The Tiger’s Footsteps

My Father: Dick Gill

Both of my parents were born in Pennsylvania, my mother in 1926 and my father a year later. The area in which they grew up was classic small town America: Huntingdon and Tyrone. It remains that way today, though I have not seen that area since 1973, the last time I traveled that far east of the Mississippi River. In reviewing the Wikipedia articles the population of both municipalities is about the same as it was one hundred years ago. The population remains mostly white. The big industry in Tyrone was a paper mill, which still exists. Both towns were sustained by manufacturing in the past, and much of that no longer exists. I think it’s safe to say that the demographics of both places are representative of the status of most other small towns in this country in 2017.

My Mother: Helen Gill

My mom and dad were both educated in local high schools and met and married sometime in the late forties or early fifties. My mom was raised on a farm in an Irish Catholic family. My father’s background was Methodist, though he converted to Catholicism when he married my mom, a story that I’ll save for another time. I was born in 1953 and I have many memories of my own small town life in another little township named Roaring Spring, which is in the same area of Blair County. My dad had a small appliance and television store there in the Fifties, and if you wanted a black and white console set to watch the two available channels of news and entertainment that were available, he was the guy to see. There were no “big box” stores then.

My father was what we would call in these days an entrepreneur. Back then we called it hustling or horse trading. (Frankly it still is simply that.) He was, at heart, a salesman, and he specialized in the sorts of technologies that we would label today as “geeky”: televisions, cameras, and high-fi systems (before there was stereo). Despite his lack of a higher education my dad was always interested in how things worked. He was inventive and very passionate about music, photography and automobiles. And he used his passion and his interest in those things as a way to make an income. I never really talked with him about it much, but I think he chafed at having to work for someone else. He liked being his own boss. That changed when we moved to California where for some reason he tied himself to an employer. But back in those early days he was his own man.
Tyrone in from of my Grandmother\’s house.
Smoke from paper mill on the right.

If he had been a different personality we would never have moved from that small town and my own parallel universe would have been much different than it is today here on the West Coast. But for some reason that I have either forgotten about or never really knew, my parents moved us twice; first from Roaring Spring to Pittsburgh in 1960, and then from there to California six years later. I probably will never know the root reason for those changes as both of my parents passed away in 1988 and 1993 and there is no one to ask about it anymore, but knowing my father and mother it was probably an economic decision. I’m sure my father was looking for bigger opportunities and my mother, who was also an adventurous sort, went along with it. I also think there may have been some consideration of cleaner air and better environmental health. Those little towns were always close to manufacturing plants that spewed effluvia and toxins into the rivers that ran all through that area. The paper mill in Tyrone was especially nasty. The ecological impact of paper mills is significant.

Pittsburgh in the early sixties

(Side note: There’s a certain irony here in that Pittsburgh itself was anything but eco-friendly in the 20th century. It was known as the Smoky City as the pollution was so bad that the sun was blocked by thick smog during the day. But by the time we moved there in 1960 the “Pittsburgh Renaissance”was underway, and while the mills still turned out immense amounts of steel, the skies were clear. Today the mills are gone and Pittsburgh is consistently rated as one of the best places to live in the United States.)

Window of my Dad\’s store

My dad operated a Lafayette Radio Electronics franchise in downtown Pittsburgh on Grant Street near the Koppers Building until about 1965. I recall that he had to close the store when they built the US Steel Tower and tore up all the old buildings to make way for construction. Again, I’m not sure of the details, but I remember that his job changed and that there was some stress in the family finances. He worked for a portrait photographer for a while and sold cars, but I remember him being rather unhappy because he was no longer his own boss. That discontent was the spur that led us to the big move to California in 1966.

My dad’s pal Harry Shadle with a new loudspeaker

That relocation was a turning point and when I think about it today fifty years later I realize what courage it must have taken on the part of my mother and father to pull up stakes and head West. We had traveled by car to California in 1963, 1964, and 1965. My mother’s brother had moved to La Brea years before and there may have also been an influence there. But I am amazed by the decision: leaving family and tearing up roots to live on the other side of the continent in a search for Opportunity. I’m sure they used every cent they had to pay for the move.

