We called my father a lot of names: “Stinky Bill”, “Old Red Eyes” and “Wild Bill”. But, the one that stuck for us kids was, “The Old Man.” We used it in a rather respectful and fond way, like in the movie Big Jake where John Wayne called his dog, “Dog.” In his later years we referred to him more respectfully as “Pops” and his siblings called him Billy or Bill. He had an identical twin brother named Bob and they were a notorious pair in Erlanger, Kentucky in the 1940s, but more about that later. But his friends, co-workers and just about everyone else in Boone County, Kentucky called him “Westy” which was short for Westermeyer. A gregarious extrovert, he was always quick with a joke or story that he would tell with great enthusiasm and a sly grin. He was a well-known and colorful character in Boone County, with a reputation for mischief and pranks, but also respected for being a hard-working family man. He knew just about everyone and everyone seemed to know him. At a local fair, festival or flea market we constantly heard his friends call out “Westy!” and he would have to stop, talk, and exchange stories—and my dad loved to tell stories, long stories. It made moving about in public with my dad a slow process, like being stuck behind a tractor on a single-lane road. He had the charm of a politician but for a troublesome habit of being honest. He called it like he saw it, brutal honesty regardless of what others thought, a trait that got him into a few bar fights over the years, some of which resulted in black eyes, and one that resulted in scars across his stomach from a knife fight. My saintly mother had to bail him out of jail on several occasions.
When I deployed to Iraq, the Admiral I began working for said that my last name was too long and inquired if I used a shorter moniker. Not wanting to upset the Admiral I quickly replied “Westy” though I never went by that name. And, for the rest of the deployment she and my colleagues called me Westy and I didn’t complain because it reminded me of my father. I felt reassured in some way; when someone called out Westy my first instinct was to look around for my father. He wasn’t there, but in some way I felt he was with me in Iraq, helping me dodge mortars and IEDs in some mystical way.
There was never any doubt he was the man of the house. He made the rules and he enforced the rules, no questions asked. Quick with the colorful lines, he was known to say, “it’s my way or the highway”, or the classic, “don’t let the door hit you on the ass on your way out,” and he meant it. One year my older brothers got a pair of BB guns for Christmas. I’m not sure if they were official “Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifles,” but they were the type that the more you pumped, the faster the BB went. That spring my older brothers climbed onto the roof of the house and did a little sniper practice on their younger siblings. From painful experience I can tell you BBs sting, and if the air rifle is pumped enough times the BBs can penetrate the skin. When my Dad learned of the exploits of the American snipers on his roof, his justice was swift and merciless: he promptly grabbed both BB guns, pummeled them with a sledgehammer, and tossed them into the nearby lake. And that was the end of BB guns in the Westermeyer household. I felt deprived throughout my youth because I never had one—damn those older brothers! Another time, we got dropped off at the Mall after church and he told everyone to meet back at Sears at noon. My brother John and I were back at Sears at 11:55, but dad did not show up. We patiently waited for another 30 minutes, and when he did not appear, we called home. My mother answered and said we were late and they had left without us and we had to walk home. It was a good five miles, and we were just middle schoolers, but we did indeed walk home. I guess if you had to raise eight kids, six being boys, then ruling with an iron fist was a necessity; however, that wasn’t the only time I was left. Once after a Sunday mass where I had been the altar boy serving Father Frankrone, I went outside after the tidying up after mass to go home and the car and family had left. Once they came back to retrieve me, I was told was that he had miscounted the kids and they didn’t notice my absence because I was a quiet child. That’s plausible, but being twelve years old it shook up my self-confidence. I still have feelings of abandonment, or at least that’s what my therapists tells me.
My dad was a complex persons with many redeeming qualities and a few vices like us all. He possessed a strong German work ethic, holding down two jobs most of his adult life to support his wife and eight kids, and he was still working part-time at the age of 83 when a stroke finally slowed him down. He was a handsome man by all measures, tall and rangy, rugged but with a wise face, a cross between John Wayne and the famous Native American Sitting Bull, and he shared their intense character traits.
