Father’s Day Memories

 I wrote this for a booklet for my father’s funeral in March of 2008…


Calvin G HoudekMy father, Calvin George Houdek, was born June 11, 1927 in Pine City, Minnesota, the only son, and only child, of George Houdek and Clara Sauter Houdek. They called him “Sonny boy” and doted on him.

The family, descendents of Bohemians (Czechs) and Germans, had come to Pine City by way of New Prague. There the Houdeks and the Sauters farmed.

Daddy was born in the midst of Prohibition, and at the early edge of the Great Depression. Many times we asked my grandfather—Grandpa George—about his moonshining during Prohibition, and were always immediately interrupted by Grandma Clara, who insisted she didn’t even know George during Prohibition… never minding their son was six years old by the time it ended! For himself, Daddy recalled going on deliveries with his father. At the shoestore, one time, he puzzled over the fact that the transaction seeming backwards, with the money and shoebox changing hands the wrong direction.

In his last few months, Daddy kept going back to farming and doing the milking with his dad, who was quite strict and grumpy about the way everything needed to be done. Daddy kept remembering how his dad, George, yelled at him for piling manure on the pile in the winter. The story made me mention how that explained why Daddy had gotten mad at me one winter for piling manure in the spreader. It had seemed logical to me to put it where we ultimately needed it, but it would have been a huge, frozen block of manure in the spreader half the summer before it thawed enough to spread.

His sound fear of snakes came with a hay bale coming out of the baler onto the hayrack with him, complete with extremely angry snake sticking out of the bale.

Yet the love of the land and the countryside never left him. I learned an enormous amount about the ways of the land, the weather, plants, and wildlife from him.

Calvin Houdek high school graduationDaddy just missed out on World War II, graduating from high school in the spring of 1945. He did have to go to the induction center. As he told it, there were long lines of skinny, buck-naked young fellows waiting to go up to the medical exam tables. A doctor held up an enormous syringe, squirting a bit of fluid out. All along the lines of naked boys some toppled like trees as they fainted.

My parents met at the Grantsburg fairgrounds when he rescued her from a cad about to dump beer in her hair. Telling us this tale, recently, my husband, Geo, commented it sounded like a set-up and asked my father if he’d arranged the incident. Daddy gave him a teasing look, suggesting that was exactly the case. Whether set-up, or act of nobility, they met and it was rather like people from two foreign countries meeting, with my father from the Bohemian-Germans of Pine City, and my mother from the Scandinavians of Grantsburg.

My father shocked and scandalized my mother’s family right away in an incident still repeated nearly sixty years later. They had him over to dinner and served that most prized of Norwegian delicacies, potato dumplings. Taking one look at the gray, sodden lumps my father promptly took the pitcher of blueberry syrup and dumped it all over the potato dumplings. It’s a wonder his future in-laws survived the shock.

She, in turn, was horrified at his mother dumping vinegar into everything.

Food incompatibilities never quite went away. Even years after he’d take the delicious foods my mother would make, seasoned (or not) to Norwegian tastes, and dump hot peppers and sauerkraut over them.

After they married, June 24, 1950, my parents headed out West, with no money, no jobs, and no particular destination. I learned of this at their 50th anniversary party. It explained much to me about why my mother hadn’t been too upset when I did the very same thing thirty-some years later.

Once out west, however, they were settling in, and might have stayed, had not Daddy’s mother contacted them, saying must return at once, as Daddy was about to be drafted into the army. The Korean War has started, with North Korea invading the South on June 25th, 1950. Note the date—they had gotten married the day before. Thus he was not drafted, having missed the requirement by a day.

They lived “back on the 40”, forty acres behind Clara and George’s farm. There was a two-room house with no plumbing, no running water, and no electricity. It must have been great fun.

Calvin Houdek Northwest Airlines Flight EngineerFrom there they went to San Francisco where they lived in a tiny travel trailer near the airport. Daddy went to work for United Airlines. They had three kids (you know, those three who don’t count), then moved to Denver, where they stayed a short time, then returned home to Minnesota, where I was born. There Daddy worked for Northwest Airlines, from which he retired after 31 years as a mechanic, Flight Engineer, and Aircraft Inspector.

Daddy always had stories about the airlines and flying. If you’ve ever wondered why the flight attendants always take your coffee cup onto their tray to pour the coffee in the aisle rather than just reaching over your lap to pour, Daddy had the story of the origin of that piece of airline policy. While on a flight, the stewardess came into the cockpit complaining about an overly-friendly passenger. The man wouldn’t settle down and stop making advances to her. Daddy, most helpfully, suggested that the next time she filled his coffee cup she just divert the spout a bit and land some in his lap. That would “cool” him down. The stewardess in question tried this technique. Result: Yes, the man stopped hitting on her, and the airlines instituted a policy of pouring coffee only in the aisle.

