I know that he could dance for hours, and would keep dancing after Mom was too tired. After I went to college, he even got to dance with some of the girls that had been in my high school class who I’d never danced with.
They never made me feel poor. As I grew up, I thought we were upper middle class. It wasn’t until I got an engineering job that I realized how little they’d had, how simply we’d lived, and how little they’d complained – to me, at least. Our neighborhood was one where every house was basically the same floor plan (which made it easier for us kids to always know where the bathroom was), and dozens of the homes were supposedly built over an abandoned mine (which never fell through, but two houses a couple neighborhoods over did drop a story or so). For years after Mom passed away, he got by on $24,000 a year, still took vacations, still went golfing, still socialized. That’s about what I’m getting by on now. He did a better job of it. Of course, his house was paid off because they bought one and held it for almost fifty years, improving it as necessary rather than trying to play the real estate game of ratcheting up.
He was strict, but softened somewhat with age. My brothers tempered him a bit, or, at least by the time I came around I only got one spanking. He was from the era of stoicism, perseverance, and duty above all. Outward emotions were a luxury only occasionally afforded. By the end, the world had changed enough that it confused him. It didn’t make sense anymore. My brothers and I all had separate struggles that should have been resolved by the work ethic he taught us, and he couldn’t understand why that wasn’t enough. There’s no need to go into how much computers confused him; but, it was how he communicated with the second woman he’d marry, despite the fact that whenever I visited I’d spend hours of a couple of days cleaning his computer of viruses, and the fact that he couldn’t figure out how to read most of what I posted.
His childhood was spent being so poor that they didn’t notice the Great Depression. Some of this is family folklore, but according to my memory of his recollection of his memories, he got the one slice of bacon per week because he was the only son in a family with four daughters (all older), two of whom are still alive. He also was responsible for climbing on the coal trains that passed through town, tossing off chunks as it went through a curve, and then jumping off to take the coal back home to heat the house. From a history like that, it is no surprise that he always appreciated what he had.
If folks want to understand my understanding of frugality, look at a life like the one my parents lived. It wasn’t perfect, but some of the lessons were eternally valuable.
He is embarked upon the ultimate, unknowable journey. I hope within it he finds the peace, comfort, and understanding he deserves. I thank him for what he gave me of his life.