MY DAD, MY HERO

Dad at the gate great pic

Wendell Wetterling and Mickey and the farmhouse where JDW spent the first 18 years of his life.

 

Dad’s been gone for 37 years now, but the passage of time has only intensified my love and gratitude for him and the worldview he bequeathed me.  The Lord knows I miss him.

He tilled Illinois soil all his allotted days, first with horses and then with tractors.  I was the oldest of two sons he taught how to milk a cow, plow a straight furrow and other agrarian arts which we got to practice far more than we preferred.  Around the breakfast table he instructed all four of his offspring in the straight and narrow way as he read from the Bible.  In my worldly wanderings those God-fearing, heartland roots that grew from the seed he planted and tended have served me exceedingly well.  No greater love hath any Dad.

Dad Jeff and JerryTo this day, when I smell cheap cigar smoke, I catch myself looking around for him.  In my mind’s eye I see him sitting on the metal seat of a steel-wheeled corn planter, leather reins in leathered hands and jaw clamped on a cigar, staring at the north end of two southbound draft horses named Jeff and Jerry.  I never had the nerve to ask, but I’m pretty sure the latter horse was my namesake.

Dad bought Emerson cigars by the box for six cents apiece and got more mileage out of them than any man I know.  He lit one end with a wooden match, drawn smartly across the back thigh of his bib overalls, and chewed on the other, working his way toward the middle from both ends.  On some occasions he worked from back to front only, never lighting the cigar but making it last all day.

Often he’d forget to drag on it and the fire would go out.  It was in my experimental years at the university that I came to appreciate the courage required to suck on a dead cigar.

When rainy days precluded fieldwork, I rode to town with Dad in a ’51 Chevy pick-up.  With the windows rolled up, cigar smoke filled the cab.  I don’t recall what I thought was in that village of 800 souls that was worth a five-mile ride in a rolling smokehouse.  And I’ve never understand why rolled up dead tobacco leaves smell so good in the box and so awful on fire.  Cigars are high fashion now, but I never got addicted and for that I’m also grateful to Dad.

On Sundays he left the cigar resting on a beam above the back porch (it was rarely allowed in the house, alive or dead) and drove the family to church.  While Mom’s angelic soprano voice rang out from the choir loft Dad shepherded four small squirming sinners in a hard oak pew.  As Psalm 100:1 directs, he, too, made a joyful though dissonant noise unto the Lord with his uninhibited monotone.

In pre-TV days—prior to age ten—I often spent evenings lying on the linoleum floor drawing pictures behind Dad’s overstuffed rocker as he read his Prairie Farmer, Capper’s Weekly and other farm magazines.  The same floor lamp that illumined Dad’s reading shined on my artwork.   My pencil sketches of magazine pictures or portraits were sufficiently recognizable to prompt my parents to spend scarce cash on special drawing paper and pencils.  The paper was coarse and thick and the lead soft, allowing so many more erasures than regular paper before wearing thru—the line had to be just right, in my eyes, or I erased it. As I recall noses got erased more than anything else and maybe that’s why I never pursued art.

But what sticks most in my mind is the sense of well-being, of security, of contentment those evenings on the floor behind Dad’s easy chair.  I recall no conversation.  Dad was never big on extended conversation with his offspring—that was Mom’s department.  He was just there and he loved me and I knew it and that was enough.  Add Mother to that scene, standing at her ironing board in the middle of the room, humming hymns as she worked, and it sounds like a fairy tale today.  Such domestic tranquility is a rare thing in this twenty-first century world of fatherless homes, absurd sitcoms blaring on TV and non-stop activity outside the home.  The sad results are our overcrowded prisons, overmedicated neurotic citizenry, and rage-as-acceptable-behavior.

Dad was a recycler long before it was environmentally correct. In the unheated “back room” off the kitchen, where he changed into and out of his work clothes and boots, there was a separate wooden cigar box for loose change, receipts, nuts, bolts, flat washers, lock washers and assorted nails–stuff that came out of his overall pockets before they went into the laundry. An old rusty horse tank just outside the barn door held baling wire that had been removed from hay bales through the winter as the cows were fed. A Midwestern farm in the fifties could not function without baling wire and its multitudinous manifestations. Dad could fix more things with a pair of pliers and baling wire than I can with a whole toolbox full of mechanically marvelous tools. The lower pant leg pocket of his overalls always contained a pair of pliers. Out in the shop a wooden keg held bent nails awaiting straightening on rainy days. The coal shed held corncobs for kindling in a separate bin.  And of course used livestock bedding from the barn made the corn grow, the logistics of which was my all-time least favorite job on the farm.

