Saturday, February 11, 2017

In Memoriam: Calvin Edward Reames, Sr., K9RWP

Ed Reames, c. 1945
As some of you are already aware, my father’s health—physical and mental—has been failing, especially since autumn.  In late January, he caught pneumonia and was admitted to the hospital.  He never regained conscious awareness and was placed on palliative care.  At 3:15pm, Eastern time, February 10, 2017, he died, almost exactly 92 years and 5 months since he entered this world.

Social media has become the communication currency of our time, and supposedly nothing on the Internet ever really disappears.  Ergo I want to tell you about my father so HE won’t disappear.  This is my own reflection.  No one’s life can be understood by any single individual in it.  We’re too multifaceted.  The father I knew wasn't even the father my brother knew, as we were born almost 18 years apart--he at the beginning of the Baby Boom and me at the very tail end.  Yet my father raised a writer for a daughter, so I feel the need to eulogize him as I knew him.  Others will have other stories, more or less flattering.

Born on the now-infamous date of 9/11, 1924, in Gorham, Jackson County, (Southern) Illinois, he survived the Tri-State Tornado at only 6 months of age.  With him in her arms, his mother ran for the railroad tracks and got on the opposite side from the mile-wide monster bearing down on them, then laid her own body over his; the tornado leapt the tracks and spared them.  Perhaps that was an omen for a charmed life.  On the face of if, his life might not seem particularly charmed, but he survived the Depression, a world war, and mostly made good on the American Dream.  He even lived long enough to see his Cubbies win the World Series.

Iva Mae Gregersen Reames & Daddy
The eldest of 13 children, he grew up in a family who were poor even by Depression-era standards.  It made him generous, occasionally foolishly so.  Yet if he decided someone was “his” (family or friend), he saw it as his obligation to help.  That conviction stemmed less from abstract ethics than from an innate kindness arising out of his recall of what it meant to be in need.  Sometimes people say, “Well, I managed …” and expect others to suffer as they had.  Daddy could do that, too, but mostly he didn't.  If he could prevent someone from suffering, that made him happy.  He just wanted a “Thank you.”  When he was in the war, he sent virtually his whole paycheque home to his mother each month to help care for his younger brothers and sisters.  He kept $5.  Yes, $5 went much further then, but as an unmarried corporal in the US army, he made about $65 dollars monthly in 1944.  So he kept 1/13th of his income and gave away the rest.

US Army Corporal, 126th AAA Battalion, 1943
That, perhaps better than anything, exemplifies his fundament nature.  It’s in our actions and choices that, I believe, we reveal our true selves.

He liked to laugh, and kid, but never cruelly.  For some families, a disparaging jest is meant as back-handed affection, but that wasn’t heard in the house in which I grew up.  When I was younger, I was frequently teased because I walked right into comments with potential double meanings.  Perhaps one of the values of getting old(er) is that I’ve aged out of being an easy target.  Yet I never learned to hear what others said as an opportunity for ribbing because my parents didn’t find that sort of thing funny.  My father's sense of humor was devoid of sarcasm, as he thought it mean-spirited.  Some of that owed to his own mother, who—to hear him talk about her—should have been beatified immediately upon her death.  But I also believe it owed to having lived through real struggle himself.

To his mind, the world is mean enough.  He saw no need to make it meaner via our interactions with people about whom we should care.  It's partly for that reason, and a basic aversion to drama, that he was a much-desired member of the pastor-parish relations committee at our church in Lakeland, Florida.  His presence tended to tamp down exaggerated crises and occasional bouts of flailing (which is actually a bit funny, given his own tendency to worry).

My father had a will of iron, and a quiet ambition easily overlooked.  For instance, when he decided to stop smoking, back before I was born, he’d just received a new carton of cigarettes for Christmas.  He threw them in the trash and quit cold turkey because he’d decided he was done.  He took up a pipe later (I think largely for image), but decided he didn’t want to do that, either, and just put down the pipe one day.  That was it.

"The Lineman," Normal Rockwell
When Daddy decided to do something, he did it.  “Failure is not an option”: Apollo 13’s motto.  Well, the men (and women) who got Apollo 13 home are my father’s generation.  When he returned from the war, he was one of millions looking for a job.  He tried on several, but finally decided to work for the telephone company because communications seemed like the future.  Before the war, he’d wanted to be a pharmacist, yet circumstance had curtailed the college degree required.  So he began showing up regularly in the hiring offices of General Telephone Electric (GTE), asking for work.  He made himself annoying.  But squeaky wheel gets the grease, and finally they sent him north as a telephone lineman … in January … during a blizzard.  He was a relatively little guy (wiry but short), and they doubted he’d last 2 days.  They figured it was a good way to get rid of his terrier persistence.

