Sunday, August 29, 2010

My Father

For nine and a half years, I have hung onto my first laptop, a Compaq with a 486 processor (that's pre-Pentium) and Windows 3.11, because it was the only place that my eulogy for my Father existed. The floppy disk drive has been out of alignment for a long time, it had been dropped heavily from the top of a bookcase that had fallen over and the battery falls out, the hard drive opening cover won't close, but it still boots and runs Word for Windows, but there was no way to install drivers for a network card, reinstall a modem driver or copy the file to a floppy disk, even.... So yesterday, I plugged it in and booted it up and hand typed the eulogy into my Thinkpad T510 and saved the file in various formats in various locations, never to be lost again. There is much more that could be said.....

My Father was raised on a hardscrabble farm in the piney woods of East Texas. With three older brothers he had no say in the operations of the farm and a strong desire to be the master of his own destiny. In the spring of 1944, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. The destiny he had chosen was to fly.

You may not realize how preposterous a goal this was. At the beginning of World War II, it was possible to be a pilot and still be an enlisted man. By the end of the war, ALL pilots were officers. At the beginning of the war, an Officer Candidate needed to be 21 and have at least a year of college. By the end of the war, an Officer Candidate had to have at least a bachelor’s degree. For an eighteen year old in 1944, who had only completed high school, flight school was out of the question.

My father found a way to fly. After basic training, he passed the rigorous testing for a paratroop, and then passed the additional testing in mathematics and physics to qualify for training as a glider pilot. Shortly after he qualified and before he began training, the disastrous 101st Airborne landings behind Normandy Beach convinced American high command to discontinue the glider program. However, the trainee pilots had a contract and to honor the contract, they were offered an opportunity. If they could qualify by testing, they would be sent to Flight School to graduate as an officer and a pilot. An eighteen year old with a high school diploma from a two room school in the back woods was given two weeks of self study to prepare for a test designed for college graduates, preferably with engineering degrees, who were applying for flight school. He passed. If anyone ever told you my father wasn’t smart, he was wrong.

Private Melbourne Ernest Harris, still only eighteen, of Point, Texas was promoted to Sergeant and was going to flight school to become a pilot, and an officer and a gentleman.....

He was taught the physics of flight and trained in the art of flying basic flight school. Near the end of flight school, he had tested for advanced training as a fighter pilot and had qualified and been assigned to be trained in the Black Widow night fighter, which I think was designated the F-60 and was an Army Air Corps version of the Navy’s F6F Hellcat, fitted for night combat, and one of the latest designs.

On his final solo flight in Basic Flight School, a bad landing resulted in an injury to his head. A routine post-crash examination failed to uncover a detached retina and a few days later he lost the sight of his left eye, his binocular vision and his chance at flight school and becoming an officer...and his impossible dream.

He could have mustered out on a physical disability. He chose complete his term of enlistment and mustered out as a Master Sergeant Aircraft Mechanic. He used his GI Bill benefits to obtain a degree in Industrial Arts from East Texas State Teacher’s College and embarked on a career in teaching. He met and married Beatrice Joan Anderson and gave life and love to three children – Bruce David, Kim Alan (that’s me) and Gayle Lee. To improve his circumstances, he moved his family to Washington State to take a teaching position at Lincoln School, here in Sunnyside. He obtained Master’s Degree in Education from Texas State College by correspondence and summer sessions.

He undertook home improvement projects, including customized bedrooms perfect for a daughter who would become Miss Sunnyside and a son who is still a book collector. He took the family on summer tours of the Western United States stopping at every historical site and National Park or museum of interest west of the Mississippi.

He saw to it that all three of his children obtained the College Degree that he saw as his ticket to a self sufficient life.

And in between all that, he taught twenty-nine classes of elementary school students in Sunnyside.....

In retirement, he continued to indulge his passion for home improvement, and when called upon to provide day care for my daughter, taught her to read before she was four, just as he had done with his own children.

On March 27th of this year (2001), Melbourne Ernest Harris, aged 75, who in his youth had wanted to be a pilot, and in his maturity succeeded in becoming a teacher, died quietly of untreatable cancer in the Veteran’s Hospital in Walla Walla.

I miss him today, and I’ll miss him until we are rejoined.

1 comment:

Eli Arndt said...

These are beautiful words. The words of a son who loved his father and words that describe a man who definitely left his mark on those around him.

I'm glad you were able to salvage them from the old computer.

All men should be remembered so well.