Monday, April 13, 2009

Dad's Life Condensed to 15 Minutes

I read the words that follow at my father's funeral. It was very emotional for me, especially after his flag drapped casket was rolled into the chapel. I wanted to give up when the tears started rolling down my cheeks, but I could hear my Dad's voice encouraging me to keep going...and to never give up...

In preparing for this day, my mother jotted down some of the relevant facts about the life of my father, Wendell Howard Lueker. I would like to take a few moments, to briefly share with you the highlights of his life and career, adding some of my own stories and those he shared with me over the past 45 years.

Dad was born in Woodbine, Kansas on February 7, 1936 in the midst of the “Great Depression”. He was the second child, of Rano and Lucille Lueker and had an older brother Gene, and younger sister Bonnie.

Dad’s father, who we affectionately called Grandpa Lueker, was an electrician and during the years of World War II, they led a rather “gypsy-like” life as the family moved from state to state throughout the mid-west. Dad never talked much about his childhood, but did share that he didn’t like moving every few months, and he really hated living in a tiny camper they pulled behind the family car.

From first to third grade, Dad attended nine different schools. His parents finally settled in Riverside California where he began the 4th grade, and remained until he graduated from Riverside Poly High School in June 1953.

Dad was an excellent student. He was active in his church and enjoyed playing the saxophone. Both my brother John and I tried to play the same instrument, but neither of us had the same talent. In fact, I was pretty bad. Although Dad was always encouraging and optimistic that I would improve with practice, I eventually convinced him that his beloved saxophone was no longer "cool", and we retired it to the basement where it remains until this day.

At the age of 17, Dad enrolled at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland where he joined his older brother Gene who had shown him the way to get a “free” college education. Academy life was not always easy for Dad, but it wasn’t until my younger sister Cate decided to enroll in Navy ROTC at Duke that I learned exactly how hard it was for him.

One of Dad’s greatest challenges at Annapolis was the fact that he had joined the Navy without knowing how to swim. He failed the required swim test and spent much of his free time in the pool trying to master the basics so he could pass the test and graduate. Dad wanted to be in the Navy, but he hated being in the water.

I never suspected this. To me, Dad seemed truly at home in the water. As a kid, whenever he joined us at the pool, we’d beg him to give us underwater piggy-back rides and he never said “no”. Dad would take a deep breath, submerge, and we’d all grab hold. Like a true submariner, he'd move slowly and methodically through the water, holding his breath the whole time, waiting for us to fall off or let go, then he’d surface.

When Cate joined the Navy, she too couldn’t swim, so the truth about Dad finally came out. Dad told her that he was such a bad swimmer that he established the low mark upon which all midshipmen were evaluated. He later told me that his inability to swim was so well known at the academy that most of his classmates secretly came to watch him take his final swim test. When the instructor finally said he passed, the assembled crowd let out a thunderous cheer that nearly scared him to death. When I asked him how he managed to not drown with all us kids hanging on his back, he’d just smile and say he always knew how to sink.

Besides remedial swimming lessons, Dad said he really enjoyed being part of the sailing squadron at Annapolis. As a passionate sailor myself, he’d often shared a funny story or two when we were adrift on a breezeless, sweltering summer day.

Dad loved to tell me about the time when he had to sail back to Annapolis after a race to Newport with a makeshift crew of army nurses. I must have heard that story a hundred times, but my favorite story was about the time he saved the sailing program.

Dad’s tale began when an influential Senator had decided that the academy's sailing squadron was a waste of taxpayer money. He wanted it abolished. The Senator came to Annapolis one Summer day and requested to be taken for a sail so he could assess the program’s value. Dad told him that the boat’s engine had been disabled in preparation for an upcoming race, but the Senator insisted. The wind was light, but Dad agreed to take Senator out for a sail and show him what they had learned from the program.

