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Personal Musings

Memorial for dad

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Joseph Badger Younggreen
Born September 20, 1927, in Paxton, IL
Died December 3, 2006, in Napa, CA

An only child, son of a traveling salesman, he grew up alone. Oh, he had both his mother and his father. He had playmates and classmates, but never a close friendship that followed him through his life. In college, his closest friend was Fuller. In the Army, his closest friend was Clegg. In church, his closest friend was Neil House. For various reasons, he lost all three of them.

Divorced, never remarried, children all grown, he died alone. Oh, my brother was there, and so was my mother, but with his brain riddled with the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s, he had been alone for many years before his body gave up and left him.

In between, he lived a quiet, introspective life; a loner’s life.

My father was a genius. When he went into the Army, they gave him a standardized I.Q. test. All I.Q. tests are not the same and a score on one does not necessarily mean the same thing and the same number derived from a different score. Still, in the 1940’s, the Army’s I.Q. test was the closest thing to a universal number there ever has been because it was administered to so many people. The traditional myth that “130 is the score where we begin to classify people as geniuses” comes from the Army’s I.Q. test of the 40’s. My father scored 155 on that test.

My father went to college, but wasted the opportunity pursuing classes that interested him and ignoring classes that were necessary to move him toward a degree. His two favorite pastimes in college were staying up all night building ham radios and talking to people all around the world, and driving an old Army surplus Jeep in the backcountry behind the college. He left college with tons of knowledge and some interesting tales of adventure, but no degree. He told me many times how sorry he was that he did that. He wanted me to make more of myself than he had made of himself. Being my father’s son, I didn’t listen.

When I was a young child, maybe between three and seven years old, my father worked full shifts as a psychiatric technician at a State mental hospital, a job that he got from his Army skills as a medic. Meanwhile, he took a correspondence course to become an electronics engineer. With that education, he took on a second job as the transmissions engineer at a local AM radio station; he repaired B&W televisions and reel-to-reel tape recorders; he designed and installed church sound systems. Eventually, he became a Fire Control mechanic installing the firing computers and mechanisms on Navy submarines that controlled the firing of torpedoes and missiles.

I remember my mother telling me to “leave your father alone tonight” which was code for, “your father is angry and that makes him dangerous.” I remember wondering why that made him dangerous. What I remember about my father being “angry” was giving everyone the silent treatment. He would withdraw into himself, sometimes not speaking, not even acknowledging other peoples’ presence, for days at a time. Of course, as a child, I believed my mother when she said he was angry and I just cautious enough to not be willing to test him to see if he was dangerous when he was angry. I was in my thirties before I began to really know my dad.

I have earlier memories of him, though. I remember accompanying him to the radio station at night. Many, many times, he worked the whole night through. I would play “DJ” in the spare broadcasting booth, spinning records and punching in “endless loop” 30 second and 15 second commercials. I must have been maybe six or seven or eight at the time. I learned how to do this by watching the DJs in the live control booth and asking lots of questions. I even covered for the DJs on rare occasions when they had gone to the bathroom and couldn’t get back in time for the end of the song. I’d punch up the next commercial and grin at them when they came flying back into the booth in a panic.

I remember his passion for motorcycles. His first motorcycles were a pair of Honda 50s (50cc two-stroke dirt bikes, except that he didn’t use them as dirt bikes.) He bought one for himself and one for my mother. He joined a local club (not a gang, just a motorcycle enthusiast’s club) and would ride with them on weekend outings. Often, we all went. I would ride behind my dad and my sister would ride behind my mother. I remember the sensation of swaying with the curves, feeling the wind in my face, and getting off at the end of the day bow-legged, stiff, and numb from the end of my spine to my knees. I remember falling asleep on those rides sometimes, hands buried deep in the pockets of my dad’s leather jacket, leaning against him, totally confident that I was completely safe.

He taught me to ride the Honda 50 when I was 11. I felt so big! He would only let me ride in on our street, but I would do it for hours. I’m sure the neighbors must have hated me! When I was maybe 14 or so he traded the Honda 50s in for a Harley Sportster. This was a much bigger bike, perhaps 400 – 600 cc and a couple of hundred pounds heaver. The first thing he did was strip it down and start customizing it. He bought an acetylene torch to cut up and re-weld the frame and he taught me how to cut and weld, too.

