My Father

June 13, 2011

Dad in his late twenties or early thirties

With Fathers’ Day fast approaching, I thought I’d take the time to record my impressions of my Dad.

William Henry Seward Leeds was born in 1891. He was named after his own father, who died in 1895. Thus, the “Jr.” was dropped at an early age. In 1928 he became the father of twin boys, and the oldest was given the “Jr'”. My brother would later have a son of his own; to this day, my nephew has a “III” following his name.

Prior to the birth of the twins, Dad became the father to two girls. That was in the early 1920’s. One of the girls was not his, but none of us ever knew it; he treated that girl just as he treated the rest of us – with love and compassion. It wasn’t until she turned 65 and applied for social security that we learned she had been unofficially adopted. Our only guess is the potential shame that might have been brought on the family was too great to make such a public announcement. Dad simply, and quietly, accepted a little girl as his own.

One other son was born in 1942, and I came along in 1944. If you were quick with your math, you guessed that Dad was 53 when I was born. That’s very close. I was born in August. Dad turned 53 later in the year.

Dad in the National Guard - 1918

During The Great War (which didn’t become known as World War I until sometime during World War II), Dad followed his patriotic heart and tried to enlist… in the army, the navy, the marines, and various Canadian outfits. They all turned him down. Somehow (perhaps to help a recruiter meet his quota?) Dad was inducted into the National Guard.

If you look closely at the above photos you’ll see that Dad wore glasses. I have a picture of Dad when he was in grade school; he was wearing glasses even then. Nineteen days after Dad’s induction, someone saw fit to give him an eye test. A few days later they gave him an honorary discharge.

This is all to say that when I was born, my father was an older man with very poor eyesight. If it hadn’t been for the twins, who were sixteen years older than me, (and in many ways filled the gap I felt) I might have resented Dad more than I did. Most of my friends had fathers who were much younger and most of them came outside and played games with us. As a young boy, it’s easy to ignore the fact that your father is working six days a week and doing all he can to keep a roof over your head and food in your belly.

Because of my late arrival, Dad had to continue working until he was almost seventy years old. He retired just as I was graduating from high school. I never thanked him for that; I certainly should have.

“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” Mark Twain said those words, but they certainly fit the way I looked at my father.

Dad had dropped out of school after the 7th grade. As you recall, his father had died when he was four years old. His mother was doing her best to raise three children. Thus, Dad and his brother had to quit school and go to work as soon as they were able.

What I failed to realize was two-fold. First, a 7th grade education in the early twentieth century was more thorough in the basics than today’s high school graduates receive. Second, and more importantly, Dad never stopped studying. As poor as his eyesight was, he read everything he could get his hands on. When his eyesight failed him almost completely, he signed up for “Talking Books” and continued to read for most of his life.

My first rude awakening occurred when I returned home from my first semester in college. I had just missed making the “good” Dean’s list and was feeling rather smug. When Dad asked me what I had learned, I spouted off a few facts and found myself aghast when Dad started filling in the gaps of what I’d said. He knew far more about those subjects than I did. From then on, I had a much deeper respect for the “ignorant old man”.

When I graduated from college, Dad once again asked my what I had learned. My answer at that time was, “How little I know.”

Because of Dad’s lack of formal education, he always worked at jobs that were far below his capabilities, but he always worked. Throughout the Great Depression, Dad managed to keep working when many other men were standing in bread lines. Dad didn’t make a lot of money, but it was enough to take care of his wife and four children.

At one point, he even bought a bunch of baby chicks and raised them in a pen he built under the back porch of their home. He sold some and cooked some.

One of my memories from my teen years was the Strout Realty catalogs that were delivered to our house on a regular basis. Mom and Dad would study them from cover to cover. Their dream was to sell our house (as soon as I was out on my own) and buy a small farm where they could raise chickens. I guess their experience during the Great Depression convinced them they could handle such chores in their retirement years.

They almost made it.

Mom died during my senior year in college. And their dream died with her.

Dad lived another eight years. I think he was proud of his children. By then, we were all married and had families of our own. In fact, Dad had about sixteen grandchildren and a few great-grandchildren by the time he passed in 1974.

In the intervening years, Dad meant a lot to me. I could always go to him for advice… but he never said a word unless he was asked. That’s something all parents can learn from. He knew when we turned eighteen, his job was basically done. From that point on, it was up to us.

