My father loved a good flood. Where I grew up, along the Michigan/Wisconsin border, there was a lot of open country for a flood to roam. Of course, floods aren’t always well mannered—they’ll hollow out the ground beneath roadways, roil and crash through a town. Still, there’s something beautiful to see when water summons its power, washing away all in its path, bringing life and renewal. My parents had grown up in the area, too. The photo above is of my dad. Notice that the road behind him is covered with water. He and Mom were on their honeymoon and had just bought that new car. My father was raised on a farm, was practical in the way of someone who knows the earth’s cycles. He’s been gone from this world for eight years now, eight years of missing him, especially in the spring as the snow melts and waters gather.
I feel sheepish, these days, even guilty, for telling family stories. There’s so much to occupy all of us—divisiveness, dissension—so much that needs to be taken directly on in our living together. But then I think, no. Family is what we need—our own family, and the larger human family. In telling you about my father, I’m offering a counterpoint to help you think about yours, who you are in relationship to your own father, how your way of interacting with the world relates to his.
My dad was part of the Greatest Generation. I’m a Boomer. I earned a graduate level degree. My dad never went to college. But he was intelligent—a kind of smarts your typical college grad doesn’t have. He finished high school during WWII and eventually enlisted in the Army Air Force. He was sent to the South Pacific, trained as an airplane mechanic. Dad knew how to do things I have at best passing knowledge of. He harvested his own wood and heated the house and sauna with it. (We’re Finnish by descent, devoted to sauna as a sort of spiritual experience.) He kept up his own car, the tractor, and the other equipment he used in the garden and around the farm. He had a subscription to Popular Mechanics that he read as if it were a holy book. He could do plumbing and wiring. He could build most anything—from a birdfeeder, to an addition on the house.
After serving overseas, he worked for a while in a logging camp and then went to work in one of the local deep-shaft iron mines. His tools were a pick and shovel. This second photo is of my dad in one of the drifts at that mine, the Montreal Mine, where workers were mining ore almost a mile below the surface. (To see other images of the Montreal, click this link at miningartifacts.org and scroll down.)
Contemplating the mine’s depth, looking closely at the picture of my father at work, I get claustrophobic. It appears there had been a cave-in in the drift. Notice that my dad is sitting on a pile of rock. He’d once been working a drift that caved in, not long after he and my mom were married. His partner had been working closer to the main drift and was able to get help to dig him out. For the rest of my dad’s life, he had a blue-tinged scar above one eye, where the falling rock had hit him.
Dad told me that cave-ins weren’t the only hazard. Guys were electrocuted—some were run over. My father did that dangerous work out of genuine love for it, but most of all, he did it for us, to be able to support his family. Working in the mine had given him the money to buy that new car and a sustained income to get married. But the world has a way of tripping us up. By the early 60s, the market for iron had changed, and the mine closed.
Our area, known as the Gogebic Iron Range, has suffered economic hardship over the years, after the loss of the mines. Some residents found what work they could. Some left. Others left and came back. The place I’m from is a place that’s hard to leave—there’s something elemental about living there. When the Montreal closed, my dad worked odd jobs and eventually followed his brother to Kenosha, in downstate Wisconsin, to work in a factory. He went alone, leaving the rest of us back home. I think sometimes about what it must have cost him, emotionally, having to leave us to provide for us.
My mother suffered the emotional cost, too, of course, staying alone with small children. We took the train to Kenosha a few times—trips that were novel and exciting—and Dad drove home when he could. The arrangement kept us afloat financially, but it was hard to be separated. When my mom was due to deliver my youngest sister, Dad moved back home and worked for a while at a small construction company. Eventually, he did what a lot of area men would do. He started working at the copper mine in White Pine, an hour away. That new job required twice-daily bus rides, but he didn’t mind them. He used to say, “I just close my eyes and get some shuteye.”
Life extracts payment from all of us.
My father paid up in part with his ears. Mining at the White Pine Mine was machine-driven. Dad’s job title was driller/blaster. Between operating that huge drilling machine and having worked on airplane engines during the war, both without ear protection, by middle age he’d lost his hearing. It had to be frustrating, but he just lived with it, little use to complain. He was stoic, stubborn, increasingly so as he aged, but at the same time good-natured.
When Dad was in his late 50s, his mining days ended when he had a massive heart attack. It began at work, coming on slowly, a flood building in his chest, but he put in a whole shift and only went to the hospital the following morning. Staff had barely gotten him into a wheelchair, when his heart became arrhythmic and lost normal function. He was lucky to survive. Thus began years of seeing doctors. Luckily, my mother was a nurse, working at the time at a nursing home. After Dad’s heart attack, she gave up her job and nursed him alone. In the first years, she delivered a raft of pills to him with hospital precision—three times a day, waking up in the middle of the night.
Toward the end of my father’s life, thirty years later, medicine had advanced to the point where his pill regimen was reduced to once a day—eleven pills, once a day! I would watch with amazement as he playfully scooped up all eleven pills from the kitchen counter, where my mother would leave them. He’d toss them up and down in his palm the same easy way I’d seen him toss a handful of Spanish peanuts, and then he’d pop them into his mouth and swallow them down with a smile and a wink. It was no biggie, just what he had to do. My father was shooting for 100 years, and those pills played a part in his getting there, along with frequent blood draws and periodic scans. There was also the new defibrillator he was carrying around inside him—and the companion machine beside his bed that magically read his heart rhythms every night and reported them over the phone line to his cardiologist’s office.
