That’s what my ex-wife called him–but I’m not sure why. That’s what she called my father, and it seemed somehow appropriate, and so for a few years he was Ooodah to me too. Like some couples, we had our own made-up language that others likely thought odd. For example, her son, Jeremy, was known as Groobie, sometimes Ultimate Groobie, but groobie was also a generic term for all boys around age 9 or 10. Anyway, today is his birthday, and so Ooodah’s in my thoughts.
My ex-wife and my father got along remarkably well, which is good because they could both be remarkably difficult at times. They seemed to have some kind of grudging respect for each other. I think she appreciated the fact that my father still had the “beady-look” in his eyes–which meant horny–and she also appreciated that he helped us out financially at times. She likely never would have made it thru college without his help; he helped with her education when her own very wealthy mother didn’t. He was pretty tight with a buck, but he came thru when it mattered the most. He attributed his thrift to his Scotch heritage. The salaried jobs he had never paid much, but he was frugal and an astute investor. What I think he may have seen in Tiffany that resonated with him was her anger and her fierce independence. She rebelled against anyone running her life and she tended to take risks and live life on the edge–as perhaps my father would have liked to have lived.
When I was around age 45, after he’d passed away, my mother said to me, “You’re just like your father. You don’t understand women.” At the time I really resented that comment, and I thought I’m not like him at all, but as the years have passed I realize that she was right and I probably resemble him in more ways than is comfortable. For one thing, she was right, that in spite of my education and role as a counselor, I don’t understand women. For another, I’ve inherited his gloomy, somewhat Bipolar Type-II temperment–except his mood swings cycled over a three-year period, and mine cycle in a matter of weeks. Also, in the past couple of years his tremor (essential tremor or familial tremor) has manifested itself in my hands too. He had the tremor much worse and much younger than I, and when he was stressed could barely hold a fork to eat and couldn’t write except to sign his name. I noticed it in me about three years ago. Two years ago I started taking tenormin for blood pressure, as he did, and this beta-blocker also helps with the tremor. Also, when he was around my age, I wondered why he bent over ever so slowly to pick something up off the floor–now I know. Nevertheless, I’ve stayed in better shape. I exercise daily–he kind of let himself go physically, and I guess not taking care of himself when he had the genes for serious longevity accounts for him dying at age 79.
We also shared the same obsession with the past, with our roots, with the weather, history, politics, etc. He was a good story-teller and I’m glad I paid attention. I only wish he were still around to ask more questions that only he could answer. I’m appalled at how many folks know almost nothing about their family history and heritage. He kept meticulous records–saving correspondence, stock charts, notes on the weather, etc. When I email my stepson Jeremy out in California I always tell him first about the weather in Florida. Decades ago when my father would write from Ohio he always filled me in on the weather up there. He had various gages and wind vanes that he could see from the kitchen window, and he probably knew what was happening faster than Channel 13 news.
Save for the same haunted look around our brown eyes, we didn’t look all that much alike, and so I used to wonder if maybe I was sired by someone else–maybe the postman or milkman. But then my father told me once about the rainy monday when I was conceived. It was a stormy day in late March, 1942, and my folks spent the day in bed–and almost nine months later to the day I made my debut. Now there’s a memory worth having. How many can say that one parent or the other told them about the day of their conception.
Boyd A. Austin was born on July 16, 1906. He was born at home. In 1906, small towns like Port Clinton didn’t have a hospital. He was the youngest of four. His father, George, was a plumbing and heating contractor, and his mother, Sarah, a stout woman of German heritage, managed the home and raised the kids–in the fashion of life a century ago. His father had been born in that iconic American dwelling, a log cabin, in 1870, when Ohio was still practically the frontier. His mother was first generation in a home where German was still spoken. In that culture, in that era, hard work was glorified–it was the greatest good and you were measured by your ability to do mind-numbing labor better than your peers–and the Austin clan excelled at that. His older brother John dropped out of school at age 13 and went to work in the gypsum mine, functioning more or less like a human mule. His older sister, Olive, died at age 18 in 1918, during the great influenza epidemic. The eldest in the family, Pearl, married a saloon keeper and had one daughter, Evelyn–my only first cousin. Pearl died in 1940, several years before I was born.
In 1924, my father became the first from either side of his family to graduate from high school. He graduated second in his class. A good high school education in those days would be the equivalent of a year or two of college today. He wanted to become either an electrical engineer or an attorney. In 1923, he built the first radio in town and set a speaker up on the porch. In the evening folks from the neighborhood would gather outside to listen to the only two stations of that era: WJR in Detroit or KDKA in Pittsburgh. As a teen, he helped his father with plumbing and heating jobs. Consequently, he could fix just about anything mechanical or electrical. He was much more mechanically inclined than I, and he was also interested in the law–another field I found boring.
In 1924, his father gave him $3,000. and said you can blow it, go to college with it, or invest it. In those days 3k was a good sum of money. In spite of his interest in law and engineering, I think he was very insecure about leaving the comfort zone of his family and home town, and so he invested the money and went to work at the U.S. Gypsum plant with his older brother.
