“You know, son, I was born at the perfect time,” my dad used to say.
“I was too young for World War I, and when World War II came along I was too old, and I had a family.
“I’m getting Social Security even though I only put a few thousand dollars into it, and I’m getting Medicare.
“Not bad, huh, son?”
My dad lived to a few days short of 91, and until the prostate cancer that finally got him, he lived in his own house, which he cared for himself.
He had friends, two children who loved him, and a way of looking at the world that never left him too disappointed with life.
Mom, who died of cancer several years before him, used to complain that he saw the glass as half empty. But while that may have frustrated her, it gave dad the kind of detachment that let him roll with life’s punches.
And now that I’m commencing my 65th year of life, I see a lot of wisdom in what he said about the timing of his life.
Because Jim Brenneman was born at the perfect time.
He was in high school when the United States jumped into the First World War, too young for the draft. And by the time he reached 18, the war was three years gone and the draft along with it.
He received Social Security for more than a quarter-century, and Medicare handled his medical needs, including a successful cancer surgery and then the treatment for the second round of cancer that finally claimed him.
He’d lived through the Depression, in part by bootlegging. Not booze, which was never an indulgence for him, but salt and potatoes.
Back in those days, states had tariffs, with Kansas levying a duty on Nebraska potatoes and Kansas retaliating [or vice versa] with a fee on Nebraska potatoes.
Dad got to know the backroads, and would haul a truckload of good Kansas salt up to Nebraska and return with a load of potatoes and a small but helpful profit.
That was his only streak of buccaneering.
Before the Repeal of Prohibition, he did make one booze-smuggling run, at the invitation of a friend who had a car specially fitted with concealed tanks which they drove from or hometown of Abilene, Kansas, to Kansas City.
His pal had told him he could make a tidy sum from time to time running booze, but what he encountered at a Kansas City warehouse was enough to discourage him from any thoughts of violating the Volstead Act.
“There were guys there with tommy guns, really scary fellows,” he said. “That was enough for me.”
They guys in question were no doubt soldiers in the Kansas City Mafia family, the same outfit which would later be parsing out the Las Vegas casino skim during the day’s ensl worked as a young reporter in Sin City.
Later, dad built up a successful paint, glass, and wallpaper business in Abilene, selling out so we could move to Fort Collins, Colorado, where he became a partner in a furniture store.
Before selling his interest in that business, he bought a duplex, and later a fourplex, both later sold to provide the nest egg for his long and pleasant retirement.
His greatest love was fishing, or more accurately, the exploration of the mountain West he undertook in search of new lakes to troll.
We spent countless weekends — longer in summer — on long explorations, sometime with our 14-foot aluminum boat hitched on behind, sometime without.
More often than not, we set out with no agenda, following whatever roads
struck our fancies. And since he never paid extra for a radio in the NashAmbassadors and Ramblers and pickups he bought, the long hours on the road were spent in conversation, and in singing the songs of his childhood learned from parents, grandparents and a great-grandparent or two who shared the massive house with the two-story tower his father had built in the Brenneman Subdivision [I still have a map of the tract].
I learned Civil War songs and old spirituals [“The Old Rugged Cross” was his favorite], and we sang endless iterations of “I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen.”
We used to joke that we’d traveled every paved road in Colorado, and most of those in Wyoming, along with a fair part of Northern New Mexico and Arizona.
Before the days of cheap air fares and monotonous Interstates, long road trips were intimate experiences, with each new town a surprise. About the only chain eateries in those parts were A&W drive-ins [often with roller-skating attendants] and Dairy Queens.
Each new town was an adventure, and every meal a surprise — sometimes iffy but often surprising.
I can still remember the best Swiss Steak I ever ate, served up in a corner restaurant in Williams, Arizona. Both the world’s best vegetable soup and the greatest-ever rhubarb pie were served up in a tiny café in Chugwater, Wyoming. And it was an elderly Chinese cook in a diner in Cripple Creek, Colorado, who instructed a ten-year-old in the proper technique for eating spaghetti.
Nowadays, Interstates have bypassed all those memorable towns, most of which have withered away. The mom-and-pop cafes are gone, replaced by fast food chains.
Now driving is more about getting from here to there than the experience of the new and unexpected.
And as we reach the end of the Oil Age, much of what Dad could take for granted is now in jeopardy.
As my own eligibility for Social Security and Medicare approaches, loud noises from Washington are calling for cuts.
And the roads we took for granted are falling apart, including the Interstate system that was the legacy of a president dad’s mother had taught to read and write.
But my dad would’ve been much better able to confront the world his son sees ahead. A skilled gardener, he was also a journeyman carpenter, skilled in the use of hand tools.
I think of the old man a lot these days, as we grow to resemble each other mpore and more with the passage of years.
I was born into a different age, dominated by the now-faltering consumer culture, and I’m witnessing the slow demolition of the Social Security and Medicare systems which helped him reach the milestone of three score and thirty.
Born in the first year of the Baby Boom, I am looking towards a much different future, but one that he sensed, however dimly.
The man who always saw he glass as half empty could never be deeply disappointed, but he worried about the world his children would face after he was gone. There was too much excess, he’d say. Too little foresight. Too much power and too little self-control.
“I was born at the perfect time,” he said. . .