He was strong, gruff, and direct, but possessed a quick wit and impressive sense of humor and was the best storyteller I ever met. He had more stories than the library—some of them were even true — and he told them frequently with great relish. He was also blessed with a remarkable memory and could recall minute details about some beer-induced mischief he had gotten into 60 years ago. He also consumed more beer than I thought was humanly possible. For years I think he was the sole reason that Pabst Blue Ribbon stayed in business. He was known to drink a quart of beer at Trader’s bar on his way home from a hard day’s work on Saturday, then drink one more quart at dinner, then work on a third as he watched Hee Haw on our black and white console TV, at which point he fell asleep (or passed out) in his rocker listening to the sounds of Buck Owens and Roy Clark picking and grinning, and Grandpa Jones telling you what’s for supper. But underneath the gruff John Wayne-like exterior he was a caring family man and German Catholic to the core. He instilled those German Catholic values into the eight kids that he raised: work hard, earn your keep, help others in need, support your community, and love your country. You could call them classic American values.
But, my dad was no saint; he had a mischievous streak in him a mile long. A fatherless teenager, he and his identical twin brother Bob had a knack for finding trouble. His widowed mother, raising 10 kids during the height of the Great Depression and World War II, had no time to monitor the young rapscallions. Among their many misadventures, my favorites were stories about how he and Bob swapped places on dates or at sporting events. They got caught once at St. Henry High School golf match because my dad swung his clubs from the left side and his brother from the right. You see, even though they were identical twins, they had to cut down trees for firewood when they were growing up. Working on a tree trunk Bobby would swing from his right, and my dad would be on his opposite side swinging from his left, and that was how my dad became ambidextrous. The golf coach, who was also a priest, gave him “What for” as my dad would say, for that shenanigan. He was also on the boxing team, and would later put those ambidextrous boxing skills to use in the occasional bar fight.
Without parental supervision he and his twin brother were latter day Tom Sawyers and Huck Finns. Once their mother sent them out to the woods to find a Christmas tree. Not wanting to miss an opportunity they took their trusty 20-gauge shotgun just in case a rabbit gave himself up for dinner. They wandered around for a while looking for a tree and got pretty far off into the woods and finally found one, then realized that neither had brought an axe. However, they did have their shotgun and proceeded to shoot down the Christmas tree. Other adventures related to train robbing. The family lived in a small house not far from the railroad tracks, and as the trains slowed as they approached the nearby Erlanger station my Billy and Bobby would often hop on the slow moving train to steal ice for the family “ice box”, or coal for the stove. One time they were surprised to find bananas–not common back then—so, my Dad and his brother Bob heisted them. Later, that day the local police showed up looking for the bananas since my Dad and his twin brother were the usual suspects for petty theft from the trains. They searched high and low but they did not find them. Had they looked up, they would have seem them hanging amongst the branches of the oak tree in the yard. Another time, as the story goes, he didn’t get off of the train in time and ended up a hundred miles away in Louisville or Cleveland. This was quite a few years before cell phones and texting, so there was no phone call to his Mom for help, he figured out how to get himself back home on his own. That’s how he rolled.
He worked many jobs as a teenager, caddying being one that he enjoyed the most. It was fun work and paid well, a quarter a round. He especially loved working outings, where companies treated their entire staff to a day on the links, because beer kegs were spread throughout the course. When no one was looking he would stick his mouth under a spigot and fill up on beer. It was a good gig if you could get it.
He had many run-ins with the law in his younger days, but mainly for disorderly conduct and teenage mischief. In one story he claimed to have played a practical joke on the cops: One night the boys came across an unoccupied police car parked outside the local bar, and jacked up the rear end and removed both of the rear wheels. Then, he and his brother staged a fight at the bar—not a hard feat for them—so the patrolman would take them into custody for a ride down to the station. When the patrolman put the car in gear, the rear axle just span because the wheels were hanging in a tree. The boys jumped out of car and ran away, laughing the whole time. I am not sure if this story is true, but my dad liked to tell it anyway.
Between his various juvenile delinquencies and train rides to distant cities, I am not sure how my Dad found time for school. When he was 17 he decided that going to school and laboring the rest of the day to support his family was not his cup of tea, so in 1947 he up and joined the Navy. Technically he wasn’t old enough, but he lied about his age and forged his mother’s signature and soon was on a train again, but this time to basic training. I would love to say that my dad had a long and distinguished career, but he taught me to be honest. Much like his life, my dad had a “colorful” military career and he soon was on a first name basis with the shore patrol and had become intimately familiar with the inside of the brig. Just about every time he was promoted and sewed on a stripe, he got into a bit of mischief and was demoted and had to rip it off. Rumor is that he ended his military career wearing the same rank that he started it with: one stripe.