Teaching. That is a big memory for me. My dad taught me a lot of things. He was an excellent teacher. He was totally patient with me, explained things on my level, and wouldn’t help me with my homework in the traditional sense. When I would bring him my homework and ask for help, he would sit down with me and ask me questions, make me think solutions through, make me check my work, and help me look up things that I really didn’t know. He made me use the dictionary or the encyclopedia, but he wouldn’t just send me away to look things up as a way of dismissing me. He would have me bring the dictionary or the encyclopedia to him and would have me show him what I was looking up, subtly nudging me in the right directions, encouraging me, and praising me when I figured it out. I remember that I was in the sixth grade when he taught me how to solve square roots with pen and paper. That didn’t show up in my schoolwork until High School, and when it finally did, it was how to solve them using a table and deriving approximate calculations, yet I had known how to solve square roots for nearly six years because of my dad. In the eighth grade, he was teaching me how to do calculus on a slide rule, how to read an oscilloscope and an ohm meter, and how to splice recording tape to get what today are known as “sound bites”. By High School, he was teaching me how to write programs for Hewlett Packard’s first programmable calculator, the HP-100 and, later, how to write assembly code in octal for the firing computers on the submarines.

I remember dad taking us kids on walks – hikes really – in the hills, amid the scrub oaks, fig trees, and poison oak behind the State mental hospital. There was one fig tree in particular that was his favorite. I don’t know if it was because it was such a long hike to get to it or if it was because it was such a large tree, but it was always heavy with fruit. The fruit on fig trees is unusual in that it does not all ripen at once. The tree produces new fruit continuously, so throughout the summer and fall you can always find ripe figs. We visited that tree oh, two dozen times a year, I suppose. There were also blackberries up there, planted, tended, then abandoned fifty years before. They had once been in neat, straight rows, but had overgrown everything over time. Still, you could see the hint of the old rows in the long, straight swells of overgrowth.

I was estranged from my wife for about a year when I was in my thirties. I went to live with my dad who was by then divorced. We talked endlessly, hours at a time, all the time, about religion, science fiction, how the brain works, auto mechanics, quantum physics, dinosaurs, you name it. My dad and I got quite close during that year. That was a changing point for me in the way that I viewed my parents. It was the first time I had ever questioned the things my mother had said about my dad. At the same time, I came to understand why she said some of the things she did. It was also the first time that I ever saw my dad in myself. I began to view his loneliness and introspective withdrawals more as signs of depression than as anger. That, in turn, helped me to get a grip on my own fiery temper. I conceded that my wife had some valid points about me and went home after a year of living with my dad, to try to reconcile with her.

My dad and I lived together again about ten years later. I was divorced by that time, myself. He was living alone and about to retire. He didn’t think he would afford to live alone on just his retirement. I was struggling to live alone, too, so I invited him to come live with me and we would share expenses. He moved from California to Colorado and lived with me for two years. Near the end of the two years, the first signs of senile dementia (later we knew that it was Alzheimer’s) began to appear. Then he had a heart attack and a quintuple bypass. As his mind began to slip away, he began to be more and more terrified of being in Colorado. He felt out of his comfort zone and wanted to be back among the familiarity of his old haunts and homes in Napa and Vallejo back in California. He was also terrified of losing his mental capacity, his memory, his sense of self as his disease progressed. We decided together that he would probably be more at ease living with my brother in Napa, so I helped him move.

I saw my father only once in the years after he moved. I went back to California in 2004 and while there, visited my dad. He was, by then, so confused that my brother could no longer care for him and so he was living in a nursing home. He was friendly, conversational, but only about the most simple and recent things – something that happened that morning or the flavors of the foods we were eating or the weather – but he didn’t know me. He did recognize me at the end of the visit as I was getting ready to leave, and he asked me about Denver and reminisced about a hike we once took to a hidden lake in the Rockies, but that lasted only a few minutes, then he was gone again. That was the last time I saw my dad. I spoke to him a few times on the phone, but they were difficult conversations, like trying to have a phone conversation with a pre-schooler while waiting for their mother to come to the phone.

My mother called me on my birthday, November 29, 2006, to tell me that my dad was in the hospital, that he was bleeding internally and that they didn’t expect him to live very long. I didn’t make arrangements to fly out to California. I didn’t think it would do him any good. I didn’t think the man I knew was even in that body anymore. He passed away, quietly, peacefully, and I believe probably gratefully, four days later, on December 3.

I loved my dad. It had broken my heart to watch that enormous intellect shrivel up and waste away. If, somewhere in his brain, there were still enough connections for his essence to be self-aware, he must have felt helpless and imprisoned for several years. If he wasn’t self-aware, then he had already died much earlier than his body. If he was self-aware, then his death must have been a relief and a release. Either way, I’m happy for him now. If there is a “somewhere”, a “somewhen”, a “somewho” out there, then dad, I still love you. Be at peace. I’m ok.
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Comments

  1. mtpspur's Avatar
    I'm 55 myself and lost my father 5 years ago. Your memorial to your father was a privilege to read and your sense of history with your father the ups and downs is touching to me as I have few really good memories of mine. This is not the place to dwell on that but best to your novel and watch out for British taxes if you go England/Scotland. They say there are 3 phases to a life and I suspect oyu and I are in phase 3. God bless and grieve well.