y parents named me Walter Stanislav Cieplik Jr. and I’m not quite sure how I got old. Well. Let’s just say, approaching middle age. I was named after my grandfather — family man, bootlegger and railroad worker. In 1927, Stan stepped out into traffic and was run over by a truck.
A few days later, he died, leaving a farm, a widow and stepladder children barely babies. Gathered around his bed in his final moments, the man’s last request was all his five children receive their first communion. My Dad was 5 then. He grew up without a father. No playing catch. No helping his father fix a porch or milk a cow. Certainly, no luxury of hopping in an air-conditioned pickup on a whim to visit faraway mountains, forests or oceans.
Odd, the serendipity of the calendar. Had he lived, my father would have turned 101 tomorrow, Dec. 2. Plus, he made his transition10 years ago. I smile when I think of him, I miss him so. I legally changed my name to John Boston, geez, nearly a half-century ago. Dad and I talked about it. He said it didn’t bother him. Funny thing? As a Walter Jr., John, Walt or Johnny, in all our years? Dad never called me by any name. He just called me, “Son …”
John Quincy Adams may have been our smartest president, with an estimated IQ of 175. He wrote, “I am a warrior, so that my son may be a merchant, so that his son may be a poet.” I’m not sure our sixth president’s vision was universal. My Dad was a warrior. I am a knucklehead.
Dad was a smart guy, living in a shell. It still breaks my heart. He confessed once that a World War II artillery shell exploded nearby, knocking him out. It affected his hearing and day-to-day awareness for the rest of his life. He didn’t talk much about the war. Ruefully, Dad recalled one of the bloodiest battles of World War II, the landing at Anzio Beach. Climbing out of the troop boat, bullets pinging past, the guy in front of him caught one. Wounded, but not fatally. Another broke his leg falling off a rope ladder. Dad smiled, recalling. “At the time, I thought how lucky they both were.”
My father walked across Europe. It was winter, toward the end of the war. The Germans were ordering up boys as young as 8 to fight. At a Christmas dinner, now seeming centuries ago, Dad recalled the crunching sound his boots made. The sun was rising. Young boys, dead, some still sitting, were frozen in snow banks.
“Some had blond hair, pink cheeks,” my father recalled. “They were so young and beautiful. In the morning light, they looked like angels.”
His final years, I was so lucky I got to take care of him. He’d wake in the vampire hours, screaming and kicking, tangled in blankets. Dad had a reoccurring nightmare. Nazis jumped into his trench, trying to bayonet him. We’d sit around the dining room table, drinking tea, sometimes playing pinocle until the ghosts left and it was safe to go back to bed.
Back when Christmas trees didn’t cost as much as a new car, we’d buy a live one. When the holidays left, we’d plant it. Some trees have died. Some are 50 feet tall. My father could not operate a microwave or cellphone, but he could build a nuclear-war-proof barn, porch steps or wagon. Tougher than nails, Dad was a hypochondriac. Toward the end, Alzheimer’s visited and Walt forgot he had spent most of his life as a health nut. I’d take him to El Pollo Loco and he’d nearly swoon at the narcotizing tastes, especially the Dr. Pepper. He swam. He ran. He lifted weights, read, studied and, until his mind started to slip, was one of the best horse handicappers on Planet Earth. Walt Cieplik was one of the most helpful, loving and sweetest sons of a gun you ever wanted to meet. And, he could be embarrassing. Once, in the produce section, he approached a Rubenesque young woman and, unasked, offered that there were exercises she could do to lose the girth and demonstrated a few.
I dove into the cantaloupes.
On every birthday, until he was 86, Dad took a backpack and, solo, climbed the Los Pinetos Trail in Placerita Canyon, way up and over past the “What’s Wrong With You You’re Entering Bear Country!!” signs at the summit into the San Fernando Valley. He have lunch and a comforting thermos of tea, find a soft and shady spot and nap. A couple times, I joined him. Nearly killed me and I was in shape. We laughed that the darn downgrade was harder on the legs than the incline.
He loved life so. While a non-believer in God, Dad was Lee Hunt’s, “Abou Ben Adhem,” loving his fellow man, flowers, sunrises and the solitary leaf. In his last moments, my father was terrified. His last words weren’t poetic. Just, “No …”
Suspicious of pretty much everything non-Santa Clarita, several times I failed in kidnapping him for a Yosemite run. Finally, I reserved a house in Wawona, packed suitcases and gear, grabbed hiking sticks and the overkill of wilderness necessities (there are actual stores in Yosemite …). We both laughed. I gave him the choice of being hogtied in the truck bed or sitting up front with me. Truth is, Walt always loved the timeless lure of the highway. When we got to Yosemite, his reaction still haunts, delights and inspires me. Before settling into our cabin, we stopped at the Mariposa Redwood Grove. Dad climbed out of the truck. So unlike him, he stretched out his arms, closed his eyes, inhaled all the fresh air so none was left for the rest of we tourists, then slowly pirouetted in circles.
“It’s all … just … so … beautiful,” my father said. “You just want to reach out — and hug it all.”
That’s my dad.
That’s life, isn’t it?
John Boston is a local writer. Visit his bookstore at johnbostonbooks.com.