Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Remembering A Great Man

Today, with this entry, I'm taking a side road that's very important to me and my family.  Today I mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of my father, Robert J. West.  You've seen images of him from time-to-time and today you'll see a few more.

My father was born in Wheeling, West Virginia 100 years ago today.  He was the eldest son in a family with four siblings - and elder sister, two younger sisters and a younger brother.  The family moved to Ohio for a job opportunity for his father.  His father died when he was a young boy so his mother worked hard and supported their family of six by herself by working as a seamstress and cook.

Early in his teens my father fell while playing basketball - I'm told he was a good athlete at that time - and injured his right leg.  It became infected and he got blood poisoning, which resulted in a 9-month stay in the hospital and a right leg that was forever hampered with limited mobility.  He missed an entire school year due to his injury and never returned to school.  He worked to help support his mother and siblings.  The country was in the depths of the depression and times were very tough.

He found a trade as a carpet and linoleum installer, married my wonderful mother, Dorothy, and had two children - me and my sister, Linda.  Because of his stiff leg he was not eligible for military service in World War II, so he worked two full-time jobs for the duration - his regular job and a defense industry job.  After the war and after almost freezing to death in his work truck that next winter he drove to California where his elder sister lived, found work,  bought a house, then sent for us to join him.  A couple years later our youngest sister, Cheryll, was born, and we spent the next couple of decades growing up in Los Angeles, where he and his younger brother established a carpet installation - and later sales - business.
My father was not an educated man.  He would never win a debating contest, but he was the most honest man I've ever known and revered by all who knew him.  Throughout our lives with him everyone, including his peers, referred to him as "Father West" - which got to be amusing from time to time as strangers presumed he was a man of the cloth.
His youngest sister recalled my father in a short, handwritten memoir written shortly before her passing.  She described her own youth, which was peppered with serious illnesses, one of which kept her in bed for weeks.  My father, her older brother, was her primary caregiver during that time because their mother was working at two jobs to keep the family housed and fed.  She describe my father as "a good Samaritan all his life, always giving and doing for anyone that needed a helping hand.  Everyone loved Bob.  He was 24 carat gold, temper and all."   Yes, he had a temper, which manifested itself as a scowl, not a rant, most of the time.

He was not a shrewd businessman in the cut-throat, profit-at-any-cost sense of the word.  He was an honest man who treated everyone - his customers and employees - fairly and expected the same in return.  As you might expect, he was occasionally disappointed.  I recall a time when he paid his best installers $5.50 per hour, but the union shops - he was non-union - paid $7.50 per hour.  Sometimes one of his employees would feel mistreated because of that disparity, so would jump to the union job, only to return a few weeks later.  You see, while the union carpet installers might work 30-35 hours a week and earn, maybe, about $260.00 gross, my father's guys would work at least 40 hours per week for $224.00 gross PLUS he paid his guys $1.00 per square yard of carpet they installed, and a good team could do 100 yards a day easily.  Do the math.  He had a cadre of ten men who worked for him for more than 20 years, some almost twice that long.  Twenty years after he died we chanced upon a man in the carpet business who knew my father and his brother.  He told us his best friend had worked for them for 20 years and loved them like brothers.  Yep.

Here's a true story that will give you the sense of what kind of man my father was.  I had a high school classmate - I had known him and his twin brother since junior high school.  Following high school he wanted to become a civil engineer, but had no money.  He got a job working for my father as a carpet layer's helper - a job requiring a strong back and not much more.  He would gripe about the job, implying how it was below him, blah, blah, blah.  And yet, he stayed there, working for a couple years until he saved enough to attend college, and he also worked off and on while in college.  After graduation went his merry way, working as a civil engineer and I lost track of him.

Then, a few years ago, I was sitting with a friend at a local shopping center, eating lunch outside, when I noticed this fellow and another younger guy eating nearby.  I commented to my lunch companion that I knew the guy - he rejected that idea.  When we - the four of us - were finished eating I left my companion, walked up to this man and asked his name.  He told me his first name and I added his surname.  He stepped back and said, "Geoff West!", then quickly added, "Your father was the best man I've ever known."  We chatted, then his son returned to work in a nearby bank and my old friend and I adjourned to my home to catch up.  It turns out that he had married, had two kids, divorced and followed them to Utah, where there were no civil engineering jobs to be had.  So, he fell back on the trade he learned from my father and made a good living installing floor coverings.  More important to him were the life lessons he learned from my father.
My father was an uncomplicated man.  He worked hard and did his best to make a good life for his family.  If any of us expressed an interest in an activity he and our mother tried to find a way for us to do it.  With my sister, Linda, it was horses.  She loved horses from an early age, so they found a way for her to be around them  and bought her a bargain-basement retired polo pony.  Linda cleaned stalls for the stall rent for her horse and worked other jobs to pay for riding lessons and competed in equestrian events with old Sungold.  Her skills with, and love for, horses has served her well throughout her life.

