by Sean Jobst
It was one year today that I lost my father. His physical presence in this world ended that day, but his spirit remains ever-present and will do so well into the future. His is a spirit which instilled valuable lessons into my life, and my resilience allows me to move ahead with life in the best way - to enjoy life, to not take a second for granted, and to live it with a purpose.
He impacted my life in several crucial ways. He laid the foundations for my early curiosity of the world, nurturing the love of learning in me. The environment he laid out for his young son was one of learning and reading. From an early age, I was instilled with the importance of being open minded and to question things and investigate for myself.
This also extended to a general attitude toward life. He had a very good sense of humor and was generally relaxed about life. You could tell he enjoyed life and treasured the small things which many others often take for granted. Life to him was a joyous event to be lived according to the effort we put into life. And depending on our own efforts, those results came to us in varied ways for us to derive the right life lessons out of them.
|There are two wolves in your heart: Which one will you feed in life?|
He passed down several things to me. From him was passed down my own German (Swabian) and Spanish lineage, which has shaped my identity. He was a Vietnam veteran, and so a deep respect and admiration toward veterans was also given to me. I remember fondly going with him to veteran's meetings when I was young, seeing and hearing at an early age valuable insights which I hold dear to my heart even to this day. His is a story of immigration and war, of human sorrow but also the rising of the human spirit.
My father was born on August 23, 1947, in Bad Canstatt, Germany. I remember him telling me so many memories from his earliest period in Deutschland. "The sum of all my experiences made me what I am," he told me when I profiled him in 2009 for a class assignment. "Living in a war-torn country, seeing bombed-out ruins and not realizing what it was all about as a kid, but growing up those experiences help shaped who I am."
He cited several of his earliest memories: "The school, going to the park seeing ancient Roman sites, the historical statue of Kaiser Wilhelm riding a horse, walking down to the indoor swimming pool, playing in bombed-out ruins, going out to the country seeing a castle on the hill in the old family village. Also riding on the back of an apple wagon taking the apples somewhere to be pressed into cider, and crossing the bridge to go to our Catholic church."
|Schloss Baldern, the castle in our old village|
In 1957, he immigrated at the young age of 9 to the United States. Like many other Germans of his generation - and earlier generations - his knowledge of America was shaped by the works of Karl May, works he would often mention in conversation with me. "In Germany as a young kid I read the Westerns of Karl May, which described Indians and life in the Old West. It was an unknown place but I didn't fear it because I was with my parents."
Moving to a different environment brings many challenges, as it did with him: "I had to learn the language, total immersion into the language. I learned how to speak English within six months time. I also remember being called offensive names like 'Nazi' because of where I came from."
Recounting his life to me on numerous occasions throughout my growing up, I was continuously impressed with the living history that can be seen through his own life. "I did alot of things in those days which kids couldn't do now, and I felt very safe and secure. We moved to Alaska during the time it was being granted statehood."
The family ultimately settled in Worth County, Missouri, a humble rural farming area which formed some of my own summer memories growing up. He was immersed into this environment which further nurtured many life lessons - the value of hard work, earning an honest living, enjoying life and what you do. "Every summer I wanted to stay with my grandparents on the farm. And I learned alot farm work, how to appreciate more about agriculture. I did this every summer until I joined the army."
In 1964, he joined the U.S. Army. "I wanted to see Europe again and joining the army was the best way to guarantee this," he later explained to me. He became an infantryman with the 9th Infantry Division, ultimately rising to the rank of SPC4. His military career took him to Germany, Norway, Greece, Turkey, and Taiwan. I remember many little memories he had here and there, as he talked frequently about them to me.
His unit was later shipped out to Vietnam and he served there. Like other veterans, he was wary of talking directly about his own experiences there and I know there was alot of traumatic memories that I was careful not to trigger either. What he did left me was some of the retrospective reflections he had about Vietnam itself. "Don't get involved with other countries' civil wars, and don't support the old colonial powers. Learn the culture of a country before you think you can run it. Know what you are actually up against."
He was wounded and soon earned two Purple Hearts. I remember he told me about his time in an army hospital in Japan in 1970, and his subsequent return back Stateside. He took some classes at Parkville Community College in Parkville, Missouri, and worked for the Social Security Administration Center in Kansas City, MO. It was there that he met his wife, my mother. Neither I nor any of his other children and grandchildren would be here today without this experience at the Social Security Administration.
|Kansas City, Missouri|
"The opportunity then came for me to work at the Federal Bureau of Prisons," my father recounted to me. "There was more money and advancement, and a better retirement system because it was under law enforcement."
"I worked in the administrative section, doing sentence computations by interpreting court documents and ensuring that proper sentencing guidelines had been followed by the court," he added. "We dealt with the release and admission of inmates. We were the first ones they dealt with when they came and the last ones when they left."
His work brought him to several transfers, in Kansas and California. He moved to Alabama when he received a job transfer to the Talladega facility in 1984. I was born late the next year, on December 24, 1985, in nearby Fort McClellan, Alabama. One of my earliest memories was an event at the prison which made national headlines. For an entire week, from August 21-30, 1991, twenty-three detainees took control over the prison and several hostages.
|Federal Prison in Talladega, Alabama|
"When the riot occurred, everyone was recalled to get everything under control again. There were still fires smoldering and you could smell the smoke from the tear gas and smoke grenades the riot control used," he recounted to me. "After the initial riot and when we took the prison back, there was alot of overtime to try to get things back to normal."
My father retired from the prison in 1997, and after that time remained active in his work with fellow veterans - helping them to navigate the paperwork of federal bureaucracy and get the benefits they earned from the VA. His main "work" - if you can call it that, because it was something he simply loved to do and he didn't see his calling as "work" - was as a service officer, serving other veterans.
He made it very clear that life should be appreciated and enjoyed. Do what you love to do and follow your passion, and you won't have to work a day in your life. He was a very wise man who imparted numerous bits of wisdom to me, which impacted my own memories. "We as a society need to read and do our own thinking," he used to tell me. "To me reading the old classics encouraged you to dream. We had to read more and didn't have much television to divert our minds."
It is in retrospect of the memories, with a heavy heart but also a passionate mind to the future, that I recount my memories of him. Let this be a celebration of his life, which is what he would've wanted. This is also a reminder to me that as I move forward, there are promises I made to him in life and after his death, that I need to keep as I forge ahead in my own life. My resilience and the passion for life that was nurtured in me from an early age, is what keeps me going with a renewed spirit.
|Missed but never forgotten|
We as a society often ignore death, shutting it away and preferring not to think about it. But this is a very wrong approach. For if we remember death, we can also appreciate life more - never for one second questioning what we are given. Life is like a cycle - with each death there is a life reborn, with every memory there is a life lesson to be derived. He often reflected about philosophies of death with me, which is why I now reflect on a celebration of life - a life that continues to touch other lives as it soars to even higher spirits.