Saturday, March 6, 2010

Luther E. Holland, 1922-2010

This is a bit lengthy, so I appreciate your indulgence if you choose to read on...

As my regular readers know, my father has been in ill-health in recent weeks, thus partially accounting for the dearth of activity on this blog.  I promise, the blog will be back better than ever in the not-so-distant future, but we (my family) have had a lot to deal with in the Reality Dept. lately, and Dad finally succumbed in the wee hours a week ago Friday morning to complications from pneumonia and prostate cancer at age 87.  To date, Dad lived longer than anyone else in his extended family did, and he died almost exactly two months shy of his 88th birthday.  We buried him today, and his passing is as much a relief to us as anything, as it was hard to watch him decline so rapidly after being relatively healthy for most of his life.  I'm not sad that he's gone now, so much as I'm sad for the life that Dad led overall.  He endured many hardships growing up, and was a somewhat tormented soul who never fully learned how to enjoy life.

Before we proceed any further, a little background:

Luther Earnest Holland, Sr. was born on April 26, 1922 in Earle, Arkansas (about 30 miles west of Memphis), and was raised in what Stevie Wonder once deemed "Hard-time Mississippi" during the heart of the Great Depression, and as my sister Renee noted in Dad's obituary, the Holland family story was something right out of The Grapes of Wrath.  I'm not all that much into Astrology, but it seems only appropriate that Dad was a Taurus, given his stubborn and staunch nature.  Dad's nickname amongst his siblings was "Buddy", although I'm not real sure how that originated.  He was the third of nine children born to Henry Grady Holland and Eddie Mae (Savage) Holland.  The couple's first child, a baby girl, died at birth in 1919, and two more sons later died during early childhood.  The family drifted from town to town in northeast Arkansas and northwest Mississippi, living in abject poverty most of the time, but they somehow eked out an existence by picking cotton and doing other farm work for meager earnings, which is no doubt where Dad picked up his steady work ethic.  Dad never finished high school because he was forced to go to work to help support the family in his late teens, and he eventually wound up working in Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps, a gig that took him all the way to Oregon in the late '30s, from which he sent his earnings back home to help the family.

Several years ago, Dad sat down at his Royal manual typewriter (which he still used right up until his passing) and wrote a somewhat-rambling narrative featuring recollections about his formative years from 1932-36, and the winter of 1932-33 was particularly traumatic for him when he came down with the flu around Christmastime:

"There was a raging influenza epidemic in the area at the time.  Very few households were spared it.  Every member of our family contracted influenza within a few days of my coming down with it...Since I was the first felled by influenza, I appeared to be the first of us to shake it off and start recuperating.  Soon after, I felt well enough to be out of bed part-time and walk around inside the house, someone informed us that a mother cat had given birth to kittens out in our barn.  I, being a curious 10-year-old, just had to see those kittens.  So I went without a coat to the barn through a cold drizzle and the mud and water on the ground.  The resulting consequence of my exposure to the foul weather was a relapse of the influenza, which was more severe the second time around.  I was bedridden altogether about three weeks and was terribly frail and weak from being sick."

And here's the single-most important poignant part of the story that would not only impact Dad's life, but our entire immediate family's lives in one way or another:

"Mama took to bed with influenza, followed a few days later with pneumonia and hematuria (kidney failure).  She died on January 7, 1933.  Since we were all in bed with influenza, none of us were able to attend Mama's burial in New Hope Cemetery up in the hills.  Although there was the influenza epidemic in the area at that time, I have always harbored a guilty feeling that I was responsible for bringing influenza to the family."

Keep in mind, dear friends, Dad dragged this shit around with him for the remaining 77 years of his life and never quite totally forgave himself for it.  It also doesn't help matters any that his mother's birthday was the day before his.  Even though he wasn't to blame, can you imagine what that must have felt like?  I wouldn't wish this kind of guilt-trip on anyone (except perhaps the wrong Rev. Fred Phelps, Rush Limbaugh and other selected human fecal matter).  If only Dad had a Sean Maguire-type (Good Will Hunting) person to come along and stress to him "It's not your fault" a few thousand times, then maybe his life might have been a much happier one.  As for Dad's poor mother (my paternal grandmother), it's also important to point out that this woman went through eight pregnancies (one with twins) in a 13-year span.  I'm not judging here or anything, but during that time and place, they didn't know any better and there wasn't much else to do for fun but fuck a lot.  My grandmother was only 16 when she gave birth to that first child who didn't survive, while my paternal grandfather was a good 13 years older than her.  My point here is the poor woman was already worn out from having all those children, so it's no wonder that she was so easily susceptible to the flu, and she died at the tender age of 29.  Sadly, we don't even have a photo of her (that I know of, anyway), so I'll probably never know what the woman looked like.