I mentioned earlier that I resented my father not being able to play with me when I was young. That’s one of the main reasons I got married and had my children while I was young enough to do things with them. I know I’m far less than perfect in their eyes, but I hope they remember all the fun we had when they were young.

Up in Smoke

June 7, 2011

I was in the second grade the first time I lit up. A neighbor of mine, who was a year or so older, let me try one of his. He was in the third grade and already addicted.

I don’t recall if I inhaled; I do recall getting dizzy and nauseated. You’d think that would’ve been enough, but in the 1950’s it seemed that most adults smoked… including my older brothers and brothers-in-law, so trying again didn’t seem all that stupid. I don’t remember my sisters smoking and I never saw my parents smoke, although I was told that Dad had quit some time before I was born.

Between the second grade and high school, my friends and I experimented from time to time. Once we bought a package of Bull Durham. For five cents, we got a bag of tobacco and twenty cigarette papers. We clumsily managed to roll one or two cigarettes apiece, but most of the tobacco and papers went to waste. Again, I don’t recall whether I inhaled or not, but I do recall the dizziness and nausea.

Another time. my friend who had supplied that first smoke in the second grade, built his own water-cooled Turkish pipe. We smoked corn husks and got more than nauseated. We never tried that again.

Unlike many who have sued the tobacco companies, I don’t blame the advertisements as much as I blame peer pressure and my role models.

My mother was adamantly opposed to smoking, yet she tolerated the members of the family and their friends who smoked in our house. In fact, I remember the Metropolitan Insurance agent who stopped by weekly to collect the premiums (ten cents per week for each of my brothers and I). He was always smoking a smelly cigar and nobody thought anything about it. Mom simply made sure there was an ashtray nearby.

As a member of the Key Club (junior Kiwanis) in high school, I attended a few conventions out of town. As soon as we got to wherever the convention was, my buddies and I would buy cigarettes or cigars. I vaguely remember a brand called Trends, which were shaped like cigarettes, but stronger – like cigars. By this time, I was inhaling and sometimes getting dizzy, but no longer nauseated.

For the younger people reading this, back in the 1950’s there were all sorts of rumors about the health hazards of smoking. First and foremost was that smoking would stunt our growth. More importantly, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that smoking caused cancer. This had not yet been scientifically proven, but we called them “cancer sticks” or “coffin nails.”

The standard line of many smokers was “It will take me twenty years to get cancer; by then they’ll have a cure.”

Well, that was sixty years ago, and the cure for all cancers has still not been found.

In college, I smoked from time to time – when I could find a heavy smoker willing to share, or (rarely) when I had enough extra cash to buy my own. Cigarettes had increased in price since my second grade experience (when a pack would cost seventeen cents). At $.35 per pack (the price of a hamburger and coke), I didn’t waste the cash on such luxuries.

After graduating from college I got a real job and started earning more money than I’d ever had in my life. When I should have been old enough to know better, I became a regular smoker.

By the time I quit for good (the first time) I was in my forties and smoking three packs a day. I had quit many times prior to that, but the longest I ever lasted was a few months or so. But this time I was off for five or six years!

But you know it didn’t last. One evening I was sitting talking with a group of smokers and bummed one from one of my friends. The “one” soon turned into two, three, and so on. The next day I felt obligated to pay the guys back, so I bought my own pack and shared. The following day, I bought a carton and was soon back to my three-pack-a-day habit.

It took me another ten years or so to recognize that I absolutely had to quit for good. This time I knew I could not ever even have “just one”. At the beginning of October, 1998, I threw my remaining cigarettes away and began my smoke-free life. I have not so much as touched one since then.

And the sad part? I still crave cigarettes. When I smell the smoke of someone else, it still smells good to me. My addiction is obviously more than physical.

I’ve told my bride that if I ever come home with a carton of cigarettes, it means I’ve been to the doctor and told I have a terminal illness and very little time left.

Sad, isn’t it. But that’s what smoking can do to a person.

If you’ve never smoked, keep it that way. If you currently smoke, recognize all the reasons why you should quit – cost, health, whatever. Try to convince yourself that you’ll be better off without cigarettes. Don’t quit for anyone else but you. That’s the only way it will work.

I quit cold-turkey, but if you need the patch or gum, do whatever it takes. The longer you smoke, the harder it is to quit. And when you quit, always remember how difficult those first few days are. You won’t want to repeat them. That will help you to stay “quit”.

End of sermon!