Most of the stories I know of my grandfather and my great-grandfather are largely exaggerated. They’re tales handed down from my father and his siblings. I was told my great-grandfather was the only man in Alton, Illinois who drove a convertible with reclining front seats, and his friend Robert Wadlow, the tallest man to have ever lived, would occasionally borrow my grandfather’s car to cruise for chicks.
I am a snoop, always finding Christmas presents well in advance of the holiday. One year, while sneaking around in my dad’s closet, I uncovered a prayer book that had once belonged to my grandfather. I know this, because, in the front of the book, in the most precise penmanship, on the line beneath “Property of” was written “Harlan Charles Wastler.”
When I was caught by my father, and let it be known I was always caught while snooping (at least that’s what I’ll tell the authorities), he told me — I swear to this day — that my grandfather had such nice penmanship that he was often asked to handwrite the entire Bible. Until as recently as a couple years ago, I still believed this to be fact. I figured he would just do it for fun after work while listening to the Cardinals game on the radio, and I imagined a large shelf above his head with beautiful leather-bound journals filled with blank pages, awaiting his quill.
My grandfather died when my dad was seventeen. It left my father, who was all set to leave for college, to stay behind and help to take care of his younger brothers, twins Mark and Matt. My mother too lost her mother at a very young age and was relied upon to care for younger siblings. I think it’s part of what’s shaped my appreciation for what my parents did and what all parents do.
My brother Ben and I are lucky to have the parents we do. They had something of a trial period prior to raising us, and we got their best effort. In New York, while studying acting, I had an instructor who encouraged us to go back and research our family histories. “You’ll have a better idea of where you’re going if you know where you come from.” It was at this time I began recording my family’s history, and since then, I’ve had a fascination with origin stories of all kinds.
And so it is, as today is Father’s Day, and my dad is celebrating his last before becoming a grandfather, I am able to learn a bit more about the man who shaped the one I’ve idolized for my thirty-two years in his care. Thank you, dad, for taking time to share some things your father taught you.
Harlan Charles Wastler 1920 – 1970
Each year as Father’s Day approaches, I look back with fond memories of my father.
Harlan Wastler was born in Alton, Illinois across the Mississippi River from where I live now in Saint Louis. He was born to Daniel and Hilda Wastler, their second of three boys, though Harlan’s older brother died before he was born. Harlan’s father, Daniel Webster Wastler died when Harlan was very young. Prior to his death, Daniel moved the family to Quincy, Illinois. Hilda worked as a live-in housekeeper at one of the prominent homes in Quincy. Because she was unable to keep her sons at the residence, they attended a private boarding school called Chaddock Boy’s School, and my dad would go onto attend the University of Iowa until he was drafted by the Army Air Corps. In addition to housekeeping, to help pay for the boys schooling, Hilda sold shoes at Bowman’s Shoe Store. She worked there until her retirement.
My dad met my mom on a blind date. They’d been set up by one of his friends who was dating my mom’s oldest sister. As I understand it, theirs was a short courtship and as they’d both explain later, it was love at first sight. They were married just prior to my father’s deployment. Stationed in Europe, he served as an air traffic controller after the occupation of Orly Field in Paris. Like many veterans he rarely spoke of the war due to the painful nature of his memories. He was very patriotic and loved to attend the parades on Quincy’s main streets on Memorial Day and Veterans Day. My mother would get teary-eyed when she talked about his service record. She’s say, “Oh how handsome he looked in his uniform.” After the war, he worked his entire career for the Electric Wheel Corporation, a division of Firestone Tire & Rubber Co.
My oldest brother Dan was born while my Dad was stationed in France. Upon his return it didn’t take long for my older sisters Carol and Jane to arrive. I was up next. And that’s how it stayed for quite a while.
But I’ll never forget the day, seven years later when my father came home from the hospital. He loved to tell the story of the two nurses.
The first one rushed out exclaiming, “Congratulations, Mr. Wastler. You have a son.”