As is typical on the Chesapeake Bay, the breeze eventually faded and the summer heat took over. Once the wind died, and the boat began to drift, the Senator turned beet red, began sweating profusely and started complaining about the situation. Dad tried to explain why the motor was inoperable, but the Senator just got angrier, and angrier. Finally, Dad asked if there was anything he could do to make the Senator more comfortable, and the Senator replied that nothing short of Dad pulling a cold beer from his you-know-where would do.

Dad immediately went below decks and returned a moment later with an ice cold beer. When he handed it to the Senator, the Senator’s eyes grew as big as dinner plates, and his jaw dropped in disbelief. Although it was not allowed, the crew had filled the bilge with beer and ice in preparation of their final race. Dad said he figured he had nothing to loose at this point, so he revealed his contraband to the Senator, who marveled at the crews ingenuity.

When they were eventually towed back to the dock, the Senator thanked Dad and the crew and told the squadron commander that he had been convinced of the program’s value and that he personally would make sure the sailing program would continue to be funded. When the squadron commander asked Dad what happened, Dad said “you really don’t want to know” and left it at that.

Although it was a challenge, I know Dad truly enjoyed his experienced at the Naval Academy, and the many life long friends he made there. I know this because he and I attended hundreds of Navy football games from the time I was in High School until well after my son Deke was born. And if you know anything about Navy football, you had to love the Academy to sit through most of those games.

Dad graduated from the Academy in June of ‘57. And began his career in the Navy. The christmas before graduation, Dad met my mother, Diana Derbish, by chance at a party in Riverside. At the time, Mom was a student at UC Riverside and her date had a bit too much to drink. Dad, being a clever and resourceful guy, found a friend with a car and offered to drive Mom and her girlfriend home. Apparently, it was a pretty memorable ride as a year and a half later, they were married in June of 1958.

Although Dad hated moving as a young child, he couldn’t escape it in the Navy. In their first seven years together, Mom and Dad lived in Long Beach, New London, Norfolk, Monterey, Los Angeles, Yokosuka, Japan; New London again, Vallejo, Idaho Falls, and Honolulu.

Between all the packing and unpacking, they some how managed to add my sister Christine in 1959; my brother John in 1961; and me in 1963. My sister Cate rounded out the family in 1966.

After Hawaii, the Navy tradition of moving continued at a some what slower pace that included Norfolk, Groton, Charleston, and finally Northern Virginia where our family settled down for good in November 1972. Like Dad, I lived in nine different places in my early childhood, eventually being settle in one location where I finished the 4th grade. To me, our home in Springfield will always be my childhood home, and to this day I can clearly see Dad, tan briefcase in hand, walking home from the bus stop at the top of the hill.

The first part of Dad’s naval career was on surface ships, or “Targets” as he would later refer to them, and included the destroyers Basilone and Fechteler, and the LST Tom Green County. The second half of his career was highlighted by tours on the nuclear submarines Plunger and Carver. It was on these boats, and in this community, that Dad was most proud of his service.

A couple years ago, Dad and I were on the Outer Banks having dinner at a local brew pub when he began to tell me some sea stories from his time aboard the submarines. Dad began telling me an unbelievable story about how during a fleet exercise he managed to hide his nuclear submarine from the rest of the fleet. Dad’s sub was the prey in the exercise, and the fleet were the hunters. Dad’s strategy was both simple and brilliant. When the exercise began, he slowly maneuvered his sub through the waters until they were just behind and below the screws of the aircraft carrier at the center of the fleet. They remained in that position, undetected, through out the exercise. After exhausting all efforts to find them, the commander in charge of the exercise eventually asked them to divulge their position. Dad said with a laugh, that they immediately obliged by popping up their periscope and radioing instructions to look behind the carrier.

I never really understood how he could enjoy living in such tight quarters on subs, especially after his childhood years living in a tiny trailer, but as he told me this story, I could see how proud he was. Not only about this single accomplishment, but of how far he had come from his beginning as a poor kid from Kansas.

