Not sure what killed Tim Farley's parakeet, but there we were on June 20, 1957, reviewing the body that had been stashed in a shallow grave near the edge of the slough. I'm date certain on this, as the moment was captured in time by Alf T. Olsen and his twin-lens reflex camera.
You wouldn't have known it looking at the front page of The Fargo Forum the next morning. There was my Dad's photo alright, a picture of a huge black cloud of impending doom. But the kids in the foreground had been cropped out. And cropped out for the next fifty years - every time the paper ran a commemorative story on the '57 tornado. This bugged the heck out of the Olsen sibs, but don't know if it bothered Dad or not. He died in 1970. Too young at fifty. Wish I could ask him now. Wish I could ask him a lot of things.
But how the photo ended up in the paper didn't really matter much back at the moment it was snapped. Oblivious to the changing atmosphere and approaching storm, but somewhat fascinated with the mysteries of life and death, Tim's brother Terry, my brother Patrick, the Betz girls Carol and Barbie, and I poked around at the dead bird's grave. It had only been a few weeks earlier that across the road Georgie Heck proved that people really do eat frogs' legs. He had stunned one on the pavement, cut off the legs with a pocket knife, built a little fire of twigs, roasted the legs for a few minutes, and then popped them in his mouth. Took his time chewing, too.
Dead things turned up a lot at the slough -- birds, frogs, field mice, and when the water was high in the spring, dead carp. It seemed to be a natural turn of events, but I'd always wondered if the dead things had a soul and where that soul might end up. Natural fallout from a Catholic education I suppose. I remember asking Father Anderson if the dinosaurs were killed in the flood of Noah. And if they were, were they now in heaven? It didn't seem to be in the catechism, and Father A. wouldn't venture a guess.
Dad's guess was that they were probably hanging out somewhere with Tim's dead parakeet. He was an afterlife kind of guy, but didn't want to get too technical with me. He did say that they were likely long gone before the flood hit, or we would have seen a couple of Tyrannosaurus Rex on the foredeck of the Ark. Dad seemed to know everything, and the older I got the more I was sure of it.
He was a member of what Tom Brokaw calls The Greatest Generation. Not sure if they were, but Dad was pretty great. He didn't live long enough to feel comfortable talking about the war -- his war -- the one that's back in the spotlight these days. But he did talk about right and wrong, standing up for your beliefs, and doing the right thing. When I was old enough to get it, he made a deal with me. He said he would never lie to me, if I would never lie to him. Near as I can tell, we both kept the promise.
I made the same deal with my kids. And only came close to breaking it once. After shaking hands with my young daughter on the "not lying" thing, she paused a second, then asked if there was a Santa Claus. After ten minutes of hemming and hawing about the spirit of Christmas, I finally said no. It's what Dad would have done.
I've spent a good deal of my life trying to do what Dad would have done.
Born in Norway, Dad grew up a young immigrant in Brooklyn where he learned English and a fairly rough and tumble version of the American Dream. When I got old enough to ask him about it, rather than talking about himself, he told me to read The Knute Rockne Story. Rockne was the legendary coach of Notre Dame from 1918 to 1930. He was born in Norway, raised in Brooklyn, converted to Catholicism, and also died young. According to the book, being a Norwegian kid, learning English and how to act and fit in on the tough Brooklyn streets was no picnic.
When I asked Dad about the war, he had me read Catch 22. Catch 22 is Joseph Heller's historic WWII novel about the absurdity of war. Its main character is a bombardier in a B25 trying to make sense of it all. He's stationed on an Island just off Italy, flying and surviving bombing missions over southern Europe. Dad was a bombardier, only in a B24, stationed in Italy, and flying some of the most dangerous bombing missions of the war
I read The Knute Rockne story when I was about thirteen, and Catch 22 when I was twenty, the year Dad died. They gave me an idea of what he'd been through, what helped shape his view of the world, but not really who he was. Wish I could ask him now. Wish I could ask him a lot of things.
Our review of Tim's dead parakeet ended with Dad's appearance on the scene. Mom had taken her only vacation alone that I can remember, and was off visiting her mother in northern Minnesota. Dad was in charge. Patrick and I were on our little field trip to the grave site, and my older sister was back at the house with my baby brother.
Out of breath at the edge of the slough, camera in hand, Dad snapped an award-winning photo, threw his kids in the car and pointed the Pontiac in the opposite direction of the storm. In other words, he did it all -- his job and the protection of his family from imminent danger. I'm date certain on this, as the moment was captured in time by Alf T. Olsen and his twin-lens reflex camera.