Live every day as if it was your last
When I was a young boy, I constantly peppered my father with what in retrospect was an endless series of nonsensical questions about every random thought that came into my head. But rather than give these questions the short-shrift they deserved, Dad always used them as an opportunity to teach me something new or to exercise my powers of analysis.
For example, once when I was about seven years old and was riding somewhere with Dad, we passed a gasoline tanker truck. I asked, “How far can that truck go with such a large gas tank?” Rather than dismiss this as the frivolous inquiry it was, Dad used it as an opportunity to teach me a little about the world. First, he told me that large tank was not a fuel tank for the truck, but rather it contained the cargo the truck was delivering to a gasoline station. Next, he told me that such trucks burn diesel fuel rather than gasoline and explained the differences between those two fuels. Then Dad got down to the meat of the question. He said we would first have to assume that the tanker was directly connected to the truck’s engine and that it contained diesel fuel rather than gasoline. He told me that such tankers usually contain from 6,000 to 7,000 gallons. We discussed the concept of fuel economy as measured by miles per gallon. We discussed how many miles per gallon our car got. He asked me to guess how much better or worse the truck’s mileage would be compared to our car. After a guided discussion, we decided that the truck probably got less than 10 miles to the gallon on diesel fuel, but we rounded it off to 10 mpg for ease of computation. Finally, Dad posed my original question back to me, if a truck averages 10 mpg, how far can it go with 7,000 gallons of fuel. (Remember, I was only seven years old when this conversation occurred.) After helping me through the math, including how to easily multiply any number by 10, Dad posed a further question to me. He asked me how many times could that truck drive from coast to coast without having to refuel. We went through that calculation also with additional discussions on how many miles wide the United States was, decreased fuel mileage going through mountains, and why trucks just couldn’t zoom down the far side of the mountain in order to recover what they had lost going up the mountains.
In the end, I had as complete and satisfying an answer as can ever be given to a seven year old boy about anything.
But the above is only one example of the many times that Dad turned one of my nonsensical question into a learning opportunity. Another example occurred in 1964. During the Thanksgiving holiday, I talked to Dad about the year 2000. I think I asked some unanswerable question like, “What will I be doing in the year 2000?”, which was unimaginably far in the future for an 10 year old boy in 1964. But rather than saying there’s no way to know, Dad replied, “Well, let’s figure out how old you will be then, and maybe we can guess what you will be doing.” By this time I was able to do the math myself and determined that on January 1, 2000, I would be 45 years and 4½ months old. Then with kind of a sad smile, Dad told me that on January 1, 2000, I would be almost exactly the same age as he was at Thanksgiving of 1964. I then asked Dad how old would he be in 2000. He replied that it wasn’t worth the effort to figure that out because he would have died long before then.
This comment may seem a bit harsh, but I accepted it without giving it much thought. I remember feeling a little sad that Dad wouldn’t live to see the new millennium, but I accepted his statement because it was not the first time I had heard that sentiment. During World War II, as is described elsewhere in this collection of stories, Dad had come face to face with his own mortality many times. He knew full well that the grievous injuries he received in the service of his country had in all probability shortened his life. I always believed that he was especially concerned about how I, his youngest child, would fare once he had died. I think this concern partially motivated him to answer all my stupid questions, because he never knew how much longer he would be around to respond. I think this concern also manifested itself in the stories he told his children, the articles he read us, and the movies he recommended we see.
Two examples of this are still vivid in my mind, a book and a movie. The book was Ernest Seton-Thompson’s “Rolf of the North Woods.” Dad read it to his children when I was young and I remember hanging on to every word.
The story is about a young boy who is orphaned in the North Woods of Canada and how he overcomes the obstacles created by living in the wild and not having parents. The movie was “Little Man Ten Feet Tall” and it was about a small boy whose parents were killed in an air raid during the Suez Crisis of 1956. The young boy knows of only one other relative, an aunt who lives in Durban, South Africa, and he sets off on foot to reach her across the entire length of Africa. Again, the story was about a young boy having to overcome obstacles in the wild because his parents weren’t around to help him.
Through the stories he told, the way he answered my questions, and the books and movies he recommended, it seems now that one of Dad’s greatest fears was that he would die before his children became adults. Dad treated every question I ever asked him as if it was the last opportunity he was ever going to have to teach me anything. But Dad didn’t die, he survived Guadalcanal, Saipan, and Guam. He survived being shot and torpedoed. He survived malaria and black-water fever. He survived being medically retired from the Marines. He returned home, took over the family business, and made it prosper. He raised seven children and so instilled the value of education in them that all seven graduated from college. He overcame coronary by-pass surgery and complications of his war-time injuries. He cared for his father in his old age. He made room in his small home for his mother-in-law when she could no longer care for herself. He was a community leader in the finest sense of the word and was always ready to help anyone who wanted to better themselves. And in the greatest blow of all, Dad endured the death of his beloved wife of forty years.
Dad wasn’t wrong often, but the passage of time has refuted the prediction he made in November of 1964 about not surviving to see the new millennium. Perhaps Dad’s failed prediction can be most succinctly summarized by the words of his great-aunt Ellen Inman. Aunt Ellen was fond of telling people that when she was born, “they said you could have put me in a quart jar.” Once someone inquired, “Well, did you live?” Aunt Ellen responded,
“They said I lived and did well!”