And then, a couple minutes later a different nurse ran out: “Congratulations, Mr. Wastler. You have a son.”
“I know the other nurse just told me”.
She replied, “Oh no. You have two sons!”
He nearly fainted. No one, not even my parents, had any idea my mother was expecting twins. So, there was my dad, walking home from the hospital carrying these two bundles with the biggest smile on his face.
The four oldest kids attended grade school at St. Rose of Lima, which was about a half mile from our home. My mother and father served in several capacities within the parish. My father was a member of the Knights of Columbus, and my mother helped with parish activities: organizing card parties, cooking for special occasions and funerals, etc. One of the assistant pastors, Father Rick, became a close friend of my mother and father. He’d often invite my Dad to help build his boat.
Fr. Rick got the hair-brained idea of building a boat in the basement of the parish rectory. I know what you’re thinking: this is right out of an episode of NCIS with Gibbs working away on the boat in his basement. The whole time they were building it, I wondered, “How is Fr. Rick going to get his boat out of the rectory basement?” Well, when it was finished, he called my dad and they disassembled just enough to squeeze through the basement’s double door which opened to the backyard of the rectory. It’s still hard for me to believe, but my father taught me to water ski behind that very boat on the shores of the Mississippi River. That story was embellished over the years, and I never got tired of hearing it. It’s part of what inspired me to build a canvas canoe in my mother’s kitchen several years later and take it for a Fourth of July float with my brother Dan to Hannibal, Missouri.
I was in sixth grade when we heard that John F. Kennedy had been shot. The school immediately closed, and all the children were sent home. My father came home early, and we all sat around our DuPont black and white TV listening to the news in disbelief. My dad was deeply affected. He admired President Kennedy. I remember hearing him repeat to himself, “Why would anyone want to kill the President?” My love of country and my patriotism were shaped by, were instilled in me by my dad.
Every weekend, as far back as I can remember, I helped my father wash the family car. Though we only ever had one car in the driveway, it would always be, far-and-away, the cleanest one on the block. My Dad had a particular love affair with the cars he and my mom owned. Though it was “constantly in the shop,” his favorite was the Edsel. The most unusual was most certainly the pink Rambler station wagon. Personally, I hated that vehicle and never wanted to ride in it. All my friends made fun of it. One Saturday, while washing the car, I asked him why he bought a Rambler and specifically a pink one. He looked at me sternly and said, “This was your mother’s idea, but I’ll deny it if you ever tell her.” And with that, the Rambler was sold within a year. One of his best friends went to work as a salesman for Giese Buick in Quincy. About every two to three years, a new LaSabre would show up in our driveway. Needless to say, my dad’s “car gene” was passed down to me.
With his big strong hands, there wasn’t anything my father couldn’t fix. His tool box and bench were filled with all kind of tools no one could touch but him. He always knew if a screwdriver or wrench were out of place. The only time I ever heard him curse was when he hit his thumb with the hammer. I went to work for Sears in their hardware department while in high school. Having learned all the finer points of tools from my dad, I was promoted to selling all the Craftsman power tools. I really enjoyed the work and felt like I had the same enthusiasm for my products as “Tim the Tool Man Taylor” from Home Improvement. Occasionally the store would have a sale on returned tools. I’d bring home a few bargains for Dad’s collection. His eyes always told me how he felt.
One night he picked me up from work and presented a brand new Craftsman “Old Crafty” pocketknife. It is one of my most-prized possessions, and after forty-five years it has remained permanently placed in the desk drawer of my office.
My dad played the violin. Occasionally, he would pull it out of this dusty case to play a few songs he learned through the years. I was so impressed that he could play with his left hand or his right, and the song would sound the same. He was ambidextrous: batting, shooting hoops, eating, swinging a tennis racquet, writing. It didn’t matter. He took me with him to purchase a Hohner harmonica after we saw Stan Musial play his after a Cardinals win at Sportsman Park. He opened the box and started playing and I stood in total amazement. It sounded as if he had been playing all his life.
