November 14, 2016
MONTPELIER – Our human memories are notoriously unreliable. Anyone looking for facts in a reminiscence of long-ago will most likely not find them. He will, however, see what shapes the memoirist’s current views and self-image. Thus, on the eve of a week of two trips through my own memories, I’ve been delighted to be able to dig out sixty-year-old journals and records of expenses. Sure enough, I’ve been exaggerating, and the records prove it.
My father was ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church in 1943 and assigned a large mission field that covered four dioceses, from Buffalo and Jamestown to Albany, and from Malone to Poughkeepsie. He loved the job, but I’ve always thought he missed his true calling, as a bookkeeper. He kept records of every expenditure and item of income, from winter tires to the most modest lunches in greasy spoons all over New York State. The diocese, once he was able to buy a car in the mid-forties, paid him four cents per mile for his travels; and on that meager remuneration he was able to fuel and maintain his cars, and trade every two or three years.
I’m sure he found all that extraordinary, even heroic. He loved to show me his record books, carefully filled out in a printed script I still recognize instantly today. But I was particularly difficult during my teens, and gave them only a perfunctory, irritated glance, all the while vowing not to become like my father.
The record book I just exhumed from a lower drawer of my desk, however, reveals that it took me less than ten years to start down his path. A Masterpiece Deluxe spiral notebook, 5 x 9, its covers heavily stained with who-knows-what and falling almost to bits, it records that in early September of 1957 I bought a 1946 Plymouth sedan with 77, 672 miles on it, for $120 (in silver dollars) in Denver, Colorado. Headed south, I paid $1 for 4.8 gallons of gas in Abilene. A few days later, when my traveling buddy, Sam, and I discovered we were burning almost as much oil as gas, we tore the engine down and in the parking lot of a garage in Brownwood, Texas, installed new rings, inserts, and a tie rod end for $25.93. A pair of recaps cost me $19.90. My father, when I showed him my records later in Syracuse, seemed irritated. It’s not hard to guess why. Though my imitation of his operation was a sort of compliment, I had managed to go him one better. Even he couldn’t crawl under a Plymouth, drop the pan, and pull the pistons.
I can also see that just a couple of years later, after Mother and I were married and had graduated to the first of our Beetles, we made a lot of gas purchases for even dollar amounts, all of them less than five dollars. But with gas then at 32 cents, we could travel 100 miles, with the baby’s play pen on the roof ruining our aerodynamics, for a buck.
Which brings me to the first of my Dad’s heroics. He was always robust, even into pretty old age, and I think he decided somewhere along the way to make it to one hundred if he could. He remarried not long after my mother died, to an old college classmate who, if she had the same ambition, never mentioned it. On his hundredth birthday he looked like hell, frankly, but you could tell he was delighted to have made it. He died just a couple of months later, in 2009.
The oldest continuous cross-country race in the nation is held annually at Northfield Mount Hermon School near Greenfield, Massachusetts. It’s called the Pie Race, and celebrated its 125th anniversary last year. Finishers within a certain time receive an incredible pie from the school bakery. In the fall of 1951, I managed to finish in second place, which was a great surprise to my coach, I’m sure, and, in retrospect was probably the high point of my school career; I still have the medal. I last ran in 1977, just before my orthopedist canceled any further running. In recent years, though, the school has started awarding pies to any elderly alums who manage even to finish the 4.3-mile course. So I’ve packed my cane and sweats in the Prius, and I’m headed back tomorrow. I’m guessing my dad’s ethereal presence will exude a mixture of pride and irritation at his kid’s turbocharging of his old man’s performance.
The following day, assuming I’ve survived and can manage to walk from my motel room to the car, I’ll head west a bit. My sister, who’s had charge of arrangements, has been saving Dad’s ashes until his widow likewise expired. She lingered on to the age of 106, and on Tuesday we’ll inter them both in the family plot just south of Albany. The oldest stone there is that of my great-grandfather, Wilhelm August, and his wife, Anna Brendel. Wilhelm died young, but his widow, Gramma Lange, was our nanny when my sister and I were little, so there’ll be some sober memories to go along with the Reformed Church slogan on their cross: Durch Kreuz zur Krone.
Then, speaking of anomalies, there’ll be lunch at an Irish pub recently opened by a new, Hibernian, addition to the family tree, and probably a dozen or so Lange cousins in attendance. I won’t be staying very long, as it’ll be a few hours back to central Vermont and I’ve got to make the Essex ferry before it closes for the night.
I have to admit the old man’s got me beat there. In the pre-interstate highway days, to avoid a night in a motel (not to mention the expense), he’d often drive through the late evening to get home for the night. He’d leave an evening service in Buffalo, say, and take old Route 20 east back to Syracuse. The familiar rattle of his key in the front door was a tremendous comfort to us kids, fast asleep but half expecting it. I’ll be saying a final good bye to him Tuesday afternoon, and then shortly hitting the road, keeping track of mileage, time, and expenses the whole way home.