Sunday, June 17, 2012

Remembering One Dad on Father’s Day—W. M. Murfin

W.M. Murfin about 1955.

It’s Fathers’ Day.  I don’t know about yours, but mine has been dead a while now.  Long enough for the grandchildren he hardly knew to grow up and some of them have babies of their own.  My only brother, my twin Timothy who took the name Peter, has been gone for eight years himself.

My father, Willard Maurice Murfin, known to the world as Murf, often visits me in my dreams.  Strangely, I never dream about my, mother, who has been gone even longer or my brother, seldom even of my wife and children.  But Dad pops in regularly.

In my dreams he is not bent and ravaged of body as he was when I last saw him, shockingly shrunken and shriveled so that I hardly knew him.  He is the handsome, black haired man in the cowboy hat of my childhood.  He looks vaguely like some western movies star, tall and lanky in the mold of Gary Cooper, James Stewart, or Randolph Scott.  He has the long, slender fingers of an artist or musician.  His voice is soft but assured, faintly accented with the nasal twang of his native Missouri.  In life, I never heard him raise his voice nor whatever the vexation or temptation lose his temper.  Neither does he do so in his dreams.

My brother thought him a distant man and felt cheated by a certain absence of overt affection.  I thought he was simply a man of his times.  He was gone much on business in our youth at a time my mother sometimes drifted in and out of what might be sanity.  My brother thought he abandoned us and never forgave him, going to his own death consumed in bitterness.  I treasured the time he did spend with us, tossing a rubber ball around in the yard on a summer evening or fishing along one of his beloved trout streams.  They were quiet moments, devoid of fatherly advice.  He was just there.  I adored and respected him above all men.

Who knows which memory is true, which distorted by our own expectations.  Probably both are false—and true.

Beyond that he was W.M. Murfin, a human being with a wider life than the role of father.  He was first a son and a brother.  A great outdoorsman, he loved to fish and hunt and eventually moved to the Mountain West to live the life he dreamed of.  He had a lovely life with Ruby, after the bitter, pinched years of the Depression released them, as a bank officer in a dusty Montana town near the Crow Reservation.  Then they lost their only natural baby in child birth, an event that so unhinged my mother that she never recovered and wounded him just as deeply though he nursed the pain with manly stoicism.

Then came the war.  He was an over age soldier.  His offer to use his outdoor skills as a scout or ranger was coolly turned down and he was assigned to the Army Medical Corps.  By the time he arrived in North Africa in 1942 with an American Field Hospital assigned to the British Army in Egypt, he was already top sergeant.  After chasing Rommel through the desert with Montgomery, he was sent state-side for Officer Candidate School.  He finished the war as a medical officer in the Pacific.  He participated in landings at Leyte in the Philippines, Guam, and Okinawa.  He won the Bronze Star for rescuing several men under machine gun fire in the Philippines.  When the war ended he was on board a ship designated for the assault on Japan.  He had been sure he would never survive a fourth campaign.

He came back to Montana simultaneously wild and subdued.  The war had both scarred and deepened him.  Like most men of his generation, he seldom spoke of it, but tried to re-establish a life.  But sometimes he would wake up screaming in the night.

In 1949, as much to fill the empty spot in my mother’s heart and in the hope that it would somehow cure her, they adopted twin boys at birth.  It was an arranged adoption, put together by a sympathetic doctor that knew both the shamed mother and the childless couple.

We rattled around the west, Montana to Colorado towns as Dad pursued his new career as a Chamber of Commerce professional.  We ended up in Cheyenne, Wyoming 1953.  He was secretary of the Cheyenne Chamber and of the Frontier Committee, which produced the annual Cheyenne Frontier Days, the “Daddy of ‘Em All” and the nation’s largest and most important rodeo in those days.

Later, he would move over to the Wyoming State Travel Commission.  As Secretary he sat in the cabinet of Governor Millard Simpson.  He even kept the job when a Democrat, Joe Hickey, was inexplicably elected in the same election that brought John Kennedy to the White House.  But when some Republicans started talking about running him for Governor, he had to get out.

He set up his own business and recruited as clients (or created from scratch) the U.S. Highway 20 Association and latter the Interstate 80 Association, both promoting tourism along their routes.  He spent most of each winter on the travel show circuit in the Mid West and East.  He would be gone for weeks, even months a time.  Eventually the Chicago Sportsman and Vacation Show at the old International Amphitheater hired him to manage their tackle and fishing halls.  They added another show at Cobo Hall in Detroit.

Dad wanted to keep the family in Cheyenne.  He didn’t want us in the corrupting big cities.  Tim and I were in high school by then.  But mom grew crazier and the strain was too much.  We piled into his second hand Nebraska State Patrol Dodge and headed east.  We got a little house in Skokie, not far from Dad’s office on Lincoln Avenue just inside the city.

He missed the life of an outdoors man.  One or two fishing trips a year with his brother in law Norman Strom or a junket to a Canadian fishing lodge courtesy of show exhibitor, was hardly enough.  There was a lot of tension at home.  I got out as soon as I graduated high school and never came back.  My brother stayed home and went to community college for a couple of years and stewed in the tensions and frustrations of that house, undoubtedly coloring his memories.

Mom was ill—emphysema from years of heavy smoking.  Up at the Mayo clinic they discovered, too late, that she was manic depressive.  For years her doctors had treated her as a hysteric and prescribed heavy doses of barbiturates to calm her.  They made her a medical addict with a dresser drawer full of syringes.  Getting her off the needle really changed her.  Her last years were calm.  She re-developed that sweetness which must have first attracted Dad in those long gone days of flapper dresses and straw skimmers in which they courted in 1929.

They moved first Des Moines to be close to relatives and then to Kimberling City, Missouri on Table Rock Lake in the Ozarks.  Dad could finally go fishing.  Mom’s heart gave out and Dad married her caregiver, Rae Jane Maxwell, who devoted herself to his last years. 

On a trip through Montana Dad spied a little log home in Alberton on the Clark Fork River near Missoula.  He just stopped and bought the place, a one-time school house.  He spent his last years renewing his worship of the high mountain trout streams, the smell of the lodge pole pine, and the rustle of moose in the willows by the water.  And he slowly faded away.

I saw him last about a month before he died.  I don’t want to remember him like that, ravaged by a brain tumor. 

His pre-war fishing and hunting buddies scattered his ashes on the sunny side of a mountain  overlooking his favorite trout stream after the American Legion sent him off with full honors and his brother Masons gave him a service.

I want to remember him as he visits me in my dreams.  As he is in that picture. 

Those of you who have know me and long wondered why I wear these goofy cowboy hats—now you know.