Montana was a progressive state then, and I always wondered how it impacted my father's egalitarian views about women. The state legislature approved a woman's unlimited right to vote in 1914, four years before the rest of the country. Two years after that, Montana's Jeannette Rankin was the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress. The state still had a Wild West feel, and women were already working on ranches and in other fields usually reserved for men when America entered World War I in 1917. After that, they filled even more jobs that Montana's departed men used to do.
My father grew to be just under six feet tall and powerful as an ox. After finishing his associate degree at Long Beach City College he was offered a basketball scholarship to Whittier College. He lost his scholarship when he had to skip his first semester because of acute appendicitis. It was 1940, and the country was still digging out of the Great Depression. He went to work full-time running the produce section in a grocery store and never returned to college. By then, his brother was working in a coat hanger factory to help Blanche keep their family afloat, and Gladys was trying to work her way through nursing school. It was a wonder Dad had the money to take my mom dancing when they were courting.
Mom and Dad always said they had only $3 between them when they were married on May 17, 1941. My father landed a job with the Long Beach police force, but he said the work tested his faith in humanity. He often felt bad for the troubled souls he encountered, not knowing what hardships they faced. When America entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor, my father and his brother enlisted in the Navy. I have a photo I love that shows them with big smiles on their faces, looking so handsome in their sailor whites. Mom, who was only twenty, found out she was pregnant with me ten days before my dad shipped out. They hadn't planned on a baby so soon, and she was anxious and scared.
Dad was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, when I was born on November 22, 1943. He sent a handwritten card that read "For my little daughter who I haven't seen, but will be holding in my arms soon, I send all a father's love, for always and always."
For a strong-willed and opinionated man, Dad could be a real softie. Throughout his life he never stopped getting teary-eyed at the playing of our national anthem. Rather than rejoin the police when his Navy years were done, he took a job with the Long Beach fire department and stayed there for thirty-five years. At one point, Mom wanted him to study for the officer's test, which would mean a bigger paycheck, but Dad liked the action. He was an engineer, driving the trucks and maintaining the pumps. Sometimes he'd take me to the fire station when I was young and hold me in one arm as we slid down the brass pole. He'd let me play with Old Sam, the house cat who would slide down the pole too when he heard the alarm sound. There was an Associated Press photo to prove it.
Dad insisted that we all kiss each other good night and say "I love you" before we went to bed, for the same reason my mother named me after him when he was away during the war: My father's work was dangerous, and there was no certainty he would return home. One of my dad's scarier nights on the job involved the injury of a coworker and the death of two others during the massive Signal Hill oil refinery fire that rocked Long Beach in 1958. The blaze left ash and droplets of oil falling from the sky and took three days to put out. You could see flames shooting out of the hilltop plant from our home. Later in life my dad liked to talk about the good things he remembered about his firefighter days and Montana childhood. He returned to his home state again and again to fish the rivers and breathe the crisp mountain air. But the memories of his unstable upbringing never left him. Mom was the same regarding hers. He and she were a perfect match in that way, too.
* * *
My mother's father, Roscoe "Rocky" Jerman, was born in northern Pennsylvania, but his family moved to the dusty oil-drilling town of Taft, California, in the late 1800s. There is a sepia-toned photograph of Rocky at age nineteen, the tallest among a group of oil workers standing on the massive rotary platform of a drilling rig. For a while he tried bare-knuckle prizefighting, but his main line of work was oil leasing, well drilling, and wildcat speculating. His life was a series of booms and busts.
I'm not sure my mother knew the details of how Rocky met my grandmother, Dot, or even who Dot's parents were. My grandmother's death certificate listed her parents' names as "unknown." I have no idea how she got to California or who fathered Dot's first child, whom she named Doris after herself. Dot and Rocky were married and living in Taft when my mom was born on May 26, 1922. Three years later, Rocky and Dot moved to Long Beach and eventually split up, leaving Dot to fend for herself with her two children. Rocky remarried quickly and didn't want anything to do with them.
Dot eventually had at least six husbands, by my mom's count. (When my mother mentioned that to me once, I saw tears in her eyes and tried to console her by saying, "Don't worry, Mommy—it's not a record.") Mom told me about a night Dot had to sneak out the back window with her to escape an abusive man she married after Rocky. But beyond that, my mother rarely talked about those chaotic years. Dot got a job at a commercial laundry operating a big steam press, and finally married a kindhearted man, a Navy veteran named James Kehoe, who treated my mom and her sister like his own children. He was the grandfather Randy and I knew and loved.
Looking back now, I can see that both my parents carried a generational sense of loss and yearning. They were generous with affection and constantly urged Randy and me to be observant and respectful of other people. But talking about intimate or painful feelings was never their style. They were married for sixty-five years and determined to leave the dysfunction and instability of their childhoods behind. They told us so. The best way they knew how to accomplish that was by imposing a rigor and a discipline on themselves that was passed on to us. If you wanted something, you worked and waited for it—case closed. Integrity was paramount. They refused to complain or dwell on the past; the past was something you couldn't fix. All that mattered was here and now. Quitting or making excuses was also not allowed. If the subject of a divorce involving someone we knew came up, they'd hastily assure Randy and me that it would never happen to them because, well—it just wouldn't. "We're going to be together forever," my mother would say. "Family is the most important thing."
This excerpt ends on page 17 of the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book The Viking Heart: How Scandinavians Conquered the World by Arthur Herman.