Tuesday, January 7, 2014

It's For My Dad - Kenneth L Petersen

Over the course of my lifetime, I've known him as Daddy, Dad, Ken, and then back to Daddy again.

There were times when I felt responsible for him losing his job as a salesman for the Lifesavers candy company. He was on the road in South Dakota that hot summer morning when he got the word that I had entered the world and he rushed home to meet me. He and Mom had a brand new home they were building, a brand new baby and no job. I'm sure those three months of unemployment between my birth and the beginning of his long career at Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company were difficult for my parents. But as they did throughout their marriage and in raising me, they made things work.

I learned so many things from My Dad. My Daddy taught me how to ride a bicycle. I was much too stubborn to accept a large sized tricycle and I insisted that he instead get the two-wheeler I spotted on the top shelf at the store. "Daddy! Just put it in the trunk and take it home!" I insisted, refusing to even try it out in the store. Even then, I knew how to get what I wanted.

There were plenty of skinned knees and bruises over the years. It was only a few short years ago that Dad decided he wanted to get a bike of his own once again. He was pretty excited because he wanted to get more exercise. He was puttering about with it and a few minutes later he came in the house saying, "I need your help!" Assuming he wanted me to help with something on the bike, I went to meet him. He was nothing but blood and scrapes from one end to the other. He'd made it about 20 feet down the driveway and into the yard before he fell off. It was difficult for him to realize that he no longer had the balancing skills necessary to ride a bicycle. So, as he had done for me so many times as a child, I helped clean up the blood and applied bandages to the scrapes. The bike and accessories were returned to the store the next day.

My Daddy taught me how to play softball when I was in grade school. I thought it was unfair that because I was a girl I couldn't pursue my dream of playing for a Major League Baseball team. Dad had lost his dream of doing that as well. In high school, he had tried out for the St. Louis Cardinals. But it was war time and serving his country was more important to him than playing baseball.

In the 1950s, he resurrected and coached the American Legion baseball team in Greenwood, Nebraska for several years and our family never missed a game. At home, the rose trellis made of chicken wire was the backstop as he taught me how to hit, catch, field grounders, bunt and switch hit. He even taught me a few of the tricks that he learned from Goose Tatum, a noted baseball player and star of the Harlem Globetrotters who was stationed in Lincoln in the 1940s. While I absolutely knew that I could do it, I refrained from catching a pop fly behind my back during a summer league game. Dad and I used to practice that move in our back yard. I'd laugh to myself when he would tell me, "You're throwing like a girl!"

When I was a young teenager, my Dad was my coach for summer league softball. Unlike some of the parent-coaches today, he never hesitated to bench me if my performance was off. My parents would never 'let' me win at any board game or card games. Both my parents taught by example, rather than by spoken rules. And they wanted me to learn that if I was going to be a success in life, I would have to work for it.

During my teen years, it was Dad's routine to do his banking and errands on Saturday mornings. On one of those Saturday mornings, he was driving home from Havelock and listening to the car radio. That was when he discovered that the meeting of the Lincoln Beatles Fan Club was going to be at his house that very afternoon! In my enthusiasm for publicizing the meeting, I'd forgotten to mention it to my parents! But they tolerated all of the years of Beatlemania, the posters on my bedroom walls, the sounds of rock and roll blaring from my room and the never ending busy signal on our telephone. I even have a photo of Dad wearing a mop-top wig, wearing a hippie outfit and flashing the two-fingered peace sign. He was always a good sport.

One night during the summer just before I entered journalism school at the University, Dad woke me up to tell me that a special guest was in our family recreation room. It was Tom Henry, the anchorman from KMTV in Omaha. My folks had run into him and his date at a local tavern. His date was an old high school friend of my Mom's, so after the tavern closed, the party continued at our house. There I sat, in my pajamas and robe, listening to stories about the real world of journalism and Tom Henry telling me how important it was that I pursue my education and get my college degree. To this day, I have no doubt that Mom and Dad planted that bit of advice for him to give to me.

My Daddy taught me how to fish, how to drive, how to balance a checkbook, how to pitch a tent, and later in life, how to golf. The time we spent together on the golf course was great fun. I even beat him a time or two. One year when I visited him and Glynda in Florida, there was a baby alligator sunning himself on the green of the fifth hole. We decided to just take par for that hole and moved on to the next one.

