My Father’s Journey
What I Knew as a Child
My Dad, William Byrd Johnson, never talked about his childhood. We learned bits and pieces but they were just fragments. He was obsessed with playing pool and bowling. He couldn’t wait to put a pool table in the basement of our farmhouse. The space wasn’t really big enough, we had to hold the poolsticks at strange angles to play. Even with the angles as a challenge he could whoop us at pool. He occasionally made comments about hustling pool, but I didn’t know what that meant.
He was a scratch bowler too. He mentioned once being a pin setter at the bowling alley as a boy. That meant he would scramble around behind the alley and put the pins on the spots, back in the days before machines set the pins. In my memory, he would drive the 50 miles from the farm into town to play in a league. When I got older I assumed this was just because alcohol and bowling went together. Dad was an alcoholic until 1975 but that’s another story for another day. I never put much thought into how good he was at bowling or why he worked when he was a child.
He was also really good at painting, not pictures, houses. He could paint a straight line down a corner or along the ceiling without taping anything. He didn’t like to have to paint but he was very good at it and he mentioned painting houses in the summer to earn money. Occasionally on our way through Colfax or Pullman in later years he would point out a house he had painted when he was younger. At least that’s what I remember.
He had one brother to whom he was really close. That brother had a different last name. I didn’t really think much about why they didn’t have the same last name. He was very close with Uncle Ed and we visited them at least once a year at their very posh home in Seattle, or they came to the farm to visit. There were also phone calls from someone named Betty and we were quickly ushered out of the room when those calls came. I don’t remember asking about his parents but if I did, the conversation was undoubtedly changed.
As a Child I Knew – Summary
That’s what I knew as a child, he was great at pool, bowling, and painting. And his brother had a different last name. And someone named Betty made phone calls which were kept a secret. As far as I knew he had no family other than his brother.
What I Learned As An Adult About My Dad
Dad did NOT talk about his life. Even when I was an adult there were no conversations. What little I knew before he was diagnosed with Alzheimers, were from furtive conversations with Mom. She didn’t share much, but she filled in a few gaps. However much of what follows I figured out after her death, when Dad was pretty far along with Alzheimers. Thanks to Ancestry.com for allowing to find enough pieces to make some sense of my father and why he was who he was.
His Early History
He was born in 1930 in Pullman, WA. According to Ancestry his mother Clara died in 1934 5 days after the birth of a brother named Lauren. As a child I knew the name Lauren Harms. From Ancestry I pieced together that baby Lauren must have been adopted after his mother died. In 1937, when my Dad was 7, his father died. According to a newspaper obituary he died of a lingering illness. There is a death record from Medical Lake. In my childhood I knew of an institution in Medical Lake, what might have been called an asylum back then. Where Arthur Johnson died isn’t really important. What is important is 1) by the age of 7 my Dad had lost both his parents; and 2) what came next.
Losing Both Parents
The Ancestry.com records show that my father lived with his paternal grandmother and then she too died. The real tragedy which I think formed his personality came next. As of the 1940 census my father Bill, an older sister named Betty, and a younger person with the same last name as my Uncle Ed McLaughlin, one Dudley McLaughlin, were listed as wards living somewhere in Garfield County but not on a farm. Their caretaker was someone named Dorothy. The Johnson family were prominent wheat farmers in Whitman County according to the obitutaries of his father and grandmother. What isn’t clear is why the family didn’t take in, Bill, Betty, and Dudley but I have a guess.
As an adult I pieced together that my Aunt Betty, whom I never ever met, had cognitive development issues. Back then they would have said mentally retarded (it’s difficult to even write that term but it was the words that were used then). She had married a couple of times and had several children. The hush hush phone calls were requests for money to support Betty and her family. My guess is that the family shunned Betty because of her cognitive challenges, and her younger brother, my Dad, was shunned too. Instead of being raised on a prosperous wheat farm, they were wards raised by someone named Dorothy. It appears that Dudley was the youngest of the McLaughlins, the others were adults when the grandmother passed away. The McLaughlins were half-siblings to my father and Betty. All of the McLaughlins, Betty, my Dad, and baby Lauren shared the same mother Clara.
