Fathers Day Memories

On Father’s Day, I reflect on how much easier a time I had growing up than my dad did. In general, people of our generation had it easier than our parent’s generation did. There are certainly individual stories along the way that don’t fit that pattern. My dad’s early life fit the pattern and then some.
Joe Hal Harris was born in 1930 to an unwed young woman in Houston, Texas. The last name given on his birth certificate was after Harris County where they resided. The name Lee came a few years later when he was adopted by a step father. He never met his biological father, and never knew his name until much later in life.
My dad didn’t talk a lot about his early days, at least not the negative aspects. He didn’t clam up and pretend none of it happened, he just didn’t dwell on it. I knew that he lived in a few different foster homes while quite young due to health issues my grandmother was dealing with. He would go home to her on weekends sometimes. What he didn’t talk about was the time that he came home with strap marks across his back and legs. He’d been beaten with a thick belt by the foster father. He was three years old! What could a three year old possibly do to merit that?
He was cooking for his little brother at age 4-5. Fortunately, he was taken in by a godly couple for many years. They remained a part of his life and Dan and Vivian were a third set of grandparents for me. They were the main positive influence in his life.

The 1947 Texas City Disaster April 16 & 17, 1947

Six months before his 17th birthday, he was serving as a Red Cross volunteer, when the Texas City Disaster occurred. This again was never talked about much. My dad wasn’t one to speak much about his feelings. All he said was that he had to pick up some body parts. It wasn’t until recently that I saw some television footage of what happened. Between 500 – 600 people died that day, not counting foreign seamen and undocumented workers. Hundreds of those didn’t just die, they were blown to pieces. I can’t imagine myself doing that when I was that age. My biggest concern, was whether or not my car would impress the girls. I can’t imagine walking through the aftermath of those explosions and fires without being permanently scarred.
My dad served in the US Army during the Korean War. He was a medic, so I don’t imagine he was on the USO Bob Hope show duty. He never talked much about Korea; just that the winters were unbearably cold.
There are prisons and mental facilities filled with people who had lives similar to his. He never learned to be a victim. His early life was the re-bar that kept him going.
After he came back from Korea, he was stationed in New York City, where he met and married my mom. The Army sent them to Germany, where I was born. This was a paradise time for my dad. Europe was something that he always talked about. There was none of the trauma that formed him in his earlier years.

Dad, and Mom and Me with My mom's family

After his discharge from the army, we lived for a year or so in Houston. This is where my father’s character changed our lives forever, for the better. The time in Houston was not what he’d probably hoped. This was his home after all. There was friction generated by his former townfolk. It seems that there were people there who didn’t take kindly to my white, Anglo-Saxon dad being married to my Hispanic mom.
He worked for the local Boys Club (Now known as Boys and Girls Club). What I never knew until we were planning his memorial service, was that one week, he was trying to put a baseball team together. He told the kids to go home and bring some friends back so that they’d have enough for a team.
The next day, they returned with enough for a team. One of the new boys was black. The boss called my dad aside and said, “You need to tell that boy he can’t play.”
To make it short, my dad refused, and quit the job. Two weeks later we had a U-Haul trailer packed and headed for California. That’s remarkable to me for a white man of his generation, raised in the part of the country that he was.
My uncle, in San Francisco was arranging an apartment for us. Ironically, in San Francisco, so many miles away from the bigotry of the south, the landlord wouldn’t rent to us until he could see that my dad wasn’t Chinese with the name Lee.
During my childhood, he worked full time grave yard, and went to school full time, as well as serving as the football teams athletic trainer. Sleep? I guess that was for wimps. It wasn’t easy time for any of us, but we got through it.
When he was rewarded for his work with the job he’d have ’til he retired, he had his choice of neighborhoods. He chose the neighborhood that fed the high school with the most diverse ethnic diversity. He wanted us to have the advantage of being in a multicultural environment. For that, I could never thank him enough.
Was he the perfect father? Far from it. Did we have the perfect father-son relationship? No we didn’t. He taught me some things. Don’t whine, don’t quit, and don’t make excuses. That’s how he lived.
On December 6th 2003, I was holding his hand as his spirit passed from his body to be with the Lord. This being Father’s Day, I’m remembering things. I’m wishing he’d had a few more years so that I might pry some more history out of him. He was stubborn though, so I may never have succeeded.
Happy Fathers Day, in Honor of Joe Hal Lee.

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