Early-morning surveys with Dad
WASHINGTON — It's raining as I write and I'm thinking back many years and remembering why I like the sound of rain so much.
Summer was a wonderful time for a lad growing up in the Midwest back in the 1920s. There was baseball and reading and just loafing around with other kids. I also looked forward to going out with my father on surveys.
For me, these were little adventures, as I carried the back of the measuring chain through scenes that would vary with each job: sometimes fields of grain, sometimes woodsy areas, sometimes pastures with grazing cows or horses, and often just city streets and country roads. Not exciting vistas. But, as a small boy, I found it exciting. And it just was so good to feel that I was doing a man's work.
Yet I dreaded the early-morning starts that my dad insisted on - and delighted in. He was always whistling as he dressed.
At daylight, Dad would wake me with a gentle touch on the ear. I would lie there a few minutes, and then he would simply say, "Time to get up," and I would drag myself out of bed. Then Dad would drive me down to Johnny Wooters restaurant and, along with a crowd of other early risers, we'd have buckwheat cakes and molasses.
Other members of what Dad called his "surveying party" would join us there. And we'd soon be on our way. By then, too, my spirits were up - and I was eager, as my dad put it, "to grab the day by the tail."
Yet I did hate to get up so early. This feeling never left me when, as years went by, I became a more useful member of the surveying party. Then there would be those mornings when I'd be awakened by the patter of rain on the roof. Saved by the rain - there would be no early-morning surveying today! Thankfully, I would pull the covers up and contentedly sleep in. What a glorious feeling!
My dad was my pal. I was close to my mother, but Dad was my pal. In later life (and he lived beyond 100), he would say that he and I were "brothers." He never missed a game I played in. I was a pitcher in the kid league. He would commiserate with me when I was hit hard by the other team. We would have a cold root beer together at a Rochester stand near the field. I will always remember when I threw a no-hitter with my roundhouse curve. Afterward, I had a root-beer float!
Dad's hobby was gardening. I mean big-time gardening. He'd have two or three large, open lots on the outskirts of our little city, Urbana, Ill., plowed up in the spring. Every night, after working hard all day and a quick supper, he'd be out at these lots, planting, weeding, using insecticides, and then, finally, bringing in his crops.
But most of what Dad grew he never brought home. It was during the Great Depression, and lots of people were struggling to get enough to eat. So Dad would drop off baskets of vegetables to neighbors in need. It would be a quiet giving - very early in the morning as we made our way out to our surveys and before the recipients were up. But they knew - and were lifelong friends.
All through my boyhood and teenage years, my dad and I played chess together. He had played with his father. And when I was no more than 5 years old, he started me on the game. First, he explained the figures to me. Then we played, with Dad taking off several figures of his own before we began.
I'm sure he encouraged me by letting me win. But as time went on, he put his figures back on. And there came a time when I think I was holding my own with him.
Anyhow, I loved spending an evening (and sometimes a rainy afternoon) with my dad over the chess table, drinking juice from grapes he had grown and had squeezed himself.
So now I'm still watching rain as it comes down and remembering why I liked it so much. I'm also thinking how ironic it is that as a grownup I, like my dad, am an early riser. For years, I've delighted in "grabbing the day by the tail" as I go in for an early breakfast. No, it hasn't been at Johnny Wooters. And the "grub" at the St. Regis Hotel is a little fancier, sometimes even eggs Benedict. I don't think the Monitor breakfast group is ever served buckwheat cakes and molasses.