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Like the fathers of my father, I’m picking a fight

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By Warren Parkin

When my dad, Darwin Parkin was the born Sept. 12, 1921 – shortly after Prohibition went into effect – his middle name was listed as “L.” His parents couldn’t agree on which relative to honor: Lewis or Louis. Both, of course, were from opposite branches of the family, so they settled on the ambiguous single initial “L” for his second name.

His mother didn’t get along with most people, especially women. After my parents married she cut down my mom’s mother’s rose bush “because it was on my side of the property.”

I spoke at Elizabeth’s funeral when I was in my mid 20s, reading a poem she had written about her ocean trek from Wales to America when a teenager. Like her life, the poem was lyrical and fraught with discontent.

Elizabeth never forgave the missionaries responsible for her forced teenage immigration after the conversion of her parents. “They lied to us. They said that the Salvation Army didn’t exist in America. So if we wanted to come to America with their help, we had to join the church.”

I never met dad’s father. Owen died of pneumonia when dad was 22, a year before penicillin was invented.

Dad once told me that he thought that his father had named him Darwin after a friend.

He didn’t know why his mother accepted it. I believe that his mom agreed to the name to spite her adopted conservative Mormon culture, to continually remind people of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species. Back then, evolution had the power to polarize and to create.

It’s just as likely that my dad’s name stemmed from spiteful motive on his father’s part. Owen probably got his recalcitrant attitude from his grandfather John Sr. who joined Mormonism because people were mocking missionaries.

John Sr. observed the ridicule then pushed the missionary aside and challenged the crowd, “Come on. I’ll take on every ones of you one at a time!” Family history remembers him as a pugilist, a fancy term for someone who likes to fight. With the promise of a lifetime of fighting, John Sr. converted immediately, fleeing England with his wife and children to Utah.

Now Owen, my dad’s father, my grandfather who I never met,  was the youngest of six sons when his father John Jr. returned from three years proselytizing in natal England with, what the family in hushed voices referred to as, the “Cleaning Lady.”

This happened in the latter half of the 19th Century when part of the obligation for Mormon missionaries (besides leaving wife and children behind for three years to survive with trust in God) was to find a second wife to get to heaven.

Owen’s mother was not impressed with her husband’s zealousness. She summarily exiled John Jr. to the shed.

Within a year, Owen’s eldest brother, Heber (by all accounts effete, creative, intellectual and unnaturally single), “married” the “Cleaning Lady.” They moved 30 miles away from Salt Lake City to Bountiful with John Jr., my great-grandfather, who lived in a small cabin 60 feet away from the house.

Owen and his brothers visited their oldest brother regularly. But out of respect for their mother, they shunned their father forever.

In the mean time, the “Cleaning Lady” was fertile, giving generation to a well-educated crop of children – most likely half brothers and sisters to Owen. These children, the white collar Bountiful Parkins, were seen as snobs by the more typically blue collar Salt Lake Parkins.

This is where my more immediate story comes into play. Perhaps my grandpa Owen, the youngest son of the first wife, who worked as a Pullman Car Operator – a good paying blue collar job – bridged the blue and white collar family divide through my father and his two brothers.

My dad, along with his brothers, grew up working blue collar jobs like newspaper delivery and butchering meat during the Depression. All three served in World War II. Afterwards, two of them graduated college. The oldest, who worked as a secretary during the war, died of a brain tumor shortly after his honorable discharge.

My dad spent the war (with five day’s leave to marry my mother) as a flight instructor in the Army Air Force. Then he finished a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of Utah in 1947. Forty years to the day, I graduated from the same institution for the first time with my bachelor’s in English.

After graduation, my dad worked for a firm as an accountant and as a pilot until he passed the Certified Public Accountant exam. (He left his boss in Denver and flew back to Salt Lake to pass it, then returned to pick him up.) He quit the job as soon as he received notice of his success and went into business for himself for the next 35 years.

In the early 1990s he had a heart attack. In pain and medicated, following a quintuple bypass, he told me, “I should have saved more, I should have planned better for retirement so your mother would be ok.”

“Don’t worry about that,” I told him. “You raised ten children. We are your retirement. Mom will be ok.”

“Thanks,” he said.

He recovered and worked for a couple more years. Then Alzheimer’s set in, and breaking stereotype, he became more affectionate. For the first time in his life he wanted to hug me, to hold my hand. His voice became gentle. Having been raised to never say, “I love you to anyone but his wife,” it was surprising to me that when I said “I love you,” and he said, “I love you too, dear,” for the first time in my life.

There have been times when I wished my dad had Alzheimer’s sooner, perhaps starting when I was born. Maybe then I would have gotten to know him better and been less afraid of the veteran who barked orders and imposed stinging discipline.

With age and experience, I understand him better and appreciate him more.

My dad taught me to take care of loved ones, to respect mothers, grandmothers and grandfathers. My dad taught me to work hard and efficiently. My dad taught me to help others. My dad taught me it was ok to do poorly on the first exam of a new class, and then achieve afterwards.

My dad taught me to transport my children to work, no matter how inconvenient, and to patronize their place of employment, to wait up for them on the weekend until they arrive home safely, and to not get angry when the inevitable car accident happens.

My dad taught me that being a man doesn’t mean that you give up when there is a problem, even when it makes you angry. You just solve it. Or at least, try to.

I have six children now. He met all of them but knew only two.

Like my dad during his time in the military, I am a teacher. Perhaps less harsh, but, according to my students, just as exacting. I also love to read the newspaper and listening to the latest on the radio, good meals and motorcycles.

And I am different too.

I have learned to navigate the internet and computers. I am not so surly. I don’t fly airplanes. I fly Western Culture, Art, and Literature instead.

I am also different from my father and his father’s fathers in that I don’t believe in their religion.

And yet, though I’ve lost the faith of my fathers, I believe in my father’s and his fathers’ inheritance.

Like them, I am stubborn, nurturing, independent, full of wanderlust and relieved by the unexpected.

My dad was no saint. He died December 17, 2003, having lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the 60’s and the end of the 20th Century.

His fathers weren’t saints either but like my dad,  lived long enough to give life and hope to a new generation.

I am no saint. But I do carry on their inheritance.

My dad and my dad’s fathers live on through me.

So at this time, to honor my father and my father’s fathers I will pick a fight with my grandparents and weigh in on the squabble that resulted in a single letter for my dad’s middle name.

I don’t care what grandma Elizabeth and grandpa Owen thought.

For me, the “L” in Darwin L. Parkin, will always stand for the “L” in love.