Daddy on right, GTE employee award
He persisted for 40+ years, and retired as a (self-taught) senior engineer in the mid-1980s.  Never tell a Reames, "You can’t do that."

The guys who’d worked under him at the end liked him so much, they kept coming to visit him for years after.  He had that effect on people, whether at work, at church, or as a ham radio operator ("This is K9RWP calling...").  They sensed he truly cared about them, and responded in kind.  He wasn’t a boisterous or especially outgoing person, but he was still an extrovert.  He’d strike up conversations with strangers in lines at store check-outs.

Especially if there was a baby involved.

Daddy & his Great-granddaughter, Leila
See, Daddy loved babies.  And babies loved Daddy.  Maybe as a result of being the eldest of 13, but he could burp them, change a diaper pronto, or make them laugh.  He so enjoyed watching little kids, especially as he aged; he’d break into a grin just to see them playing at a distance.   He was never among the “Children should be seen and not heard” crowd.  To his mind, children should be talked to and played with.  They would inherit the earth.  When my son was born just a few months after my mother's death, Daddy said, “He’s my little replacement.”  At the time, I worried his words were fatalistic.  But he went on to survive my mother by almost 20 years, and now, I see his words as an expression of continuity.  We are our ancestors.

Daddy, Grandson Ian & Licorice as a kitten
So my son, Ian, is his replacement, in the larger sense.  When we look forward, we also look back to where we came from.  I tried to insure that Ian got to know his Grandpa, who was there just days after he came home from the hospital after birth, and was there when he graduated from high school, even paid his first bill for books at college.  Because that’s who Daddy was.  If he didn’t get to attend college himself, he made sure both his kids did, and his grandkids.  For him, that was an achievement.

As I said…the success of others, especially friends and family, seemed to Daddy the same as his own.

Yet his generosity and empathy extended beyond just people.  Daddy was a cat magnet.  We used to joke that if he sat down and there was a cat within 50 feet, pretty soon, that cat would be on his lap.  He liked dogs, to be sure, but dogs (and horses) were my mother’s favorites.  Daddy liked cats, and they liked him.  Dogs are forgiving.  They’ll stay with even an abusive owner; but cats leave.  They don’t put up with crap.  Daddy?  Even semi-feral cats trusted him.

Daddy and his "napping partner," Licorice
So while he was raised in a time when animals were tools and food more than family members, and he certainly went hunting from a young age to help put food on the table, I think he, more than my mother, had a soft spot for animals.  I remember in the ‘70s, he decided we were going to raise rabbits for food, and bought a pair of does.  Well, it didn’t take long for yours truly to make pets not only of the does, but of the first litter of babies.  All of them had to go to homes where they’d be pets, not dinner.  And while I’d made the pronouncement, it didn’t take much to convince my father.  Shooting a wild squirrel for the stew pot (especially when hungry) was one thing; killing the rabbits one fed regularly and took care of was another.  So our venture in home-grown meat failed miserably (to, I’m sure, the rabbits’ collective relief).  Yet it wasn’t just due to my agitating.  I don’t think Daddy could have killed a one of them, even if I hadn’t protested.  They had names, after all.

He wasn’t a saint.  None of us are.  The cliche applies: we're a mix of vices and virtues, like shadows against the backlight of the sun.  Age softened some of his, while exacerbating others due to a failing filter.  Among other things he did well, Daddy was a champion worrier.  He worried about anything you can imagine (and then some).  Perhaps that owed to growing up in such an unstable era as the Depression when it seemed anything could happen, but for instance, he would remind me constantly to hold onto handrails while going up and down stairs.  It seems trivial, but he genuinely angsted over me falling at home and hurting myself when nobody might find me for days.  So I (mostly) hold onto rails, because I hear his voice in my head, telling me to.

The irony, of course, is that he was in much more danger of falling, yet he didn't tend to worry about himself.  Before he moved up to be near my brother, I tried to get him to buy one of those Life Alert systems.  I even employed the ultimate weapon: his grandson (Ian), to beg.  He refused.  He’d be fine, because he’s of that generation when all a man should need was himself, a gun, a good job, and a driver's license.  And oh, boy, getting him to relinquish that driver's license as he went increasingly blind from macular degeneration was quite the battle, one my poor brother largely had to face when Daddy moved north to Kentucky in his last years.  Daddy never did let go of the worrying, though.

