An Ode to Father

It is Father’s day weekend! What better way to pay homage to my father than to post memories as written by him. The following is an abbreviated autobiography written by my father and slightly edited by me for blogging purposes.

He grew up in a small South Dakota village; a place that he’s been known to say, “Perhaps had the most influence on making me the person I’ve become later in life.” Omaha, Nebraska is where he was born, and he was named after his grandfather and dad. He was the fourth in what was later to become a family of five. There was an older sister and a younger brother.

His mother, before raising a family, was a schoolteacher at a one-room country school in Nebraska. His father was a Navy veteran of World War II. After separating from the military, his dad worked roustabout jobs and drove a taxicab. When he – little Kenney as he was called by his parents – and his sister were still toddlers, their father was called back to serve in the Korean War. The story of his family’s relocation to military housing in Long Beach, California was told to him many times. He has no recollection of that time but has heard (on numerous occasions) the story of him losing his balloon while his father drove the family in the old car across the Mojave Desert.

Shipping out for Korea

His first recollections of life came a year later when the family returned to the small Omaha house – no more than a cottage – on Sigwart Street. It was close to the high school where his mother had graduated years earlier. The memories are faint but he does recall riding his tricycle on the sidewalk in front of that house. Shortly thereafter the family relocated again. This time to a bigger house in Omaha, near the banks of the Missouri River. This new house was also near Omaha’s airport. It was the view of the airport from his bedroom window that left some of his first vivid and lasting memories as he watched the planes take off and land.

He was five years old the next time the family relocated to South Dakota where the family settled in for the remainder of his childhood. That same river – the Missouri – took on a much different appearance in his new home than what it had been in the city of Omaha. Here it was a magical and mystical place surrounded by wilderness. It was many miles in either direction before civilization touched its banks. It was the river that became his backyard playground. The village’s small population of 300 didn’t allow for many other boys his age. The few there became bonded into deep friendships that would last for decades as they played their games. They pretended to be Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. They participated in the Lewis & Clark expedition, over and over again. Practicing wilderness survival while staying away from home for days – subsisting on the game they hunted and the fish they caught. It was a young boy’s paradise.

Young adventurer and future Scout Camp Counselor

In-between schooling and play he became a young businessman. He had a newspaper route that expanded seasonally in the summer when he would hike through the campgrounds hawking papers to the tourists. That gave way to teenage employment when he worked summers as a camp counselor at nearby youth camps. Followed by college at the university, situated on the same river, 70 miles downstream. His permanent career came shortly thereafter when his Uncle Dick helped him get employment with the telephone company.

This career was interrupted and enhanced when he was drafted into the Army. It was a time of war and his orders, after basic training, were to attend infantry school and assignment thereafter to Viet Nam. He drew upon his pre-army career extending his military contract, which awarded him a different military occupation. He was assigned to the Signal Corps and was sent for technical training at Fort Gordon, Georgia, expanding upon the skills he’d already learned at the telephone company. He ended up in Viet Nam anyway, but under much better circumstances than the infantry.

On leave from Army training.

He spent the next four years rotating assignments between Viet Nam and Thailand. It was in Thailand where he met a bi-lingual telephone operator. She became his first wife when they were married two years later.

The adventures of Southeast Asia were very different from those he experienced growing up in the American heartland, but he found them equally enchanting. He snorkeled the beautiful tropical reefs in the Gulf of Siam, explored the mesmerizing ancient temples of Ayuttaya, Sukhothai, and Chang Mia, and watched elephants and their handlers logging the teakwood forests. Military life, before going overseas, was not agreeable with him, but now it was different and he found it exciting. His work took him to many remote and exotic tropical locations and made his life overseas rich and rewarding. Life was good and he extended his enlistment one more time. He would have stayed longer but the war ended. The next stop, months after his first daughter was born in Bangkok, was Arizona.

Life in the golden sunrise state was, in the beginning, back to the military lifestyle that he disliked before traveling to Southeast Asia. However, he found new exploration adventures in the southwest desert and Mexico and celebrating the arrival of his second daughter. He found that similar to his previous domiciles, Arizona was an amazing place. He loved it there, but the Army had other plans for him and there were more adventures to be discovered elsewhere.

