Today is August 7th. It’s my dad’s 105th birthday. He hasn’t been around for a while to celebrate, but it doesn’t stop me from thinking about him, and that wonderful optimistic sense of self and the world which propelled him in the 20th century. He missed the whole century by just six years on each side (b. 1906, d. 1994) but I can’t think of anyone who better embodied that sense of upbeat hopefulness which drove him every day. It’s a little surprising perhaps, as I assume his childhood had some real bumps. His mother Liza died in 1912 or so… when dad was just a tyke. And he spent much of his growing up years in the company of aunts, uncles and cousins. And the occasional Japanese houseboy. In the early 1900s there were a lot of young Japanese who came to live in the states, many of whom later became citizens, and as it was, they opted for the most available ticket. The 19xx version of “au pair.” I think dad was very close to a number of these young men, many of whom were only a few years older than he was. And I think it was from that period that he latched on to telling really bad jokes in overly accentuated Japanese accents – the kind that in spite of our pleading, he would tell at dinner or family outings. To him, of course it wasn’t so much a question of being a racist – that was one thing he surely was not – but merely recounting to us some of the stories of his youth. It didn’t stop us from cringing, however, when he would start to wind up one of those tales. But in his years in high school and college (Tacoma, Santa Clara, and U/Cal Berkeley) he was an athlete (usually on the 145 pound squad), and quite a man about town. Just a few years ago I discovered for the first time a wonderful album of photos he’d kept during the 20s, and considering I’d never seen him pick up a camera, or show any interest in photography aside from some of my own exploits, this album was an absolute gem. Pictures of his friends, his teams, and generally speaking the most elegant set of pictures I think I have ever seen (most taken by the “school photographer” but some obviously by him.)
The team pictures often inspire me to think that in this day and age.. .all color, all excessive color, and little leaguers stripped into green-screen backdrops of Yankee stadium, if you could manage to make a 2011 Little League team look as good as these pictures from the 20s, you could make a million bucks. It really is such a wonderful look, making you nostalgic for something you never actually knew. Now THAT”s Nostalgia!
I wish my scrapbook looked this cool!
Dad spent much of his working years ‘on the road.’ Driving mainly Chrysler cars (in the 50s we had a new DeSoto every other year…) he would cover an area from Utah to Washington state, with Idaho, Oregon and Montana thrown in, for different watch companies. At first it was Gruen, based in Cincinnati (which gave rise to my older brother’s life long obsession with the Reds) then Omega, Movado and EternaMatic. All great brands. In his role of salesman, he had a unique relationship with the stores who were his customers. He would lay out the trays of beautiful watches, and then instead of the owner/buyer making a selection, they would usually just say “Well, Ted, you tell me what I need, and that’s what we’ll get. “ How do you top that? He knew that he couldn’t take advantage and sell them a lot of stuff they couldn’t use. There was no future in that. But once he’d established his credibility, they had total confidence. He owned the first cars I’d ever seen which had alarms. With thousands of dollars in watch samples in the trunk (to which he always added a heavy metal cage.. the man was ahead of his time!) he needed to be able to sleep soundly when the car was parked out of sight. The first time he showed me that little key slot near the driver’s front wheel on the big white DeSoto, I didn’t’ know what to make of it. He had me open the door to the car, and it set off the biggest wailing sound I’d ever heard. We’re all used to this now… those 3 a.m. city alarms when some drunk pedestrian stumbles into a Lexus and wakes up the whole neighborhood. But in 1956 it was pretty hot stuff. Remember, that was before the Space Age, ‘Vietnam,’ the transitor, and color television. Yeah, color television.
