It’s culturally fashionable to think of your parents as friends and equals. Try as I might, I’ve never been able to do that. There has always been a sacrosanct wall of privacy, duty and proper role between my parents and me. My father in particular, as my first and most powerful example of manhood, held a singular stature, an insuperable position in my life to which I could aspire, but would always have to defer to the man who still occupied it.
Well, heroes die; what happens next is up to the survivors.
Dad was always enigmatic to me. He had no patience with his own errors or failing eyesight, but I remember his hands guiding my first attempts to plane wood, and to play Duke Ellington on the piano. His hand was on my shoulder through Indian Guides, Webelos, Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. He never said very much that I ever heard, though he was a member of Toastmasters. I’d heard hushed stories that he was some sort of war hero, but never from him.
I also remember a man who was frustrated with the 1960’s and 70’s. The era of Vietnam protesters, Godless churches, LSD and women’s lib was hard for a man who had the same buzz cut and Errol Flynn mustache he had in 1945. On the other hand, the engineer couldn’t resist gadgets and flashy cars. He bought one of the first rotary engine-powered sports cars, though it was useless to a six-kid family, and his love of toy trains was perhaps obsessive.
He never missed a day of work and he never missed a campout, or a chance to make the Pinewood Derby car a little faster, a little shinier, a little bit better than the other kids’ cars…
When my dad said, “I’m going to go blow my brains out,” I knew that all the neighborhood kids would be in for a treat. He’d pull out his clarinet and do amazing, impossible, delightful things with the levers and valves and a spitty reed. I knew that he’d once made records with famous people, and that he’d had bands throughout the years. I also knew that he played in places I shouldn’t ever visit.
I knew that a lot of people blamed his generation, and men in extreme particular, for all manner of evil, and that he never said a thing in response. I didn’t know why he didn’t respond in kind to all the rage and righteous indignation leveled at him.
As a teenager I had presumed that he was a wonderful father, but a woman old enough to know better once told me, “yes, but you couldn’t know any better, could you, dear?”
I did know that my dad, a man with a great sense of humor, just couldn’t stand the sitcom, “Hogan’s Heroes.” It was only about 15 years ago that I learned why.
As it turns out, my father, as a young pilot, was shot down and taken to Stalag Luft 13. The place became notorious. But there was no ditzy Sargent Schultz, and there were no tunnels. My dad was there only a few months, but weighed 94 pounds by the time he left. I can scarcely imagine what he saw, smelled and felt. He’d killed, he’d seen death, and he almost died. I can’t blame him for wanting the memories to go away.
But his sense of duty, honor and fearful respect stayed with him until the very end.
He died a couple of years ago. His last days were embarrassing, terrifying and painful, but all I heard was that he was sorry for causing us so much worry and trouble. He knew that he was dying, but he feared the medical bills my mother would face. Some of his last words were about me, my farm, my family.
He fought for his country, he lived for his family and he died with as little fuss as he could manage. My dad wasn’t perfect, but I’m now considering his footsteps in awe.
If all boys were to grow up to be like Donald M. Horning, we wouldn’t need government. Our legions of bureaucrats and politicians would find something better to do. The big, costly and dangerous mechanism we call government would wither like a parched weed, and the guns of war would be disassembled to make toy trains.