I know I haven’t been posting much lately — I haven’t had a lot to say. But today, on Memorial Day, I want to repost the eulogy I gave for my father when we scattered his ashes out at sea in June 1997.
My father’s life spanned three-fourths of this [the 20th] century and was, perhaps, as pure an example of American life and the American dream as can be found. His life was shaped by three major forces — history, the sea, and my mother — though I leave it to others to decide which has been more powerful. (Being my mother’s son, I know where I’d place my bets.) And through his life, he set an example for all of us here.
John Arthur Webster was born in Rapid City, South Dakota, a town that in 1924 was barely removed from the Old West we see in movies. His grandfather, George Cosgrove, was an immigrant from Canada who had served as a Deputy US Marshal in the Dakota Territories in and around Deadwood and who knew Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane well — in the latter case, perhaps a bit too well. When Dad was just five years old, the stock market crashed, and America began its long slide into the Great Depression. It is perhaps impossible for use of a later generation to comprehend the shortages, difficulties, and despair of that time. It marked Dad for life, and he referred to it often as we grew up, stating frequently that he never wanted us to go without as he and so many of those around him had.
While still young, Dad and his family moved to Nebraska, then down to Panama — his dad, James Webster, was in the Navy — and then to San Diego. California, a frontier of a different kind, was something quite different in the 1930s from the sprawling mass we see today; it was, indeed, a golden country, full of promise and opportunity despite the persistent weight of the Depression. San Diego itself would become home to the Webster clan, the place where we all return to again and again, producing third- and even fourth-generation Californians.
But that would come later. For now, Dad’s concerns were mostly school, girls, and work, not necessarily in that order. After less than a year in San Diego, Dad’s family moved to San Pedro, up near Los Angeles. As a young man, Dad used to go out to the harbor breakwaters and harvest the abalone that covered the rocks. Using a sharp knife, he would cut the abalone meat very carefully away from the shell — then throw the meat into the harbor, while stacking the shells to one side to be sold as souvenirs to tourists. Decades later, he would wince and shake his head as he recalled this. He also worked delivering newspapers to help pay for his clothing and other necessities, first on his own, and then with his lifelong friend, Jerry Gannon.
Here he also met Jackie Fickes, the daughter of an LA County law enforcement officer. This could have been a Romeo-and-Juliet situation — Dad’s own father was now working as a longshoreman, and there was little love lost between those two groups back then. The only problem was that Mom and Dad never dated in high school. Dad claimed that he had his eye — and his heart — set on Mom even back then, though Mom tends to be skeptical. But subsequent events may support Dad’s point of view.
First, though, history and the sea intervened again with war breaking out on the far side of both oceans. In 1939, Dad’s own father was called back to active duty in the Navy — and Dad would not see him again for seven years, a separation that we would find hard to imagine today. Two years later, upon turning 17, Dad followed his father’s footsteps, wanting to see the world, He enlisted in the US Navy, made it through boot camp, and went out to sea on board the USS San Francisco (CA-38), a heavy cruiser.
He got more than even he bargained for. On the way out of port, they were diverted down to the waters off Mexico to rescue a Naval barge caught in a hurricane. To get there, they had to sail straight through the hurricane. The barge turned out to be fine, but the San Francisco suffered damages and even lost a man overboard.
The San Francisco then made its way to the Naval shipyards in Pearl Harbor to undergo repairs. It was still in that condition — with the ship’s guns dismantled and ammunition offloaded — when the Japanese attacked on December 7th. Dad and his crew members were issued rifles with which to fire at the Japanese planes that were wreaking havoc on the US Pacific fleet. At this point, Dad said he began to have second thoughts about having joined the Navy, but by then it was too late.
Dad spent most of the war in the Pacific. His ship, the San Francisco, came out of the Pearl Harbor attack unscathed. However, it was badly damaged and took heavy losses after engaging several Japanese warships at close range during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal (November 1942). The San Francisco made it back to port for repairs, and Dad was sent back to the States for Officer Candidate’s School. Dad got kicked out of OCS for slugging an instructor and instead was given training in radio communications, becoming a very skilled radio key operator. He then was sent to the recently-established Camp Pendleton to train with the US Marine Corps and was in the third wave of the USMC invasion of Guam (August 1944), part of a team with the responsibility to set up Radio Guam, the US armed forces communications center for the South Pacific. He spent the rest of the war there and helped to relay the news of the unconditional surrender of Japan.
