Born poor, fought a war, worked hard, died early. Otherwise, it was all good.
Just a typical 20th Century life
It was probably my Dad who gave me my interest in personal history. He had stories of being raised poor, doing back-breaking work on other people's farms, and getting very little schooling. He went to fight in the Pacific in the Second World War.
Then he got married - but his wife died in childbirth. He became part of the occupation forces in post-war Japan. The Korean War started and he got a medal for (brief) service in that. Then he came home to work - first on building sites then in an office. He and Mom had me and my sister and he died of cancer not long after retiring.
A fairly typical 20th Century life I suppose! And like most lives in the 20th Century, he passed through the mangle of its major events including the Great Depression, the Second World War, and Cold War conflicts.
Dad’s family emigrated from Southern Germany in 1848 to escape food shortages and famine - and some civil unrest. The area was then known as Silesia and it belonged to the kingdom of Prussia.
My son likes the idea of having ancestors from Prussia - studying European History in high school, he says the Prussians were crazy soldiers, united Germany and produced Otto von Bismarck.
By the time Dad came along, around 100 years after the family left Europe, they had only ever married other Germans. Dad spoke German as a kid, went to Lutheran church, and was confirmed a Lutheran. His confirmation certificate is in German.
Money lenders become money borrowers
The family's original name was "Wicaz", meaning “money lender”. However, the name was changed to the German word for money lender, "Lehmann". Lots of modern names come from people’s old occupations, and sons often followed their father’s professions. So we know that Dad had money lenders way back in his family tree. But by the 1840s, the family had little money left – they had become borrowers not lenders.
A boy with dreams
The family was poor. Dad was a teenager during the Depression years of the 1930s. He told me of being sent to school without any lunch - so he filled his pockets with peas stolen from farms as he walked through them on the way to school. He thought nothing of eating porridge with weevils.
But Dad was hard working. He hoisted wheat bags and cleared fields. And he was a boy with dreams. He told me that when he was 12 he saw a plane for the first time - flying overhead while he was working on a farm near Swan Reach. He wanted to fly the plane away over the horizon and it was then he decided that he wanted to fly.
The War saved his life
When World War II started Dad was old enough to join up. He had no doubt about what he wanted to do – he wanted to join the Airforce. Forced to leave school at the age of 14, he failed the pilot's math test. But he didn’t give up, he hired a math tutor to teach him at night and six months later he became a flight navigator.
Dad was posted to Papua New Guinea fighting back the Japanese invasion forces. He used to laugh about how they would shoot at sharks from the plane as they returned from missions over the Coral Sea. He then served in the occupation forces in Japan in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Like a lot of men coming out of the Depression, the war gave Dad a steady job and a paycheck. The war was a sort of blessing. Crazy to think of it like that though.
Welcome to the rest of your life
When his war service finally ended, Dad returned from Japan and got started on the rest of his life. He looked for work and found it on building sites. He built his own brick house - which I lived in all my childhood growing up. He had an office job by that point and worked with early computers.
It was all pretty normal post war stuff. And he was happy. He and Mom had a great marriage and Dad was a wonderful Dad. I remember waking up sometimes as a little girl - Dad would always be there to see if I needed a glass of water or anything else. At the swimming pool, he was the Dad that all the kids climbed on. Once a boxer and a rugby player, he was like a rock.
It ends too soon
We grew, got educated, and thrived. Dad retired. I had children and Dad was looking forward to being a grandfather. He didn't have much of a model - his own father died at the age of 54 and had been dead for nearly 30 years by the time I came along. But my Dad was going to be a natural.
Then he was diagnosed with liver cancer. Boy, that cancer acts fast. In his last days the doctor asked him if there was anything he wanted. He said weakly, "I would like to fly again".
He died very quickly, losing more and more weight to the point where his appearance had almost completely changed. And then he was gone. He had lived, he struggled, he overcame, but he left us early.
My boys would never know their grandfather - not directly anyway. Of course, no one grieved more than Mom. What they had was pretty rare.
I think a lot about my Dad
I think a lot about Dad. His life, his concern for all his family, his sense of duty, his kindness. He would cry if he saw harsh things happening to children on the TV news. I remember him saying to me. "You kids have it much tougher than I ever did." He was thinking about school and all the challenges of modern life. I was thinking about him going to school with no lunch.
And I see him in a lot of the gentlemen I get to interview through my company which makes personal history documentaries. I know all about their gruffness - just a thin veneer over their hearts of gold. Because I knew my Dad. And my Dad was a good man and a good father. Like the folks I make films about. And there is nothing I can think of doing that is more worthwhile than preserving the lives of good people like my Dad.
Dad's connections to world history
- Prussia and Otto von Bismarck
Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck (1 April 1815 - 30 July 1898) was a Prussian/German statesman of the late 19th century, and a dominant figure in world affairs. Dad's people came from Prussia, but left on account of poverty and civil unrest.
- Great Depression
The Great Depression started in the US with the stock market crash of October 29, 1929 and quickly spread to almost every country in the world. Its effects were especially harsh on farm communities, where Dad and his family lived.
- Pacific War
The Pacific War started with Japanese militarism and territorial expansion during World War II. It ended with the atomic bomb in 1945. Dad fought the Japanese in the Pacific War, then was an occupying soldier in post-war Japan.
- Korean War
The Korean War was fought between the Republic of Korea, supported by the UN, and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, supported by China & the Soviet Union. It began in 1950 & was the first major Cold War conflict. Dad served briefly t
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