by: Dennis R. Humphreys (the DreamWriter)
What is the old cliche? No man is an island. To understand my father, he needs to be understood in the context of my mother, and to some degree.;. his three children... my two older sisters and myself.
You see, my mother had a severe bi-polar disorder. She threatened to kill me at least once a week, during my childhood. She beat up a thirty year old cop when she was eighty-six years old. As part of her restitution, she was told by the courts to get a psychological evaluation That was when she was officially diagnosed. The three of us kids knew she what her problem was before that day. In all her dysfunction over the years, my father remained unconditionally loyal to the woman. Perhaps the fact he was autistic had something to do with it... brilliantly autistic. His career began as an aeronautical engineer and ended as a rocket scientist, able to do ten page calculations in a matter of seconds in his head. Somehow, somewhere there was a balance for the two of them that seemed to have made him who he was. Or perhaps it amplified those characteristics in him that were there
Dad was born and raised in a place called Enterprise, Oregon, probably the closest thing to heaven I could even imagine as a child, when I went there to visit my grandmother. It was a small town, founded by my great grandfather, where he built the first house, after traveling there on the Oregon Trail. It was during the gold rush, having left his home in Joplin, Missouri to seek his fortune and leaving his family behind him. Most of the people there to this day, are somehow related. In those days, a child could run free without worry, and my dad certainly did. His parents gave him complete freedom. He talked fondly about stuffing his pockets full of biscuits his mother always had on hand, baked in the cast iron stove. Then he'd disappear into the mountains for two or three days at a time. Dad went into the wilds with an Indian friend from the reservation nearby, where he spent most of his time when he wasn't in the forest.
His schooling was acquired in a one room schoolhouse, you only remember hearing about or seeing in westerns. The teacher lived in the attic, so school was always open... it depended on you to get there, or not, in inclement weather. Dad was always there, and in the winter he often attended class by skiing to school.
When he was older, he became a lumber jack, riding the fallen logs down the Snake River to the sawmill. Later, after he attended college at the University of Oregon, obtaining a degree in engineering, he became a surveyor and surveyed the first highway in the area along that same river. He told me the surveying crew would go out for two weeks at a time in an old Model T Ford. They hunted much of their own food. He reminisced about getting separated from the crew one time and having to find his way home, taking more than a week, living off the land for food. Luckily his Indian friends taught him how to trap his food, living off the land armed only with a knife. Unluckily for him when he got home, his dog failed to recognize him. It bit him when he went into his parents' home.
Finally, he got a job offer in the east, designing airplanes. Moving from his beautiful home town he ended up in Lakehurst, New Jersey for a couple of years. Exploring the area regularly, he was hiking one day in May, when he witnessed a large dirigible explode. As the ship burst into flames people jumped from it to their deaths... it was the Hindenburg, It affected him deeply and was something he never talked about unless prodded because of the sheer agony of the human spirit, seemingly to affect every life force witnessing it, especially his psyche. The man though, internalized everything.
On several occasions I questioned him about witnessing the tragedy, when it was mentioned on television, and he was in the room with me. The last time we talked about the incident he issued me a warning.
“There are those with arrogant dreams that use the inventions of men to destroy others' dreams. Their dreams will go down in flames like the Hindenburg,” he told me with what was one of the longest speeches he ever gave, so I assumed he believed what he said to be of importance. To this day, I believe it was an important thought.
A job was offered him to work for the Glenn L. Martin Company in Baltimore, Maryland a couple of years later and he moved there. This was where he met my mother, teaching at a Polish school... St. Ursula's. In fact, she was in the convent. They taught only in Polish at the school, and she was fluent in it, having escaped Poland as a child, as the communists came into the country and began killing all those with any political commitment to the tzar. Since her father was the top horseman in the world at the time, and general of the Polish cavalry directly under the tzar, he knew the family's future was in jeopardy. Her parents left one night with twelve children, while the rest of the family that stayed, disappeared.
Her father was an abusive man and abused my mother. This was the basis to many of her problems. It was common at the time in Slavic families and a way of life. Still her problems became other peoples' problems.
I'm not sure exactly how my parents met. They became husband and wife after several months of meeting. She was impossible to live with, reason with and generally to be human around. Yet, somehow, my father managed to live with her for sixty years. One of the things it taught me about him was perhaps the intiate understanding he had of her, and his blind acceptance because of his love for her. It was something I could never do. His dedication was beyond exemplary.
His creative mathematical abilities inventing solutions for flight problems did not go unnoticed at the company for which he worked. He was offered numerous promotions, which he promptly turned down. He wanted nothing to do with management. Dad didn't care to be responsible for people nor did he wish to communicate with them more than he had to. It is understandable coming from a man whom people, young or old, happy or unhappy, rich or poor, immediately liked the man and tried to communicate with him constantly. His answer to their attempts, was to fall asleep in front of them, and begin snoring. A defense response if there ever was one.
My mother's answer, when he turned down such promotions and the ensuing salary increases, was a derisive, insulting spew. At such times, the only thing my father had to say was “aw hon”. And that was the strongest thing I ever heard him say. Dad avoided altercations of any kind, and he preached to me never to start a fight... but if someone initiated one with me, I would be punished if I failed to end it. It was interesting heeding his advice, because those very bullies I overcame, turned into some of my best friends over time and their insecurity issues, mellowed out, dealing with others. There was serious merit to his advice.
In the evenings, when he was home and not out of town on contract, becoming more commonplace as the world developed space obsessions, working on the Gemini missions, Apollo missions and super-sonic transports, he read the newspaper from front to back. Within a half hour of accomplishing that, he would often fall asleep on the sofa. I'd find myself carrying on a conversation from the floor, in front of the television, alone, for who knew how long, with someone that was unconscious.