For me, one of Dad’s greatest feats was how he used the Navy to get an education. In addition to his free education at the academy, the Navy paid Dad to get a masters degree in Applied Physics from UCLA in 1963. He even managed to work the system and earn a law degree from George Washington University in 1977, right before he retired in 1978.

Dad was an extremely intelligent man. We grew up in a household where not going to college was not an option. My brother and I were joking last night about the fact that when Dad tried to help us with our homework, he’d get so frustrated with us and stand there with his shoulders shrugged, a bewildered expression on his face, and a recurring chant of “how can you not get this, its easy.” The fact was, he was a genius, and we weren’t. His academic achievements always motivated me to do my best. In the end, he earned two more degrees than I did, but I managed to attend more colleges.

After the retiring from the Navy, Dad continued to remain in the Navy family while working for a number of government contractors servicing the Department of the Navy. Eventually, his career branched out from the Navy when he took a position with Metro in 1990. He remained with metro until his retirement in 2003.

Reflecting back over the years it seems as though I spent a lot of one-on-one time with Dad packed in a car, heading somewhere. We drove to and from Navy football games on an almost weekly basis, toured numerous colleges during my high school years, and travelled coast to coast twice--once when I started college, and a year later when I quit. Some of our travels were for fun, some had a more serious tone, but all the trips were quality time with Dad.
In recent years, our trips were less frequent, but we still managed several trips to the Outerbanks where he helped me work on my beach house, or kept me company while I winterized or de-winterized the house. Dad and I always took advantage of these trips and had a good time.

Dad was an honorable man and ultimately believed that others were honorable too.

Dad was always supportive, no matter how far fetched our ideas were, and never refused to offer assistance.

Dad had a great sense of humor, and was never quick to judge or force his opinion on you, even when he should have.

Dad was quiet, but he had a presence that gave you comfort, and you knew he was in control.

Pa, as he was know to us after his grandchildren Dana, Deke, Eleanor, and Nate were born, loved his family, treasured his shipmates, valued his friends, and enjoyed life.

He was a good guy, and I will miss him.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Funeral

We buried Pa today, April 2, at Arlington National Cemetery.

It was a nice service, although my eulogy ran a bit long so things got out of order at the grave site. We did the flag folding and twenty-one gun salute before the pastor said the final words. It was wet, so most folks couldn't come to the grave site due to the mud, but my Mother, sisters, and brother and I were all there at the front row. The military does such a nice job of honoring those that serve. I know my dad always loved being in the Navy, it was such a big part of him even though he retired when i was just 13, the Navy was in his blood. On the day of his funeral, I felt so proud of him. He came from humble roots and accomplished so much.

It was nice to see so many of Dad's friends and shipmates come out for his service. It was a very fitting way to pay tribute to him. Being buried at Arlington is such a great honor. Dad will always be a part of America's history, and for decades to come, his gravesite will be cherished by all of us who pay tribute to those that serve our country.

I miss him...

Monday, March 23, 2009

Sea Stories

Since my fathers death, many people have reached out to my mother, brother, sisters, and me to express their condolences. One extremely positive thing that has struck me is how much my father was liked. Sure, he had is friends from the Navy that we saw often through out the years, but my mother keeps receiving notes (cards and emails) from folks that we barely knew talking about my father in such a way that makes me proud. As a kid, your dad is always just that, your dad. You never really see them as anything else. Since Pa's death, I have learned more about his life than I did in the 45 years I spent with him. I have even read notes from former Navy sailors confirming stories Pa used to tell. It sure is refreshing to know that his sea stories were true, not just myths.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

More than a month

It has been more than a month since Pa left us. Life seems to be back to normal for me. Since the Spring is usually not a time when we have lots of family gatherings, not seeing Pa doesn't seem at odds with the status quo.

