Saturday, January 9, 2010

My Dad

Today is my Dad's birthday. James Oran Skelton was a member of "The Greatest Generation." He would have been 87 years old today. He died on June 11, 2001 at the age of 78.

Daddy was a bona fide, decorated World War II hero. He served as a tank commander under General George S. Patton and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. But you wouldn't have known it unless Mom told you because Daddy never talked about the war. He was awarded a Purple Heart after he was wounded when his tank ran over a land mine. As a result he lost most of his hearing and had part of his skull replaced with a silver plate. The story is that Mom was actually notified by the government that Dad had been killed in action. It was two weeks later that he turned up alive in a field hospital in England. Besides his Purple Heart, he also received a Meritorious Service Medal among others.

When I was little, my Daddy was my hero. I thought he could fix anything and he was lots of fun. Daddy loved all six of us kids and he loved our Mom.

I would watch for him to come walking down the road from work and run to meet him. He would pick me up and carry me home on his shoulders. In the summers he would take us swimming at the lake. On Independence Day he bought fireworks for us. He especially enjoyed shooting roman candles for us.

After we moved to South Texas, he often took us to the beach. He loved to body surf and he taught me how to do it too. We spent many hours riding the waves at Padre Island. He never liked living in South Texas, but he loved the novelty of the warm winters, often taking us to the beach for a New Year's Day swim. He taught us to beach comb for shells, sand dollars and starfish. He helped us catch hermit crabs and let us bring them home for pets, which I know my Mom hated.

He loved fishing and the Dallas Cowboys. I treasure the memories of fishing with him along the seawall on Saturday mornings and watching the Cowboys play on Sunday afternoons. When the Cowboys lost he would be in a bad mood all week. He was a great 42 player who could somehow tell exactly what every player was holding. And in his later years, he and Mom enjoyed playing bridge with friends.

Mom was a teetotaler, but Daddy enjoyed a drink now and then. He kept his flavored schnapps in the highest cabinet in the kitchen so Mom couldn't throw it out because she couldn't reach it. He used to take my husband in the kitchen and point at that high cabinet with a wink and a smile, signaling that Patrick should take down a bottle so they could both have a little nip. His favorite flavors were peach and peppermint. I bet there are still bottles stashed in that cabinet even though someone else has lived there for years. In his younger days he was known to have a beer with friends, but he never drank much that I know of and I never saw him drunk.

Daddy was an amazing entertainer for us kids. He could turn his legs around completely backwards from the knees down and then walk that way. He could put both of his feet behind his head, yoga-style, well into his fifties. And he could always wiggle his ears. He had sparkling blue eyes that especially sparkled if he was pulling your leg, which he loved to do. And ever since I can remember, Daddy was bald. We're not talking a little bald spot ... we're talking Kojak-style, shiny-skull bald. Mom used to "cut his hair" by running the clippers over his scalp every few weeks. He loved to joke that he slept with his barber. And on his way to the shower he would tell us with a gleam in his eye, that he was going to wash his hair.

Daddy worked hard. He was an automotive mechanic who worked on large equipment as a civilian employee of the US Navy. That's what brought us to South Texas in 1964. He spent most of the next 37 years of his life talking about going back home to the piny woods of northeast Texas. Sadly, he visited but never got to move back there. Nights and weekends he often worked on other people's cars both to help them out and for the extra money. Supporting a wife and six kids on a mechanic's salary had to be a huge a challenge. His hands were stained with grease from the work he did. When I think of my dad I can still see his grease-stained hands.

Daddy could cuss like a sailor and you didn't want to make him mad. He had an explosive temper and sometimes lost control of his anger. In my teenage years, our relationship was contentious. There were several years when it seemed like the only conversations between us consisted of him telling me that my skirt was too short and me arguing that it was not. Other than that, I never stood up to him until I was a grown woman with a child of my own. When he lost control one day while we were visiting, I calmly explained to him that I was not going to put up with that behavior any more. I picked up my child and led my husband out the front door. Daddy never lost his temper in front of me again.

He insisted that the young men we dated come inside the house and meet him before we went on a date. On those occasions his demeanor was serious and I'm sure it was scary for the boys. I'm also sure that many of the boys I dated stayed on the straight and narrow because they didn't want to answer to my dad.

I got my love of reading from Daddy. He always had a book with him. He loved Zane Grey and was a huge fan of Lonesome Dove. I'm grateful for that love of books and reading.

He loved his grandchildren and every one of them loved him too. They took many naps curled up against his big, round belly. They used to delight in grabbing a handful of his abundant chest hair. He would wince in pain but smiled when they giggled in reaction. I wish he had lived to hold Our Little Princess. She would have been his delight.

The last time I saw my Dad was when we visited him in the nursing home on the Friday before he died the next Monday. Patrick and I were in the habit of visiting him after work, but we dreaded it because he absolutely hated being in the nursing home. He was only there about three weeks, but every time we visited he would get a bag and start packing up his stuff for us to take him home. It was heartbreaking. But that particular day, Nick was home from college and I insisted that he join us for the visit. We got there right at dinner time so we had to hunt him down in the dining hall. He was always glad to see Patrick and me, but when Nick came walking in behind us, his eyes absolutely lit up with delight. He was so happy to see one of his grandsons. I'm so glad Nick was able to visit that one last time.

Besides my love of reading, I learned from my Dad that you should travel as much as you want and not wait until you can afford it. Daddy wanted to travel more than anyone I've ever known and, except for the traveling he did when he was in the army, he never got the chance. As he got older and was confined to a wheelchair, he would buy maps and plan trips which he never got to take. Every time we visited, he would take out his maps and tell us his plans to go to Kentucky or Tennessee or Washington or Canada or any of a myriad of other places. It breaks my heart that he never got to go. When we cleaned out Mom and Dad's belongings we found a huge box of road maps from all over North America. I knew immediately what they were and I couldn't bring myself to throw them away. This year, I used some of them to wrap Christmas presents. My Dad's dreams inspire me to go ahead and take those trips, even if the budget is tight. We don't go first class, but, inspired by my Dad we go when we can.

So, happy birthday Daddy! I have lots of happy memories because of you. I love you and I miss you, but I learned a lot from you about enjoying life whatever it brings. You are a big part of the reason Grams made it!

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