Another source of guilty feelings for Dad is the fact that he didn't see action in World War II like his brothers did.  Dad served stateside in the U.S. Army because of a medical deferment for the slight deformity in his left elbow.  I've never quite understood why this would prevent him from being a fighting solider—his deformity wasn't even all that noticeable unless you were looking directly at it, and I wasn't even aware of its existence until I was in college!  Nonetheless, he served as a Tech. Sgt. over here while his older brother Tom was a prisoner of war in Japan for over three years.  In fact, Tom was a P.O.W. for exactly one day longer than Dad's entire military hitch lasted.  Amazingly, my Uncle Tom was one of the 10% who survived that particular POW camp, and he told fascinating stories about it, and in spite of the unspeakable crap he endured, the man overcame the trauma and lived a long life raising a large family in Jackson, Mississippi until he died of Alzheimer's disease in 2007.  Getting back to Dad, the fact that he had such a cushy gig stateside while his brother suffered so much just gnawed at him no end...

It's also interesting to examine the disparate personalities amongst Dad and his siblings who survived into adulthood.  Dad was very stoic and reserved most of the time, although his sense of humor would seep through the stodgy veneer on occasion.  Uncle Tom was a bit more gregarious, and he would even tell me and my brother dirty jokes now and then!  Dad's sister Ruby (who lived in Florida and just passed away back in January) was a rather elegant and friendly lady, but for whatever reason, she and her late husband had no children like her other siblings did.  Dad's younger brother Alton (better known as "Uncle Dee") from Charleston, Mississippi (about 90 mins. south of Memphis) is the comedian of the bunch, and one of the most easy-going people in my extended family, in spite of losing two of his three daughters already (one was killed in a 1979 plane crash, and the other died unexpectedly last year).  Because of geographic distance, I never got to know Dad's other brother Kenneth (from St. Charles, Louisiana) quite as well, but the few times I've encountered him, he seemed fairly likeable, and there's an eerie similarity in his voice to Dad's.  Kenneth's twin brother Finnis was one of the early casualties in the family, passing away at barely six months in 1929.  Another brother, Edgar, only made it to age 3, and died in October, 1933.  Dad's youngest sibling, his late sister Lillian Ruth (aka, "Boots"), was born barely five weeks before their mother died, and was (for the lack of a better term) the "black sheep" of the family.  She was actually raised by some other relatives after my grandmother died, and never seemed to totally fit in with the rest of her siblings, so it's no surprise that in later life she became rather reclusive in North Carolina, where she died basically alone in 2001.

Just to finish up on Dad's early years, after WWII he went to work for the Army Corps of Engineers' Waterways Experiment Station, which eventually landed him in Waterloo, Illinois (about 20 miles SSE of St. Louis), which is where he met his future wife/my mother, one Gayle Marie Glotfelty of Valmeyer, Illinois (about 10 miles west of Waterloo). Knowing Dad the way I did, he was hardly a Romeo/Lothario, and I've always been mystified as to what exactly drew him and Mom together in the first place because they seemingly had so little in common, but Renee has opined that when he had to, Dad could talk a good game, and from Mom's point of view, he was her meal ticket out of small one-horse-town Valmeyer.  Thus, they were married in Valmeyer on May 23, 1954, and soon moved to Ravenna, Ohio (about 30 miles SE of Cleveland and just down the road to the east of Kent State) when Dad went to work for Howard, Needles, Tammen & Bergendoff, the architectural firm who (among other things) helped design the Truman Sports Complex here in K.C., as well as numerous other stadiums, bridges, highways and airports, etc., around the nation.  Dad worked in the HNTB Marketing Dept., helping to prepare the various brochures and pamphlets for said stadiums, bridges and other projects the company was responsible for.  My sister, Gayle Renee Holland, was born in Ravenna in July, 1955, and not long after that, the company transferred Dad to their Kansas City office, where he remained with the company until he retired in 1987 after 33 years of service.

