Father’s death on Feb. 2, 1969 dominated my life for a long while afterward. For years I thought it would be the central theme of my writing. I now realize it was a reality through which I had to work. It wasn’t until military service that I began to get through it.
I started several short sketches like this one using different names for the characters. While I pretended they were fiction, clearly they represented our lives, thinly veiled. This fragment captures my discussion with Father about nationality. It took place in the dining room of the American Foursquare on Marquette.
At our grade school we were divided into groups: about half were descendants of German immigrants and half Irish. A small number of us who were neither were assigned with the Irish because there were less of them. Our conversation was soon after this division. At our 40th high school class reunion I asked a classmate about division into Irish and German groups. She had no memory of it.
Being an “American” rather than a son of immigrants came to define part of my character.
The fragment below was written at my apartment near Five Points in Davenport less than two months after leaving active duty. It is edited to pull different parts of it together. I didn’t change much.
Father was a union man. He forged implements of the modern farmer at the J.I. Case plant in Bettendorf, Iowa. He was a proud man, proud of his family and heritage. He stood with both feet on the ground.
The union offered him a job as chief steward once, and he took it for a while. He asked to be put back on the second shift so he could return to school, and be his own boss, to establish himself. Father knew who he was, where he stood, and where he was going.
One night after supper, Jim Peterson went into the living room, where Father was watching the news on television, and asked, “What nationality are our ancestors?”
Father looked up and without hesitation said, “American.”
Jim asked again, “But are they Polish, like Mom’s or what?”
Yes father knew who he was and if it was one thing he was not, it was someone else’s son.
At age forty he graduated from the Palmer College of Chiropractic, the oldest man in his class. In September, death in the form of a 1959 Ford found him walking from the Case plant after second shift and brought his efforts to a different culmination.Personal Papers, Jan. 9, 1980