I handed this picture to a college student last week. We were at an annual dinner hosted by Western State — sorry, Western Colorado University — to bring scholarship recipients and donors together. One of those scholarships is in my dad’s name, and it goes to a history major.
So I gave a copy of this photo to Nicholas, who thanked me, as he did several times through the evening for the bit of financial assistance the scholarship will offer him. But where he saw a still life of a man and a dog, I can see my entire childhood in this picture.
There’s my dad, of course, and he’s holding our dog Tag-Along. They’re in front of the van my dad bought without seeking my mom’s input, used, for what was then a princely sum of $4,000. Behind the van is the hedge that separated our front yard from the Bartlesons’. Even the telephone pole, which gets far too much prominence in this photo (taken by either me or my sister Terri), holds significance that escapes the casual viewer — it was the scene of a dramatic rescue.
I don’t know which of our cats this was — the ’70s were a long time ago — but we had one cat with mad climbing skills, as long as it was going up. This same cat had no “down” gear. I also don’t recall what spooked it so badly that it made it all the way to the top of this pole, but there the cat sat, meowing loudly and pitifully.
The first approach was to figure the cat would soon get tired of its precarious perch and come down on its own, but that didn’t happen. Eventually my dad found a cardboard box and nailed it to the end of a very long 2 x 4 he had in the garage. He parked his van under the pole, climbed on top and elevated the box up to cat level, where the feline was smart or desperate enough to take the leap of faith into the box, which must have wobbled pretty badly. But Dad did it: the cat returned safely to Earth, no one fell off the top of the van — all was well, and I was going to say that the cat learned its lesson, but now I’m thinking this whole exercise got repeated a few more times.
That hedge was getting its start on life as my family arrived in town in 1969. Bruce Bartleson was planting the little bushes when we pulled into our new driveway that would facilitate my dad’s first (and only) teaching job, at Western State College. We came bringing the traditional gift of chickenpox (I had just recovered, thoughtfully passing them along to Terri and Tia), and when Micki Bartleson found out, she immediately brought daughters (and new best friends) Lynne and Kristi over to play. I don’t know if this is still the protocol, but that was the ’60s approach: get the disease overwith and out of the way as soon as possible.
That hedge survived a myriad of baseballs, pelted at it from both us and the Ruffe boys on the other side. Most of it thrived despite child hurdlers testing their mettle, although I have vague memories of an opening due to trekking through, rather than going around, the hedge. It was a place to hide during endless summers of Jailbreak (a hide-and-seek variant), and it offered shade for Taggie to repose in as she watched over her little flock of neighborhood children.
Taggie was, if you can believe this (sometimes I can’t), the only puppy that has ever lived with me. The dogs that have come after her were all adopted fully grown. But Taggie was a puppy, chosen out of a litter the Bartsch family was seeking homes for. I still tell people she was the Best Dog in the World, although that’s probably not true. She did, after all, traumatize many of us when she got run over at the age of 3 while playing her favorite game of trying to eat the tire on a moving car. My parents thought she might need to be put down, but I looked in her warm brown eyes and begged them not to do it. She lived another 13 years and was my boon companion through adolescence into adulthood.
The van was one of several impulse purchases made by my dad without consultation of his life partner, and he was hard-pressed to defend his extravagance, especially when the fuel line kept vapor-locking, usually out in the middle of nowhere. He eventually solved that problem with an electronic fuel pump, and that van logged many, many miles hauling many, many people to many, many locations.
I recall one instance where my dad and Micki got out of the front seats at some gas station somewhere in Colorado, and then from the back spilled child after child: the three of us, two Barils, two Bartlesons, perhaps a Barry or two . . . on-lookers stared at Dad, stared at Micki, stared at us kids, almost all of us blond, and shook their heads: better them than me. But what I enjoy remembering the most about my childhood is the Bartleson-Baril-Livermore amalgamation, sometimes buttressed by the Ruffes and Barrys and other kids in the neighborhood, tumbling in and out of houses like they all belonged to each of us.
I cried when my dad’s van was sold posthumously. We were the only two to drive it. It was too big for my mom to enjoy driving, and Terri and Tia were too young, but it’s the vehicle I learned to drive in, the car I got stuck in precarious situations a couple of times, and it was a bond I shared with my dad. I still carry the ignition key in my pocket.
Unlike Taggie, Charles H. Livermore did not get a long, healthy life. He died of a cancerous complication of primary sclerosing cholangitis, which earns me a “What?” when I tell that even to doctors. Sclerosis= hardening; cholang = of the bile duct.
It’s weird to realize my dad would be in his 80s now. That’s not quite double the life span he did get, and it means I’ve gone about two-thirds of my life without him physically in it. But mentally, emotionally, spiritually — he’s never left. Just like other things he built, he established this very solid foundation as a human being. He was far from perfect — $4,000 for a used van! What was he thinking? — but he lived a good and generous life.
I think it’s a testament to his accessibility that when he was in the hospital the final six weeks of his life, at least one of his students felt comfortable coming to him for classroom advice. He died as he lived, surrounded by not only family but friends, many of whom left their own lives in Gunnison to tend to his in a Denver hospital. His nurses, who knew him less than a month, cried at his death.
My dad — I started calling him Carlos when I was in my teens — taught me by example to strive to be a good person and to invest heavily in family, friends and community. The returns are tremendous.
Today is Thanksgiving, a day of gratitude, and this year, by turn of the calendar, it is also my dad’s Jahrzeit, a Hebrew term for the anniversary of one’s death. And so I would like to offer gratitude today to my dad,who gave me a life full of family and community, a life that makes me feel very rich indeed.