Oil Portrait of Ernie Mallery by Michele Warner Smith
My parents will always be my heroes. I did not realize how fortunate I was to have perfect parents until I reached adulthood. We reap what we sow. Life came full circle for me the December my father Ernie (Ole Ern) passed away. All the memories of happy times come flooding back to me with such deep resonance and significance now that he is gone and I find myself so often reflecting on his life— comparing his parenting skills to my own.
I do not throw the word perfect around loosely in remembrance of my father’s passing. I can truly only hope to measure up to my parents’ uncommon knack of successfully raising a happy family.
Life is an adventure and my dad made sure we had plenty of adventures to glean experience from. He was full of life’s excitement and subtly injected that enthusiasm into everyone he met.
When I was about seven years old he took me to an open house at the Michigan Bell Telephone Company where he was a construction foreman. There were bucket trucks to ride, equipment to sit in and lots of refreshments. What I remember most was my dad explaining to me how to greet people. He said, "When I introduce you to someone, stick out your arm and while you shake their hand look them straight in the eye." Everyone who said peep to me that day got my hand and my stare. They still do today.
About that same time my dad bought an airstream travel trailer. It was the late 50s and there were few RVs on the road. We were like a band of gypsies as we traveled the country during long vacations each year. Most of our campsites were root beer stands or gas stations where they would let us hook up to electricity. Long before everyone had a CB radio in their vehicle my dad had built one the size of a small suitcase from a Heath Kit. I can picture him late at night at his desk soldering small transistors on to a board and adding thin crystals. In those days you were a mobile HAM operator and had to have call numbers. Our number and that of another family we often traveled with are forever branded into my gray matter. 19Q0166 calling 19Q1408. We had to say those numbers dozens of times a day to call the car ahead and make plans to stop for another coffee break and let six kids explore and let off enough steam to go another 50 miles or so.
My dad would always build the excitement prior to a trip. We went to the Seattle World’s Fair when I was in 5th grade. On the way West he said we would all get ten gallon cowboy hats, ride horses, go to rodeos, climb the Space Needle and jump in the Pacific Ocean. We did all that. He forgot to mention watching park rangers catch a bear, feeding wild burros and showing us how to make trains blow their whistles as we drove alongside with the car top down and a posse of kids mimicking an engineer pulling an imaginary air horn cord.
My dad never laid a hand on me as a child. I guess that is why he was in management. He would give us several fair warnings to straighten up and then send my mother with the belt. When my dad was giving instructions on such life lessons as picking up your rake and not laying it about where someone might step on it, he used a subtle approach. If you didn’t catch on right away, and he found your rake laying in the yard, he would discuss it quietly with you as he slowly pinched your arm. By the time you got to your tiptoes you were all ears!
Seldom did my dad walk through the door of a church, yet he possessed, and lived by values that few people master in their lifetime. Never a word of gossip, always encouragement. A bright side to every dark event. A blessing for every need. He had an infectious smile that garnished his wonderful sense of humor. When the doctors told him he was going to die and needed to arrange for Hospice he waited until he reached the car and jokingly said, "Well, that was encouraging."
If we could take his spirit of life, his generous compassion for friends, and the tolerance in which he judged others, and inject it into the world population instead of the smallpox vaccine, the planet would be the Utopia we all pray for. The world will miss his humor and his genuine concern for everyone he touched.
I will be able to laugh and cry for the rest of my years reflecting on all the good times I have shared with my father. I asked him once to route me a wooden sign for my fledgling bird feeder business. He was a great wood worker. He suggested I learn to do it myself. I gave it a shot, but the letters in our last name were crooked and the sign not centered. He grabbed another piece of wood and said, "If you had gone to college you would know how to do this." I couldn’t figure that. He hadn’t gone to college, and yet he could make beautiful signs. Over his shoulder I watched him skillfully create a handsome sign from raw wood. Midway through the operation I was chuckling but I never let on why. The finished sign read, "The Malery Construction Co." I could hardly contain myself. He held it up with great pride and said, "There, is that so hard?" I was quick to respond, "You know, if you had gone to college, you would know there are two ‘L’s’ in Mallery." He chased me out of the garage with that newly minted sign board and we laughed until it hurt.
I miss ya Dad.
—Keep Smilin’, Dick E. Bird