Training in Texas.

A year’s schooling in Texas and the next stop was Panama and its fantastic canal, rain forests, and tropical reefs. He worked the night shift looking after a sophisticated private telephone system with satellite connections to dozens of locations all around the globe. The night shift provided opportunities to go deep-sea fishing and scuba diving in the morning before turning into bed before his next shift. At times he thought of himself as one of the luckiest people in the world and believed few had experienced such adventures as he.

He was saddened about leaving Panama behind three years later. His military enlistment was up. He wanted to gain civilian employment with the Panama Canal Company, but it didn’t work out so he took his family back to Arizona and moved into the home they had acquired there on their previous stopover.

The children were growing and camping in the desert became the family’s new favorite pastime. Sharing, once again, the Arizona adventure with his children was wonderful. This time they were at a better age for exploring. The civilian employment he’d found wasn’t that bad either. He was working with leading scientists and engineers from around the world developing the information systems, for the government: the birth of the Internet. He learned things that helped him maintain his career for years to come. He was highly sought after by corporate America for his newfound skills.

Baby me and Dad in Arizona

There was a deep longing for more scuba diving – the sport he’d fallen in love with while in Panama. Arizona, needless to say, wasn’t a good place for that. The Kwajalein Missile Range in the equatorial Pacific Ocean was. To get there, the family had to spend a year in Alabama where he was working with a team of NASA engineers. They were developing a communications system that would be used for tracking missiles and spacecraft. It was the Star Wars project – or so it was later named by President Reagan – but at that time it was known as the Homing Overlay Experiment. He went on business trips to the project site at the topical atoll several times during the year spent in Alabama and looked forward to relocating his family there. But when it was time to move him and his family, as agreed upon, the company reneged and asked him to spend another year in Alabama. He was furious and took a new job in San Francisco instead.

In San Francisco, he worked on a project to build a private telephone network in a remote location on the North Slope of Alaska for an oil company. He visited the site many times as the project progressed. The North Slope was a strange place and like other places his travels had taken him, he was fascinated with it. Sometimes, when he visited, the sun never set. Other times it never appeared. He was surprised to discover how warm the Arctic Circle could be in the summer. Not so surprised at the winter cold that he found. But then it was not much colder than his childhood home of South Dakota.

The first networked Automatic Teller Machine system, for one of California’s larger banks, was the next project he became involved with. From there came similar projects at several other large banks. Then he helped an international biotech company build its global network. It was a network that allowed computers throughout Europe, Asia, and America to interact with each other.

He was good at his career endeavors, but that wasn’t his highest priority. California needed to be explored. His two young daughters were there to help him do that. It was like playing the Missouri River games in South Dakota all over again; he became good friends with his daughters as he had been with his childhood friends from long ago. And that was his first priority. He became a ‘wanna-be cowboy’ as he dubbed it when his girls wanted to have a horse. They ended up with more than one. Gymkhana and trail rides for the girls and their dad. Everyone laughed at chasing those cows around the barnyard as dad and his saddle club friends tried to learn cattle cutting.

The girls moved on through their teenage years. Dad got a boat and chaperoned the girls and their boyfriends on weekend water skiing excursions. There was camping, exploring the foothills of the Sierra, where the forty-niners panned for their gold, and the giant redwoods. They played their favorite games over and over again and still found new adventures along the way. The spectacular coast, cliffs, lighthouses, and scuba diving in Monterey Bay were the activities that, all too soon, brought his girls to adulthood.

He married his second wife who has since passed away and he is retired to the northernmost reaches of California where the Giant Redwood Forrest thrives. He lives a quiet life near his granddaughter who has now graduated college and is moving along well in her life’s endeavors. He watches and guides her and lives new adventures vicariously through her.

As his grandfather inducted his father into the Veterans of Foreign Wars, so did his father induct him into the American Legion upon his enlistment into the Army.