In 1943, while back in the States, Dad had secured a brief leave home and used it to track down and renew contact with Jackie Fickes; if his heart hadn’t been set on her in high school, it certainly appeared to be so now. In December of 1945, a few months after the war ended, Dad was back in San Pedro on leave. Once again, he tracked down Jackie Fickes. Mom at that time was in nursing school and engaged to be married — to someone else — on December 30th. However, she apparently had some interest in Dad, because she not only agreed to go out with him, but after one date she broke off her engagement with the other guy. A few weeks later, Jackie and John were having dinner with Jerry and Claudine Gannon, high school friends of theirs who had married each other a year earlier. One discussion led to another, Dad suggested that he and Mom elope, and the four of them headed to Las Vegas with Jerry driving his uncle’s car (unbeknownst to his uncle). Various car problems, wedding logistics, and the Clark County clerk’s refusal to believe that Dad was 21 delayed the actual ceremony until about 4 pm the following afternoon, but they were finally married — on December 30th, Mom’s original wedding date.
Of course, they had to go back and face Jackie’s dad, John (“Jack”) Fickes, who had contacted the LAPD and put out an all-points bulletin when his daughter had failed to come home a few nights before. When they pulled up in from of Mom’s house, Jerry said he’d wait in the car, thank you. Dad often said that the hardest thing he ever had to do in his life was to walk with Mom back into her parents’ house and explain to her father what they had done. He sat down, set his sailor’s cap on the table, lit a cigarette, and tossed his lighter into his cap while he started to talk. Jack Fickes finally had to interrupt him to point out that the lighter hadn’t closed or gone out and that Dad had set his cap on fire.
Mom got pregnant right away, a fact that soon came to the attention of the nursing school director. Since the nursing students were not allowed to be married, much less pregnant, the director called Mom in and asked her to explain her obvious condition. Mom looked the director straight in the eye and said, “Don’t you remember I asked you for permission to get married?” They both knew full well that Mom hadn’t, but the director, choosing the best of some difficult choices, accepted Mom’s statement and allowed her to stay.
While Mom was dealing with nursing school and pregnancy, Dad was back out on the ocean and touching history again. The U.S. in 1946 was conducting open-air nuclear tests in the South Pacific. Dad was part of a team assigned to go aboard and inspect unoccupied target ships that would be anchored various distances from the blasts; the team would then attempt various decontamination procedures. He spoke in later years of how they would drop pieces of metal and equipment overboard and watch them glow as they sank in the clear ocean water. At the conclusion of these tests, Dad and the rest of the team were informed of the possible effects of radiation upon them. This may explain much about the Webster household, especially the offspring, except for Deirdre Ann, who had already been conceived. We don’t have an explanation for her.
The next fifteen years were an intense period of separation, childbearing, and travel. Susanne Evelyn, John Alfred (whom none of us will ever call anything but “Chip”), and Lorraine Imogene came in successive years –1947, 1948, and 1949 — but Suzanne and Lorraine were born on the West Coast while Chip was born back in Washington D.C. While in D.C., Dad — then a Radioman First Class — took the Navy-wide competitive exam for promotion to Chief Petty Officer and placed 6th out of over 2000 candidates. Needless to say, he got the promotion.
Then, shortly after Lorraine’s birth, Dad called up Mom and asked her how she’d like to come to French Morocco. Mom, with four kids under the age of four, had to work to earn the money for their plane tickets to Washington D.C.; the Navy would then transport all of them from there. She did so, and soon the entire Webster family was in Port Lyautey in northwest Africa. It is small wonder that Dad loved and adored Mom so much, was so grateful to her, and was so devoted to her well-being.
