My father, Herb Harsh, died four years ago at the age of 96. Part of my grieving for him and for myself has been thinking of many questions I wish I had asked him before he lost touch with reality. There are several reasons we never talked about a lot of things.
My father was a child of the depression born in 1921. He grew up with an abusive alcoholic step-father in rural northwestern Ohio. In spite of that he excelled in school and was valedictorian of the 1939 class at Buckland, Ohio high school. We used to tease him that it didn’t take much to be at the top of a class of 19, but the more I’ve come to appreciate the obstacles he overcame I regret that I didn’t give him more credit for his academic and survival skills in those depression years. His high school classmates were lifelong friends for him, bringing him back to high school reunions for nearly 70 years until he could physically no longer make the trip back home from his retirement community near Cincinnati.
My sister Sue and I inherited Dad’s ability to achieve in school. She was valedictorian of a class of 200, and I was second in a class of 120; and both of us went on to get graduate degrees. I think Dad would have been the first in his family to go to college had it not been for WWII. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps shortly after Pearl Harbor. One of the things I wish I asked him is what he did in years between high school and the service. My sister said she remembered he worked on the railroad at some point in his early life, and we think that may have been it.
I also wish I knew where he got his love for music. He played his tenor saxophone and sang in every musical group he could find until he was about 90. He had his own dance band in the 1950’s and bookended that with organizing “The Harsh Notes” quartet at his retirement community. In between he sang in the choir at every church he attended. When the aging process took those things away from him he lost most of his will to live. Because I was not gifted with any musical talent I never showed much interest in his love of music, and I regret that. I have always been a sports fan and listened to or watched every baseball, football and basketball game I could. My dad had zero interest in sports of any kind, and I wish I had explored that topic with him, just to understand him better.
I know my parents met at a dance, but I never cared enough to ask him for any details, and I’m sorry. All I do know is that my mother, a small town girl of maybe 19, followed her love to at least two air corps towns in Texas. Somewhere along the line they decided to marry before he was shipped overseas to fly B-17 bombers. I don’t know if they ever were formally engaged or where/when that might have happened. I do know they were married on June 5, 1943 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama where he was stationed for officer training. Sometime thereafter he shipped out to England. I wish I knew more about when that was and how he traveled there.
After he died we discovered that he had written about some of his war experience for the newsletter at the Otterbein Retirement community where he lived the final 38 years of his life. He apparently flew a few bombing runs over Germany near the end of the war, which he didn’t like doing, and again I wish I had asked him more about that. Like most survivors of war I don’t think he really wanted to talk about his war experience, but I wish I had shown more interest and wonder if it would have been good for him to talk about it.
The life-changing event in his service career happened after the war was over in Europe. He was co-pilot of a B-17 bringing 17 service members home after the war. For some strange reason I wish I understood they were flying across the Atlantic at night, leaving a refueling stop in the Azores Islands around midnight. Shortly after leaving there both of their engines failed, and they were forced to ditch (crash land) in the cold North Atlantic. Because it was foggy they came down too steep and too fast. My dad was knocked unconscious by the impact and remembers his pilot shaking him and urging him to get out before the plane sank.
The survivors of the crash impact spent the next 12 hours in the dark waters that they had been told might be shark infested. They were not able to retrieve any life rafts from the wreckage and had to rely entirely on their Mae West life jackets to keep them afloat. By the time they were finally rescued the next morning only four of the 17 men on the plane survived.
I cannot begin to imagine what those 12 hours were like. My dad didn’t write about any of that in his account. Watching his buddies die and fearing for his own life would surely have qualified him for a PTSD diagnosis if there had been such a thing in 1945. I will never know why I didn’t figure that out until very late in his life. It would have changed so much about our relationship and made me so much more patient and understanding about his approach to life, parenting, and his faith.
I wish I had asked him about how that horrific experience brought him from a churchless upbringing to a devout, dedicated Christian life for 70 years. I can only guess how his conversion experience happened, but what I know for sure is that my personal and professional life choices were totally affected by his come to Jesus moment or hours there in that water.