His first job was as a supply clerk on a destroyer and he had a reputation for finding anything that the ship needed using any available means. This is where his petty thief skills he learned as a teenager came into good use. He had a knack for bartering and finagling, and if negotiation did not get what was needed, he would do a “midnight” requisition. My dad claimed that his superior officers let him come and go off the ship as he pleased because they knew that he was cutting through the Navy bureaucracy and was getting the supplies they needed. Having spent 30 years myself dealing with military bureaucracy I would love to have a Bill “Westy” Westermeyer around in my shop to cut through the red tape. Of course, while off the ship he never missed checking the local bars for “supplies” and pretty girls. Sometimes he found the supplies, but usually he just found trouble.
Later in his career he served on a tugboat working in the Panama Canal, and this is where my Dad acquired his culinary skills. The man was a genius with a large cooking kettle and ingredients for soup. Years later he was still making similar large kettles of soup for his eight kids, specializing in bean and vegetable and chili. I vividly recall now, some forty years later, walking into the house and smelling a boiling pot of soup, and anxiously awaiting for him to declare it ready to eat. Mom made cornbread, while he flavored a bean soup with a huge ham bone. For the vegetable soup, he put in large steak chunks, as he did for the spicy chili. His version of vegetable soup is the best I ever tasted–Campbell’s could learn a thing or two from him. Dad, always the prankster, liked to tell the story about when the tugboat crew got diarrhea from a batch of bad bananas. He went into the “head”, locked the door and climbed out somehow, denying his shipmates use of the latrine. After a few years in the Navy my dad was mustered out (or got kicked out) and eventually found a job with Trans World Airlines, better known as TWA.
My dad worked for TWA for the next 30 years serving in several different capacities, but primarily loading food for the crew and passengers and fueling the aircraft. We grumbled that my dad passed a lot of gas in his lifetime, and he really did. He worked on many different aircraft over the years starting with the DC-3 and ending with the Boeing 747, but his favorite by far was the Lockheed Constellation, also known as a “Connie”. The Connie flew in the late 1950s during the later stages of the propeller age and it was quite possibly the most stylish and beautiful passenger aircraft ever built.
The pay at TWA was good for a man who never graduated from high school, thanks to a strong union, but there were other benefits as well. This was back in the day when the Airlines served real food and his co-workers made the most of it by divvying up left over snacks and meals from the flights. This wasn’t like today where you are thrown six miniature pretzels or nine peanuts, and poured a sip of soda. Gourmet meals were served on ceramic plates with proper silverware, and the glasses were glass. There were plump packs of peanuts, single serving cartons of milk, and tasty pats of butter. While his co-workers gravitated towards sodas and junk food, my dad secured the peanuts, milk, butter, and other staples to feed the large brood at home. We could depend on mother packing wonderful peanuts into our school lunches. Not only were they were good eating, but also good for throwing across Immaculate Heart of Mary’s cafeteria to see if we could land one inside a girl’s blouse. My dad would have been proud of us keeping up the family tradition of mischief. Occasionally, he would bring home a steak or liquor miniatures or some other exotic treat. On one occasion he obtained a large crate of live lobsters. I am sure there is a fascinating story on how they became his, and I am sure it was reminiscent of his days in the Navy. As a young country kid from rural Kentucky I was amazed to see those lobsters crawling across the kitchen floor before my mother dropped them into a pot of boiling water. I was at first a little dismayed at the sight, but soon recovered once I found out how delicious lobster was when dipped into our airline acquired melted butter.
