Monday, January 26, 2015

Celebrating a Life


As you know from yesterday's Poetry Sunday post, my father passed away last Friday night. Although we are grieving, I think that an important part of the process of accepting the loss of a loved one is remembering the high points of that person's life, and the good times that will serve as the legacy. Here are a few vignettes that will help introduce you to Bilbo the Elder ...

Dad was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1923. Like everyone else in his generation, he lived through the Great Depression and still managed to go to art school. He was a very talented sketch artist (more on that later), and this may have helped shape his military service during World War II, in which he was an aerial combat photographer ... when not manning a machine gun to defend his B-24 bomber, he was lying on the deck of the airplane, taking photos of their attacks to help assess their bombing accuracy. Dad won his Purple Heart during one mission in which their aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire while he was on the deck taking pictures ... the turret gunner above him panicked, thinking they'd have to bail out (they didn't), released his harness, and dropped to the deck below, landing with both feet on the back of Dad's head and knocking out his front teeth! Here's Dad as the manly young stud who took the war to the Nazis in the skies of World War II Germany ...


The time Dad spent in England during World War II led to his life-long love of all things English. He was a particular fan of the performer Stanley Holloway (who you may know as the father of Audrey Hepburn's Eliza Doolittle from the film version of My Fair Lady), and memorized many of the wonderful monologues Holloway performed featuring the Ramsbottom family. Dad knew these by heart, delivered them in a dead-on English accent, and was still performing them for his friends well into his eighties. You can listen to Stanley Holloway perform one of Dad's favorites, Albert and the Lion, here.

Coming home from the war, Dad worked in the art department at Kauffman's department store in Pittsburgh, taking their advertising photographs. It was there he met Mom, who delivered a package to his shop one day that included - among the official papers - a nickel and a note saying "Call me." He did, and the rest is history. Here's their wedding day ...


Dad left Kauffman's and started his own business as a advertising illustrator ... he preferred to call himself an "illustrator" rather than a "photographer" because there was so much more to the business than just shooting the picture: he built the sets, found the models, and figured out how to create exotic visual effects in the days before PhotoShop. We led an interesting and fascinating life in which we met all sorts of people in the course of Dad's search for props and models ... we met circus performers, demolition experts, professional wrestlers, junk dealers, the 200+ pound go-go dancer who became Miss Olde Frothingslosh*, and many other fascinating characters. Our house and his studio were crammed with all sorts of exotic stuff that he collected because it might be needed someday as a prop for a photo.

Dad was a very talented artist, and drew many wonderful pictures for us. He did one series of caricatures featuring various puns on the fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex: Tierannosaurus Rex wore a garish tie with a glittering stickpin; Tiredrannosaurus Rex was napping against a tree; Tire-rannosaurus Rex had a huge Firestone body; and Tyrannosaurus Wrecks was painfully slamming at full speed into a tree. We were at a restaurant for dinner one time, and Dad - who hated waste - was eating everything the rest of us left on our plates. We laughed at that, and Dad whipped out a pen and drew a sketch on his napkin of a battered garbage can with a jaunty hat and a remarkable resemblance to him, walking away from the table with a satisfied burp.

I was stationed in what was then walled-in West Berlin in the early 1980's, and Dad visited me there. We had a genuine adventure when we were driving back to Berlin from a visit to my sons in Wiesbaden: there was only one route approved for American, British, and French personnel to drive into the city (the Helmstedt-Berlin Autobahn), and we had to check in with the Russian guards at each end. When we arrived at the Berlin checkpoint, a Russian military officer came out of the guardhouse and talked with me, trying to convince me to visit him in East Berlin since he wasn't allowed to travel to the West. Dad watched all this (the conversation was in German and Russian, neither of which he spoke), and when we left and arrived at the American checkpoint and I reported the contact to our security people, Dad offered to draw sketches of the Russian officer ... he turned out several very detailed front and profile pictures that helped to identify the man as a known Russian military intelligence officer. He was always proud of that story. Here's a picture of Dad in Berlin with my sons Jason and Matthew ...


Dad was a marvelous cook, famous for his steak sandwiches and roasted vegetables. I got my own love of cooking from him ...


Dad also loved fishing. We had a cabin on the Allegheny River near Franklin, Pennsylvania, where he loved to go out at the crack of dawn in search of the catch of the day ...


He had a wonderful sense of humor, as did Mom. Where Mom was a great punner, though, Dad was a master of the Shaggy Dog Story. You can read a couple of the great shaggy dog stories I learned from him in this blog post from back in April of last year.

As his children married, Dad became the patriarch of an ever-expanding clan. We tried to get together twice a year - at Memorial Day and at Thanksgiving - for family celebrations, and Dad was always a hit with the swelling number of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. In this 2007 blog post, I showed you two pictures that encompassed five generations of the family. Here's dad in 2011 with just a few of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren ...


I could go on, but this will give you a short introduction to the life and legacy of the man I'm proud to say was my father. Whatever you see in me that's good, I owe to him. Everything else is my own fault.


Have a good day. Honor your parents while you can ... they leave us far too soon.

More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

* "The pale, stale ale with the foam on the bottom."

15 comments:

The Mistress of the Dark said...

Sending love and hugs your way Bilbo

eViL pOp TaRt said...

That was a fine tribute to your Dad. Bilbo. Hugs to your family during this sad time. Your Dad lived his life well; that should be celebrated.

Linda Kay said...

What a handsome fella! It was great to read the real emotion in your post this morning. He really was a very multi-talented man, giving you lots of happy memories. God bless.

John Hill said...

Thank you for sharing this with us, Bill.
My deepest sympathy to you and your family.

Margaret (Peggy or Peg too) said...

Bill I'm so sorry for your loss.
What a great story and tribute to your father. I must admit the story of your mom sending your dad a nickel and that note really grabbed me. That was pretty aggressive of her in those days and I just love it! And growing up in Erie PA I sure know Kaufman's.
Is that a northern pike he is holding? :-)

Elvis Wearing a Bra on His Head said...

Bilbo, I'm so sorry about your dad. He was a good man.

Elvis Wearing a Bra on His Head said...

Bilbo, I'm so sorry about your dad. He was a good man.

Grand Crapaud said...

Your tribute to your dad was excellent! I'm sorry for his passing; he was a good one. My condolences to you all.

Anemone said...

My deepest sympathies, Bill. Thanks for the fine essay on your father.

Gonzo Dave said...

I hate it when my allergies act up. It always seems to coincide with reading stories like yours. ::reaches for a tissue::

allenwoodhaven said...

A wonderful post, Bilbo. I'm really glad to know more about your father. Those are great stories. I bet he was (is!) very proud of you and pleased with the man you became. Best wishes to your entire extended family.

Mike said...

Great tribute to your dad.

The Bastard King of England said...

This was a wonderful tribute to your dad, Bilbo.

Amanda said...

I'm so sorry for your loss. What a wonderful post this is in honour of your father.

Clarissa said...

I'm so sorry at the loss of your father. He must have been proud of you.