My father, Donald, was only 71 when he passed away. Today he would have celebrated his 100th birthday. Donald Eugene Hill was born at home near the tiny burg of Colburn, Indiana, on October 14, 1915. I saw the house once, abandoned and in the middle of a field; it has since been torn down.
Almost two generations older than me, and deceased since the late 1980s, my dad still connects me to times, lives, and customs taught to him by his parents and grandparents who knew the 19th Century.
There was an abandoned yoke for a draft horse that pulled a plow in back of the barn when I was a kid. I missed the days of my dad using horses to plow and till by only a decade or so. My brothers learned to farm using draft animals.
I may have missed the experiences, but the connections were palpable to me.
These were times when my family, and the culture from which they, came were agrarian. The larger society was in the midst of an industrial revolution but the old ways from many previous centuries still brought food to tables. Territories opened, land rushes drew adventurers and drifters.
Dad saw the coming of the end of the life he knew. Not his own mortality, though he knew that well, but rather the incorporation of the basic production of essential goods necessary to sustaining life into mechanized, impersonal processes removed from nurturance and knowledge.
How did he convey such nuanced information to me? He lived life honestly and he told stories. Boy, oh, boy, did he tell stories. Many people thought him to be an odd duck. And he was. So am I.
He did not give a hoot about what most people thought.
He once roared out during discussion with a local priest for whom he was doing some carpentry, “There is no God but Allah,” while in the middle of the sidewalk in our small, Indiana town. My brother, Roger, witnessed this, and was mortified. We were Christians. I can only imagine that he was demonstrating the belief that one should proclaim one’s beliefs publicly, as in the Islamic call to prayer, in some sort of intense religious discussion with the good Friar. He loved to expound on religious philosophy.
As an agnostic who could, “recite all the begats,” my father was an enigma. His memory had to be photographic, as he could recall anything he ever read and/or learned at the knee of his grandfather, Silas Hill, a Brethren Minister. But at heart my dad was a historian and a logician, not a church-goer. My interests in anthropology and semiotics did not fall very far from the proverbial tree.
He loved to tell stories about finding buried treasure. Some thought his stories were tall tales. But it was easier to find buried loot back when he was a boy, as people did actually bury their precious metal and gold and silver coins to hide them from ne’er do wells in the days before bank deposits were insured. Dad found serious money a couple of times according to my brothers. He literally stumbled over a can of gold coins, on the property just off the road our farm was on, and that financed his first tractor in the 1940s. You see Dad may have told tall tales, but he also listened deeply and analytically to the old men who gathered in the center of the town. Their stories revealed much about who did what where, some of which included who took the whereabouts of where they buried their money to the grave with them.
I cannot document these stories as facts, but I know the stories did not change over time, but they were plausible, and had verifiable elements. And he valued truth and community. He was active as a citizen, He was a volunteer fireman, a founding member of the group in our township. He was an active member of The Farmers Union and the local Democratic Party. Service and truth were important to him. But he also understood the power of telling a story or two.
So, if you would, do me a favor and give a gift in honor of my Dad’s 100th birthday: tell someone a story that you were told as a child. Such is the stuff of legacy.
Happy 100th Daddy.