Had he lived, my father, Richard Moran, would be 100 years old today. Of course, that would have been about twenty-one years too many. With emphysema, all of his energy went into breathing, so much so that his body wasted away, his clothes hanging off of him, suspenders kept his pants up. After moving from his lift chair to wheel chair, he’d need a rest break to get his breath again before getting into his bed. On one of those evenings, after the rest breaks had gotten longer and longer, I told him that the doctor said he could have home hospice from then on and that he’d have maybe six months to live. It had taken all I had to say those words. I could barely breathe waiting for his response. He snorted, “Damn, that’s about six months too long, if you ask me.”
He was a mystery to me. There was this black hole of information about his family and his past. My grandparents had all died by the time I was one and neither of my parents talked about them, so any stories I would have heard from them were lost to me. I asked Mom about Dad’s family.
“Oh,” she said, hesitating, “I don’t think he even remembers his dad.”
I noticed the hesitation.
“And his mom died when he was away in the service,” she finished.
Something in the hesitation made me not ask again.
He didn’t talk about growing up other than the occasional comments about how decadent we three girls were. We each had a whole bottle of Pepsi, for example. That was unheard of when he was growing up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula near the small town of Escanaba in the even smaller township of Delta.
I have this photo of Dad, home from the Army for his mother’s funeral in 1943. It is the earliest photo that I have of him. He is thin and stiff in his uniform, smiling awkwardly for the camera. His family is proud of him, the baby of the family, having gone off to war. He smiles slightly for the camera, but there is awkwardness, grieving for his mother, yet everybody so pleased to see him back home during the war even if it was just for a few days.
When I was about twelve, Dad wanted to go visit his sisters in Michigan, but this time, Mom wasn’t able to go. He was going to go by himself, but, of course, being a Daddy’s girl, I asked if I could go with him, just like I did every time he was going to the big Sears store on Lake Street in Minneapolis. I knew that when we’d leave Sears, we had to go by the popcorn stand and Dad would always buy me a cone of caramel corn to eat on the ride home. So, that year, when Mom couldn’t go to Michigan, I went. Just me and Dad.
The trip up north wasn’t without its troubles. Being the youngest of three girls, I always sat between my parents in the front seat of the Ford, so I watched Mom, with the map on her lap telling him what to look for and when to turn. I wasn’t nearly as good though. I remember looking at the map at some point and realized that we’d gone past our turn. I told Dad but he didn’t believe me because he’d done this route so many times. He finally pulled over so I could show him the map and, yes, we had to backtrack to get to the turnoff to his sister’s house. He wasn’t mad about it. He just turned around and found the right exit. I think he was more surprised that he’d missed the turn after having traveled it so many years than that I’d missed telling him to turn.
It was on that trip that we passed a park in Michigan and he said, “See that whitewash along the shoreline? I did that.”
I looked but didn’t understand what he was talking about.
“When I was young, I went into the CCC. They were putting people to work doing projects. This was one of my projects. We painted the white border you see along the lake.”
Well my twelve-year-old mind couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to paint a lake border and I said so.
He laughed, and said, “There were no jobs back then. It was the Depression. The CCC was the only job I could get.”
Later, I saw pictures of the Civilian Conservation Corps camps. Groups of young men, looking very earnest and glad for a day’s wage. Dad could apply as soon as he turned 17 in 1933. Being in Michigan, the CCC was able to form camps quickly because they already had the resources needed. Roosevelt’s Tree Army, as the Michigan camps were known, had plenty of trees, trucks, and young men out of work. For their work, they made $30 a month, but had to agree to send at least $22 back home to help their families, which Dad did.
In between his stint in the CCC and being drafted for the war, he had plenty of experience driving trucks. He worked with his brother-in-law driving logging trucks through the back roads of the small towns around Michigan, so when he was drafted for WWII, the Army put him to work driving trucks stateside.
After the war, there were still not many jobs in the U.P., so Dad traveled. Family stories say that he rode the rails to look for work, catching a ride in open boxcars. I never heard any details though since the adults always quieted when they realized I was there. Later though, there were stories that even his sister, Bessie, went with him. She was his older sister, and he said it was really Bessie that raised him since his mother was busy working to support the family.
From my genealogy research, I know Dad ended up on the west coast since he applied for his Social Security Card in the state of Washington, and then he worked his way back to the Midwest again.
When he was back in the Midwest, he took any job he could find. It was at his job as a janitor at a low rent hotel in the Gateway District of Minneapolis where he met my mother. They married shortly after that in 1955. Mom always hated having her picture taken, so he took to snapping photographs whenever he could, even if she wasn’t aware, like a young man in love.
Throughout his life, he had made it to every state except Hawaii and Alaska. He was satisfied with not going to Hawaii, but it bothered him that he still hadn’t made it to Alaska. After he retired, instead of the usual visit to the U.P. and Wisconsin to visit families, one summer he and Mom set out to Alaska instead. She navigated the whole way, atlas in lap, while he drove long days on the road.
They hadn’t counted on how expensive everything was in Alaska though. They were set to be gone for at least two weeks, when about a week and half into their trip, we got an urgent call to wire them some money. They ran short of cash and a nice couple they met at a gas station paid for their gas so they could continue on their way. They mailed them the cash once they got home. They slept in the car for a couple of nights, but they made it home safely, and that was one final state off Dad’s list.
For all I knew, Dad had always worked at the railroad. Ever since I understood the concept of him going to work, it was always the Great Northern Railway with their Billy goat logo, which later became Burlington Northern. It turned out that he’d had any number of jobs during his travels.
One time, I had toured the Soudan Underground Mine in Northern Minnesota and thought it fantastic, going into this underground world. I’d rode an elevator down for what felt like minutes and emerged into a totally dark place, unable to see my hand in front of my face. When I told him I’d done that and asked wouldn’t he like to go on a tour like that, he just laughed.
“Christ! I worked in a mine. Hated it. Why would I ever want to do that again? And pay money to do it, too? I won’t go underground again for as long as I’m alive.” He chuckled then, realizing what that implied.
When he was ready to retire from the railroad at 65, he had to send away for his birth certificate in Michigan to prove his age. Mom sent a letter to Dad’s sister, Julia asking her to get a copy of Dad’s birth certificate. Julia discovered that the birth records office couldn’t find one for him.
After a few more inquiries by Julia, Dad finally got a copy in the mail, but it was a surprise. It turned out that his name wasn’t Richard. It was Daniel John Richard Moran.
“Oh, that’s right,” he said, like he just remembered some trivial thing. “Well, who was going to hire an Irishman named Danny Moran back then?” He thought ‘Danny Moran’ sounded too Irish in a time when Irish still weren’t always welcome, so he started going by his middle name Richard, shortened to Dick. When he went into the service, he said his name was Dick, they wrote down Richard. After that, it was official. It was the Army after all. After that, he was Richard Moran.
Every so often, Labor Day fell on his birthday, September 1st. He was always so pleased when it happened. Since I had the day off of work, he’d say, “See that! Everyone’s celebrating my birthday!” Of course, it was silly, but I always laughed.
You didn’t get a National holiday on your 100th birthday, but Happy Birthday, Dad. I sure do miss you.
Gail Wawrzyniak is a North Carolina writer bringing together her love of art, history and writing.