He could be impatient, and critical, too, sometimes overly so.  I never wanted to sing in front of him because he, like many of his siblings, had an excellent ear and I was, well, usually a little flat.  He could hear it, and would say so.  But the one he was most critical of was himself, if he failed to live up to his (very high) standards of what he thought he ought to do.  Some of that, I lay at the feet of his own father, at least as my mother told it to me.  Yet in contrast, as noted earlier, he was often delighted by the success of others.  As a child and young woman I wanted to succeed not because I feared his critique (except about my singing), but because I basked in his happiness when I did well.  He could be downright embarrassing in his bragging.  If failure, especially his, was not an option, he didn't feel the need to build himself up by tearing down others.  He was happy to share the spotlight, or even to applaud from the sidelines--and mean it.  Again, maybe that owed to being one of 13, but I think it went deeper, back to his fundamental worldview: “You and me,” not, “Me or you.”  He was quietly ambitious, but not especially competitive.  Except at cards.  Then all bets were off (sometimes literally).

Daddy with Mama, Christmas, c. 1990
One of his most outstanding virtues was his loyalty.  For instance, he fell in love with my mother and stayed married to her for 51 years, then never remarried.  While it might have been nice for him to remarry, I don't think it was in him; it would have felt like "replacing" her, and to his mind, she had no replacement.

After her death in 1997, I recall going through old pictures of her with him, one from just after the war, which showed them out with friends.  Keep in mind that my mother, from childhood until after the birth of my brother, was…pudgy.  While on the shorter side, my father was never heavy in his youth.  In fact, he got quite buff during WWII: broad-chested and slim-waisted.  But as we looked at that picture of my mother next to her friends, he pointed to her with tears in his eyes, and said, "She was the most beautiful of them all." Yup, the "pudgy" girl.
Idalee Brouillette, c. 1944

But he was right: Mama was a stunner.  I know that, now, people say I look a lot like her, and I’m honored it’s so.  But I was never as pretty as she was, especially in her youth, and I think my father felt bedazzled that this beautiful, black-haired Brouillette girl decided she was going to marry him, and that was the end of it.  Her family was better off financially during the Depression, even with Indian blood; they had a farm with a full section, and a car, and enough money for my grandfather to send my mother and her sisters into town to go to school when he thought the teacher at the school on Buttermilk Hill was unqualified.  So I suppose you could say Daddy "married up."  But to Mama’s mind, she’d won the deal, getting the determined, smart guy.

See, long before they met in person, Mama had gone with her best friend Annie to Gorham High School for a day, visiting.  In math class, the teacher put a problem on the board and asked the class to solve it.  Only one student could:  my father.  He got up and wrote the solution on the blackboard, and Mama was enchanted.  She asked Annie, “Who is that guy!?”

March 8th, 1946, wedding picture
Some years later, she married that guy.

In many ways, my parents were quite different people.  My mother was progressive in thought beyond her time, naturally empathic and perceptive, a bookworm introvert with a steel spine when she needed it and the amazing ability to keep 5+ people’s business in her head without forgetting anything.  Everything I know about organization (and I’m pretty good at it), I learned from my mother.  My father was conservative, protective, supportive, more intelligent (in sheer IQ), but less emotionally intelligent (EQ), more driven, but less philosophical.  Yet they created a unique alchemy of spirit.  They didn’t share common interests—Mama loved reading novels, Daddy never read fiction, Mama loved watching murder mysteries, Daddy preferred ball games or the news.  Yet they looked out on the world in the same direction, and that’s what mattered.

Ed Reames in high school
In the end, what can I say but that Daddy was the epitome of the Greatest Generation.  And now he’s gone.  I won’t say we’ll never see their like again, because nobody knows the future.  They weren’t perfect—racism was an institutionalized assumption enshrined in segregation, women barely had the vote, LGBTQ wasn’t even talked about—but we, in our current America, could take a page from those who survived abject poverty and economic collapse without government safety nets, then went on to save the world from fascism.  They did it not by grand deeds, but by the simple heroism of young men and a few women storming a beach at Normandy or Iwo Jima, a lot of whom never came home.  Daddy used to joke that he chased Hitler all over Europe but never caught him.

Daddy, you did catch him.  You were part of the men and women who stopped him.

You are my hero.  You are the real Captain America.

I’m privileged and grateful to be your daughter, and I love you, forever.

Now for the standard: Ed Reames is survived by his son, Calvin Edward Reames, Jr., and his daughter, Mary Jeanne Reames (me), by three grandchildren: Samuel Edward Reames, Selena Marie Reames, and Ian Andrew Reames-Zimmerman, and by one great-grandchild, Leila Jolie Janney.