Letters from My Father

My father was born in 1911, eight years removed from the first successful flight at Kitty Hawk, four years before the first coast to coast telephone call, and well within an age to remember WWI. As a child, he heard of a new weapon called a “tank” and pictured it according to the only tank he was familiar with – a sort of large oil drum with a slit around the middle permitting vision and a seat in the middle suspended in midair, large enough to simply roll over the enemy and every obstacle. His mother still enjoyed racing her horse and buggy against challengers along main street in Parsons Kansas, even though the Model T was quite popular.  As a boy he shook the hand of Frank James (of outlaw fame), whose ranch was a tourist attraction in Oklahoma. He would be among the 2nd generation of pilots and was taught to fly, he would find out later, by a flight instructor who taught an entire generation without benefit of ever attaining a pilot’s license. He owned a variety of airplanes, boats, and horses, the latter which he would race. He was a small-town mayor, edited and published his own newspaper, was the owner/operator of a small airport, and managed a variety of mobile home factories.

He lived through the Great Depression – though he was of an age and temperament that, in the telling at least, made of the Depression one of the most colorful and least depressing periods of his life. Depression in fact, is the last word I would associate with my father, despite living with the effects of polio and struggling his entire life to earn a living for a large family, which he was not unsuccessful at doing. Even in his final years in the nursing home, unable to walk and his memory sometimes unclear, he was still geared to making the most of his time. He instructed me to bring him the want ads from the newspaper as he planned to set up a car brokerage using the nursing home telephone.

My brothers and I would inherit no fortune, but the legacy we received was in the stories he told, which were not morality tales but which conveyed a perspective, a history, we carry. The comparison might be with those fascinated by the work of J. R. R. Tolkien, but my father’s stories were not otherworldly, but earthy, firmly located in a particular time and place, concerning people he had known or his own experiences, and yet always bearing a sort of enchantment.

Many of these stories he eventually reproduced in written form.  A simple example, Roy Hardman:

Roy was a piano tuner and totally blind. He could not tell daylight from dark and his wife was also totally blind. Through the “short money” years, Roy and his wife raised a family of three, owned their own home, and was never dependent on the County, State, or relatives for any kind of assistance.

Now, one of the most far fetched tales of my repertoire is: Roy drove his own car. I have seen him many times in the Twenties with one of the children beside him telling him when to stop, turn, etc. Furthermore, as the children grew older, he taught each of them to drive the automobile.

Leroy, his second eldest has told me that his main caution was: “You can’t depend on the other driver avoiding you, as a lot of drivers don’t watch where they are going.”

Dad walked with a limp and many of his stories concerned those, like himself, whom he affectionately referred to as “gimps”: “My definition has always been a person with a handicap in appearance but not in reality. The ones to whom I refer have so completely overcome any handicap that they rather proudly refer to themselves as gimps.” Peg Highland, Up and Down John, Kraut Cutter Cherry, One Eyed Johnson, bore their “disability” in their moniker. Others like Luther Cortylou, another up and down walker, were known, not for their disability, but for an added flair it gave them:

If he passed fifty women on the street, he lifted his hat fifty times. It may have been an optical illusion, but it appeared as if he grasped the crown of his hat on his high step, held it level and stepped down from under the hat without having to lift it.

Cortylou was, in my father’s description, “in no way handicapped other than being president of a bank.

One Eyed Johnson worked for my father selling educational courses, during Dad’s short stint as a “professor” (another story). According to Dad, Johnson carried his glass eye in his coat pocket as it was most uncomfortable in his eye socket, but he thought it more dignified to have two eyes in place when calling on a prospective student. So, he would pop it in at the last minute to make a good impression.

He would knock and step back in his most elegant pose for the lady (he was selling secretarial courses) to open the door. A big smile that exposed teeth resembling the keyboard of a small piano, one blue eye and the other eye covered with tobacco crumbs and pocket fuzz. It was impressive as I am sure they remembered it forever.

There were over a hundred characters and stories, many simple vignettes, Dad would relate which had a cumulative effect. I suppose one could extract some sort of moral from some of his stories; many were darkly humorous, but all of them flowed out of a deeply amused, profound appreciation for life and people.  

 In my college years, feeling he had neglected corresponding with us regularly, Dad began to send us monthly letters addressed to his four sons, not by name but in the fashion of the Chinese television detective, Charlie Chan, who addressed his children numerically (“number one son,” etc.). He would simply print out the numbers 1-4 and circle the appropriate number. I was living in the dorm at the time, and a group of students, upon hearing I had received another letter, would gather to read it. Many of the stories were those that I had heard growing up, and so I knew them word for word; where to pause for effect, and the cadence in which they were told. Others were new to me (a bit off-color), vaguely remembered, or filled with new detail.  After more than a year of receiving these letters, one Christmas he presented each of the four of us with a bound copy of the letters.

More than forty years have passed since I received those bound letters and I have acquired hundreds of books and have even begun to dispose of books, as I realize I have limited time and space.  I have noticed postings on Facebook of people listing ten favorite or most influential books, most of which (being as I am friends with those of similar background) I have read or am familiar with. Some of the choices I agree with, some I feel sad that one has had such an impoverished life of the mind. I would have trouble sorting out single volumes among the many books which have been of key importance. Mostly I have read, absorbed the main points, moved on. The Brothers Karamazov profoundly impacted me, but I don’t think I have the energy or desire to reread it. Certain theologians deserve a second look, but mostly “I got it.” Maybe it is a sign of old age – I continue to read – but am less easily impressed, harder to engage fully, and much of my library, I now realize, is of limited importance.

The one book in my library which I will not part with bears a gold inscription against a black background, Letters From Papa. It may be of limited literary value, and no, it is not of biblical proportion. But having grown up with my father’s stories, I recognize the primary importance of narrative in finding and appreciating time and place.  The stories of a small town in Kansas were preparation for realizing the extraordinary in the ordinary: say, in the town of Bethlehem a child was born and they laid him in a feed trough as the child and his parents were economic and social gimps, not worth notice.  

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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