Other airplane stories included why the airlines always identify themselves to the control tower by both airline and flight number, such as “This is Northwest flight 206.” Before a certain flight into Washington, D.C. they only called in, “This is flight 206.” On this approach their plane encountered severe turbulence, the type that suggested to them they were in another plane’s prop-wash. They called in and were told they were the only plane in that location. As the turbulence got worse, they called in and specified they were “Northwest Airlines flight 206.” That time the now-panicked sounding air traffic controller informed them they were about run into the tail of another airplane, from another airline, but with the same flight number.

There were other stories… one night on approach to Minneapolis, they realized at the last moment they were coming to the wrong airport! They were about to land at St. Paul’s Holman Field, rather than the main airport. In an ill-considered move, the pilot jammed the wheel hard over to abort the landing. The problem was he almost put the wing-tip into the ground, which would have cartwheeled them into a burning heap of debris.

Daddy had long-time problems with one knee, which he attributed to a flight which had landed in North Dakota, or Montana—I don’t recall which. The plane had landed, but the stairs hadn’t been brought up yet, and they had a fire onboard, in one of the landing gear. If he had waited for the stairs, the plane may well have gone up in flames. There were no escape ramps at this time for evacuations. So he jumped from the open door to the tarmac, a good one-story drop, got an extinguisher and put out the fire, but hurt his knee badly in the process.

You may recall the scene from the movie Airplane when a 747 plunged through the side of the airport terminal. This very nearly happened to my father. He and a co-worker were in the cockpit when the plane surged forward toward the glass windows of the terminal. Daddy grabbed the throttles and yanked them back. No sooner did he let go than the plane surged forward again. That fun-loving co-worker had set the throttles to automatic!

He was a pilot, having learned to fly out of Flying Cloud airport. My first time in an airplane, I recall, was at age of no more than three of four in a two-seater with Daddy flying it. Getting lost in a snowstorm, however, put a damper on his private piloting ambitions. In his last month, he did think (or dreamed) he had been flying a plane again.

We did fly all over the country on vacations, on Northwest Airlines, on employee passes. This meant our family of six would be flying first class. One of the rules was that we had to dress up, and could not tell anyone we were an employee family. Such a large family in first class was a rarity—I only recall running across one other and they were an Oklahoma oil family. So, we caused a bit of puzzlement heightened when Daddy answered anyone who asked what he did for a living with “pig farmer!”

Houdek farm in Rock CreekIn 1966 we moved from the Burnsville area back up to a farm in Rock Creek, Minnesota, just about four miles from his home farm. Dreams of returning to those lovely, idyllic days of farming… well, any of you who know farming know the ‘lovely, idyllic’ part is just that—a dream! Our early days of farming were somewhere between amusing and traumatic. The sitcom tv show Green Acres was more like a documentary of our experiences than a comedy. Somehow Daddy seemed to find more and more overtime to work at the airport during haying season.

Still, it was a wonderful place, and way, to be raised as a kid. I wouldn’t have wanted to live anywhere else. My brothers had a catapult—I certainly don’t know any other kids who had something like that. Every year Daddy would take the boys, Michael and Calvin, and the neighbor boys, Larry and Lee Raudebaugh, on a hunting trip. Or I think it was meant to be a hunting trip. I don’t recall any critters ever being hunted. They’d go out camping and return smelling of wood smoke with stools and chairs hand-made out of logs and sticks.

For the girls, I must give my father enormous credit for his belief that women, and his daughters, could do anything. This was at a time before ‘women’s lib’ was known. I don’t doubt for a minute that I owe my career as a television engineer to my father’s view that I could do any type of man’s work. I cut hay, raked it, caught the bales, took care of the livestock, repaired building, shingled roofs, fixed my own car, and much more. Not many other girls I knew had that kind of advantage in life. When I started working in tv engineering, there were few other women, and a great deal of resistance to us being there. Yet I never doubted I could do the “man’s” work, because I knew I could.

In his declining years, most particularly this last year, my father knew his memory was slipping and it bothered him. Hard as it’s been to see him go through that, especially these last few weeks, it was also heartening to see the absolute devotion between my mother and him. She asked once, a few weeks ago, when he had become so dependent on her. Well, I answered, you’ve been married for over 50 years…

When he was in the hospital in January, and things weren’t looking good, Daddy talked about the angels coming. He said he “knew he had a bright future,” and that he hadn’t realized it would be “so interesting, and so confusing.” The angels did come, on March 6, 2008.