My Daddy and I often had long talks about his youth, life philosophy and things in general. I would enjoy nothing more than listening to my parents talk about their experiences during The Depression and how the war changed everyone's life. My grandparents on both sides had it rough during The Depression. As with many American families, what kept them going was hard work and the love of family. This ethic was passed down through the generations.

There was never any doubt in my mind that I would go to college. The gift of my college education was probably the best I ever received from my parents. They worked hard to save for my tuition, and taught me to save as well. When I graduated from high school, they said, "You can have a new car or go to college. It's your choice." I thought, "What would I want a car for? I'm going to college!"

After his bout with cancer at age 55, and a projected life expectancy of five years at that time, Dad chose to retire the following year at the age of 56. There's not too many people who can say they were retired for nearly as many years as they worked.

Over the last 15 years or so, Dad began having health problems, beginning with the diagnosis of diabetes. All of the other health issues that go along with that disease seemed to plague him. If anyone asked him what medications he took, he replied, "everything in the store!" That wasn't too far from the truth. He had so many ailments to deal with, that he often said his body was a medical experiment.

After the death of my stepmother nine years ago, I brought an overnight bag to Dad's house with enough clothes and personal items to get through the funeral. I honestly believed that after his release from the nursing home back then that he would be back on his feet in no time. It only took a few days for me to realize that he was going to need help, and I became his caregiver. This was quite ironic because when Dad was in his 50s, he informed me that he had taken out long term care insurance because I probably wasn't going to be around to take care of him in his old age. I guess I showed him!

While sometimes challenging, I would not trade the last nine years with my Dad for anything. He went through the loss of a toe to diabetes. Although when Dad was trying to get a little more sympathy from people, he would say that he "had part of my foot amputated." He did well for a long time and we had many dinners out, took long drives around Lincoln and the surrounding areas. He was astonished by the changes in downtown Lincoln and the University campus since his youth. He'd tell stories about how he used to get into the knot hole section of Memorial Stadium when he was a kid.

Dad was married to my Mom, Patricia Kelly, for 28 years and to Glynda Thomas for 28 years. While different types of relationships, both were good. There was just the three of us when I was growing up. We always said we were the Three Musketeers because we always stuck together. I was taught to be responsible for myself because there wasn't going to be anyone else to take care of me. I would have to work hard to get through life. The work ethic and responsibility is something I got from both of my parents.

Looking through photographs recently, I saw pictures from all of the Nebraska football games Dad attended, in and out of town. He and Glynda never missed a bowl game for years. The photos showed a younger and healthier Ken, living life to the fullest with travels to Alaska, Hawaii, Maine and Florida, Georgia to California, and all points in between. Glynda tried to talk Dad into going on a cruise several times. He would respond that he'd already been on a world cruise that had taken him through the Panama Canal, the Philippines, the South Pacific and New Zealand, all courtesy of the U. S. Navy. As I looked at these wonderful photos of Dad smiling, laughing and acting up, I said aloud, "Daddy, you had a really good life."

After Dad had a stroke in 2012, he lost much of his ability to communicate clearly. He was still as sharp as a tack and spent hours reading the newspaper, books and magazines. When I'd get home from work, he'd have something new to tell me about Brittney Spears, Michael Jackson or the Black Eyed Peas. I swear, he must have spent the afternoon rehearsing those stories so he could tell it with a straight face since he clearly had no idea who these people were!

After his stroke, I lost the key that would unlock all of those stories I loved listening to - about growing up on North 23rd Street, all of his high school girlfriends and the great plays he made during Lincoln High baseball and football games. The memories were still in his head; he just couldn't always find the right words to say what he wanted. We did a lot of pantomime, pointing and guessing to communicate. Too often, he would just give up trying to find the words. But he always managed to tell me every morning, "I love my little Susie. I'm so glad that you are here with me."

I am fortunate to have been with both of my parents when they passed over. As my Daddy left me, I knew that he was finally free from the constant pain and struggles he'd had for many years. By that afternoon, I have no doubt that he had reunited with the remainder of his foursome for a round of golf on the other side.

My Daddy may be gone from the physical world, but he will live in my heart forever.