He worked at USG for seven years until the Great Depression came. He did piece work, loading boxcars with cement bags. He and a partner stacked 80 and 110 lbs sacks of cement to the top of the cars as fast as they could. It was good money and left him with big shoulders and forearms–physical attributes I’ve never acquired. A 60-hour work-week was standard in those days–six ten-hour days of back-breaking labor. It was almost a relief when he got laid off in 1931. He lived at home and had money in the bank. Life was good for him, and the Austin household, when so many other Americans were destitute and worried. He had invested in a cottage on the lake and he rented it out to wealthy folks from Toledo. It also served as a get-away for his own romantic trysts. Around the same time he started taking a correspondence course in law from LaSalle University. He worked on that for several years before the state of Ohio said one had to get their law degree on campus. Before the early-1930s, aspiring lawyers merely had to pass the bar exam, and had Ohio not changed the law I’m sure my father would have had a successful career as a small-town attorney.
He eventually got a job as the right hand man for Otto Heineman’s beer distributorship and Chrysler dealership–he was bookkeeper/salesman/truck driver, etc. He multi-tasked for Otto several years before taking a position as the steward of the local Eagles Club. It was around that time in 1935, when he met my mother. She was 17 and working as a waitress at Urb’s Cafe on Madison Street and he was 29 and one of the town’s most eligible young bachelors. They dated off and on for six years, but in 1938, he broke my mother’s heart by suddenly marrying a school teacher named Dorothy. That marriage lasted but a few months, however I think my very sensitive mother was permanently scarred by the betrayal.
Pearl Harbor focused my father on making serious plans for his life. At age 35 he was near the upper age limit for the draft, but being single and in good health he was still eligible. Consequently, he took a job with the local police department–a job necessary for the national security–married my mother and set about working on producing me. Having the right job and some dependents made one less eligible for military service. Nevertheless, in 1943, he was drafted into the navy and sent to Great Lakes Naval Training Center outside of Chicago.
His tenure in the navy was short. A couple of years after he had died I found his discharge papers. It was an honorable discharge but they were stamped “emotionally unsuitable” and what went on a Great Lakes is a story known only to himself, and about which he never spoke. Nevertheless, he was proud of his service however brief and he was a member of the American Legion. I suspect that the stress of being away from the secure, predictable environment of his family and home town triggered a depressive reaction.
My wife was the first to comment on the effort my father put into holding it together emotionally. She noted that while he was exceptionally bright, in some sense, he was a huge underachiever. However, his depression and vast mood swings really precluded a career involving the anxieties of living outside of a very controlled, very predictable comfort zone–and this accounted for him being unable to go away to college, the military, or having a career that involved much risk or uncertainty, such as being in business for himself. He knew that there was some wild demon inside of him that he had to keep reined-in, but he didn’t know it was a disorder. Anyway, it wouldn’t have mattered as in those days there was no treatment. When he was depressed all he could say was, “I ain’t got no pep.” And when he was manic he would note, “Yup, its been this way all my life–three bad years, then three good years.” Unfortunately it was during the “good years” that he could be uncomfortable to live with.
I had worked in mental health over a decade before it occurred to me that my father was diagnosably bipolar as well–I already knew that my mother was bipolar (manic-depressive) in the extreme from her many hospitalizations, and I think that the thought of my father being impaired too was just too threatening to allow into my conscious mind. And yet I had been aware for many years that my father’s moods were strange and unpredictable–and this was very confusing to me as a kid–sometimes quiet and gentle, and at others talkative and bitter. He would be depressed for several years at a time. He would always make it to work but the rest of his time was spent lying on the couch or sleeping. He was very quiet, but sad and gentle in his demeanor.
It was when he was in the manic phase that he could be unpleasant. He would sleep only 2 or 3 hours out of 24 and he was constantly on the go–busy, hyperverbal and easily irritated. In the manic phase he was very critical of me, my mother and pretty much everybody else on the planet. He would stay up most of the night pouring over the Wall Street Journal and writing nasty letters to editors or people he felt had wronged him. He would talk about taking trips to Hawaii and would flirt shamelessly with waitresses half his age. He would go to K-Mart and buy cheap shoes and watches that he had no use for. But eventually the mania would slowly attentuate and for perhaps a year he would be more or less normal. Typically, his mood would switch in late September or early October and in just a few week’s time he would become someone barely recognizable from the previous three years.
Yet, whether up or down, he continued to look after his older brother John who had never married. John had a job at U.S. Gypsum until he retired, and he continued to live in the same home he’d grown up in. My father managed his finances, and every evening would walk over to the homestead and fix them both dinner. John was 12 years older than my father, only educated to the 7th grade, and always a bit child-like. My father’s tenderness toward his older brother was apparent to me and impressed me tremendously. John died in his arms in the summer of 1967. I think his relationship with his older brother was another stabilizer in his life; it was an obligation, albeit one of unconditional love.