For me it was water skiing.  In the middle 1950's we vacationed with a neighbor family at Clear Lake, above San Francisco and a kind stranger taught me to water ski.  That winter my father, not a wealthy man, found these plans in a magazine and built this weird little boat - the Swift Swoose - bought a 25hp motor for it and we began finding places nearby to use it, and to water ski.  The thing was only 5 feet wide and 10 feet long and could hold - at most - two people.  The "Swoose Goose", as we called her, lasted a couple years before we outgrew her.  My father then found an old, neglected inboard runabout, bought it and refinished it so the entire family, including my father, could ski.  That experience has been foundational in everything I've done in my life - thanks to my father for doing what he could with limited resources.

While not an overtly religious man, he lived a life that others tried to emulate.  He was a deacon in our church and Scoutmaster of our Boy Scout troop.  While not an educated man he became a director of a local bank and served as such for many years.  He was the man others came to with their problems.  He was a great listener, but not a skilled orator.  He didn't tell folks what to do with their lives, he just listened, then asked questions that provided directions they may not have considered.  My sister, Linda, recalls a motto he used to say - "A stranger is just a friend you haven't met".  That very much described our father.

I've shown you images of my father holding me, standing on his big hands, in the past.  He did that with all of us and other children, too.  This image is of my nephew 50 years ago.

I mentioned that he was an honest businessman, and that sometimes he was disappointed.  He sometimes would trade carpet or services for something - like a car, for example.  I recall him trading our 5-year old Chevy station wagon and some carpet for a 1-year old Lincoln just about the time I was learning to drive.  It was a great date car!

I mentioned our runabout.  Her name was, quite appropriately, Jezebel.  She was a wonderful old boat, but could be capricious.  This image is one of those times.  We got many years of great fun out of the old girl because my father found a way for us to get her and refurbish her.  And, for every hour of joy we got from Jezebel we may have had an equal number of interesting hours "fixing" her.
She was a double-planked hull that had not been in the water for years.  The first time we put her in the water she began sucking up water like a sponge.  200 gallons later we finally were able to drag her back on her floating trailer - big mistake, there - and haul her home, where she sat for two days with a syphon hose draining that water.  Next "fix" - drain plugs and a home-made self-bailer.
He got tired of dealing with a plank-hull boat and her need to stay swollen, so we just yanked the engine out, flipped her over on her back and overlayed the bottom of the hull with 1/4 inch marine plywood (held firm with several hundred brass screws) then fiberglassed her tummy for good measure.  Jezebel never leaked a drop from that day forward.  And, even though that added to her weight, she could still pull seven skiers out of the water and go 30 mph with them in tow.
And, speaking of skiing, my father was a man of infinite patience.  He would sit behind the wheel of old Jezebel and pull every skier who was willing, all day long, stopping only for some fuel.  And, speaking of stopping - he didn't much like doing that, so he perfected the "flying pickup".  Say two of us were skiing, jumping wakes and each others rope - stuff like that - and one might fall.  Well, instead of the other one having to take a dunk while the fallen skier is retrieved, he would just make a big arc around the downed skier while the other one stayed on a swinging arch on the outside.  Father would deftly guide old Jezebel around the skier, then straighten out as the rope slowly came to him.  The downed skier would just grab the handle and glide right on up - and off they would go.  I've lost track of the number of times we did that - it measured in the hundreds of times, though.  As I said, he was a man of much patience.
One of the reasons we bought old Jezebel was to be able to pull father out of the water.  That stiff leg made it tough for him, but she had plenty of power to drag him up to the top so he could enjoy skiing, too.  In fact, once my sister was driving, pulling my father and three other "old guys" out of the water and made the mistake of dragging them at an angle.  The combination of their heft and her power peeled the back deck - where the ski tow was mounted - right off the boat!  Unable to repair the boat and with a week to go on our vacation, my father made a rig so we could pull skiers off a motor stringer for that week.  Which brings us to...

My father was a man who didn't necessarily subscribe to the "there's a right tool for every job" philosophy.  He was a man for whom almost any tool could have many uses.  For example, a simple screwdriver could also be used as a pry bar, a chisel, an ice pick, a scribe, a can opener, etc.  As a result, we had a drawer full of bent, twisted, ground-down and handle-less screwdrivers in our house.  And, there was almost no tool that could not be used as a hammer in a pinch.  If you needed to pound a nail and no hammer was handy, a nice heavy wrench could do the trick.  You can only imagine the carnage in the wrench drawer of our tool chest.  And, speaking of wrenches, why bother to look for the right size wrench when a pair of pliers and a strong grip could do the job?  Yes, we ended up with a whole lot of rounded bolt heads and nuts that way.
My father was not a politically-oriented man.  Until very late in his life I cannot recall him ever uttering a political statement.  Oh, sure - we watched Adlai Stevenson and Ike on our 12-inch black and white television screen, but that was about it.  He would never even think about attending a political meeting or addressing a grievance with a politician.  He was too busy working - working hard.

