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Born poor, fought a war, worked hard, died early. Otherwise, it was all good.

Updated on April 30, 2010
My Dad had a hard life - normal for his time.
My Dad had a hard life - normal for his time.

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.

Go Prussia

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.

My Dad had 5 brothers and 2 sisters (not shown). Note home-made clothes.
My Dad had 5 brothers and 2 sisters (not shown). Note home-made clothes.

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 was good for Dad.
The war was good for Dad.

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.

The 1950s - it was all about family.
The 1950s - it was all about family.
A grandfather for just a year.
A grandfather for just a year.

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.


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    • JaneA profile image

      JaneA 5 years ago from California

      So sorry you lost your dad so young Peggy. You do occupy a special place, as some others of us do, of being the only remaining link back to many of the folks and the stories from your family's past. Writing about those who pass is definitely a way of keeping them with us.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

      I also grew up in the 1950's with a dad who wanted to become a pilot during WW2, but the aviation school he was attending closed down so he became a paratrooper instead. He served in Europe. My wonderful father died at age 55. I have written a number of hubs regarding family history. I am now the last alive in my nuclear family to remember and pass on stories related to the past. This was a wonderful tribute to your Dad and it must be so rewarding...the work you are doing in preserving other people's family histories. Many up votes and will share with my followers.

    • LC WARD profile image

      LC WARD 7 years ago from Rochester, Washington

      Your article about your father was well written and full of love for him. It reminded me of my father during WWII and how my life was with him. A great piece!

    • JaneA profile image

      JaneA 7 years ago from California

      Thanks for your comments - I appreciate them!

    • Micky Dee profile image

      Micky Dee 7 years ago

      It's beautiful the second time around too!

    • jayjay40 profile image

      jayjay40 7 years ago from Bristol England

      What a wonderful hub and tribute to your father. Great writing keep up the good work

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 7 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Those guys in the Greatest Generation, as they call it, were really something. But, of course, your dad is so much more. My daddy was of the same age, gone for 12 years now. I still miss him a lot. Sounds like a great project you have going there.

    • Micky Dee profile image

      Micky Dee 7 years ago

      Very nice history of a great father. Very very well done. Thank you so much for this detailed story.

    • ladyjane1 profile image

      ladyjane1 7 years ago from Texas

      What a wonderful tribute to your dad. My dad had some of the same experiences as yours, my dad was a pow in wwii and died much sooner than we thought he would. He died in 1992 and I still miss him very much today as well. Sounds like your dad was an awesome person and dad. Great hub. Rated it up and stumbled it. Cheers.