Though married and divorced to each other twice before I turned seven, I always had a lot of contact with him because my parents lived just a few blocks apart in the small town of Port Clinton. Yet, I often felt like he didn’t take much interest in me. I didn’t do well in grade school, and I felt like he was sort of ashamed that my grades were barely passing. He would try to help me with my math homework. He excelled at math and I think it frustrated him that I didn’t get it–my strategy was always to get him to work the problems for me–and eventually he would. Much of the time he would be down in his workshop in the basement, but the electrical and mechanical things he did down there didn’t interest me much.
One very indelible memory from around age 8 or 9 was playing baseball with him out in the backyard. We were both having a great time–I remember this so vividly I suppose because this type of father/son bonding seemed a rare occurrence. However, one thing we did do fairly frequently was drive over to Sandusky on the Sundays he was off and go to a movie at the old Ohio Theater or State Theater. Sometimes my mother would come along and sometimes it was just he and I. Afterwards we’d have a sandwich or sundae and then drive the 12 miles back to Port Clinton along the lake shore and over the Bay Bridge on Route 2 listening to Jack Benny or Our Miss Brooks on the car radio.
Looking back, I guess in a kind of low-keyed way my father stalked my mother. In a small town there is always gossip and when you just live a few blocks away its easy to know another’s business. Also, in his work at the police department, he kept tabs on pretty much everything that went on in town. She was sensitized to his snooping, and also to the gossip about her many trips to the state hospital, and so in 1958, my mother decided to transfer her clerk-typist civil service job from Erie Ordinance Depot to White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. I went along for my junior year of high school, and then back there to college. I moved back with my father in Ohio for my senior year. During that year we grew a lot closer; it was at a time when he was stabilized between phases. Between episodes of depression and mania he would have a year or so when he was neither too high nor too low and consequently easy to be around–but these times didn’t last.
I recall another time four or five years later when he was mellow. I had just gotten my B.A. degree and I spent the summer up in Ohio painting his and John’s rental properties. One evening we drove out to a diary queen for a soda and a sandwich. I remember asking him if he could live his life over again what would he change. His answer stunned me: “Nothing.” At the time I was 21, and he had just turned 58. I couldn’t believe that he wouldn’t change a thing–that he was that satisfied with his life. At that time in my life it seemed that his life could have been so much more. That same summer he surprised me with an unexpected gift. He bought me a used ’63 Plymouth, my first car.
My parents lived apart for almost 19 years, but after I left home to begin my career in mental health in Illinois, my mother’s fragile emotional balance crashed again. In 1968, she moved back to Ohio from New Mexico, and after a few months moved back in with my father. She felt very guilty about this as they never remarried, and she worried about what the local gossips thought–but they really didn’t live together as man and wife–they mostly just shared the house and took care of each other. For me, their caring and taking care of one another was a blessing, because otherwise it would have all fallen on my shoulders. So, for the last 16 years of his life they lived together, and I’ll call it marriage even if they never said “I do” in front of a preacher.
After I married, my father became the only grandfather my stepson Jeremy ever knew. My parents were very good to Jeremy–always sending him cards and money for his birthdays and Christmas. Jeremy and Ooodah both had an interest in fishing and he gave him a stainless steel rod and reel that dated from the 1940s and that became one of Jeremy’s most prized possessions.
After I became a Christian in 1979, I often wondered if my father was saved. I really was too new in the faith myself to know how to witness to him. I knew my mother was a serious Jesus-follower and that she read the Bible daily. I wondered if she discussed religion with him. I knew they sometimes watched the 700-club and other Christian TV shows together. After he’d passed on, I noted in his checkbook many small checks to various charities and in his mail there was always a ton of solicitations. Then one day I noticed stuck in the faux-leather on the dashboard of his car a small cross with the inscription “Jesus Saves”–and in that moment I felt reassured. I think this was another God-wink, and my thought was that one night while watching some Christian TV show he quietly prayed the sinner’s prayer and gave his life to the Lord.
In some sense, I feel like I’m living out my parents incomplete, troubled lives. It’s reflected in my work and my writing, and in my preoccupation with depression and bipolar disorder. I know my parents loved me a lot, tho while growing up I often didn’t feel it. I know now that they were overwhelmed coping with the personal pain of their family’s of origin and their own out of control moods. But God ordained the parents I was given, and I think my work reflects my attempt to lend their suffering some greater meaning–and if my writing or counseling helps some other souls along the way, then I’m pleased and in some sense my parent’s are honored. Anyway, I don’t take any credit for this; I think that’s the way God planned it.
After my father’s sudden death in 1986, I could see his caring when I went thru the contents of his office. I knew that he had a Will but we’d never talked about it. For all I knew he was leaving his estate to the local animal shelter or the Lutheran church. However, it was locked in his safe and everything was orderly and as it should be. I was the sole heir, and as I went thru his office I could see that he’d saved various things for me and left them exactly where he knew I would find them. Everything was so orderly that the Will probated in a matter of a few months. It was like him silently saying, “Because I love you, I’m going to make it really easy for you.”
I miss them both tremendously.