The California Writer’s Club, Sacramento Branch–of which I am a member–recently sponsored a non-fiction essay contest in which entrants were asked to describe, in 750 words or less, “The Most Influential Person in My Life.”
Following is my entry. As always, your comments are invited.–EGF
“Wherever You Are, Be There”
On June 21, 2013, it will be 46 years since I last saw the most influential person in my life.
That’s not to say he hasn’t been present. Prompted or not, he comes into my mind every day, and I talk to or of him just about that frequently, most often to my children, grandchildren, or other loved ones.
Who was he? He was Francis Coyne Hart—“Frank,” to his friends and impudent children—my father.
Frank was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado in 1907, to two naturalized Americans—the grandparents I never knew. From his yearbooks, in addition to academic excellence the apparent highlights of his secondary career were dabbling in drama; conspiring to elevate a kicking mule by rope into his school’s bell tower; and actually asking a girl out. He studied Civil Engineering on scholarship, joined a fraternity, and wrestled at the University of Colorado, graduating in 1929. But for the events that culminated in that year’s Black Friday, I likely would have been born a New Yorker. Rather, Plan B was steady work on roads and bridges for the State of Colorado. He married my mother, the youngest of eight in an enormous, extended Irish family in Denver, in 1935. They fled to the Pacific Northwest, where Frank toiled in hydrology and ground water—translation: wells and dams—for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for almost 32 years. Between 1936 and 1956, Frank and Betty produced eight of us, reared in Denver; Grant’s Pass and Medford, Oregon; and Boise, Idaho. I batted fifth in that lineup.
Needless to say, life at home was a happy, consecutive train wreck, a suffusion of shared experience extending from the Great Depression to the Vietnam War, with World War II; Korea; the Red Scare; and the Civil Rights Struggle in between. What we didn’t experience directly, we learned about and from, just about as readily.
Throughout, by provenance and example, our highest aspiration was knowledge, for its own sake; everything was worth learning and nothing was absolute. Even after we admitted our first one-eyed monster—a Zenith console—in 1956, the Great Books and the Encyclopedia Britannica stood their ground, in their nook at the head of the room. In succession, each child fell under the older’s tutelage. Faith was important and our Catholicism provided structure, but Galileo proved Copernicus wrong and thus it would forever be. What fed your head was paramount.
Being raised by an engineer is a mixed blessing. Patience, critical thinking, and problem-solving arrived and stayed naturally, along with hyper-explanation and ruining perfectly good jokes with applied logic. Evidence, not opinion or bias, was outcome-determinative, every time. Everything was possible, so long as your desire to try was accompanied by a plan and a commitment to reasonable persistence. Our imaginations not only survived childhood, but grew. His underlying bed of unconditional love nourished everything we tried.
I was more fortunate than my siblings. In the last three years of his life and my mid-teens, my mother’s bouts with depression made both Dad and me more needy and vulnerable, which made our relationship as much human as authoritarian. Seeing imperfection in him gave clarity to the value of his influence, by word and example, on me.
That influence is best illustrated by a few of his aphorisms that remain with me:
- “It is better to be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.” This Twainism was especially appropriate. Frank was regarded as laconic but, when he spoke, people listened. Listening first, and weighing my words before uttering them, has always served me well.
- “Wherever you are, be there.” Other than this and his ubiquity, I have no evidence he ever studied Zen in depth. He nailed it, though: merely showing up is never acceptable.
- “Don’t forget to stop and smell the roses.” When depressed, Mom would release her demons on us, out of her mouth and in her letters, decrying our lack of ambition or accomplishment. Like clockwork, Dad would arrive with the antidote, a steadying Yang to her Yin, and his plea that we forgive her and forget.
- “Keep your wits about you.” This bon mot, along with an expression of love, always preceded any kind of challenge. I’ve compressed it to an acronym—“KYWAY”—for my sons, especially the Combat Rescue Officer when he deploys.
He endures in my memory, artifacts, and stories for all who’ve followed as the smartest; kindest; most complex; and accessible human I’ve known.