My father, Erwin Allen Dence (senior), turns ninety today, March 26, 2014. See the look on this photo from (actually, I think) the Korean War? This is the look my father handed down to me. When things turn serious, the look speaks of a focused intensity that might not include, “Excuse me, but…”
Otherwise, my father is a very friendly guy; self-deprecating, polite.
It is this intensity, a clue to an inner toughness, that, perhaps, allowed a seventeen year old son of a rock mason from West Monroe, New York to join the Marine Corps before World War II actually broke out (he wanted to join the Army Air Corps but was too young- walked down the hall); to survive Guadalcanal and other unspeakably horrific campaigns in the South Pacific; to survive Korea; to raise seven children by working (always) two, (sometimes) three jobs.
My dad has lived, for the past thirty years or so, three hours south of me, still near Surf Route 101, in Chinook, Washington, the closest town to the Astoria Bridge across the Columbia River. He was a fifty-five year old bait boy when he first arrived, cleaning fish while crossing the notorious Columbia Bar; then he was one of those Gun Dealers, the kind who take guns to the show to sell, comes home with more. When he thought someone might kill him for his guns, he switched to repairing clocks. Same deal on the clock shows. He has a house and storage areas full of clocks.
“What do you do when it’s anything o’clock, Dad?”
Oh, it’s chaos.
“I set them for different times.” “Oh, so the chaos is, like, all the time.”
In a sort of shout-out, I should mention that we seven were from my father’s second marriage. He has a daughter from a wartime marriage that didn’t (the marriage, Beverly’s fine) survive the war. “I did love her,” he said a couple of years ago. And he loved, I know, my mother, Joetta, and his third wife, Marian. All three have passed.
To give a bit more insight into my father’s mindset, here is what he said about those suffering with what those in the war business once called Shell Shock; now renamed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. “There are some… horrible things. You have to… to just get over it.” Basically, those images and smells and remembered sounds you can’t forget, or store somewhere else, you just have to live with.
And keep living.
I must add that my father doesn’t tell war stories.
Caption: this is the card I sent to my dad. On the inside, there’s a clock face that’s set just after nine O’clock. Ninety? Get it? Of course; and it’s set just after nine in case the card gets there tomorrow instead of today. You know, after my sibling’s (probably store-bought) cards get there. Not that I’m competitive. I actually wanted to put some photo from the actual WWII Melbourne event in here; I did research, Google-wise; but I wasn’t ready, and I know how hard it is to add photos after the fact. Yeah, it’s an excuse. Imagine a parade.
MY UNCLE CALVIN’S STORY ABOUT MY DAD AND THE AUSSIES
One of my Dad’s younger siblings (one of six siblings), Calvin, had a big smile on his face when he told this story (I heard it at my Dad’s 80th), my father sort of taking it.
“Remember,” he’d start, “what happened in Australia?”
Of course my father’s children wanted to know.
A bit of background must include that my father was raised near a canal, and, when it was warm enough, he swam, mostly underwater. “I liked to swim underwater.” Not only that, he and a brother or two would jump off poles, fifty feet high or so, into the water, careful not to hit other pilings.
“My Mom would practically have a heart attack,” he recently told me. “Every time.”
So, as a reward for surviving Guadacanal, the First Marine Division was sent to Melbourne, Australia, in 1943, for rest and recreation (R & R).
They were greeted with a big parade, reported locally with news headlines that included: “U.S. Marines; Over-paid, Over-sexed, and Over Here.”
This was followed by a sort of goodwill games at a cricket field. So:
“Your father (scanning the room) was known to be a great swimmer; so they had him put on a demonstration. And they said, ‘These Aussies are pretty good; so you better do your best.’ And, well…(dramatic pause) your father swam something like three laps under water and… well; they didn’t have anything to top it. They were embarrassed.”
So, taking this story farther; with a country where swimming and all things ocean (trade ‘marine’ for ocean) are a source of national pride; I have decided my father started the whole Aussie/Yank rivalry.
So, thinking for a while, about writing something for my father’s ninetieth birthday, and to tell him I had sent off a custom-drawn birthday call, and in an attempt to beat my other siblings to the punch, I called my father the other day. He wasn’t in. Busy. He called me back just as I was going to bed. I missed the call, but Trish didn’t. I got up. “Hello, Dad…”
Going over the swimming story, I said that, somewhere, I’d picked up a story about how, when he worked as a Civil Service cable splicer on Camp Pendleton, always with a Marine Corps boss, frequently with a crew of younger Marines, he would challenge them to a race on any obstacle course they happened to be passing; and he would win, well into his forties.
“Well,” he said, “maybe that came from your Mom.” “Probably.” With a certain amount of pride.
“You know, in Melbourne, I did come in second in the mile race.”
Now, this, to me, was shocking. We Dences are not built like runners; long legs and slender upper bodies. No, we’re built like swimmers, all shoulders and arms.
“So, second place.” “Yeah. I ran cross country in high school.” “Yeah?” “Yeah.”
He never told me who came in first, Yank or Aussie. Nor did he mention that, after the event, he and the other Marines went back to land and take other islands.
Happy birthday, Dad; thanks for passing down the strength to just… go… on.
Love, Erwin (Jr.), oh, as I did in the card, I guess I should pass on love from Trish and our extended modern family; Son-James. daughter-in-law-Rachel, ex-daughter-in-law-Karrie, Karrie’s new husband-Shiloh, grandsons-Tristan and Nate; our daughter-Drucilla, and our younger son-Sean Erwin Matthew Dence