That is a real American story: wanderlust, movement and search. It’s at the root of the human heart, and is firmly ensconced in our American Consciousness.
Or at least it was then. The other day I came across an article on the Washington Post that told of the regrets that some people living in Iowa are having about the irrationalities that are taking place in Washington DC. Iowa is not Pennsylvania, but I know both places well. My experience of the Hawkeye State is a bit more recent because my youngest daughter lives near Iowa City where she studied for her MFA at the Iowa Writers Workshop. I visit her at least once a year and when I do so we take a trip to see her boyfriend’s parents who live up near Dubuque, another American town that once thrived on manufacturing and that has been in the process of reinventing itself with some success in the 21stCentury. I was out there last October, and once you got out of town there were Trump signs everywhere.
Dubuque, Iowa

As I was reading the article I thought of my father and mother and their decision to move west. The gentleman being interviewed works in an aluminum rolling plant, the same facility where his own father worked. He gets good pay and with overtime makes about what I made back in the day when I was an Information Professional, and his money most likely stretches pretty well in Iowa compared to the Bay Area where living costs are higher. He comes across as a thoughtful person and a hard worker. He also usually votes for the Democrats, but not this last time; thus the misgivings. But it wasn’t the regrets regarding the Tangerine Tyrant that struck me. It was this sentence: “ (He) hopes his son will get an apprenticeship at the plant after high school. He is confident that his employer won’t lay off workers or shut down the plant because it has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Iowa and does specialized work that would be difficult to move. He hopes Trump can create more jobs like his across the country.”

My father in his last back yard

I immediately thought of my own Dad and his hopes for me when I was young. He never had any expectation that I would follow in his footsteps professionally. He urged me to go to college and worked very hard to pay for it. I was the first person among all my cousins to get a higher education. He could be a real pain in the ass sometimes, and there were always massive disagreements between us in regards to religion, but he always urged me to shoot for something greater in my life. In those days I wanted to be a writer, a dream that I have followed but that has never really led to a professional income. Never once did he defer me from that dream and ask me to do something else. He always accepted whatever I was doing to earn a living and never made a disparaging comment as to what I was doing. He died long before I really developed a profession in the true sense of the word, and I think that if he’s up there watching me from the Billy Collins glass bottom boat he’d feel paternal pride.

And now that I have outlived him and have wandered about the last few years after the death of my wife and the loss of my profession I think about him often. And while I have many regrets about our relationship (as many sons do about their father) the thing I most admire was his courage and determination to find his own way and not take any crap from The Man. If he was alive today he’d be insane with rage over the turn this country has taken and he would have read that same sentence I quoted above and uttered one of his most disparaging statements, one that he used often: “That man speaks in terms that even he can understand.”

Unlike my father, I certainly don’t mean to be judgmental about that hardworking man in Iowa. But

Dad in the Navy

his statement presents a clear delineation between comfort zones. And it also expresses a dangerous expectation in regards to his assumption that his place of work will never lay anyone off or remain in Iowa for the foreseeable future. If there is anything I have learned in the last few years it’s the simple fact that you can never take anything for granted and that all things are impermanent. There is no comfort zone that lasts through a lifetime. There never has been. The “way things used to be” have never been stable. When I look back on my own life I see currents of change and passages that I by no means controlled. Sometimes I drifted. Other times I managed to steer the craft of my life and happiness and reach a place where I could take the time to convince myself that I really had reached a goal. But in fact everything is an accident. We have influence on our own lives, but to think that we are really in control is an illusion. Snafu is the normal state of being.

Joseph Campbell used to tell a story of a Tiger who thought he was a Goat. My father never had the opportunity to live out his afternoon of life. My expectation was that I would, and that I would be sharing it with the partner I met 37 years ago. The former experience awaits me, the latter no longer is a possibility. My father was a tiger. I will follow in his footsteps on a path that he never walked.

Dad and Mom before I was born


Dad and Nikon in Yosemite.
I miss him.


My mother and I at a wedding reception.
I miss her.


