July 7 Tribute to My Dad

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I wrote this tribute to my dad, who would have turned 79 yesterday. I sent this piece to my siblings and other extended family, which prompted one sister to ask why this isn’t a blog post. Now it is.


RIP
Raphael R. Clark SFC
US Army Korea
Drill Sergeant
July 7, 1936- May 24, 1989

Far from perfect, our Dad provided an adventurous upbringing to say the least. I sat across the table from him at night recounting what I learned in school. He smoked cigarettes and recorded me singing my songs from music class with the tape recorder on his giant boombox. Then made me listen to shortwave radio from lands afar, Japan and Russia. Each night, he took each one of us into his bed as he fell asleep, listening to us tell him about our day. I remember his plaid flannel shirt that we wore every night.

After dinner, he dragged us all into the living room to watch the nature channel. We sat on the scratchy orange flowered L-shaped sectional couch, enduring the experience and peering down through the giant grate in the floor that showcased the wood-burning stove below.

I remember jumping off of his shoulders into Bass Lake. He seemed huge, larger than life. I snuggled up with Jake in a sleeping bag in the woods, drinking Jolly Good soda. Falling asleep on the way home, but waking up in Suring to get soft serve ice cream.

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I remember Dad forgoing church, insisting we go with our mother. I saw his dog tags and they read Roman Catholic. I was mystified. I remember mom forgoing the circus, insisting Dad take us. It was the only time we drank Pepsi, endless sugary sips from the waxy cups with the Saran Wrapped lids. Dad joked with the clowns at the break, chatting with them like old friends. My dad was in the circus, I thought proudly. He manned the ropes for the performing girls above. He joined the circus after he attempted to join every branch of the military before he was of age, quitting high school before graduation. So the tale goes.

He swore. A lot. And we were banned from using such language. “Your father does not permit filth,” our mother warned.

Every day he came home from the paper mill, he brought presents. Piles of books from rummage sales. History books. Kids books. One day the “present” was an ice cream bucket of acorns. “If you plant them all, I will buy you ice cream,” he promised. I diligently shoved the acorns the appropriate depth into the ground with my thumb, as dad instructed, until my fingers bled. Jacob told me to just throw the acorns into the woods and go play, which he did. I wouldn’t dare. In the end, he did buy me ice cream. Actually, we always had ice cream. Dad ate one bowl a night, after mom’s meat and potatoes supper.

Back at that kitchen table, Dad taught me how to draw small log cabins with smoke coming out of the chimney and symmetrical rows of corn in the fields. Despite the ridges on the napkins, his graphic depictions with the black felt pen were perfect.

I remember the celebration at his Reserve unit in Green Bay. I got to shoot an M-16. Every summer, when he did his two weeks of Drill, he drove the Olds ’98 out to his destination. Mom and us kids followed on the Greyhound bus, clothes packed in paper Cubs Food bags and eating produce we brought with us. We met him at the end of his “camp,” driving back together and seeing the sites. Mount Rushmore. Cave of the Winds. The Crazy Horse Memorial. I think my dad worshipped Crazy Horse. We stopped to eat at various diners across the United States. Mom filled her purse with crackers from the salad bar to eat on the road. My sister Tracy told me there was one gold toothpick in the dispenser by the cash register and, if I found it, I’d win a prize. I turned the crank as toothpicks piled up on the carpet. My dad clapped me upside the head and told me to get my ass in the car.

One evening my mom was washing dishes. A glass broke and all of the webbing between her fingers was sliced. Dad wrapped her hand so gingerly. I can’t imagine we had medical supplies or a First Aid kit. He likely used Fort Howard napkins and packing tape. I was in awe of his gentleness toward her. And us, as he sang the folk song “Waltzing Matilda” for his children.

Regardless of his faults and flaws, I love that I have inherited his quick wit and zest for life. His sharp features and broad smile. An appreciation for hard work, and recognizing that nothing in this world is free, but comes with the cost of “busting your ass”. A bit of cynicism, a bit of sarcasm… just enough to keep the world in perspective and stay a bit guarded. But also, a heavy dose of curiosity into my fellow man, longing to hear others’ stories and tell my own. A talent inherited from my father, the storyteller.

Love,
My father’s daughter

And So It Begins…

These Are The Days

In January 2001, after completing my student teaching, and wondering what sort of career move to make mid-semester, my sister Pam encouraged me to go to Europe. As in, make no career move. Just enjoy a semester of fun. My friend Jackie was going to school in England at the time, and my friend Anne was studying in Madrid. I could visit both friends, and wander around some on my own.

Pam told me that I probably wouldn’t have as much opportunity to take such trips later in life. I didn’t believe her. I couldn’t fathom why anyone would abandon adventure at any point. Now I understand, of course, that once employers dictate the quantity of vacation days you have a year, and cajoling relatives to look after a two-year-old is not exactly like asking someone to water your jade plant, it gets tricky.

As I write this, I am about to embark on what feels like my first big endeavor since mommahood. This journey starts on Friday. I fly to New York to see my nephew in Vermont. We have a whirlwind two days of the Green River Music festival and enjoying the great outdoors before I fly home at 6 AM on Monday morning.

My nephew is an adult now. He has long hippie hair and fishes regularly, playing the part of a transient New Englander and Orvis intern for the summer before finishing his final semester of college. I was his nanny for his first summer of life and this weekend we’ll be toasting the Wood Brothers and Milk Carton Kids.

When I return from that abondanza of joy, I’ll spend the week at my childhood home. This home, nestled on over 10 acres of northeastern Wisconsin land, will serve as basecamp for my geneology project. Every day I’ll visit area cemetaries, courthouses and historical societies to learn about my Polish and Dutch roots. And I cannot wait.

My daily itinerary will include a road trip, a hot cup of coffee and, hopefully, long afternoons spent with relatives to capture the oral history of my people. All the details I need to fill in the cracks between the census documents and marriage certificates. On my own, with my own agenda, and ample folk music in the CD player of my rusty Montero to keep me going.

I did go to Europe that year after finishing college. A train strike gave me a day in a coastal French town to see a Marc Chagall exhibit. I got sunburned while fishing off the southern coast of Spain with locals. I called the ambulance in Rome when Jackie twisted her ankle emerging from the train. After a lengthy ER visit, we discovered the medical care was free, and celebrated with a fancy dinner. We stayed at the Mario & Luigi hostel there, and the Kabul hostel in Barcelona. It was divine.

And when I came back, I taught at a science museum in Milwaukee then lived at a ranch in Colorado all summer. Little did I know I’d be singing Van Morrison tunes as I reminisce about a season of nonstop travel and fun…and that I could easily resurrect that whimsy with a plane ticket and using some of those vacation days…

These are the days of the endless summer
These are the days, the time is now
There is no past, there’s only future
There’s only here, there’s only now

– Van Morrison