A Eulogy for my Dad
I tell people who haven’t met my dad that he could be a character in a novel. Not a page-turner where characters are simple, but a big novel with complex characters and long, arcing storylines.
He had long hair and a thick beard by his senior year of high school. He avoided Vietnam thanks to a wool allergy. He met my mom their freshman year of college, but soon after dropped out. He wandered for a few years, but found himself back in the same town during my mom’s senior year. They married that summer.
As a young couple in their twenties they raised chickens and pigs, and my dad had a beagle for hunting rabbits. He was 26 when my sister was born.
In the seventies he started distance running. It was an odd hobby for a hippie in rural Pennsylvania, but he eventually ran a marathon in two hours and forty-one minutes, averaging six-minute miles. He told me that he broke three hours on twelve of his thirteen marathons. On the thirteenth he was anemic from a vegetarian diet. To be sure I didn’t doubt his ability, he’d also explain that the course was very hilly.
Distance running was a good fit. He had a talent for it, he was always comfortable alone, and he enjoyed 20-mile runs on rural highways and dirt logging roads.
His knees started to go in his forties so he switched to raccoon hunting. One odd, solitary, and obsessive hobby to another, replacing his love of athletics with his love of dogs. I was eleven at the time. He would take me to a farm where two quadriplegic brothers lived. They worked as accountants but also owned a farm and coonhounds that they would pay an employee to train and hunt. My dad bought a dog from them and learned the sport from them and the few other odd locals involved in bluetick coonhounds.
He excelled at coon-hunting as he had at running. He eventually owned five bluetick coonhounds in the kennels behind his house. His favorite bluetick was named for the blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn. Together they won the world coon-hunting championship for blueticks. My dad drove to Oklahoma for the event, easily the farthest from our home-town he travelled in my lifetime. He made sure to get a motel where his hound dog could sleep in the room, and he made the 17 hour drive back to PA in one stretch.
When he was 50 he got a German Shepard as a house dog, in addition to his hound dogs. Impartial observers would say that Duke was a very good dog, but to my dad he was the absolute best. He would talk about what a strong jaw Duke had, or how good he was at fetch, or praise the breed in general for being very smart and great at attacking criminals. After Duke passed he would show people a manila envelope filled with Duke photos. He bought a new German Shepard puppy hours after Duke passed. Janis wasn’t as brave as Duke, but very affectionate. I think my dad had grown a little softer over the years, and he loved her too. He would describe how great she was at chasing squirrels or song birds, and once when I made a joke about her wearing a doggy sweater, he said with earnestness, “why would you put a sweater on Janis, she has such a beautiful coat.”
After we left the house my parents grew more social. My dad always loved music and now enjoyed watching live music at local bars. When he was 59 he invited me to watch him play harmonica at the local VFW center. He had never played an instrument in his life, aside from brief forced piano lessons as a child, but he had learned the harmonica and was playing in bars at 59.
When he was 60 he was in a logging accident when a dead limb fell from a tree and struck him in the head. He was medevac’d to Buffalo where he had brain surgery. He had a broken vertebrae and collarbone. He was in intensive care for four days, and released after seven. He asked the nurse to stop giving him morphine part way through his stay. Three weeks after his release he was at the YMCA, lifting weights in a back brace because he thought his physical therapist wasn’t challenging him enough. Three months later, he competed in a triathlon.
My mom was the better parent. This is a tough comparison, as my mom was nearly perfect. But my dad wasn’t always happy; at times he could be angry and judgmental, which is a tough relationship to have with a parent. I’m hesitant to describe his flaws, but I’d much rather remember him for who he was than some imagined version.
He was better with us when we were young. When my older sister was a toddler, her grandparents would know when my dad had dressed her because he would pick her pinkest, fanciest dresses. He coached my soccer team for years and would take me on long walks in the woods, scouting for hunting season. We’d stop to pick apples in forgotten orchards. It was harder for him when we would teenagers, and our growth affected his insecurities. I stopped going hunting with him as a teenager; at college I made a conscious effort to lose any vocabulary that identified my rural roots. My sisters and I had different tastes; we left for college and moved to large cities.
Not that I have real resentment. As an adult I recognized he was flawed, but so am I. And he was also someone who cared about me and loved me. We would talk once a month for an hour and were happy to see each other about twice a year.
One of his weaknesses was that he held the people close to him to a much higher standard than friends and acquaintances. It was one reason he could be a difficult parent in our teenage years. I also saw this in his relationship with his own parents- they loved him unconditionally, but he didn’t fully appreciate it.
I’m determined not to make the same mistake with him. The visitation after his death helped. It’s hard to think of him as an angry man after seeing all the varied people whose lives he had touched and who loved him. Two days after his death, we were visited by a man on a Harley whose black tank top showed his huge arms. He was a fellow logger and close friend. He swore with watering eyes as he talked about my dad. Shortly after, a neighbor brought us three pies and could barely speak from grief. She owned a horse barn nearby and my dad would care for her horses when she travelled.
The visitation had hundreds of guests- friends from the YMCA where he swam and lifted weights, friends from hunting or running, from work, from music, and friends of our family and from my childhood. It might be cliché, but I was very moved to hear multiple friends describe the same sentiment, “I know your dad wasn’t an emotional guy, but he talked about everything you did, and was very proud.”
I learned from that experience to attend visitations and funerals whenever possible. An hour of time is a small effort, but so meaningful to the grieving.
My dad had lived in the small town of Bradford, PA nearly his entire life. I’ve lived in three other states since I left home. It’s easy to question the idea of living in one small town for a lifetime; there’s less exposure to new ideas, new experiences, or diverse people. But the visitation showed me the benefits. He had a much greater and closer community than I’ve ever had.
I learned from his sense of a community as a kid. He didn’t teach me that I was good or special when I shoveled an elderly neighbor’s sidewalk. He taught me that it was right.
They day after his visitation, I rode with his colleague to pick up his truck from his logging site. The site was pretty- the sky was blue, and the forest was green and thick. Dave described my dad as, “the best boss he had ever had,” even though my dad didn’t like to be called Dave’s boss at all. Dave found my dad’s body when he died, from another logging accident, two years after the first. He said my dad looked peaceful.
I went through his truck before I drove it home. Next to his lunch box was a notebook where he recorded timber details and hours worked. In the back of the notebook were lyrics to a blues song he was working on. The song wasn’t any good; but it gives me comfort to think of my dad, sitting in his truck, surrounded by tall trees and blue sky, eating his lunch and writing a blues song.
I remember my dad when I’m in the woods. I follow his example when I figure out the things in life that I care about, and pursue them with passion. I’ll honor him when I teach my children about hard work, about honesty, and staying true to your principles.
Next time my sisters and I are home we’ll scatter his ashes in the woods, in the same place where his old dogs were buried. I don’t know what his dog will do, but I’ll tell people that because she’s such a smart dog, and has such a good nose, she knew they were his ashes and she was sad but dignified. It’s what he would have wanted.
John Brady Keltz