My new book, From Hostels to Kids on Camels, is mostly about my travels, but I spend a little time on my childhood in the Introduction. Here’s the start of that section, where I talk about my dad.
As you’ll read, travel has been a central part of my life, but it’s not the only thing in my life. This book is mostly about my trips, but it’s also necessarily a memoir more broadly. You’ll see this pop up later in the book, but if I say a few things about my background now, maybe that will give you a little more context for my observations in the rest of this book. I’ll start with my parents, Marilyn and Rich:
Here they are in college at Purdue University, a year before they graduated. They didn’t meet in college; they met in grade school but didn’t date until college. They almost dated before that, though: in high school, Rich asked Marilyn out to the prom. She said yes, but then went and told him later in the day that she had changed her mind. This experience gave my dad the hilarious opportunity, right before their wedding, to claim that the whole thing was a very extravagant way to get her back for that slight back in high school. Rich is funny.
He’s not just funny, though. He’s smart and driven, and maybe one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. Dad was the second of six children. When his father, Donald, got home from serving in World War II, he married Grandma Ruth, built a house with his brother’s help on his parents’ farmland in Hobart, Indiana, and got a job working at the steel mills in Gary. Rich came along in 1947. They helped put the boom in “baby boomers.”
To give you an example of that early drive, when he was still really young, Rich grew green beans in the backyard, bagged them up, and carted them door to door on his little red wagon, selling for five cents a baggie. Dad never went hungry, but they never had much money. He was rich in family, though. In addition to all the siblings, there were numerous cousins, and he had two sets of grandparents that he saw all the time–Grandma and Grandpa Niksch, literally next door, and Grandma and Grandpa Nagel, a six miles down the road. My mom thinks that a lot of my dad’s kindness came from those two grandfathers. I never met Grandpa Niksch, but I was lucky enough to know my Grandpa Nagel and can attest to his character. Rich loved going fishing with him every summer, and one of my favorite pictures from my childhood is this one with Great Grandpa Nagel and my brothers showing off our catch:
Back to drive: when Rich was 12 years old, his middle school counselor gave his class an assignment to research careers. Dad found “aeronautical engineer” in a book and decided that was what he’d do, along with being a pilot. Rich then took that plan from middle school and followed through. He graduated in the top ten in his high school class and went to Purdue to study aeronautical engineering. While there, he joined the Air Force ROTC program, which helped pay for school (the rest came from working at the steel mills in the summer) and prepared him to be an officer and a pilot. Here he is during his flight training in Texas, not long after my parents got married:
As to smarts, if being an aeronautical engineer isn’t proof enough, he earned a master’s degree in organizational behavior while serving as a pilot, and then a master’s in business at night, while working full-time, after our family moved to St. Louis. (After seven years of active duty in the Air Force, he took a job as an engineer and then manager at McDonnell-Douglas/Boeing and stayed there for 37 years.) I still saw him a lot, though. Here I am waking him up, a few months after we moved from the base in Clovis, New Mexico to St. Louis:
Dad was an incredibly present father. He was the head coach for my baseball team from the time I was five until I was seventeen. Dad was also my basketball coach while coaching both sports for both of my brothers. If that wasn’t enough, he also served as the main scout leader for our Cub Scout pack for eleven years. Also, it seems he loved to play horse:
In short, I was incredibly lucky with the father I got.