After two years in Africa, Mom and the four kids returned to the States, but a fifth — myself, Bruce Francis — was already in the oven, so to speak. Dad continued on cruise in the Mediterranean. As the time for my delivery came near, Mom asked the local Red Cross to certify her pregnancy so that she could request Dad to come home on leave to help out with the children and the birth. Appallingly, the Red Cross refused to comply, stating that there were plenty of qualified foster families in the area that could take the older kids, so that there was no need for Dad to come home. Dad, when he found out, went to his fleet commander, who was likewise appalled and not a little irritated that the Red Cross should presume to decide whether Dad could come home. He not only sent Dad home on leave, but told him that he could remain there in Rhode Island until his ship got back to the States.
After Rhode Island came a stay in San Diego — the first for our family — then a stay in north Chicago, at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, then back to San Diego, where Jacqueline Diane, the last of the Webster kids, was born while Dad was out to sea on the aircraft carrier USS Hancock (CV-19). Then late in 1958, the whole family packed up and moved to Subic Bay in the Philippines for two years, meaning that in six years the Websters had gone 2/3rds of the way around the earth. Mom’s dad, Jack Fickes, by then a widower, came to live with us out there and would live with us for the rest of his life (another 13 years).
n December of 1960, we returned to the States, moving to Astoria, Oregon, a place most noted in family annals for the snakes I captured and let loose, often in the Naval housing duplex in which we lived. But Dad and Mom decided it was time to settle down. So Mom, in an act of remarkable faith and confidence, sent Dad and Grandpa Jack down to San Diego to find and buy a house for all of us to live in. They did so, and we all moved down to La Mesa (in east San Diego County) — the rest of us, Mom included, still not having seen the house — in August, 1961.
It was an inspired choice and — besides marrying Mom — one of the best choices Dad ever made, though he would often grumble in later years about the yardwork and maintenance required, threatening to sell the whole place and move into a condo. Still, after fifteen years of traveling from one side of the world to the other, it gave us a sense of permanence, a place to plant our feet and our hearts. It was just in time, too. Over the next ten years, the five oldest children left home for college and marriages, but we now had a place to come back to, and we did so — Christmas, Easter, Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving — year after year.
During those ten years, Dad — when he wasn’t on cruise — got to deal with a bunch of bright and independent teenagers during the turbulent 60s. We had sit-down dinners most evenings, and the conversations were anything but dull — not just because of the topical issues, but because of the Webster family propensity to zing one another and anything (or anyone) else that got in the way. Those of you who have attended Webster family gatherings know what I’m talking about. Indeed, the combination of Dad’s and Mom’s personalities, beliefs and genes seem to have created a very distinct Webster clan: irreverent, determined, with a skewed sense of humor, freely razzing one another, yet fiercely loyal, confident in their ability to achieve what they want to, yet willing to endure what sacrifices they need to. Indeed, if there is a Webster family motto, it is my mother’s simple reply when I have asked her how she managed to endure all she went through during the early years of her marriage to Dad: “You just do what you have to do.”
History, in the form of Vietnam, intervened again a few years after moving to San Diego. Dad did two tours of duty, each lasting roughly a year, in Vietnam. The first was aboard the USS Piedmont (AD-17), a destroyer tender that would carry out repairs and maintenance for destroyers off the coast of Vietnam. The Piedmont’s motto was “Non bonum sed perfectum” — not good, but perfect — which could have also been Dad’s professional motto. While most of Dad’s work was done at a safe distance offshore, he and a colleague did draw a hazardous mission in country. It seems that a freighter had been abandoned in the channel leading from the ocean up to Saigon. Their mission was to get the ship operating, underway, and out of the channel before the Viet Cong sank it to create a hazard for other ships. They did so, but not without several nerve-wracking experiences along the way.
Dad’s skill and competence were recognized when he was hand-picked by the Western Pacific Fleet Commander to head up the electronics division aboard the USS Providence (CLG-6), a guided missile cruiser that was the flagship for the entire US fleet in Vietnam. This would be Dad’s final assignment; when the Providence finished its Vietnam tour and was reassigned to San Diego, Dad came home for good, finishing out his Navy career in port.