My brother Tom (3 years older than me) and I had the joy of each spending several of our adolescent summers on the road with dad. He would take us on a two week trek to Seattle/Tacoma – where numerous cousins still lived – via Pocatello, Twin Falls, Boise, Lewiston, Orofino (look it up!), Bend, Yakima, Richland, and Walla Walla. Those were great trips. And I think they were the inspiration for my wanting to do a cross country trip with Jordan (which we finally did 16 months ago, when she moved to LA.) With dad, the pace was a little slower. Less time in the car, more time at the minor league park & local golf course. Along with his watch samples, he always had his golf clubs in the trunk as well. Anytime we’d finish at the jewelers by 4 or 5 in the afternoon, we’d find a little local course and go play 9 before dinner. He always claimed that in all his years of meeting up with strangers on the first tee, that he never met a jerk. It may have been more his view of the upbeat side of life than the actual fact that so many wonderful people were going for par that day, but the bottom line is, golf was for him a satisfying and challenging way to meet people, maybe take two or three bucks from them, and spend a day outdoors. He was no sandbagger, usually shooting in the low 80s, now and then the 70s, but he had a tendency to play just well enough to win. The term “golf Money” was for the Burnett kids, a little pot of gold. If he’d had a good day on the course, he’d advise us to take a buck each in golf winnings, and I can’t count just how many model airplanes came into our house on the “golf money” plan, but it was probably enough to outfit a small country’s air force.
Dad’s optimism was sometimes oddly placed, at least in my eyes. But I always tried to remember that he’d lived through the depression, and knew what tough times could be. He once told me of a cross country trip he took in the early thirties, in an old car with a friend. One night, somewhere in the southwest, they stopped to sleep. His friend took a blanket from the car, and tossed dad one, saying “see you in the morning.” His description of how the ground became harder and harder as the night went on has never left me. He was most certainly NOT a camper. But he had an appreciation of what rocky terrain would feel like. In Tacoma once, in the 50’s I remember the sour nose piercing smell of the pulp mills (this was definitely pre- EPA!) and remarked about it’s unpleasantness. Dad’s reply was “that smell means jobs for a lot of guys.” He never met a new building he didn’t like. New construction was akin to something positive, people DOING things, people Making a difference.
Sorry, Dad: Still Ugly
There was a seriously ugly 5 story building being constructed near our house in Salt Lake in the late 70s. Everytime we drove by, dad would say “look at that beautiful building.” I looked, kept looking but it never really got ‘beautiful.’ But to him (see the Citicorp bldg here as an example of “gorgeous!”) there was something in the mere attempt by the hand of man to improve the landscape, even if it didn’t always… you know… DO so.
I miss him every day. He was 40 when I was born, a rather late age for a parent of the post WWII generation. But he never seemed old to me. He never really seemed aged or out of it until much later in life when, like most of us who live into our 80s, he started slowing down. In grade school, the one concession he made to age was at the father & son softball game. Bascially, he refused to run around the bases. So he just hit the livin’ crap out of the softball, sending it over Clark Warren’s head so far, that he could leisurely walk the bases for a home run. My embarrassment of his refusal to run was diminished by the fact that he had so creamed the ball. When he turned 70 I had a t-shirt made for him which read “70 is Par.” And that was the decade when he actually began to occasionally shoot something close to his age. The exact numbers escape me, but I think when he was 72 or 73 he actually did shoot his age. Part of the family lore.
I remember with great fondness that infectious smile of his. There was an “Uncle Teddy” smile which all the cousins knew well and appreciated. And though he was always one to leave the ball game in the 8th inning to beat the traffic, (how many great 9th inning upsets did we miss? Plenty!) he at least made the effort to get us to the game. And maybe that was the finest memory we can keep. The unending upbeat, always hopeful, bright eyed outlook on life. That life is meant to be lived, and celebrated. Sure, there are always going to be a few water hazards, but they are there for a reason. If you plop one in the lake you have two choices. Grab the extendable ball-grabber and fish it out. Or just drop a ball on the far side and take another cut. I still have his golf bag and his clubs (the finest technology that 1988 could provide) but I’ve been remiss in getting them back on a proper course, and swinging them once again. And the next time I’m out on a foursome, I’ll also remember that other key to pops’ life: when someone else is hitting, make damn sure you watch where it’s going, cause for most of us, a little extra friendly guidance on the fairway is not a bad thing. Thanks, Pop. Miss ya. We’re just sayin’… David