During his short retirement he and my mother spent their summers as campground hosts up in the mother lode country of northern California.  They would camp in their little travel trailer, tending to the small campground along a lovely creek and make friends all summer long.  He would sit in the creek and pan for gold - it was the Gold Country, after all - and get great joy in finding "color", sometimes enough to make a "clink" in the little glass vial he used to collect it.
For many years my parents would jump into their car and head to Las Vegas.  We didn't have a lot of surplus cash, so he would put $20 in the glove compartment for gas money for the trip home and off they would go.  They'd stay downtown at The Mint and play blackjack and Keno, sometimes winning a little, sometimes not.  And, during those visits they made friends - a thread throughout their life together.  Some of those friends - pit bosses, managers, waitresses - became lifelong friends.  Even though my folks never spent much money in Las Vegas, there was always a room available for them, just because they were nice folks.

My father worked hard his entire life - from age fifteen, when he helped support his family, until he retired at age 62.  That even counts the months he spent as a roustabout with a traveling circus in his late teens.  It was a working life of five 12-hour days - sometimes six - to make ends meet.  Unfortunately, he passed away before he reached his 65th birthday, having lived a rich, full life and many loving friends in his wake.  The service was held on one of those atypical rainy days in Southern California, at the church where he had been a deacon for so many years.  The sanctuary was packed with friends, employees, business associates and family who gathered to say their goodbye's.

My head is full of little vignettes of my life with my father.  I remember him as a tall, strong man sometimes wearing that fedora in the photos.  I remember his laugh.  I remember his love for my mother.  I remember those nasty Raleigh cigarettes, the coupons from which we collected so we could order an ice chest or some other unnecessary bauble to keep them smoking.  I remember how much he loved to have his feet squeezed, and how much my sisters and I loved doing it for him.  He would feign pain, but only to keep us squeezing.  I remember the pain of disappointing him.  He was not a man who yelled at you, but you knew when he was unhappy with you and avoided that transgression again.  I remember him letting me drive our car at age 12 without batting an eye.  I remember him being the father figure for my cousins who lived across the street with my grandmother and their mother.  They remember him with great affection, too.  I remember the affection many of my friends felt for my father.  They knew I was a lucky guy, and they told me so many times.

My father was a man against which many have been measured, and most of us have fallen short.  He lived a life not filled with riches, but with friends, and set a high bar for us all.  I miss him. 



Blogger Joe said...

Outstanding post about your dad!
His son turned out to be a good citizen too.

5/06/2015 05:54:00 PM  
Blogger valan2 said...

What a great tribute, Geoff! Many of us are proud of our fathers, and thank you for sharing yours with us.

5/06/2015 07:39:00 PM  
Anonymous Where's My Coffee? said...

Great tribute to you dad, Geoff. Sorry he died so young. Looks like he had a full life and still would have had a lot to live for. Miss my dad also. They would have been about the same age.

5/06/2015 09:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Eileen Truxton said...

Has to be the finest tribute I have ever read. Your dad would be as proud of you, as you are of him. Two wonderful men.

5/06/2015 11:27:00 PM  
Anonymous CM Resident said...


Very moving tribute, your father lived a full, meaningful life by your account. I hope that we all may leave behind such a proud legacy. Thank you for sharing.

5/06/2015 11:40:00 PM  
Blogger kwahlf said...

What a beautiful tribute to your Dad, Geoff.
He was a good man- an honest man who people could trust.
You've inherited that from him.
Thank you for sharing this with us.

5/07/2015 01:10:00 AM  
Blogger Claudia Bugh said...

I enjoyed your tribute to your Dad Geoff. A man to be proud of for sure, and his qualities sound a lot like those of his son too ;)

5/07/2015 10:07:00 AM  
Anonymous Robin Leffler said...

What a heartwarming memoir. Your Dad sounds like someone very worthwhile to know, thank you for letting us get to know him a little bit.

5/07/2015 11:43:00 PM  
Blogger The Pot Stirrer said...

Thanks, all, for taking the time to read about my father, and for your kind words. You would have really liked him... everybody did.

5/08/2015 12:34:00 AM  
Anonymous Eleanor Egan said...

Thank you for sharing your fond memories of your father. He evidently was someone we all would have respected and liked to know.

5/09/2015 03:52:00 PM  

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