The other benefit, and it was a really good one, was the space available travel passes on TWA flights that he obtained for his family. Sometimes referred to as non-revenue or nonrev for short, it was pretty much an unrestricted pass on any TWA flight that wasn’t fully booked. All you needed to do was fill out a short “810” form and show your TWA term pass and you were on a flight to anywhere in the world for free. And, unlike today where airlines overbook and cram passengers in like cattle, many of the flights in those days were wide open. It wasn’t uncommon for my older brothers to head to the airport on the weekend without any specific plans, and hop on any open flight, with hopes that we could find a flight back. I recall spending one night sleeping in the Boston airport when the return flight was full with 7 bucks in my wallet, no credit card, and no cell phone. Boston was one of our favorite destinations because we could get around pretty easy in the city and it contained a lot of history. My dad loved American history and we visited all of the historic sites in Boston with him. We also loved to go to Filene’s Basement to get bargain deals on clothes. There weren’t many kids in rural Kentucky who shopped in Boston. I still recall one Monday at school a classmate asked me what I did over the weekend, and I replied that I flew to L.A. He thought I was lying, I wasn’t. We may have been dirt poor but we were also world travelers. I recently read an article that suggested that part of the reason that rural America has such a narrow perspective is that they rarely travel outside of their culture. Maybe that’s why my brothers and sisters grew up with such a diverse perspective—we had traveled the world and realized that the people out there were just like us, only they spoke differently and had different skin color. But inside, they were just humans like us. That’s also one of the benefits of joining the military, you will see the world and work with people of all races, colors and creeds and soon you realize that we are all in this human race together.
Since money was tight these distant flying excursions were usually just a day or two with only a few family members, while our family vacations were one day car trips around the Cincinnati Tri-State region to state fairs, church festivals, flea markets, historical sites, and farm shows. If it had antiques, tractors, Daniel Boone, or beer we were there—especially the beer part. We would load up the station wagon, pack the cooler, and off we went. He loved going to the Kentucky state fair to watch the show horses. They were majestic and graceful and we would watch them for hours. If you haven’t seen them, I highly recommend it.
My dad’s other love was the outdoors. He was an avid hunter, fisherman, and true outdoorsman. If it swam, flew, hopped, or grazed my Dad probably hunted it at one point. He was never more proud than when he bagged a big buck or gobbler, but for him it wasn’t about the trophy it was about the sport. Plus, it helped feed us all. We ate venison steaks, rabbit and squirrel stews, fried fish and frog legs, and about every bird that flew and some that didn’t. We grew up in Boone County, Kentucky, eating a lot of the same food as Daniel Boone himself, but my Dad had the help of a high powered rifle scope to bag our dinner. Often after a morning hunting he spent the afternoon at a dive bar off of U.S. 42 called Duckhead, where he would kill a few beers instead and tell stories. His favorite was when someone would ask him if he bagged any game that day and he would reply, “killed a Wild Turkey.” In fact he would say, “I have it right here”, and he would pull an empty miniature bottle of Wild Turkey bourbon out of his pocket grinning from ear to ear. But by all accounts, my Dad was an incredible marksman and dead eye shot. Every hunting season he meticulously zeroed in his scope out on Seltman’s farm in preparation for that Fall’s hunt. For squirrel hunting he used a .22 rifle with a scope instead of a shotgun, and he fired with absolute precision. On one hunting trip he bagged 6 squirrels and was always quick to remind us of that feat. In his workout room he proudly hung the photo of him holding the 6 squirrels by the tail, like a proud papa in the nursery ward of a hospital. In the early winter after several squirrel and rabbit hunting trips, my mom would cook up the game in a classic German stew called Hasenpfeffer. It was a vinegary concoction with large dumplings and, of course, pieces of rabbit and squirrel. We knew to bite and chew carefully because we might come across a stray pellet from a shotgun round that was not found when the game was cleaned. In my mind I can still smell the distinct aroma of Hasenpfeffer cooking on the stove like it was yesterday. It reminds me of growing up in Kentucky.
He was also a skilled fisherman, but used a fly rod instead of the normal rod and reel. Like an artist painting a masterpiece, he delicately laid the fly on the water right where he wanted it. On our family fishing excursions to Seltman’s farm ponds, he typically caught as many fish as the rest of us kids combined, but we were using old-fashioned cane poles and worms as bait. Once he caught two large bass on one cast, and carefully reeled them in without snapping the line. He frequently reminded us of that extraordinary feat for the next 4o years. After we filled the fish basket with bass and bluegill, we’d head home with the fish still hopping, not knowing their fate. We knew it, and it was as our dinner. After we cleaned the fish, using bottlecaps nailed to a brush handle, my mom fried them up and we had fresh fish for dinner and all was right in the world.
