I haven’t written much about Dad. That’s because unlike Mom who is someone a person can more easily understand, whose personality you can grasp, whose mind you can wrap your mind around, Dad remains an enigma.
Whatever I may write about him will be true and yet nothing I write will ever do him justice.
To say he was a genius is to put it mildly, and to say more than that would seem boastful and immodest, traits Dad did not possess.
Dad was a loyal, faithful, dedicated, and loving, husband and father. He took pleasure in squiring his three women around. He enjoyed our company as much as we enjoyed his. He was available.
And yet, and yet, there was a part of himself that he held to himself. There was a gulf between himself and people which no one, not even his wife, was ever able to bridge. He knew things which were secret and which he took with him to the grave. By secrets I mean, national secrets, top-secret secrets. How he came to be in a position to know these things, he who had basically only a high school education, is a fodder for other stories.
Dad was a scientist, a mechanic, a mathematician, an electronics engineer, a musician, a fisherman, a lover of the English language, a punster, a ham radio operator, an inventor, a welder and a motorcycle rider; to name just a few of the things he enjoyed doing. He could also do carpentry and plumbing, not his favorite things. Anything he chose to learn to do he learned to do with excellence. There was no mediocrity in his life.
Only twice in my life did I ever here him cuss, and then it was an under-his-breath, “damn!” He felt using profanity was a sign of a person’s lack of command of the English language. He had this incredible ability to say terribly cutting remarks to a person’s face and have them think he was complimenting them. Many were the times my sister and I cringed when a sarcastic remark leveled a person to the soles of his/her feet and he/she remained blithely unaware.
My father, John Stanford Denham, was the oldest of three boys. His two younger brothers were paternal twins just 11 month younger than himself.
This is a picture of them in their play-clothes. Dad is in the middle, Munro on the left, and Emerson on the right. They were probably about five and four, which means it was probably taken sometime between 1921 and 1922.
Here they are a few years later all dressed up. Dad already looks like he knows something nobody else does.
When Dad was ten, perhaps about the time this picture was taken, his father abandoned his wife and three sons. Dad’s mother was a concert pianist. To make money when the Depression hit she played piano in honky-tonks, a scandalous thing for a well-bred Victorian lady to do. At the age of twelve, to help the family out, Dad got a job. The problem was he needed transportation to get to and from work. So, he and his brothers started scavenging parts in junk yards and the three of them built, from the ground up, a model-T Ford. They never could license it because there was no way to prove ownership. But it served their purposes and they mostly drove it off the main roads so they wouldn’t get caught. Dad also learned to hunt and got quite good with a 22 rifle. So between his job and hunting he was able to help his mother and brothers survive. Understand that during those hard years, he still went to school full time. He also contracted a severe case of hepatitis which he got from a dirty needle that was used to inoculate him against some other illness. And he got very ill with scarlet fever.
It is probably because his father abandoned him that Dad was so loyal to his own wife and children. My sister and I were blessed to have a father who absolutely did not care that we were girls. It never occurred to him that because we were females we couldn’t do what he could do. His philosophy was simple. If we wanted to learn something, he would teach us, and he was a patient teacher. If we weren’t interested that was okay too. Long before either of us learned to drive, Dad made sure we knew how to change a flat tire, check the water, oil, spark-plugs and distributor cap and even make minor mechanical repairs.
Some of our best times together as a family were had in our little 12 foot run-about. It had an 18 horse Johnson on it. For many years it was the fastest boat for its size between the two islands of St. John and St. Thomas. We called it the F. D. O. which stood for, Father’s Day Off. Dad worked so hard it was a rare Saturday or Sunday that he’d have off. If the weather was right, if the ocean was friendly, we’d drop whatever we were doing and go out in the F. D. O. We got so good at getting ready we could be out of the house in about half an hour. Mom would pack the coolers with food and drink. Erva and I would gather towels, sunscreen, snorkeling gear and anything else needed for a day on the water and Dad would get together the fishing poles, the gas tanks and anything related to the boat. We had many adventures and I have lots of fish stories about the “ones that DIDN’T get away.”
Below is my favorite picture of Dad and me. It was taken at the end of the work day, about 5:30 PM. Even though he shaved every morning, by the end of the day he’d have a dark “5 o’clock shadow.” Dad is in his khaki work clothes which are dirty and greasy. We owned and operated a Mobile gas station so he smelled of grease and Lava soap most of the time, an odor, which if I close my eyes I can still smell. It is a comforting odor. This picture was taken from a charter sail boat called The Maverick. My parents were friends with the owners. Dad might have had a message or a part to deliver, or maybe he just wanted to say “hello.” But there we were in the boat with the sun falling fast behind the hills of St. Thomas. A guest on the boat took this picture and later it was sent it to us. I was 12 and am wearing a short and shirt set my mother made. I had many of them.
I like this picture because it captures my father when he was at his best, with an open, friendly smile on his face. He smiled and laughed a lot. I thought then, as I do now, that he was the most handsome man alive. Movie star handsome, Gregory Peck/Cary Grant handsome.
Dad died of liver cancer in 1989. I still miss him. And writing about him makes me cry. Here’s to you Dad, the first man Erva and I ever loved.
Happy Father’s Day.