Today, I was at my parents' house collecting pictures to put together a DVD of Pa's life for his service on April 2. My brother John and his wife Jo were there, and we all sort of joked that it seemed normal and that we wished Pa would get up and come down to join us. For the past few years, when ever we went to visit, he always seemed to be somewhere in their house doing something, never wanting to just sit and talk--that is until it was time to leave. Then, he would walk you out to your car and proceed to have a 45 minute conversation about just about anything and everything. Those conversations are a big part of my memories now. I cherish them.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

One Week

It's been a little over one week since Dad passed away. It seems much longer since he was in ICU, unconscious for over two weeks. I can't remember when I last spoke to him--probably the first week of January.

I was in Richmond, VA for a volleyball tournament with my daughter the Saturday he went to the emergency room, and then ICU. I was unable to see him, but according to my mother and sister, he was awake and aware that first weekend, but woke up Sunday night and was confused and combative, so the doctors drugged him with a heavy sedative and anti-hallucinogen. He never woke up.

In some ways I am glad he wasn't awake those two weeks. It was hard enough seeing him with the tubes and machines all around. It would have been so much harder if he was conscious and aware. I know he wasn't ready to go. He enjoyed family time so much, and was always trying to tell a joke or two. Rather than talking with him (he couldn't respond due to the breathing tubes), and lying to him saying he would get better, I prefer my memory from New Years Eve and on the 1st of January where we were all gathered for our annual family picture. Dad was quiet--he always was. But looking back, he seemed happy with all his kids and grandkids hanging out. I miss him, and think of him every day.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Not all Hospitals are Alike

I know that my father's health wasn't the best, but I think the poor care he received at Fair Oaks Hospital in Fairfax, Va contributed greatly to his death.

After nearly two weeks in ICU, we decided to move Dad to Fairfax Hospital. I must say the quality of care between the two hospitals was as different as night and day.

He had a temperature at Fair Oaks the whole time he was being treated. The doctors were unable to get it under control. In fact, the day before we moved him it had reached 107, and the doctors did virtually nothing to try and lower it besides prescribing more medication. When we moved him to Fairfax, the doctors got it down within 12 hours--due in large part because they took him off the sedatives given at Fair Oaks. By the time we moved him, it was too late, the high fever and prolonged time on the respirator took their toll on his kidneys and other organs. His body was shutting down, and he died three days later.

Without getting into specifics, the doctors and staff at Fair Oaks didn't seem to care. They visited him infrequently, and acted as if he didn't matter. The various specialists (Heart, lungs, infectious disease) never talked to each other to form a plan of action until we started to complain. Instead, each blamed the others area of expertise for my Dad's illness, and none of them stepped up to the plate to try and save him. In my opinion, they should all be sacked. They shouldn't receive a dime for the care they gave my father, and they should all find other careers since helping the sick isn't their priority. My father waited three days to have a catheter replaced after a nurse botched a simple procedure and the Urologist couldn't be bothered to answer his pages over the weekend. When a different urologist finally came to see him and adjust the catheter, over three liters of urine came out. Imagine peeing for 10 minutes. Now imagine holding that for three days while your doctor plays golf. That's the joy the doctors brought my father before he died.

Although both hospitals are owned by the same system (INOVA), take my advice if you or a loved one is ever sick in Northern Virginia, drive the extra 20 minutes to Fairfax Hospital. It might save your life!

Family, Friends, and Memories

I never thought of my family as close, but over the past few days I have realized that we truly are. I was fortunate enough to spend 44 out of 45 Christmases with my parents, brother, and sisters. As our families expanded through marriage and children, the holidays seemed to always bring us back to the beginning. My parents were both from Southern California, and I grew up mostly on the east coast, so my grandparents and cousins were not a consistent part of my life. Maybe that's why Mom and Dad always made such a big deal about Christmas time. I count myself lucky to have such a close family, especially now that my father is gone.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

I miss Santa...