I was a fine arts major. My dad taught me to draw. He could sit down and sketch just about anything he saw. Pen and ink were his specialty. He could look at a cartoon and recreate the character on the first try after looking at it once.
Each spring we would plant a garden. My father handed out pitchforks to me and my sisters, and then he’d supervise as we tilled the soil. Tomatoes were our specialty. Early in life, we became familiar with the names Big Boy, Better Boy, Early Girl, Rutgers, and Roma. I would help my Dad weed the garden and spray for pests. He was a patient teacher. It was his tradition to follow one of my questions with a question. It would drive me crazy, but now I see how it helped me to become the master problem-solver I am today. One year, we had a crow infestation. Dad got creative and built the best scarecrow known to man. Those crows didn’t mess with our garden.
Though he’s long since passed, our home in Quincy is probably still filled with the aroma of my father’s pipes. His favorite brands of tobacco were Prince Albert and Half & Half. When I was ten, I tried to smoke one of his pipes, and I thought I was going to throw up. He laughed, giving this warning: “Don’t ever pick up this nasty habit.”
Early in high school, I learned to play tennis with my big brother. When my brother couldn’t join me, my dad and I would stroll over to Berrian Park to play a few sets. He played with grace and authority. He had great hand-eye coordination. I swore he looked a bit like Rod Laver on the court. I loved playing with him. It felt like it was our bonding time.
At about the age of 12, I inherited a paper route from my older siblings. It took me through some bad neighborhoods, so my dad would go with me so he could “teach me the finer points of the job,” though I knew he was worried. I would have to go in and out of some of the surliest bars in town. Occasionally, we’d ride our bikes to deliver the papers. He’d ride along until he felt I was experienced enough to do it on my own.
My father’s greatest enjoyment came from his close friends and family. The names of Bocke, Stewart, Duesterhaus, Blessing, and Hollender were common as families would get together to play cards, barbecue, enjoy pot luck dinners, or just each other’s company on hot summer evenings while downing a few lemonades on the front porch. He was very proud of his children, but being the private man I knew him to be, at times he was unable to show his true feelings. I remember watching him at the high school graduations of my older brother and sisters and at my own. When I saw his eyes well up, I felt like it was okay to do the same. My kids will tell you I have no problem with that now.
After my high school graduation, that June he went to the hospital for some routine tests as he was having pain in his kidneys. Some complications arose during the tests, and his heart stopped for ten minutes. From then on, my dad lived in a vegetative state for roughly thirty days until he died at the age of fifty. It was hard on our whole family, especially my mother. Thanks to our support unit of friends and family, we made it through one of the darkest periods of our lives. I knew my father had friends, but never so many, until seeing the turnout at his funeral. I deeply loved my dad even though I only knew him for 17 short years. He taught me most of life’s skills which I have fondly relied on throughout my sixty plus years.
The closeness of family and the people I love motivates me each day. I regret that my wife and two sons weren’t able to know my father. He would have loved them as much as I do. He would have enjoyed watching his fourteen grandchildren growing up in a world he would have only dreamed about.
In just a few days my wife and I are welcoming our first grandchild into this world. As I take time to reflect on my father, on my kids, more than anything, I hope to pass onto my grandchildren his sense of humor. As you can probably tell, we share a love of storytelling. I loved when he’d read to me before bedtime, and I loved reading to my boys. I hope to be able to read to my granddaughter.
Each year on Father’s Day, I look back on those formative years and think about what made my dad so special. It was the little things: the pat on the back, the Band-Aid on the knee scrape, or the cheer from the sidelines. He encouraged his children, showing us that we could do anything we set our minds to. He would say, “Remember to treat everyone as you yourself would like to be treated.” He was honest, courageous, hardworking, a man of faith, and my hero. These are attributes I hope to have passed on to both of my sons. I am very proud of them.
- Brad Wastler