The Voice of Thunder

In 1963 my father bought a black Dodge 330 with a V8 engine and a pushbutton transmission. It was a hideous looking thing, but it was the perfect car for long trips. For the next three years my brothers and I spent our summer vacations in the back seat of that car traveling through America. During the first trip we stayed in motels, then in 1964 my dad purchased a bounty of camping gear, including a huge 10’x10′ tent from Sears, and we slept in the National Parks of the Southwest and California. Ted William’s face was benevolently presented on all the camping and fishing gear produced by Sears in those days.
I spent hours staring at the landscape from the backseat of the car as the scenery passed. At times the land was endless and vacant and moved outside the window leisurely. But in the Midwest I witnessed real thunderstorms for the first time in my life. I had experienced the East Coast variety many times from the safety of the living room window, but they were nothing like the vast fronts of weather that ramble and rumble across the heart of the continent.
In the Plains you can see the thunderheads building up from miles away, towering far up into the sky like vast creatures of vapor. They move across the ground with deliberate purpose, grey rain descending beneath them as if they were squeezing power out of the clouds and saturating the land with it. Once, in Indiana, I popped out of the door of the motel room to watch the cascade of gushing rain and realized that the air was electric and that the hair was standing out on my forearms. The atmosphere was charged with something that was greater than mere weather. The electricity was crackling scant feet above my head and something immense was raging like a crazy beast.
What was that sound?
Throughout those trips I saw thunderheads in Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, Montana, and Wyoming. The storms were ominous. The beaded silver line of road stretched ahead of us for hundreds of miles. Squalls rolled across the earth relentlessly while the brown and purple landscape stood underneath them willingly, receiving the full brunt of the storms. It is impossible to describe the broad attributes of the Great Plains. The sky there is a larger sky. It is a land fully impregnated with the grandeur and power of nature. Any living being moving on the surface of the landscape must move with respect and the certainty of its own smallness. There is nothing that one can do except to take shelter and watch in amazement as the storm passes. I would never want to be caught out in weather like that without a solid roof over my head.
At the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, I heard the serious declarations of the storms. In August the weather arrived every afternoon. What had been a sky of fathomless blue became a turmoil of rain. The pitch of the thunder rolled sonorously through the Canyon, resonating for minutes on end, each clap hardly subsiding before the next one took its place. It was wondrous to sit in the enormous blue tent and play checkers with my brothers while the rain was beating on the canvas and the thunder roared as if it was never going to stop.
It was not until I grew up that I recognized that the voice of the thunder was a voice of divinity that had been speaking for many long years, and many lifetimes, and that it was a source of creativity and imagination. I’ve recently been thinking about the power of nature as the rain has been coming down in torrents in Northern California. We so easily overlook the weather. Because of the long drought I think we have gotten complacent, both as individuals and as a body politic. The current troubles up in Oroville reflect that. I admit to some smugness as well. This last weekend I travelled down to visit some old pals who live in Santa Cruz. I was planning to stay the entire President’s Day weekend, but headed home a day early because there was a strong chance that I would have been stuck down there when the most recent storm lashed the coast. Even though I know better and have memories of being trapped there in 1982 (which was the last time I can remember the winter weather being as intense as it has been this year) I was still taken by surprise by needing to head home. I managed to sneak away on Highway 17 before it was shut down again on Monday and spent the next 24 hours listening to the power of the rain and the wind lash my own backyard.
We take so much for granted in our lives. California, like all those states in the Plains, is really a wild place. Earthquakes, thunderstorms, snow, fog, coastal tides and tsunamis; all of that has always been here and for the last two hundred years or so clever human beings have devised ways to alleviate the effects of heavy weather. For several years we have been in severe drought and we had forgotten about all the dams, spillways, levees and bridges that are part of the infrastructure that we have developed to be able to live comfortably in an environment that will kill us if we forget how dominant it really is.
Our American Consciousness is fascinated by apocalyptic disaster. Years ago when I read Mike Davis’s book Ecology of Fear I recognized that fascination within myself. We can’t help ourselves really. When we see stories of floods and fire on the news it’s impossible to tear ourselves away from the information stream. Americans (and I am one of them) love a good disaster story, especially when it’s not happening to us. While we have grown more generous and compassionate about these things over the years, we always feel lucky when we personally have avoided catastrophe. Yet we always toy with the idea: what if it happened to me? What would I do? When we confront the insensible voices of the natural world we are reminded of our own mortality. If we are wise enough, we can see it doesn’t take much to snuff us out and that we should be careful, live joyfully and be grateful for the time we spend on this planet.
My greyhound, Finn, is much smarter than I am. Usually when I visit my friends in Santa Cruz and bring him along he settles down and sleeps for hours on end just as he does when we are at home. But on this visit he was underfoot and in the way, restless and a tad annoying. He was much relieved when he realized I was packing the car for an early return. He slept in the back of the car throughout the entire return journey, and when we got back he headed upstairs to his big fluffy bed and was out like a light for hours. He knew exactly what was going on, and that a big storm was coming. Like all domesticated animals, he lives on the edge of the Wild and knows that’s where he came from. It’s his origin. He has respect for it and no time at all for disaster movies and other fantastic entertainments.
“Yeah it’s a nice ocean. Now let’s go home.”