Over those many years of doctoring, after his heart attack, Dad became well known in the medical community, even something of a legend. He ended up at the ER one night with a badly cut finger, injured while sawing a board for a new birdfeeder. A couple days later, he and Mom were at the ER again. They’d been camping, and while putting his fishing pole into the trunk before heading into the tent, Dad had managed to snag a hook into one of his eyelids. They drove all the way back to the hospital, and when they walked in, the ER doc said to my mother, “What did he do now?”
It was a funny moment, of course. But I’d twist the question and answer it this way—my smart, practical dad did what he needed to, to live after his heart attack. He followed science, didn’t reject medical progress. He took his pills and kept medical appointments; he changed his diet and got an annual flu shot. He had the defibrillator implanted. He’d weighed the risks of treatment—and decided the benefits outweighed them.
Every few years, a new cardiologist would come to town and find the first interview with my father befuddling. Dad was still cutting wood for heat; he was still taking saunas—both of which put stress on the body—and had been doing so for decades, living with a heart condition. I think my father liked confounding his medical people. I also think he lived so long after that heart attack because he had done everything he needed to, medically, to survive, and at the same time had done everything he wanted to, to enjoy his life. He had weighed the benefits and risks there, too. He knew to take it easy and to rest when he needed to, that his days of taking 200-degree saunas were behind him.
My dad used to tell a story about his first days on Guam during the war. He and some GI friends had been on the beach at low tide, and they waded out—he thought maybe a mile—cavorting, enjoying the sensations of the warm water and the sandy bottom. Then suddenly, there was no bottom! High tide had rushed in, and there they were, treading water, except one fellow who couldn’t swim. The rest had to take turns towing him back. Now, my dad wasn’t a great swimmer. But he was dogged. I mean that literally—he dogpaddled the mile back to the beach. He said it was a lesson learned. Mother Nature isn’t a coddler—she’ll extract payment. Sink or swim. She doesn’t mess around.
I miss my practical, dogged father. I’ve thought of him so often, since COVID-19 hit. Part of me is glad he’s not had to live through the isolation of the pandemic, as my mother has. I think about how my dad would have fared during these long months, and I have to conclude he would have respected Mother Nature, understood the high tide of the pandemic. He was conservative. I’m progressive. We shared a lifelong love of reading, and I expect my dad would have followed what scientists were doing to defeat the virus. I expect, as well, that we would have reached the same conclusion about the science—by different routes, for related reasons. When the vaccines were rolled out, I think my farm boy father would have been first to roll up his sleeve for the shot, because doing it for himself was doing it for the rest of us.
One more story, about my dad?
We don’t own our family farm anymore, except in memory. Down the road from it is a creek, which floods every spring and even after a heavy rain. The creek runs alongside the railroad bed. When I was a girl, trains still traveled the tracks, but sometime during my adolescence the tracks had been pulled and the railroad bed converted to an unpaved trail wide enough to drive a car on. Along the railroad bed to the east, the creek forms a deep pool where it passes through a culvert under the tracks. My father trapped minnows for fishing in that pool, and one unseasonably cold September day, not too many years before he died, he and my mom drove down the railroad bed to empty the trap.
My dad left my mother sitting in the car and, of all things, balancing her checkbook. She waited and worked, not thinking much about my dad or what he was doing. Suddenly, her car door wrenched open, and she looked up to see him standing there dripping wet! His hair was streaming water into his eyes, and his glasses were missing from his face.
The gravel incline down to the pool had been wet and slippery, and while my mother had been adding and subtracting, my father had lost his footing and fallen into the pool. As Mom was ticking off the boxes in her check register, Dad was dropping through the water, his glasses and shoes disappearing forever into the creek bottom. He had the presence of mind to stay calm and push off when his feet touched bottom, making a lunge for the surface. We Salli kids were horrified when Mom told us the story, realizing the close call. Mother Nature doesn’t mess around. How that man with a heart condition, the octogenarian with hardware in his chest and electronics monitoring him, managed to get out of that cold water without paying the price of a cardiac event is a mystery.
I don’t mean to be neglecting my mother.
She and my father were proverbial peas in a pod, quiet holders of hands. At the end of his life, my dad knew he was failing. One day, talking with my mom about how her life would be after he was gone, he said he would come back for her—he would look for a place for them on the water. When Mom told me that, I found it touching that he’d said such a romantic thing. I was also surprised. My farm boy father—who loved every inch of his land, every acre he had planted—wanted a place on the water? There was no reason to be surprised, of course. All I had to do was remember how much my father loved a good flood, how drawn he was to the power of water.
I miss that pragmatic, intelligent farm boy. Even more, I miss my father and mother together. Having watched Mom navigate life without him, these years since my father passed, it floods me with emotion to wish them together again, and that too is a good flood, to think of them without the burdens of age and infirmity. I can see them—sitting together again every evening, her small hand in his, no need between them for talk, no need but to watch the shadows drift over the water.