But Dad retired in 1970 after 29 years, not in 1971 after 30 years, as would normally be the case — and therein lies a tale worth telling. As Deirdre has explained it to me, it seems that a high-ranking admiral back in the Pentagon had a pet project that was developing advanced electronic detection/countermeasures technology. Because of Dad’s experience and reputation, he was chosen to give the system an independent evaluation. After a series of tests and reviews, Dad said it was, in effect, worthless. This infuriated the admiral back in the Pentagon, who demanded a new set of tests. Dad’s own fleet commander, likewise an admiral, explained to Dad all the issues and potential repercussions, then asked him to go through the process again, but also told him that he would back whatever evaluation he made. So Dad did all the tests and reviews again and came to the same conclusion. His fleet commander backed the evaluation, and the project was killed — but not without a cost. Dad, having been kicked out of OCS during World War II, had slowly worked his way up through the enlisted ranks (Chief Petty Officer and Chief Warrant Officer) and had finally earned his commission the hard way, becoming a Lieutenant JG and then a full Lieutenant. With only a year or so to go before retirement, he was up for promotion to Lt. Commander. That promotion was now denied, almost certainly torpedoed by a certain vindictive admiral back in the Pentagon. Furious at such shabby and petty treatment in consequence to an honest evaluation, especially after 29 years of hard work and sacrifice on the part of him and Mom, Dad immediately resigned, refusing to spend even just one more year in the service that had occupied his entire adult life. So in February of 1970, just shy of his 46th birthday, Dad was a civilian for the first time since high school.
After this time, history pretty much left Dad alone. He worked a series of jobs — delivery of pet food supplies to retail stores, selling real estate, assisting at a veterinary hospital — before finally retiring for good. The sea was still his (second) love, though, and he often went out deep sea fishing, keeping us stocked in albacore and yellow fin tuna. He took over many domestic chores to help support Mom, who had been working full time (and then some) since shortly after moving back to San Diego. Dad’s support, not to mention the departure of most of us kids, allowed Mom to go back to school and get her Bachelors degree in Nursing — all while continuing to work as head nurse of a rest home. (Did I mention “overachievers” in the list of Webster clan traits?) The two of them also established a tradition of taking trips each year, having bought into a timeshare company. They were usually accompanied by their close neighbors and dear friends, Nancy and Carroll Reed. Dad and Carroll –an art professor who had served in the Army in World War II and who had gone ashore in the Normandy Invasion on D-Day — would sit, talk, read and fish, while Mom and Nancy would go off hiking, exploring, seeking adventures, and generally causing Dad and Carroll to shake their heads.
When Mom retired as well in 1989, she and Dad bought an RV and began several years of extensive travel, sometimes being on the road for months at a time. Their longest trip took them up the West Coast, across the length of Canada, down the East Coast, and back across the South and Southwest. After so many years of being separated, it was sweet and true justice that they could have these months and years alone together. And in the end, both history and the sea faded away, and it was Mom that occupied the rest of Dad’s life, though he always delighted in visits by the kids and especially the grandkids, of which they had an abundance from a variety of sources.
My daughter Jacqui — one of those grandkids — once told me that her image of Dad will forever be of him sitting at the kitchen table of the house in La Mesa, in the evening, the lights dim, listening to a Padres game, occasionally muttering, exclaiming, or even slamming the table when something bad or good happened. She also said that she was 12 years old before she realized that Dad really didn’t send vials of his best gravy to the Smithsonian Institute. And some years ago, when Deirdre and I shared an office, she found herself chuckling because, she said, my unconscious mannerisms and expressions were so much like Dad’s. In so many ways, Dad’s life and habits, not to mention his jokes, will resonate in our family for generations.
But the greater heritage for all of us was Dad’s dedication to family and country. He epitomizes something I read years ago, written by Tom McGetchin, a planetary scientist who died from cancer as a relatively young age. McGetchin spent the last months of his life in Hawaii with some friends and kept a journal during that time. In it, he made the observation that there were three main tasks we had in this life:
- Shaping our stone, that is, making our contribution to civilization and humanity;
- Loving others;
- Taking the next step.
Dad did all three and did them well, and he has now taken the ultimate next step. It is fitting that here at the end, Mom, the sea, and history — in the form of the representative of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association — have come together again, with all of us, to celebrate his life, mourn his passing, and rededicate ourselves to living up to the quiet example he set. That is the best legacy, tribute, and repayment that we could give him for all he has given us. That we may all do so is my hope and prayer.