Mom, Dad and Renee resided in a small house at 4100 Brooklyn Ave. (19 blocks south of old Municipal Stadium) in K.C. for a couple years, and my brother Earnie (Luther Earnest Holland, Jr.) was born the day after actor Humphrey Bogart died in January, 1957.  In the fall of '58, one of Dad's co-workers tipped him off about the house across the street in Raytown from him being for sale, so Dad snapped it up and it became our family home in January, 1959.  Oh, and about 5.5 years later, yours truly crashed their little party and was born on June 11, 1964 at 7:35AM—highly ironic, since I'm most decidedly NOT a morning person! Mom and Dad apparently ran out of "Junior"-type names, so they came up with the slightly uninspired "Brian Robert" Holland for reasons I still don't know to this day.  I say I "crashed their little party" because I'm pretty sure that my birth was an accident.  Dad was too much of a tactician, bean-counter and strategist to have another child on purpose so long after his first two (I'm nine years younger than Renee and seven years younger than Earnie), so unless I was some sort of tax write-off, my guess is someone forgot to wear a condom in mid-September, 1963.  Can you say "Fumble!"?...

At the service today, Renee described Dad as a bit of a "contradiction" in that he was always concerned about the welfare of his family, whether it was his siblings growing up or when he raised his own family and even in later years as his siblings began passing away one-by-one, yet for whatever reason, he was unable (or perhaps reluctant) to show affection with people.  One of my favorite episodes of TV's "M*A*S*H" is called "Sons And Bowlers" from 1982 where Hawkeye Pierce worried and fretted while his father back home underwent delicate cancer surgery.  Major Winchester (of all people) lent him some welcome support and comfort while Hawkeye awaited news on the surgery's outcome, and even opened up to him for one of the rare times.  "You're lucky that only distance separates you..." Charles said, "My father and I can be 12,000 miles apart in the same room.  My father's a good man—he always wanted the best for us.  But, where I have a father, you have a Dad."  That line has always resonated with me because, for better or worse, it pretty much sums up my relationship with my father—he was a great leader and father-figure, but he was a rotten "Dad" to us, even though (ironically) we called him "Dad."

My longtime friend John is real close with his dad, and I've always admired their relationship because they have several shared interests and still do things together even today.  I always feel envious of guys whose fathers take their sons out drinking now and then or take an interest in their son's careers or activities.  Dads are supposed to be your best friend too, but sadly, I never had that kind of connection with my father.  My old man rarely—if ever—even played catch with me in the back yard or ever encouraged me to chase girls (let alone get laid) during my teen years or ever comforted me when I had a major disappointment like most dads do (so I hear, anyway).  Hell, he never even had the "sex talk" with me—I had to figure all that shit out on my own!  It didn't help that Dad was 42 years old when I was born, and thanks to his prematurely grey/white hair and receding hairline, he's always seemed like an old man to me.  About the only shared interests I ever had with my father were our unwavering loathing of the Notre Dame football team and disdain for organized religion.  In a nutshell, my father was a very good person with an excellent sense of right and wrong, a stellar work ethic, and his heart was certainly in the right place, but in terms of affection and emotional support, he was almost a total ice cube.  I know that sounds a bit callous of me to say, but I'm being honest here, and I really feel like I missed out on something in my life because of it.

It also saddens me that Dad never seemed to have anyone in his life that you could call his "best friend".  I've been so lucky to have four people in my life that I consider to be best friends (three male and one female—you know who you are), but about the closest Dad ever came to having one was an old Army buddy who lived in Ohio, but even then they only got to see each other very infrequently after their days in the military and his friend died of cancer several years ago.  Dad was also highly-resistant to change (a trait I inherited from him that I've really struggled to overcome) and this is best illustrated by how long Dad held out using his old rotary-dial telephones at home before he had no choice but to switch to push-button models.  I mentioned earlier how Dad still used a manual Royal typewriter, and he was very reluctant to replace his aging 1984 Zenith 27" TV until Mom finally pressed the right buttons about a year ago to rope him into getting a 42" flat-screen behemoth and—to my utter shock—cable TV!  Even with all those extra TV channels at his disposal, he still insisted on watching the same crappy local TV newscasts and "Wheel Of Fortune", et al, every night.  Dad also became very jaded about a lot of other things in life—he didn't even have any favorite type of music!  Y'all know how passionate I am about music, so maybe my viewpoint is a bit skewed here, but I just can't see how you can live without music touching your life in one way or another.  Dad certainly never got why I became the rabid record/CD collector that I am, and I know I drove him crazy with my Kiss bank checks, too!

