My father was 57 when my grandmother died. At her funeral, I made him promise to stay alive until I was his age, at least. I was 23 then, and 57 sounded like forever.
Time passed. Now we stand side by side, two seniors at Armstrong Woods, hiking among trees a football field tall and a thousand years old. Dad sets his walking sticks aside, wipes morning mist from his glasses with his fingers and points straight up. “These redwoods,” he says, “are magnificent.”
My Dad, Barney Sloan, is 99 now — a long life by any measure. Some perspective: Dad was a second-grader when Claude Monet died and a college freshman the year the Golden Gate Bridge opened. His life has overlapped those of Thomas Edison, Annie Oakley, Luther Burbank and every man elected president of the United States since 1908. And then there’s this: When he joined the U.S. cavalry, they still rode horses.
Like most men of his era, Dad’s life was shaped by World War II. Drafted just before Pearl Harbor, he spent three hot, violent years in the South Pacific, but from the stories he told when I was young you’d think he’d been on the longest, coolest campout ever.
For example: Once upon a time in the jungle, he reached deep inside a roaring tiger’s mouth, grabbed its tail and yanked it inside out, saving his men from certain death. They cheered, tossed their helmets into the air and carried Dad back to camp on their shoulders, where they celebrated their hero with a big-cat barbecue.
Or so he told it. He saved the grimmer, reality-based stuff — the snipers, the kamikazes, the body bags — until I was grown.
After the war, Dad did what millions of returning soldiers did — got a good job, married a great gal and raised a bushel of kids. He joined the Elks, ushered on Sundays and did more housework than any of my friends’ fathers. He came to most of my football games and track meets, too — a remarkable feat, given that there were six of us in need of constant attention. He was spread thin, but managed — magically, it sometimes seemed — to be there.
Unlike many soldier-fathers we knew, Dad didn’t drink, rarely yelled and never hit. He led by example, not lecture. If something broke, you fixed it. If someone needed help, you helped them. And if someone was family, they were family, always. When my grandfather lived with us just before he died, Dad took over his most intimate care, earning the nickname “Dr. Fleet” from his grateful, digestively-challenged father-in-law.
In other words, he was, and is, an extraordinary, ordinary father — a strong, unflashy role model as I grew up, raised my own kids and, now, follow him into the senior years. A century of him is not nearly enough.
Back at Armstrong Woods, I help Dad into the car. We drive to the ocean, stopping along Highway 1 to watch the waves crash against the coast. We laugh about his old war stories — the giant pythons, the boinging kangaroos, the buffoonish senior officers. He retells the tiger tale for perhaps the thousandth time, still insisting it’s true. I point west and tease him that Japan is just over the horizon — maybe they’re still hunting for that tiger-flipping GI.