Saturday, June 17, 2006

My Father, The Dream Chaser

daddyAs a motherless boy wandering the streets of Chicago, my dad learned many of life’s lessons the hard way. But among them, he learned that many of his questions could be answered with a library card; and in the process, he learned that there was a whole other world out there for the taking…so, he took it. This is his story…

First, it was a castaway doctor’s satchel. You know, the kind that doctors used to carry when they made house visits. When the handles finally fell off, my brother had a box built with a glass lid. I’m afraid that didn’t last very long in all the family moves that were to follow—and there were many. In the end, an old metal file box was chosen, and so it has remained until this day. This precious box holds the tales of a dreamer, of a life well lived. Whenever we have a family reunion, the box is pulled out from obscurity and dusted off. The grand kids gather around and the yarns unfold before a wide-eyed audience.

When I was a just a little girl of four years, my daddy had a dream. He wanted to look for the legendary Lost Dutchman Gold Mine located somewhere in an Arizona desert. I remember him coming home late at night, tired and hungry, but full of the day’s adventures. He’d show a huge rattle he’d cut off from the latest Diamondback he had almost stepped on. Or he’d pull out an arrowhead or two and a pottery shard he’d found in some obscure cave. Once, he didn’t come home. I guess my mother was worried sick. I don’t remember the event, I was so little; but I’ve heard the account from family and friends many times how my dear daddy almost died that day because the waterholes had gone dry and he couldn’t find his way back, in time.

When I was five, we moved to the ocean. I say, to the ocean and not ‘by’ the ocean, for I suppose we spent almost as much time in it as we did beside it. When we’d get thirsty, we’d come out just long enough for my brother to shinny up a tree and knock coconuts down for us. Dad, as a young city kid, had dreamed of exploring the wonders of the deep, so he learned to snorkel and swim with barracuda while avoiding their razor-sharp teeth. One evening, he came home with my brother, covered in red welts, after being stung by hundreds of jellyfish. I would often tag along with my fins and mask and try to be just like him.

He also dreamed of catching a shark and experiencing the thrill of fighting it, and so, a shark must be caught. And he did it, too - with a fishing pole. It was an eight-foot monster! The only problem was he didn’t know what to do with it after he caught it. His treasure box contains the seven-inch stinger he extracted from a stingray and a giant shark’s tooth found from the so-called extinct ‘Mega-mouth.’

Then, there was the time he cut an alligator’s tooth from its owner’s mouth and put it on a key chain. He would often wade among alligators in poisonous snake-infested waters pursuing his dream of catching a bass- the Big One. He realized that dream many times. Sometimes I’d go with him, shaking in my shoes. Whenever we stepped into a fish nest, I’d sink up to my neck and Daddy would laugh and laugh while helping me out of it. I realized while quite young that my dad was not afraid of anything.

At the age of ten, we moved 2000 miles north to follow another dream that he had kept on the back burner for many years-- to homestead in the far north and live off the land. (By the way, my mother tells me he warned her about all these ‘dreams’ before he married her. She still said, “I do.”) All worldly possessions were sold that could not fit inside a used El Dorado Camper and off we went across America. Mount Rushmore, The Great Smoky Mountains, North Dakota Badlands, Banff National Park, The Great Mississippi and many more landmarks made our geography texts come alive. Unbeknownst to my parents, we kids collected a rock from each state we traveled through. Seventeen rocks and several blowouts later, we arrived in a winter wonderland. The flakes were flying fast and to the eye of a child who had never seen snow before, it was paradise. Oh, the memories we made!

Daddy found a wonderful place for the homestead. The only way to get to it, however, was to cross a lake seven miles wide and then cross a river full of rapids. So, he pulled out his books that told him how to navigate rapids and how to build a log home from scratch and he set to it. He did not tell us until later that several people had perished while crossing these rapids. Arriving safely, we all went to work clearing our very own land. We were probably the only children whose sole desire was to have our own machetes. My dad obliged us. Those years up north were happy years. They were lean, and they were hard, and sometimes lonely for all of us, but I don’t believe any of us, including my mother, who carried much of the load, regret a single moment. We felt like the heroes in the books we had read about and the feeling was good. A large number of our days were spent hauling and chopping wood to keep the stove burning. We went without electricity, or running water. We hunted bear and moose for food. We watched over our malamute pups with a shotgun so that the wolves wouldn’t eat them. Twice, bears attacked my brother and he barely escaped with his life. I almost perished over a cliff with my dad while hunting on snowmobiles. That evening, we celebrated our good fortune with a game of chess that lasted until the wee hours of the morning. Our only source of music was what we made ourselves, so we learned to play the guitar and ukulele and dulcimer. We’d sing together and pray together; we’d climb the roof and gaze at the aureole borealis dancing among a billion stars.

Once, a gold miner walked into the local store and showed off a gold nugget he had found. It was the size of a half dollar. I remember that moment as if it happened yesterday. The following week, my dad took all of us to a stream and guess what we did? Yes, we panned for gold. Now, Daddy had a bear tooth on his key chain and fool’s gold in his box.

We learned the value of hard work and of a job well done. I still quote my father’s words to my children today, “If there’s a job worth doing, then it’s worth doing right,” and “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Years later, he would visit the exotic land of India several times bringing hope to the lepers, the orphans, to the outcasts - because it was his dream. On his last trip, at the age of 72, he received an honorary doctorate from a university there. He traveled alone and ended up having to hide in a hotel room for three days because foreigners were being attacked on sight. He watched from his hotel window, frenzied crowds rolling the head of a dismembered man down the street.

I went with him on one of those trips to the East. Little did he realize that this would spark a dream in his daughter’s heart -- a dream that would carry her half way across the world and years away from his lap. It pains him today, not to be able to be near her or to watch his grandchildren grow up, but he won’t begrudge his dear daughter the pursuit of her own dreams. He knows their worth.

And I love him for that.


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