Dad was also a major creature of habit.  He hated eating out for dinner (I'm just the opposite—I love it) and hated being away from home for any length of time, even when visiting his brothers and sisters on road trips.  He preferred doing the same old routine at home every night.  It's as if that childhood experience with the kittens and his troubled upbringing just sucked the sense of adventure right out of him, because he never cared to go sightseeing or do any tourist-y things while on "vacation".  Before I was born, the family went to Florida to visit Aunt Ruby, and Earnie and Renee just begged Dad to take them to DisneyWorld while they were there, but he refused—all he ever wanted to do was visit relatives.  I seem to recall a scene in National Lampoon's Vacation where the Griswolds are crossing the Mississippi River in St. Louis and Chevy Chase says, "Look kids, there's the Gateway Arch!"  One of the kids says, "Can we go up in it, Dad?"  "No!"  That's a pretty good microcosm of a Holland family road trip back in the day, although we actually did get to go up in the Arch when I was about six, and that metallic monolith has enchanted me no-end ever since.  Even after retirement when Mom and Dad were totally set financially and they had all the time in the world to actually see the fucking world, they rarely went on vacations that didn't involve visiting relations.  Once back in the '80s, they drove all the way out to Oregon to hit some of Dad's old haunts from his C.C.C. days, then drove down to California to see L.A. and returned to Kansas City—all in EIGHT days!  Folks, I FLEW to California year before last and spent eight days there, and barely scratched the surface on stuff to see and do out there—about all Mom and Dad did on that trip was drive, drive and drive some more.  So much for sightseeing...

Dad also struggled with owning anything that might be considered a luxury.  Ever since she was a little girl, Mom dreamed of having a Cadillac of her very own, and Dad finally broke down and bought her one in the early '80s, but he still felt obligated to "justify" such a purchase to neighbors and relatives by reeling off this litany of reasons (good mileage on road trips, room for more passengers, etc.) instead of just being able to enjoy the fruits of his labors.  Ironically, once he realized what a good car Mom had, he went out and bought another Caddie for himself a couple years later when our old Chevy station wagon finally bought the farm.

The other thing I never could reconcile with Dad was how he didn't encourage his offspring to be whatever we wanted to be.  None of us could gain his approval in our chosen career fields, no matter how successful (or not, in my case) we might have been.  My brother always loved cars from the get-go, so it's only natural he became an auto mechanic (and a damn good one), but Dad tried to dissuade Earnie from pursuing it in the beginning.  My sister sought a degree in Microbiology, which Dad was also skeptical about, and initially it didn't work out for Renee, but she later went back to school and became a nurse.  As for me, I was supposed to be "His son, the accountant" so imagine his utter dismay when I set out to become a radio disc jockey, spinning all those Kiss platters ad nauseam...  My radio career tanked after a couple years, but I had to fall flat on my face and find that out for myself, didn't I?.  Charlie Daniels once said in a radio interview something to the effect of "Let's say you have the talent to be a nuclear physicist and that's what your Daddy wants you to be, yet you want to be a ditch-digger, then hell, be a ditch-digger.  Your Daddy can’t live your life for you…”  Dad never understood this, and to this day, I still haven't decided what I want to be when I grow up…

I don't mean to sound like I'm bashing my father here, but these are some things I needed to get out of my system.  There are lots of things I inherited from Dad that I've always appreciated—my fairly immaculate handwriting skills, my punctuality, my incredible penchant for remembering dates and past events, my organizational skills and my blue eyes are all things I'm damn proud of.  And there were also many many good times in our family when I was growing up, and he and Mom did a fine job raising their children to be respectful and to know right from wrong.  It's just a damn shame that Dad was never able to just let go of his dark past and learn to enjoy himself a little in life.  I truly hope that his internal war is now over for good and that he's finally at peace.  S'long, Dad—it wasn't your fault...