Why didn’t I explore all those important life events with my father? Let’s say I was a child of the ‘60’s and he came of age in the ‘30’s. Ironically it was his encouragement of me academically that created most of the divide between us. My life experience once I began college and seminary was totally foreign to the conservative, parochial life my father grew up in and chose to stay in after the war.
Pre-Viet Nam I was a typical patriotic American kid. I played war games with my friends, I wrote a piece in 4th grade that said I wanted to be a marine when I grew up. I was an Eagle Scout in 1960 at age 14, but all that began to change one day in my senior year of high school. A history teacher, Mrs. Miller, told our class one day that she thought Viet Nam was going to be the next trouble spot in the world. None of us had a clue where Viet Nam was, nor that Americans had been dying there already for 4 years. Suddenly my fantasies about attending one of the military academies came face to face on the nightly news with the realities of guerrilla warfare in the jungles of Southeast Asia,
That unjust and unnecessary war escalating was the backdrop to my entire college and seminary educational experience. My peers were dying in Vietnam and at Kent State University just 100 miles from my seminary campus. At the Methodist Theological School in Ohio we students didn’t have to protest. Our faculty and administration cancelled all classes to discuss how we could respond to the Kent State tragedy. That event led to my first political action. Some of us decided to go Washington DC and talk with our legislators about our concerns over the war and the unrest it was creating in our country. In one 24-hour whirlwind three of us drove all night to DC, talked with legislators the next day and turned around and drove straight home that night. The three of us probably made no difference in DC, but we bonded through that experience and are still good friends 52 years later.
Unfortunately my new liberal politics and theology were very troubling to my dad. I understand now that he needed the certainty of very concrete beliefs and values to manage his undiagnosed PTSD, and my divergence from those beliefs and values were a threat to his worldview. I wish I had been smart enough then to be patient and understanding about where he was coming from; but I guess I was not confident enough in my own burgeoning faith to reason with him. It was easier to rebel and withdraw from any controversial issues with him.
There is a running joke in my extended family about all of us who have received one or more of Dad’s infamous letters criticizing us for breaking one of his rules for living. My younger sister was always her Daddy’s girl and was his devoted caretaker in his last difficult years. She prided herself that she had never received one of his nasty letters, and she made it till he was getting very belligerent about his circumstances in his last two or three years. I’m hoping I don’t get that way, but I do know I learned or inherited my impatience and temper from him. He had every reason to be miserable those final months.
My mother died suddenly from brain cancer a few weeks after my parents celebrated their 50th anniversary. My dad was lost without her, and remarried a year later a recently widowed woman who also lived in their retirement community. Both families were aghast and thought they were making a huge mistake. But they had 20 good years together before dementia did it’s dastardly deed on her. Dad often lost patience with her, and I’m sure I would have too. Eventually she had to move into memory care, and Dad, bereft of his music, his wife, and his dignity became a handful. It was in that state he finally wrote a nasty note to my sister criticizing her for not being available to him 24/7. My sister Nancy is a candidate for sainthood, but her letter made one family member happy — my son, Matt, now gets to boast that he is the only member of the family who never got a Harshpa letter.
One of the things we can laugh about now but was very stressful in Dad’s later years was how much he absolutely hated wearing diapers. For many months he was determined he was going to invent an apparatus that would make diapers unnecessary. His idea was somehow to create a device out of plastic tubing which at one point he was going to super glue to his penis! When we all presented a united front and refused to buy him any more supplies for his hair-brained idea he was livid. I made one trip, two hours each way, to visit him after that, and when I told him no, I was not going to the hardware for him to buy supplies he told me I could go to hell, and my 4-hour trip resulted in one very ugly 5-minute visit.
I don’t share that to criticize my Dad. As I am aging now I fully understand the frustration of giving up so many things I used to be able to do. I wish I had more fully understood that for my dad, and I’m sure most families go through some similar tough times. We were never forgiven for taking away his car keys either, and I get it now.
The good news is that for some years before the diaper conflicts Dad and I reached a somewhat peaceful and comfortable relationship. He mellowed some, or gave up trying to change me, and I came to understand that he had done the best job as a father he could. That grace is what most dads want most for Father’s Day. We all have regrets about things we have done or failed to do as fathers, but the bottom line is we’ve all done the best we could, and that’s all anyone can ask.