Pain was an everyday part of Dad’s life, a burden I relate to more with each passing year.  He was a passenger in an auto accident in his college days.  Though he was the only one who could walk away from it, he suffered from a bad back the rest of his life.  He wore a brace from his neck to the base of his tailbone and made weekly visits to the local chiropractor.  With all the hard physical labor of farming in those days it was a high price to pay for a career he loved.

He paid the same price to show his boys how much he loved them and to encourage their love of sports.  Brother John and I would beg him to bat us flies on summer evenings when he came in from work exhausted.  He could hit the ball so high and far it seemed like it took forever for it to come down as we danced around in the pasture underneath it with our gloves over our heads.  Every swing of the bat produced a yelp of pain, but we never felt sorry for him.  We thought all dads sounded like that when they hit the ball.  And I am sure when he watched us play our Pony League games that he thought it was all worthwhile.

While Dad was a sports nut, he was a world-class football fanatic, and he was in his glory when my brother and I played halfback and quarterback on the same high school team. He and Mom never missed a game, home or away, regardless of the state of the corn harvest. As a non-verbal communicator, high praise from Dad was silence, but it was golden silence—I could feel the vibes. When he disagreed with my play calling, or if we lost the game, he always found his voice, and would be waiting up for me, no matter how late I stayed out after the game. The fact that he played in the interior line at the University of Iowa, back when real men still didn’t wear helmets did not hinder his quarterbacking critique. Playing well enough to please Dad, and avoid that late night criticism, was my goal. I succeeded more often than I failed.

Dad was an avid fisherman and hunter and that, too, rubbed off on his sons.  Sometimes we fished from the banks of the Mississippi River with cane poles and earthworms for bait, dug up from behind the barn where the recycled lumber pile kept the soil cool and moist.  We munched on Velveeta cheese and Saltine cracker sandwiches as we anxiously waited for the bobber to disappear into the muddy water.  Anxiety turned to boredom in a hurry if the catfish weren’t biting.  Only a mature died-in-the-wool fisherman can stare at a bobber that floats undisturbed all day and still call it fun.  Other times we took our old outboard motor-driven boat and set out yards of trotlines with hundreds of hooks in the Mississippi River just before dark, then motored down river to Uncle Ed’s hunting and fishing cabin on Big Island.  Uncle Ed fixed us a feast and the men talked and laughed long into the night while the cousins played at the dock and in the woods till the “skeeters” drove us inside.  If the adolescent anticipation of the fish catch in the morning was not sufficient to preclude sleep, the high-pitched zing of skeeters, the chorus of katydids and the million voice Mississippi River frog choir, complete with the glorious bullfrog bass section, combined with the moon shining in my face through the bunkroom window made sleep impossible.

At first light in the eastern sky we shoved off to run the lines, that is to haul in the trotlines and our catch.  Both putting out the lines and bringing them in and taking fish off the hooks were a spectator sport for small boys, who were segregated for their own safety in the bow of the boat.  Hundreds of hooks and yards of line and jumping catfish thumping an irregular cadence on the wooden hull in a small moving boat was a dangerous sport only the men could indulge in.  But my Dad made it look easy from my perch, and in all my worldly wanderings, predawn on a placid Mississippi River on a summer morning has been the gold standard for measuring tranquility.

My fondest memory of life on the river with Father was not so tranquil.  It was an October dawn enroute to our duck blind in that same old wooden boat, as old as the ark, laboriously driven by a 25-horsepower Evinrude outboard.  The cold penetrated all the layers of clothes, inducing an involuntary reciprocal motion in my lower jaw and turning my cheeks to parchment.  Overhead, V’s of Mallards raced us down the river.  A gray forest of denuded elms, oaks and willows huddled at the riverbanks and on scattered islands.  The eastern sky was an abstract painting of broad orange and yellow and white horizontal brush strokes by the Divine Artist on a powder blue canvas.

In the stern, Dad clutched the steering arm of the outboard with the ever-present dead cigar angled out of a grinning, ruddy face.  His eyes sparkled below devilish eyebrows as the frigid rushing air drove tears back toward the flapping ear tabs of his hunter’s cap.

Baby brother, with his red nose dripping and a brown stocking cap pulled down to his pupils, sat shivering in the bow, facing aft.  He was drawn into the fetal position by an arctic bow spray of muddy water.  If he was enjoying himself it was not apparent.

The roar of the outboard made conversation impossible, but none was necessary—Dad was big on silence.  It just couldn’t get any better than that.  Perhaps you have to be a duck hunter to understand.

On a late winter morning in ’81, having spent ninety-nine percent of his life within twenty miles of the farmhouse where he was born, Dad stepped out the back door of the house and into eternity.  I think he was with the Lord before his face hit the snowdrift.  One day, when my race is run, I’ll join him in glory…and if cigars are allowed in heaven, they’ll be the sweetest incense.

Excerpt from Grace in the Growing Season: A Memoir

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