Being Raised as Wards
The next set of records are very piecemeal but I know Dad said he hustled pool, set pins, and painted houses; all at a young age. He was a proud graduate of WSU. What I assume is that he had to hustle pool, he probably also hustled at bowling in addition to setting pins, and he painted houses to pay his way in life and to pay his tuition. One Thanksgiving after I moved to Kennewick Dad got up and made a speech about how hard his youth had been, that we had no idea how hard he had to struggle. We didn’t fully understand his message because we had none of the history related above. Sadly it was only later, when his Alzheimer’s made the memories unreachable, did I piece together his history.
While at WSU he found my Mom, who came from a wheat farming family. From everything I found he had been denied any rights to the Whitman County wheat farm. This could be a false interpretation. What I do know is, farming was important to him, and he never ever mentioned the Whitman County farm. All that information came out of the obitutaries for his grandmother and his father. He found a way to become a wheat farmer by marrying my mother. They were married for 58 years but I really cannot say it was a picture perfect marriage. My Dad was not an easy person to live with for Mom, or for my brother and I, but they stuck out their marriage to it’s end.
Who My Dad Was as a Father
My Dad was hard to live with, he didn’t beat people, but no one was ever good enough. After all this research it is clear to me now he was deeply insecure. Who wouldn’t be after the childhood he had? He strove to be important, not in his eyes, but in the eyes of others. Status was everything. If he was part of an organization he was the president. If he had a horse it had to be a coal black former racehorse as beautiful as any horse ever born. The flip side of his status-seeking was that he tore down those whose status was less than his. The way he treated people made me SOOO angry. We had bitter arguments. He talked down to me, talking in a baby talk voice, well into my adulthood. My daughter and step-daughters, complained he did the same to them and asked me to make him stop. I couldn’t make him stop talking baby talk to me, how could I solve this for them, I asked. He didn’t talk baby talk to the boys though. But he could be very mean to them and was many a time. And he was very jealous and insecure when it came to my Mom.
The Change in His Voice
His treatment of me changed abruptly. One day as an adult I realized he wasn’t talking baby talk to me. That was the same year I left the classroom and became an online professor. Turning to my mother I asked her why. She had no idea. Mulling it over I asked if she thought it was because he didn’t understand what I did for a living now, and he didn’t know whether my status was still below him or if I might now be an equal. Status was everything to him, and everyone was in a hierarchy. If he looked up to someone or considered them an equal, he treated them with deference. But if someone was below him in status he was rude, mean, and condescending. Mom agreed that he very likely did not know whether I was an equal, or even a superior now. He never talked baby talk to me again.
I wish he had not been so insecure about his early life and had talked to us about everything. I wish he had not been so ashamed of Betty and her children. He always supported her and her family, but I never once met them. I wish he had been kinder to people, especially Mom, and not judged people based on their income and the work they did. I wish he knew that I am proud of him for surviving his childhood, becoming a college graduate, and a successful businessman. I wish I had had a chance to understand him better, our relationship might have been different. But as Mom would have said, one of her many, many Marjisms, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride…”
Bittersweet Father’s Day
All this history is captured for my family, everyday I am more aware that the family history is my responsibility. And today is Father’s Day, so my Dad was on my mind. Father’s Day has always been kind of bittersweet. My Dad taught me a lot but he was not the easiest person to live with. While I admired his commitment to his community in running many organizations, I’ve always felt he did it for the wrong reasons. Still, I learned to be community minded from him, and by doing the opposite of his example, I learned how to treat people. Still, I learned from him, I just wish I had learned ABOUT him while he was still alive and before the Alzheimer’s! Happy Father’s Day Dad!