I would punish his oblivion by sticking cheese curls on his lips, turning him him into what I thought was a decent representation of a sea anemone. I'd use some of my sisters' make up for an added touch, dolling him up a little. I was even known to adorn him with my mother's wigs. There he would sit for the evening before waking up, and realizing what I had had done. Dad never said anything or became angry... he just went to the bedroom and removed everything. He was lucky, it was before digital cameras or he may have found himself on social media somewhere, if that were around then. The man had incredible tolerance with my antics. A later psychiatrist told me my humor was the thing that retained my sanity. I was told that I had all the earmarks and environmental issues of being a serial killer. I think in some part my dad kept me grounded in ways he never knew, by allowing me to express myself.
Both of my sisters were older, and were in the sciences: one in cancer research, while the other was the youngest woman to become a doctor in Maryland at the time. She also was the leading flutist in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and eventually became nationally known as the Pied Piper doctor in Southern California. She did this by getting Mexican children to follow in procession, a distrusted white doctor, to the examination room, playing her flute as she skipped along.
I was a pianist at a young age. We all played, but I never understood why I was forbidden to bring science books into the house, since my sister's were in the sciences. I did however sneak them into the house under my shirt. Then I would hide them under my mattress, like my peers would hide adult magazines under theirs. Oh, she always searched everywhere and would discover them from time to time. I would contend with her irrational wrath. Dad wasn't around to witness this, so there were many things he didn't know of in his defense. My sisters were busy with their extracurricular activities so I faced mom alone.
I think we all developed personalities based on the juxtaposition of my father and mother, while staying away from the dysfunctional attributes of my mother because my two sisters and myself seem sane. He was what kept us all from being dysfunctional. She severely abused me, but it was dad's rationality that told me when I had two daughters the system of abuse that typically travels from one generation to another can be stopped. I made the concerted effort to do that and accomplished it.
The man supported my mother loyally, having to be aware of her problems, and never saying an unkind, or disparaging word about anyone, let alone her. He accepted people as they were, not as he wanted them to be. He didn't judge them, or condemn them, as seems to be the rule these days, and which was the inherent attitude of my mother. He certainly didn't beat them to follow mindless, self-serving instructions.
I didn't always understand my dad but I did have an understanding of him.
At sixteen, she came into my bedroom and proceeded to hit my with a broom handle, jabbing me with it as hard as she could in my stomach, and then my genitals. I had enough. I pulled the handle from her and I slugged her, sending her to the floor surprised. Then I broke the handle over the back of my neck and warned her.
“If you ever lay a hand on me again that sound will be the sound of me breaking your legs!” I warned her calmly, shaking my index finger at her for effect.
From that day forward, she never laid a hand on me. She showed no interest in my schooling after that either, and father wasn't aware of the incident. She never told him, and because of his immovable loyalty to her... I never said anything. Her physical abuse stopped that day but her mental abuse continued, but never around my father. She constantly berated me and told me I was a loser... I'd never amount to anything and I would never be successful.
There came a time when I refused to see my mother any more. It was after she had wished that my two young daughters would die. That was typical of her. She wished the worst on everyone that took away from her being the center of attention. My father desired anonymity, far from being the center of attention but he let her gather the attention. I'm sure my father never knew the things she said or did to stop my communication. I had not talked to her for four years when my dad almost died, and was in the hospital, when I went to see him. There was a kind of truce that ensued but I warned her if she if ever said anything nasty again, the next time she saw me would be at her funeral. I didn't trust her around my daughters. I loved them too much. It only took a few weeks where she forced me to keep that promise. I can still see my father running after my car asking me not to go, saying how much she loved me. 'She doesn't mean what she says or does', he said. I differed with him because the end result was the same, and I responded as I saw fit.
“No she doesn't or she wouldn't have done or said the things she's done to me. Dad, you need to grow some balls and take charge of that woman... get her help,” I told him and I left.
I sent cards to him, not my mom. I sent pics of the kids as they grew, but he never saw them. My mother confiscated his mail and sent the pictures back with written notes in third person. I stopped sending things since my dad had obviously relinquished control to her, knowingly perhaps or unknowingly. What did it matter? It's just that I couldn't see anyone being so blinded. I firmly believe there is a time to look the other way and a time to force a change. In part, his attitude made me see that. She tried to get my phone number from my sisters several times before she died, but they would not give it to her.
I kept my word and went to my mother's funeral fourteen years later. There, I was reunited with my father, who had only gotten kindlier with age. My second wife absolutely adored him... he was that kind of person. He lived for a year afterwards, before passing. I visited him with my new wife and children several times. In the last few months we saw him in a retirement home, where they stuffed him with two deserts per meal, when he was written up as a diabetic on a limited diet. They were killing him. He never said 'no' to sweets or candy and thought nothing of devouring what was given him. In the end he was hallucinating but he knew he was. He would ask us to hold on a minute while he gained control of himself... several people had entered the room and he knew they weren't really there. It was sad.
Ultimately I found out the government removed my father from all genealogical records, as if he never existed. I understand they do that when someone invents a technology affecting national security. I certainly knew he existed. My children knew he did, but I guess down he road he will become part of the unknown, sooner than the rest of us.
I was glad for those last months with him. He was a little too mild and accepting, letting people like my mother ride over him, but I miss him deeply, while I have never missed the woman that bore me, not for a moment.
But how can you argue about tolerance, understanding, acceptance, loyalty, kindliness and unassuming humility in this world today? The man had it all. Perhaps it was something he learned in the forests of eastern Oregon, but it's something I learned from him.