My father was a Flint guy, Great Depression edition — blue-collar even when he was in management, hands-on, patriotic, optimistic, and altogether typical of his generation. As a young man, he played baseball, drank beer, smoked whatever cigarettes he could afford, and helped save the world for democracy.
Like his father and his only brother, Dad was an autoworker. All three men worked for the Buick, a General Motors division that at its peak employed nearly 30,000 people in Flint, Michigan.
Buicks are still made somewhere, but not in Flint. The Buick plant — once the largest manufacturing complex under one roof in the world — is gone.
It’s just as well that Dad didn’t live to see that. He was a company man to core, starting out on the line and working his way up to foreman. My sister tells the story of the time she took Dad with her to buy her first car, a Ford Pinto. After a test drive, the salesman asked Dad what he thought.
“I buy Buicks,” Dad replied.
Over the years, he bought plenty of Buicks and a couple thousand shares of GM stock. Out of sentiment, my mom kept the stock until the corporation went bankrupt. She still drives a Buick.
In an old photo, Dad and I are standing outside the home of one of my grad school professors in Bloomington, Indiana. It’s the late summer or early fall of 1982. Dad has just turned 60 years old, a year older than I am as I write this (in 2011). By 1982, for the most part, he has quit smoking and quit drinking beer. He has some extra pounds around his middle, but nothing spectacular. His blood pressure is up, and he is developing type-2 diabetes. He has blockages in his arteries. In a few months, he will under-go heart by-pass surgery. On the gurney, as they are wheeling him in, Dad will take my hand and whisper, “I’m scared, Jim.” I’ll mumble a reply that’s meant to be reassuring and most likely isn’t.
I know it wasn’t the only time Dad was ever afraid, but it was the only time he ever admitted it to me.
He survived the by-pass, and it bought him another decade or so — time enough to meet his grandchildren. He kept his weight down for a while, drinking diet pop and going on regular walks with my mother. Gradually, he put back on some pounds, and his diabetes worsened. For the last several years of his life, he had to inject himself with insulin. But he stayed reasonably active until the end.
After retiring from the Buick, he and some of his American Legion buddies founded a successful bingo supply business, and Dad held down the office there until his death from heart disease in October, 1994.
My father’s name was Don, but in his younger days on Flint’s north side, his friends called him Andy. He was a high school graduate. He wanted to learn to fly an airplane, but never did. He never set foot inside a college, either, unless it was to visit me. Nevertheless, when he passed away, I inherited his large collection of University of Michigan gear — neck-ties, hats, sweat-shirts, and a maize-and-blue jacket. The last thing Dad ever watched on TV was a football game between Michigan and Illinois. He shouldn’t have watched; it tended to raise his blood pressure.
Dad never met a machine that he didn’t think he could fix or master — at least until the personal computer came along. I had the edge on him there.
As for his diet, Dad was a meat-and-potatoes guy. He liked sweet corn, radishes and green onions. His favorite ice-cream was maple walnut. In a pinch, any dessert would do. Maybe it isn’t too surprising that he ended up an insulin-injecting, type-2 diabetic.
He drank cold-coffee in the summer, and hot coffee any time of year. In later years, he switched to decaf. As I mentioned, he liked his beer, a fondness that got him into trouble with both the army and my mom at different points in his life; he gave it up eventually. How much his diet contributed to his health problems, it’s hard to say. Smoking three packs of cigarettes a day for 30 years had to have something to do with it. But diet must have been a factor, too.
He died a decade younger than his father.
He was a good man, and I miss him.
A version of this essay was originally published on Life After Carbs in 2011.