Saturday, October 28, 2006

Happy Birthday, Dad!

Raymond Harold "Pert" Woolum was born on October 28, 1930. He would have been 76 years old today, had he not died on June 1, 1996.

This picture epitomizes what I remember most about my dad and what his friends in Kellogg are referring to when they see me and say, "Jesus Christ, I sure miss old Pert, that son of a bitch." I guess you can tell: son of a bitch is used as a term of high praise in Kellogg, as well as a way to demean some one. I never heard any one call my dad a son of a bitch in a mean way. It was always with affection.

I think I took the phrase "you'll go far" too literally. I think it meant that if I was going to succeed in the world, I had to go far away from Kellogg in order to do it. I learned this idea about the American idea of "going far" from Bill Kauffman. Kauffman has made me think a lot about this and, for now, I'm thinking about it this way, in relation to my dad:

When I was younger, I was guilty of throwing out the dishes with the dish water when I took my family's and community's advice and left Kellogg. I thought to leave Kellogg meant that I should leave behind all that Kellogg stood for to me. Chief among those things, for me, was what I perceived to be strong anti-intellectual strain.

Let me digress. I don't know if you've ever been bitten by the life of the mind bug, but its bite is very intoxicating. It's not like alcohol because it doesn't depress your functions. No. It's more like speed or cocaine, more like meth. The intellectual bug makes the world seem vivid, alive with new color, new light, new ways of doing things. It can be a born again experience to be converted to the life of the mind. This is the way I experienced it.

And, although I may not have said it outwardly, inwardly I felt, at one time, that Kellogg was an inferior place, lacking in sophistication and intellectual life. I had put on the blinders of book learning.

The blinders started to fall quite a bit when I came back to Kellogg for my 20th high school reunion, one of the best three days of my life. As I had the chance to talk with my classmates and as my dad and I hosted some of the boys in the back yard, drinking coffee and shooting the breeze, I felt this deep tie between me and my old friends. The tie wasn't intellectual or political. Far from it. It was a tie that had to do with decency, a way of seeing the world, a way of talking, a way of helping out others. I hadn't felt so good about my life, ever, as I did at that reunion and I began to realize that what I felt good about was rooted in Kellogg and rooted in my dad, the force in our family who kept us in Kellogg.

I had quit drinking in January 1985. I was deep into a long stretch of abstinence from alcohol at this reunion. I had a condescending and patronizing attitude toward alcohol. It wasn't so bad in relation to my peers, but was worse toward my dad and his friends. I so bought into the idea that to amount to anything you had to leave Kellogg, that I had lumped my dad and his friends together and looked at them with about four parts snootiness for every six parts of enjoyment.

I just didn't understand my dad. I didn't understand what all those days and nights drinking with men had come to mean. I saw my dad as having pissed away his life. He'd stayed in Kellogg. He'd stayed at the Bunker Hill. He lacked ambition. He hadn't gone far.

Then he got liver cancer. Mom called me in early May to say had only a month to live. I was able to make arrangments at Lane Community College and take a leave without pay. I came home.

Then my eyes were opened. Friend after friend, drinking friend after drinking friend, golf buddy after golf buddy, fellow sports fan after sports fan filed in our house and reached out to him in his dying days. I got it. Those days and nights of drinking, working hard at the Bunker Hill, bowling in league, and telling tall tales, watching football and baseball games, rooting hard against the Cougars and Notre Dame, drinking more, they hadn't been what some head up his ass 18th century moralist might have called idle recreation. I could see in the way these men comforted my dad and in the way his friends filled the church for his funeral and I see now in the reverent look his friends have on their face when they tell me they miss the old son of a bitch, that those days and nights were about making life-long friends. You can't have those if you go far. You've got to stay home.

That big open laugh you see on my dad's face in the picture above? It's because he's home. He's in our back yard. I'm not sure what is the occasion. It might just be having a few Heidelbergs or grilling some steaks. Sometimes I think this picture was taken the day of one of my two sister's wedding. I don't know. But it's a picture that could be captioned, "He didn't go far."
Nope. He stayed home. He enjoyed every benefit of not going far. That's why he looks so full of joy in this picture.

Happy 76th, Pert, you old son of a bitch.


MarmiteToasty said...

Jebus, you post made me cry..... for many personel reasons.....

you son of a bitch :)


Student of Life said...

I've been putting off reading this post because I knew it would make me cry. I'm a little fragile right now. It did make me cry, but it also lifted me up. What a wonderful tribute to your dad.

Diane Schulstad said...

Thank you, Bill, for all your sharing. But particularly for honoring family.... Family is important in my life.