Earle is leaning on a fence post, catching his breath. We are standing 100 yards away from his family who are arrayed in a half moon on the beach. I am carrying three beach chairs and standing with him. The thin clouds keep the worst of the sun from roasting us. He asks for one of the chairs back to carry. He always wants to pull his weight. I tell him that if he can catch me, I’ll give him the chair. He laughs, and then we begin walking over the sand.
Earle is my father-in-law and will be 86 in July. He is a tough man. In the last few years he has come through multiple surgeries for cancer, his heart, his feet and his knees. He has marched through the demands of a worn body with an impervious will power. He served on Guam as a radio operator and clerk in WW II, came home, married Alma, and got his degree from Rutgers while working nights as a short order cook. He and Alma lived in a trailer. Their first two children were brought home there. He found a job with a pharmaceutical company as a clerk at $50 a week. He worked up to an important position in HR and over the length of his career hired several generations of young men and women.
From Jersey they moved to Lederach, and he helped build a small house on a windswept hill with a view northwest over the valley of the Branch creek. He drove across the country twice on vacations with his four children in a station wagon hauling an Apache Silver Buffalo camper. Alma made peanut butter sandwiches in the front seat and kept Earle awake on his long night drives.
Alma was home for 20 years, raised 4 children and became a Red Cross lifeguard and swimming instructor, a library aide, a Girl Scout troop leader, and was the chief organizer of family road and camping trips that began when their oldest child was in diapers and went on for two decades. Alma started college at 41, earned an undergraduate degree and then taught elementary school for 15 years.
They have 17 grandchildren, 5 great grandchildren and an Irish terrier mix named Amigo. They have helped to create a little nation.
With a learned distrust of public relations and endlessly massaged images, I am sometimes ambivalent about heroes and heroism. I feel an acid-disdain for celebrity worship and its proliferation of phonies masquerading as individuals worthy of our attention.
I do and did trust men like Earle and my father, Charlie, my mother, Christine, and Alma.
My father raised 4 children on a state trooper’s salary and built closets, bookshelves and picnic tables and then refinished furniture for all of us. He worked to make his home shine until he left it. He had to quit high school in 1927 after his father died when his legs were crushed by a bathtub. He held a multitude of jobs throughout the teeth of the Depression and brought home his paycheck to a hard woman, my paternal grandmother. As he aged he retreated more and more into silence, content to listen at the table where he had once entertained us with story after story. At his best as an old man, he seemed to separate from his body, his spirit floating somehow above it, unembarrassed by its broken places. Finally, his legs collapsed under him after he had just finished mowing two acres. He died in the hospital six days later, and my sister covered him with a State Police blanket. He was 90.
This is not a paean to the “greatest generation”. Others have done that better than I ever could. Nor is it an implied argument that only the older generations have figured out how to live good lives. I have taught decades of kids who have come up hard and have been more worthy of admiration than most adults I have known. Most kids have the potential to be as productive and humane as anyone my age or older. No, this post describes four men and women who came together, worked hard, built families, endured and kept their decency while doing so. The world is filled with others like them, the ones whose names will disappear from History in a hundred years or less but who deserve to be spoken of now with respect and thus honored for as long as we survive. We will be lucky to be so remembered.