What Our Late Parents Leave Behind Can Tell Us Just How Much They Enjoyed Our Company
Remembering a trip to Aspen with my Dad, thanks to his receipts
An unearthed paper trail tells a tale
A father-son trip more memorable to him than I knew
Parents can find ways to surprise you even when they are gone…have been gone for many years.
Case in point: In the process of going through family records and various documents to support a book I’m writing, I found a small stack of receipts and lined note paper with accounting notes that my father organized after a trip he and I took to Aspen, Colorado, in late March into early April 1969. He’d flown out to see me at school in Boulder, where we rented skis, boots, poles, and a roof rack for the rental car he’d picked up at the Denver airport.
A former World War II fighter pilot and then a Strategic Air Command (SAC) bomber pilot, Pop was still on active duty in the Air Force, working at the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA) across from the Pentagon. I was beginning my sophomore year at the University of Colorado, and, according to the receipts, I was living in the Baker Hall dorm on campus (room 181). The dates of the trip’s receipts fall just before my 20th birthday (May 5), and though I’d forgotten the timing of his visit, it appears to have been an early birthday present in the form of a father-son ski trip.
Why did he keep these particular records?
What I find fascinating and, frankly, quite emotionally tinged 17 years after his death in February, 2003, is that he kept these particular records for so many years. The trip was special to both of us for several reasons — more extensive than I’ll go into here — but it closed a loop of father-son trips he and I took.
Our road history began with a life-altering (for me) cross-country driving trip he and I took from Lincoln, Nebraska to Colorado Springs in May of 1963 (shortly after my 14th birthday) to compete in the Air Force skeet championships (we both won in our respective classes, and I still keep the little trophy I picked up from that journey).
Lessons from the driver’s seat
On that trip, my father kept the conversation going by describing the geology we were passing over and through as we made our way across the Great Plains and crossed into Colorado. He told me about the inland sea that covered much of the mid-North American continent, and pointed out the layers of rock exposed by the Interstate Highway builders as they cut through the rolling hills of western Nebraska.
After we slipped across the Colorado border, he pointed out the gentle rise of the terrain, and had me on the lookout for rocky outcrops jutting out of the ground paralleling the highway — they were the sentinels of the Front Range of the Rockies soon to appear as a soft white smudge on the horizon.
That first father-son road trip was part exploration, part education, part wonder, and part sharing; a long-distance drive that was all a fourteen-year-old kid could ever want.
Times and circumstances changed
Plans and adventures get shelved despite our best intentions
Jump forward six years from 1963 — turbulent years for the family as we left SAC in 1965 and moved back here to Virginia and tried to settle into a less peripatetic life that had been common to flight-status Air Force families. Among the routines that were set aside were our father-son trips which Pop’s Pentagon and IDA jobs — too classified for him to discuss, or for me to understand until I was much older.
I headed to Boulder in June of ’68 to get an early start at the University. I took up skiing again when the winter came. I say again, because during Pop’s tour of duty in Europe in the 1950s, the whole family did the skiing bit down in Switzerland and Austria. Once we came back to the U.S. in 1960, SAC had Pop stationed in non-mountainous states, so the family skiing came to a halt. Until pop flew to Colorado in the spring of ’69 ($47.25 from Baltimore to Denver. It seems he was able to use a military discount).
A bittersweet discovery in a small pile of papers
The receipts of the Aspen trip brought back the details I’d forgotten. We rented skis — K2s for me, Heads for him ($47.77 combined). We stayed at the Smuggler Lodge in Aspen (I remember going into the heated pool at night, with the outside temps still in the 30s and mist rising off the pool and our bodies as we swam)…and more memories unfolded as I went through each onion-skin-thin credit card receipt.
The spring snow conditions were wonderful — Pop had never skied deep powder or basins — and we must have skied everything but the double diamonds ($140 lift tickets for two for the week). We ate at the Copper Kettle ($21.74), at the Chalet ($10.29), and at the Toklat restaurant on Main Street ($15.34).
Our trip was cut short after Pop took a fall on the upper slopes of Ajax Mountain, twisting his knees, and refusing (typically, maddeningly stoic) help from the Ski Patrol. The morning after the fall he was in pain and his knees were a mess, so I got him into the car and we drove back to Boulder. On his last night there, we had dinner at the Greenbriar Inn ($26.70).
The next morning, I drove him to Denver where he got the first plane back to DC ($47.25, Denver to Baltimore, according to the airline receipt). A bittersweet ending to a lovely, happy father-son trip.
My point, and I have one…
Anyway…the point of this little missive is to note that while it may seem like parents don’t always treasure every moment of their children’s lives, they can leave behind small treasures they held dear — albeit quietly — that reminded them of the good times they had. For me, it’s not just the Boulder-Aspen trip receipts that are examples of a father’s treasures.
A scrapbook recording a son’s early career
It wasn’t until after he died that I found a scrapbook he’d kept of all my early newspaper photos and stories. I never knew — he didn’t say a thing, just collected them and affixed them to the pages of the leather-bound album.
I’m sure my encounters with my dad’s collections of his son’s life and the times he and I shared are not unique — I’d be willing to bet that many of you have discovered similar personal treasures uncovered too late to talk about, but not too late to embrace and relive so many years later. Yep. They can still surprise you. Gotta love that.