We gave my father full military honors yesterday for his 23 years in the US Air Force with Taps, a flag, and a 21 gun salute. Here is the eulogy that I wrote and read at my father's funeral yesterday followed by the poem posted before, "Somewhere over the Rainbow" by Judy Garland, his favorite singer and then remembrances from friends. We closed it with the theme song to Zorba the Greek which summed up to Alyson and I his joie de vivre and love for that sunsplashed country and its music, food, and people.
When my father was ill last year, I came home from overseas to help Alyson take care of him as he recuperated. We spent a lot of time together and one day he told me how much he hated growing old – that it was not for sissies. We reflected on how some of his woes were caused by his lifestyle – good food, good drink, and living life to its fullest. “Would you do it differently, if you knew?” I asked him. “No,” he said firmly. “To thine own self be true.” And he was – he was always true to himself.
He was born in George, Iowa, a small town near the border of Minnesota where he had what seemed to be an idyllic childhood. He told us his stories of his grandmothers hollyhocks and four o’clocks, rhubarb pie, hanging out with his friends at the swimming hole, helping out his grandfather Pa at the bar that they owned and running home from outraged teachers to be protected from spankings by Ma. But he lived through the depression (and we were always reminded of this when he would advise us not to spend all our money on frivolous things and that a sandwich with one piece of cheese was PERFECTLY ADEQUATE). His father fought in World War II ending up in Papua New Guinea which I recently visited. His mother moved to Minnesota to work to support the family and he told us funny stories of selling gardenias to soldiers out on dates and being terrorized by priests at Catholic boarding school. We heard stories of his working in a hotel in New Mexico, picking apples (and being fired) in Washington State, working in a bowling alley and a bank in Los Angeles. He talked about his glamourous cousin Sue who took him to lunch at the Top of the Mark in San Francisco and cherished memories of driving through the night to come home to his cousins Catherine and the Veenker clan to drink beer, play cards, and catch up on the family gossip.
Eventually he joined the US Air Force- and traveled the world as he had traveled the US. He went to England where he developed a deep love of British culture. He was stationed in Turkey and Greece – we have the old Bouzouki records to prove it. Eventually, he ended up in England again where he met my mother, as legend has it, on his birthday. He claims he wooed her with American whiskey and cigarettes. They fell in love, married, and had adventures together all over the world – from Taiwan to Belgium to settle in Sumter, South Carolina.
Alyson and I remember South Carolina the best – Mom and Dad dancing together and family parties with other mixed British-American friends. Dad would pick us up from school when we got sick and haul our bicycles home. Parties at the house included Dad’s specialties: Brandy Crème Royal, Cherries Jubiliee, his world famous Iowa potato salad and other amazing meals. It’s a tradition to watch Jeopardy in our family and he was so proud when I made it onto the show (although he soundly beat us at a game of Trivial Pursuit the night before my audition). He sat through numerous football games, marching band contests and piano recitals but also went to New York City to see Broadway shows and enjoyed long evenings at the beach playing Steal the Pack.
I received many gifts from my father: a love for traveling the world - he gave me great advice that I foolishly ignored about the tourist traps of camel rides behind the pyramids in Egypt; a love for reading – sharing a taste in British police procedurals, fantasy novels, and “bawdy thrillers”; a love for cooking – one of my most cherished memories is making his famous spaghetti sauce one last time this past Christmas and arguing over how much celery to use; liberal politics – oh how he missed not being in Sumter when a Democrat took the White House in November so he could rub it in to his Republican friends, and a love for music and dancing – including Frank Sinatra, big band music, and Broadway musicals. His love for adventure and sense of humor made our lives fun and rich. He would come to visit me in Chapel Hill or Washington DC and even Guatemala – often staying up later than the youngsters and regularly shaming us on the dance floor. One of our favorite stories is how he charmed a Dutch girl in Guatemala away from my friend Jamie because he was such a good dancer. We had to drag him out of the disco.
He was always surrounded by women– from the ladies of Warren Court like Lynn and Sandy and the Wand girls visiting him in the hospital, to the ladies of the British Wives Club, to the nurses and physical therapists with whom he flirted during his illnesses. Even in his last hours, a nurse admired his fine head of hair – one of his biggest vanities. “Imagine that,” he said to me once “ 80 years old and still vain.”
I'd like to thank my sister Alyson who brought Dad into her home and took care of him the last six months. The last 11 months since he fell and broke his arm have been hard for all of us. When his good friend Mrs. Farris gave us a photo from his 80th birthday party the other day, Alyson and I were quite taken aback to see how he had aged in a year. He told Alyson once how shocked he was to look in the mirror and see that he had become an old man overnight. Whenever we would be worried that he was becoming a hermit, traveling only to Aldi’s and the library, we would suggest he try out the senior center. He would tell us with great outrage that he didn’t want to hang out with old people and he was CERTAINLY not going to learn small engine repair or whatever scut work they palmed off on old folks.
Alyson and I hated having his freedom curtailed and leaving his beloved house in Sumter. Moving to Columbia was difficult for all of us. However, even in his last months with us, we still enjoyed our family pleasures of watching “obscure Irish dramas”, arguing about politics, visiting with dear friends like the Arndts and Farris’ for gossip and British treats, and cooking elaborate breakfasts with both bacon AND sausage. While his death came as a shock to Alyson and I, we both feel some sort of peace in our grief, because he is reunited with our mother who he loved, and won’t have to suffer the indignities of old age any more. We can both imagine him now, dancing and laughing and enjoying all the good memories of a long life filled with love and happiness.