By Ward Degler
My dad would have been 109 years old last week. No one lives to that age, of course, but he almost made it to 90 in spite of battling Parkinson’s for the last decade of his life.
A dozen years ago, it was a toss-up which was worse, the disease or the medication. The disease made him tremble uncontrollably, and the medication robbed him of his ability to speak, walk or, at the end, even stand.
But that is not how I remember him. He started his career during the first years of the Great Depression. He was a forester for the U.S. Forest Service, and until the outbreak of World War II signaled the end of the Depression, he supervised a number of Civilian Conservation Corps camps in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.
Not only did he work long hours – much of it outdoors in the summer and winter – but he also had a family to care for. That meant turning whatever housing he found for us into livable accommodations. Often, that involved serious carpentry, electrical wiring and substantial plumbing.
Unlike today, where help for any project is just a phone call away, Dad stood pretty much alone in every task. When the back porch floor tilted to a degree rendering it unusable as a makeshift kitchen, Dad crawled underneath and shored it up to plumb and level. When it got too cold for Mom to work there, he came home with lumber and plate glass and built storm windows.
At another house, he ripped out the old plumbing and installed new pipes and drains from the well to the septic system. He built furniture, sanded floors and varnished them, and borrowed a cement mixer to pour a new front stoop.
Later in life, when everything wasn’t all about survival, he fashioned cedar chests for every female member of the family. Later, he built no less than eight grandfather clocks. His very first one still ticks away the hours in our family room.
His energy and sense of purpose was contagious, of course, and I have tried to follow in his wake. Much of what I know how to do I learned from him. Everything from carpentry and cabinet making to plumbing and electrical work moved by osmosis from his soul to mine.
I miss him a lot, but never more so than on the 10th of December each year. On that day, especially, I wish we had had more time to connect. He always had more to teach, and I regret not sucking the juice out of every day we spent together. Still, I raise a cup in a loving salute: Here’s to you, Dad.