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Friday, April 29, 2011

Death of an affectionate man

by John MacBeath Watkins


On April 22 my father, John Laurits Watkins, died. He was 87.

Somehow, though I knew he was mortal and in ill health, I never could quite imagine my father dying. Somehow, I still expect to walk in the  door at my folk's place and see him working on a crossword puzzle or playing solitaire.

Both of my parents contributed to my love of books, but my father  introduced me to my favorite author, P.G. Wodehouse. My father was, during my youth, the greatest interpreter of the Pogo comic strips,  doing the definitive Albert the alligator, loud, enthusiastic and self-assured as you would expect the character to be

He also introduced me to the sport of sailing when we lived in Maine,  and when as a teenager it was hard to communicate about other things, we could always go sailing together.

Of course, he was also a career Air Force officer who served in B-17s  in World War II and was awarded the Air Force Cross, helped start a school for training Air Force non-commissioned officers during the  Korean War, flew with Strategic Air Command as a navigator/bombardier during the Cold War, and flew on C-130s into some pretty hot spots in Viet Nam, including Khe Shan and A Shau, where the aircraft got shot up a bit and he won the Distinguished Flying Cross for getting  supplies to a surrounded firebase with a precision air drop under enemy fire and in horrible weather. Not long before his death, he told  me a West Pointer came up to him in Viet Nam and remarked that it must be something for "you flyboys to see some real combat." During World War II, the heavy bombers he served in sustained such heavy losses  that among heavy bomber aircrews that completed 30 missions, 71% were killed or MIA. Military Air Transport was surprisingly free of losses during Viet Nam, he felt.

In his effects I found a letter of thanks from the commander of the 817th Tactical Airlift Squadron dated Nov. 15, 1968 thanking him for 416 combat sorties and 568.6 combat hours of service, "with the inherent hardships and dangers entailed." And on one of his trips, while in Thailand he managed to visit a shipyard and buy an 8' camphorwood sampoa, which he stuffed in the C-130 and gave me, my first boat. I don't have that boat any more, but it meant enough to me that years later, when I went to Thailand, I bought a sampoa and shipped it back. It now hangs in the boathouse at the Center for Wooden Boats.

Part of the reason for the safety record of those transports in Viet Nam was associated with improvements in Air Force safety made  during the 1950s. Even in peacetime, losses in training had been too high. One of the improvements the Air Force made was to have officers who were particularly good fly with others in their squadrons and  check on their competence. It was called Stanboard (military speak for standards board) and in the 1960s, when my family lived on Okinawa, he would fly a month in Viet Nam and a month of Stanboard out of Naha  AFB.

He retired from the Air Force after 27 years service, taught school for a while (as he had done for a while between the end of WW II and the beginning of the Korean War), sold real estate for a time, then taught himself the math behind the tables he had used as a navigator, taught himself to program palmtop computers, and started Celesticomp, which as you might guess sold palmtop celestial navigation computers.  Some were used by blue water sailors, some by merchant marine officers, some by navigator/bombardiers doing his old job in SAC, and one by a record-seeking balloonist.

There is a film about military brats which talks about how harsh some  military fathers could be, and all the problems the families sometimes had. My family was nothing like that. My father loved to travel and  loved to take us with him. When we lived in Maine, we would read plays together. Dad's humor, his humanity, and his love for his family were perhaps not exactly the image of a military officer, but then, few officers are that image

He also taught me critical thinking. When we discussed something, his expectation was not that I would meekly accept his authority on every subject, but that I would be able to discuss it intelligently with him. In high school, one of my best friends was riding with us in a car while Dad and I discussed something, and when we got out, my friend, who was a Navy brat, said he couldn't believe I talked that way to my dad. His would never have accepted such debate.

A few days before his death, my dad was still saying things he knew I'd take issue with, to tempt me into a political argument. He liked debating history and politics with me more than he liked being agreed with, and I think he was proud to have a son who could argue him to a standstill. He taught me to be relentlessly reasonable, which is why I've never been kicked off an Internet forum, and he taught me to be sure I had my facts straight and could back up my assertions and my logic. I'll miss his brilliance, but even more his love.

I've known some people who were in such bad relationships with their parents communication completely broke down. There were fathers who said "I have no son," people my age who had completely stopped talking to their parents (or, often, one of their parents.) My father didn't  always agree with his children's choices, but he never stopped supporting us and loving us. His care for his family went beyond us, of course. He organized family reunions, wrote family history, and  kept in touch not just with his brothers and sister but with his cousins as well.

I think much of this came from his father, Amos Watkins, a farmer who  was born in England and came to Oregon as a child. Amos was a gentle, quiet, affectionate man with a wry sense of humor and an extensive knowledge of literature. When he and dad were milking the cows, he would recite poetry to dad. Sometimes, the cows complained because they were so engrossed with the literature that they left the milking machine running too long. He loved his farm animals, and never owned a tractor until his sons went off to war,  preferring to plow with  horses.

One of their favorite poems is also one of mine, Ozymandias, a sonnet by Percy Bysshe Selley:

OZYMANDIAS of EGYPT
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said:—Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Dad was emphatically not that guy. Perhaps a sneer of cold command would have gained him a higher rank in the military, but the Air Force got a better deal, a man who advanced by knowing how to do things really well.

Once, in Hong Kong, a young Chinese woman came up to him and asked if he was a missionary. He said sorry, no, but why do you ask?

"Kind face," she replied. Some people can just judge character.

7 comments:

  1. My sincerest sympathies for your loss, John. A beautiful tribute to a lovely man.

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  2. I'm sorry to hear of his passing. I think I only met your dad once, when he and your mother attended a concert by my trio. Afterward, we spent the longest time chatting about the family structure & all that. Such a sweet man. So lucky we are to have had him here. -Kiki Hood (daughter of Al, who was the son of Flora Watkins Hood)

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  3. John - so sorry. Emily and I were in Scotland - Edinburg, on the 29th. Following the trail of Annie Macbeath (Mcrea)...
    I'd wanted to update him - Can you keep me posted on services, etc?

    Paul Hood

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  4. Paul, Dad would have loved that you made the trip. The memorial service was on the 7th, I'm afraid. There's some family history he wrote here:

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/15697269/Immigrants-AmericansAll-Pages

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  5. My greatest condolences, John. This is a lovely eulogy.

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