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.