My earliest memory was of waking up in an oxygen tent in a La Crosse, WI hospital recovering from pneumonia at age 4. A buxom blonde nurse lifted me from my crib and held me up to the 2nd floor window just as my parents were walking in, my dad holding up a football that was meant as a gift for me. What did I know about a football, except that it obviously meant something to him? We seemed to do okay then, financially, but those times were brief. Dad moved our family to Omaha in 1972 and was to take the place of a Blue Cross and Blue Shield executive who was taking an early retirement. However, when we arrived in Omaha with all of our earthly possessions, that executive opted to not leave the company after all. Dad, being dad, told the BC & BS folks were to put his promotion and so they did.
Dad preferred to bounce from sales job to sales job for the next 7 years, in spite of the growing family. Before long there were nine children, 9 mouths to feed, and seemingly…not much in way of thought as to how these mouths would be fed. Welfare and food stamps helped round off the rough corners of the “Doug H” world, along with an occasional USDA box of gubment cheese, powdered eggs and milk, and canned green beans. Mom could be cunning like a fox, and soon devised a plan to send her sullen, failure-to-thrive oldest children out to apartment buildings and bars to collect change for charities like the Muscular Dystrophy Foundation and Easter Seals. Those charities would never see a dime of that money. The first portion came off the top to buy dad’s cherry-flavored Borkum-Riff pipe tobacco and then mom’s candles and incense to do her black magic witchcraft rituals with. Then, we could buy food for the family with the remainder of the change. How we managed to never be molested or taken is beyond me. Hans was 11, I was 9, Thurston was 7. We made the rounds, the two or three of us, sans parent.
Mom and dad didn’t like to pay their rent very much, so we had the opportunity to move a lot. I hated moving because it would mean a new school, often in the middle of the school year. Neither parent seemed to mind subjecting us children to that. Dad had an out-of-hospital arrest in February, 1978, at age 39. Dad weighed 315 lbs then, on a 5′ 11″ frame and was a 2-pack per day smoker, plus the pipe. Omaha had a big snowfall that day and dad managed to get the car stuck in a snow bank and had to shovel himself out of it. He later ran out of gas and had to walk 8 blocks (something he was not accustomed to doing) to get more gas. He was selling Rainbow vacuum cleaners at the time, considered the Ferrari of vacuums then, due to their price tag and ability to clean carpets.
As mom and dad would later tell, dad left a meeting at the office about 6 p.m. but announced to his parting co-workers that he had forgotten his briefcase and returned to the office. Dad no sooner reached the back of the office when he collapsed. God was watching over this man with nine children at home and a wife with no means of providing for them because another salesman, a recent Vietnam Vet and medic, also returned to the office mere moments after Dad, found him down, and began CPR! What are the odds, circa 1978, that this impossible scenario of events would play out this way? Dad’s office happened to be 2 blocks from the University of Nebraska Medical Center. The movie “Beyond and Back” was in the theater in the months after dad’s near-death experience and dad told me in detail about how he watched CPR being done on him by his co-worker while looking down from above.
If it weren’t for the kindness of church elders, our Wisconsin family, and complete strangers, we likely would have starved to death. I remember going to bed hungry for 18 years, except this improved once we moved closer to our WI family in 1979. Funny term–“failure to thrive”–we were thriving just fine. The alternative was dying, and as long as we weren’t dying of starvation we were thriving.
Today I am a masters-educated RN, working on my doctorate in health care leadership and organizational behavior, and my wife and 3 sons spent yesterday and today making 5 baked goods & treats to raise money for Feed My Starving Children at our church. My sons will never know the lean times I did growing up, and for that I am most grateful and blessed.