I stayed up way too late Tuesday night looking through old photos of Dad.  My brother and I were online chatting until about 4 am--I love technology.  I was putting photos I have of Dad into a folder so I could quickly share them with family and friends.  As I found ones I particularly liked in my archives (over 24,000 photos since going digital in 2001), I'd pass them along to my family. Yesterday morning my sister Cate sent me a couple she had.  One in particular made me laugh, then cry.

Last October my parents drove from their home in Fairfax, Virginia to visit the youngest grandkids in Jacksonville, Florida.  They planned to spend Halloween with my sister and stay through the election.  My brother-in-law was busy, he's in the NAVY and was captain of a frigate at the time, so my parents were gonna stay and watch the kids on election day while my sister was doing her civic duty manning the polls.   Being native "southern" Californians, my folks are very, very democratic and my sister is as well.  After re-locating to Florida courtesy of the Navy, Cate found herself smack dab in the middle of Republican territory and was asked to be a democratic monitor at one of the polling stations.  

Anyway, as any parent can attest, Halloween is by far the second most important holiday to any kid under the age of 13.  It is a close second to Christmas.  It was good that my folks went to visit my sister and her family.  My niece and nephew dressed up as salt and pepper shakers for the big night, while Dad dawned a red sweat shirt and Santa hat to man the door while the grandkids scurried about through the neighborhood.

My sister sent this photo of Dad.  He really didn't have to try very hard to look like Santa.  I miss him. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Never Ready...

Although my dad was in ICU at two different hospitals, for over two weeks, I was stunned when he passed away.  We knew it was a long-shot that he would recover from the "unknown" illness that forced him to the emergency room on January 17th.  From the 24th on, the doctors all warned us that he was very sick and might not make it, yet we were hopeful that he would recover.  

My sister and I visited our dad late Monday night after I had spent the evening with my 13 year old daughter at volleyball practice.  His vital signs were better than the day before and he was blinking and twitching his eyes when we talked to him.   Earlier that night, the Doctors finally found two sources of infection, both acquired at the hospital where he was initially treated.  He was still very sick, but with his temperature down, kidneys being aided by dialysis, the current infections under treatment, and his heart and lung issues improving, we felt for the first time that he would really make it.  We had to wear gowns and gloves for the first time since he entered the ICU, because one of his infections was highly transferable.

After talking with him and encouraging him to continue the fight, I left the hospital Monday night feeling that he had finally turned the corner, and Pa would be coming home.  Not tonight, but in a week or two.  There was finally a light at the end of the long dark tunnel.

We reported his condition to Mom, and we sat in the living room talking about him as my sister googled the infections he had so we could educate ourselves to what lie ahead.  I left my Mom and sister and went home to my family, tired (it was after 1 am) but full of hope that Dad, or "Pa" as we called him after my kids were born, would recover. 

At 7am Tuesday morning, the nurses called my Mom and said he had a good night.  Guarded but full of optimism, my mother and sister were en route to the hospital by 8:30 to meet with the doctors to discuss his current condition and planned treatment.  They received a call sometime around 9am while fighting rush hour traffic with grim news, Dad was having issues with his lungs and heart and they were doing CPR.  

Immediately, my sister called our house and my wife woke me to tell me what was going on.  I was still half asleep, but I decided not to go to the hospital as there was nothing I could do.  I sat down in our sunroom and admired the new fallen snow outside, bright white in the winter sun.  20 minutes later, my sister called again to tell us he was gone.

I thought I was prepared for his passing, but moments later I realized I wasn't.  I struggled to hold back the rush of emotions that flooded me.  He wasn't gonna get better.  Dad was dead.  I quickly left the sunroom and took a long shower where I sobbed like a baby.  Alone in my thoughts and memories of my father... 

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Call

I received a call this morning from my sister that my father passed away.  Dad had been in ICU for a little over two weeks, with an unknown infection after what doctors had deemed to be pneumonia.  Dad would have been 73 this Saturday, Feb. 7th.