Friday, November 11, 2016

TO DAD, On Veterans Day, 2016
Staff Sargent Herman P. Sandford
Most of my friends know that my dad, Herman Prestridge Sandford, died peacefully at home on July 11th, 2016.  My mom, who was married to Herman for just shy of 70 years, told us the day of his funeral, "I just don't think I can live without your daddy." And so she didn't. She died almost two months later on hospice care for an inoperable hip fracture. To even attempt to fix it would put her in greater pain than she was already suffering. She died on hospice care (as Dad had) on September 14th, 2016.

I chose to start writing again today for several reasons. Today is Veteran's Day. I always called Dad on Veteran's Day, on Pearl Harbor Day and on the anniversary of D-Day.  This year, I can't do that. I'd give just about anything to hear my Dad's smile, or watch his face light up when I walk into their house after many months of separation. I am also writing because, well, I am trying to survive. More on that later. No, I am not terminal.  I do have chronic illnesses that I am always working to manage. More on that later.  Lastly, Dad would be absolutely aghast at the recent political elections. The night before the election I tried to console some friends by saying what Dad always used to say, "It will be all right." The next evening, as the returns came in. I felt as if I'd been sucker punched and had taken all my friends with me. Hillary and Bill are more than just politicians to us. Mom was Hillary's friend, beginning in the 1970s; together they worked on issues of  Women's Rights, education, poverty, families and children. Both my parents were prolific letter writers. Throughout the Clinton administration - and afterwards - they both wrote to Bill and Hillary. Once an Arkansan, always an Arkansas. And it's a small state. More on all that later.

Dad died at age 94 after losing much of his mobility and independence. Until about 6 months before he died, I started to notice a more rapid decline in cognitive function. He was having trouble talking and he was having trouble reacting things I said to him over the phone. Some words - words he'd known all his life and probably taught to me - were no longer accessible to him.  I believe he might have had some small strokes, but at 94 this hardly makes "Headline News." Dad was one of the most well-spoken people I have ever known. He loved words and language. He knew the right things to say and when and how to say them. I miss that deeply.

On December 7, 1941, Dad had just finished participating in a performance of "The Messiah.". At the time, he was attending Stephen F. Austin College, majoring in chemistry and math. He'd basically taken the "pre-med" curriculum, though his sights were set on chemical engineering. (This is rather remarkable in itself, in that he grew up in a very poor East Texas family. He was born at home and learned to walk on dirt floors.) When the call for army enlistees went out, he didn't hesitate to answer. He approached the Army Air Corps because he wanted to be a flyer. They told him to go home. His vision was too bad and he became 4-F.  A while later, he was called up and, realizing that he had an aptitude for technology and engineering, they made him a radar mechanic. Ultimately he was shipped out to England, a member of the 561st Bomb Squadron, 388th Bomb Group, and spent the war on air bases in England.

After the war, Dad returned to college at Baylor University, where he fell in love with Mom. They had both studied religion - then called "Bible Studies"- in addition to an academic major. Dad majored in English; Mom in sociology. Dad was an ordained Baptist minister. By now the "disconnect" between part 1 of Dad's story and part 2 may have occurred to you. He went into the war desiring to spent his life as a chemical engineer and, by the time he'd been discharged, his life's journey was on a very different path. Personally, I think that though Dad loved fixing planes, and even helped out on some classified missions, he wasn't fond of sending some flyers off in their planes never to return to base. He went on the get a Ph.D. in English, specializing in Southern Literature.

Dad was, during the 61 years I knew him, a sensitive loving man. Among many other things, he taught me the importance of unconditional love. Just about everything he did, came from that great love inside - singing, teaching, preaching, fathering and grandfathering. It was truly all about love.  He accepted his children, myself included - different though I might have been then and now - for who we were and did all he could to help us become the people we are today.  We were blessed to have grown up on a college campus. I began watching plays before I was old enough to understand them. He'd fool me into a production of Shakespeare by saying, "You'll love this one! It's got a murder and three witches!" To learn music, he didn't just take me to concerts, he brought home a Norton's Book of Scores, a conductor's baton, and a record album like Dvorak's "New World Symphony." He helped me learn to throw a perfect spiral pass or make a layup on the basketball court. He encouraged me to play guitar and sing.  He let me travel during the summers to learn archaeology, even when my mom would rather I stayed home.  His love taught me how to be independent. 

Being independent was probably one of the great lessons he learned from being so far away from home, repairing radar units in planes.  And it was that independence that helped him develop the man he became by the time I arrived, less concerned with fixing planes and intent on changing people's lives through teaching. Dad was very wary of most wars after WW II. He quoted General Sherman, "War is Hell, " on more than one occasion. And he said those words as only one who has been there can say them.

Dad, I love and miss you dearly this Veteran's Day. I wish above all you were here to dispense some sage advice or show us how to love in the midst of so much rancor, division and sheer panic. But he's gone now and I have to look inward to find that part of him inside me to find those answers, 

As the Staff Sargent handed my Mom the folded flag that had been draped over my dad's coffin, he said, "He was a good soldier." Yes, indeed he was. One of the very, very best servant leaders to the end.