In addition to hunting, my Dad loved to hike and canoe, which we often did on the weekends. I fondly recall loading the canoe on the top of our station wagon and a bunch of us heading to one of the local rivers, lakes or creeks to paddle around. My dad always sat at the rear of the boat near the beer cooler to steer and two or three of us kids paddled from the front and middle. The great philosopher Henry David Thoreau once said, “Everyone has to believe in something. I believe I will go canoeing.” Wiser words were never spoken.
I did not follow in my dad’s footsteps when it came to hunting, though several of my brothers did, but I do love the outdoors. I shoot my game with a digital camera and I prefer a kayak to a canoe. Nothing relieves stress better than paddling down a lazy river watching the fish swim by and the water birds fly overhead. I think we need to get our younger generation out from in front of their X-boxes and smart phones and back into the great outdoors. My children are starting to appreciate nature and for that I am both proud and glad.
One downside to my Dad’s love of nature is that he usually woke us all up about five or six in the morning for our outdoor excursions. Of course, since we were teenagers dispersed throughout the house he solved the problem of waking us up by playing the Eddy Arnold song “Cattle Call” as loud as he could on his 8-track stereo, like a modern day rooster with electronic amplification. “Cattle Call” was a unique yodeling country song and I can still hear it clearly in my head playing at zero-dark thirty in the morning, like a bad nightmare, that would not mercifully end. At one point the Eddy Arnold 8-track mysteriously “broke.” My brother Paul may have had a hand in that, but my dad just bought another.
Another downside to the trips was that my Dad was usually downing beers the whole day, so the drive back home could be adventuresome. In this state he had a penchant for knocking down fences—our neighbor the Escue’s, and our own. I don’t know if he was traumatized by fences in his youth and liked to exact his revenge, or if was a symbolic statement that he could not be fenced in. Either way, fences were not his friend. He also once rolled our Volkswagen microbus, the predecessor to the modern family van. His story was that he was dodging a tool lying in the road, but I don’t think anyone bought it. No fences were harmed in that accident, but the VW bus was totaled.
I think my Dad compensated for his vices with an abundance of virtues. He regularly volunteered in the community and with the church. He mowed the church grounds and plowed the roads in the winter, and made sure he or one of his kids shoveled the walk for the elderly on our street. He regularly gave blood, though it may have been to raise a little cash to buy groceries or beer, and he often worked the grill at the TWA work picnics. He was always willing to help a friend or family in need and expected his kids to do so as well.
Another remarkable fact about my Dad was that although he never graduated from high school, he was one of the most well-read people I have ever met. He often joked that he went to the School of Hard Knocks to point out that sometimes the best education comes from practical experience. But, he was hungry for knowledge and was always surrounded by books at home. Some people may claim that they can’t afford an education, but the books in the local library are free. In his retired years he was always reading histories or biographies on great leaders like Truman, Roosevelt, and Patton. He loved reading stories too, especially by the great humorist Will Rogers, whom he often quoted. One of his favorites were, “You know everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects”. Reflecting back on my father I am reminded of the famous Will Roger’s quote, “I never met a man I didn’t like.” I think that sums up my dad pretty well.
When my dad passed away last summer, I thought a bit about what his legacy would be. Much like the recent movie Fences, my Dad had his demons but in the end he overcame them to lead a remarkable and full life. He proudly served our nation, was a devoted family man, a devout Catholic, an outdoorsman, and a servant to the community. He had countless friends, and he labored hard both in the field and in the airline industry. But I think his real legacy was the eight kids that he raised and the work ethic and values that he instilled in us. All are proud citizens, contributing to their community and to our nation, and doing meaningful things with their lives. Was that happenstance? I don’t think so. Some followed in his footsteps and work for the Airlines, others went into military service, while some became entrepreneurs, educators, gifted artists, and builders of buildings, engines and machines. That is a remarkable legacy that he and my dear mother both share. Today, some people decry that America is in a downward spiral and we need to make it great again, but if we just renew those values in our children America will be as good as it ever was or even better. We just need more people like my Dad: honest, hardworking to a fault, caring of others, with an incredible zest for life.
My Dad was a big fan of the great American General George S. Patton who once said, “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.” Indeed, I thank God we were blessed to know and love Bill “Westy” Westermeyer, there will never be another quite like him.
This month’s song is of course Cattle Call by Eddy Arnold, please play it loud at 0530 in the morning: