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.


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