Seven years ago this month, I joined my brother and my Dad to travel to Colorado and Nebraska to visit some of the places Dad grew up. It was a rare episode of purposefully making the right thing happen and I'm so thankful that we did it.
Dad was 85 at the time and the trip was quite an undertaking for him. He and I flew from Manchester, NH on United through Chicago's O'Hare airport - Dad's domicile during his time flying 747s from Chicago to Honolulu while I was growing up - and then on to Denver which was where Dad joined United Airlines in 1949. There we met my brother who had flown from Dulles and together we rented a baby blue Chrysler 3000 and drove up to Loveland where we stayed for several days visiting my Dad's close friend Slim.
We visited Slim at the Greeley airport where he and Dad returned to the roots of their friendship: their shared passion for repairing and flying small planes. Slim is the only person I have ever met who maybe knew more about small planes than my Dad and it was a joy to see them together. We hung around the airport and listened to stories, checked out planes under repair and generally became airport bums for a few days. When we finally said goodbye to Slim, it was with the knowledge that these two very close friends - who met in school because their last names were near each other on the blackboard for both being late on their book reports - would likely never see each other again. Being the humble and thoughtful men they were, they knew this, drank in every moment and made no fuss at all when it was time to part.
We visited the street in Denver where my folks lived in the fifties when my brother was born. Their house was nearly unchanged though a different color and surrounded by much bigger and newer homes. As we were looking around, a woman came out of a nearby house and approached us. She was the only remaining original neighbor in the area and was selling her home and moving in a few weeks! She and Dad talked like no time had passed. How do things like this happen? With an open heart and mind I suppose.
The trip gave me precious time with my brother while both of us learned more about my Dad and how he grew up. The landscape was vast as we drove from Greeley up through Wyoming and into Nebraska giving us sights we don't often see back East. We ate steak almost every night while we talked over everything we'd seen and heard during the day. In tiny Chadron, Nebraska, my brother and I had the best steak of the trip in a unassuming blue collar restaurant downtown. It was attached to a bar and the Rolling Rocks we ordered came through the door between the two halves of the establishment under strict supervision. The vegetables on the plate were an afterthought but the steak was heavenly.
We traveled through the Nebraska sandhills which I had heard my Dad speak of many times but never seen. Beautiful country with small towns and silos and corn. We searched in vain for one of the houses Dad lived in around the small town of Litchfield but were unable to find it. The shifting sands of time had swept it away; the old timer we pressed for help thought that the house had actually been physically relocated. It also seemed likely the hills had literally been moved and flattened in an effort to create more farmable land.
In Kearney where my Dad was born, we visited a cemetery where some of my Dad's closest relatives were buried. We had no idea where in the vast cemetery their graves were. We found one of the groundskeepers - amazingly there on a Sunday - and he kindly looked up the name and pointed us in the right direction.
In the small town of Riverdale, we visited a cemetery nestled among the corn bursting with headstones containing our family name. Dad knew many of those buried there and we walked for some time under a bright autumnal blue sky. It is strange to visit your ancestors in a place you've never been to before, thousands of miles from where you grew up - but it felt comfortable. In Riverdale proper we saw a church Dad remembered as well as his uncle's house - almost unchanged over the last eighty years. Time has tread lightly on Riverdale.
We finally finished our work and hit the highway to head back to Denver to come home. It was a hard thing to decide you're done with. We learned so much and felt so many emotions it was hard to conclude there was no more to do. But our time was up and it was time to go. After saying good-bye to Mom and Dad in Manchester, I spent the next hour and a half driving home dictating my memories of the trip before the memories faded.
Slim passed away in 2011 and my Dad passed earlier this year and indeed this was the last time these two old friends saw each other. I'm thankful that we had the good sense to make it happen and thankful for the close time with my brother and father. I learned a lot about what made my Dad the man that he was and it brought many of his stories to life for me.
I'm also thankful for the steak.