February 22, 2021
Atlanta In my family we always knew when George Washington’s birthday hit the calendar. It would be February 22nd. Before Abraham Lincoln on February 12th and Washington on the 22nd were all combined into one holiday, called President’s Day, there was a time when Washington’s alone was a holiday where we lived. In other states, some celebrated Lincoln, but we were living and going to public school in the South, so it was by George all the way. When we were kids, we thought it was very special that we had a holiday on my dad’s birthday. He made it to eighty-seven. On this, George Washington and Edmann Jacob Rathke’s special day, he would have been one-hundred.
It’s hard to get my head around all of this. He would have been a kid during the roaring 20’s, and eight and just starting to sort things out as a child in Orange County, California when he was delivering his paper route, running up and down the hills on his bike, when the stock market crashed in 1929, signally the Great Depression. When he graduated from high school in Orange at eighteen, there wasn’t money or any choice but to find a job, and he was lucky enough to get hired on in the bookkeeping department at a department store in Los Angeles.
It’s hard for me to even imagine those times. Everywhere he lived in California then was rural, which is why his parents came there as farmers after going bust in the Dakotas, after landing in Minnesota from Germany. My grandfather worked as a foreman on a ranch with orange groves that stretched acre after acre for miles in what are now suburban tracts.
When my brother and I would ask my dad about his childhood and youth, he would only say that he was never a teenager, but things would slip out. At a hardware store years later, we passed a smudge pot, and he talked about being pulled out of bed with his dad, sisters, and brother to keep the pots fired up so the oranges would freeze. He told one story about a fight with a bully on the playground who pinned him to the ground. He got the guy to get off of him by saying, “the sun is in my eyes.” Who knew why that worked? Another time he was hit in the face with a bat playing baseball. We know that during those days he would go camping and collecting artifacts in Death Valley with my uncle Woody, one of his sister’s husbands, because in their yard there were old wagon wheels and oxen yokes.
The war was coming. He left the department store to work in an aircraft factory in Venice with Lockheed. Another sister was a secretary there and got him the job. He told us about the smokers that the union would organize. With the draft coming, he joined the Navy. Casualties were high. The Navy gave everyone on the base the V-2 test, sort of a precursor to the testing regime that is so ubiquitous now. He scored high enough that they then put him in the NROTC and sent him to college to prepare to be an officer, first to Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, where he met my mother, and then to Tulane University in New Orleans, where they married secretly against all regulations. He was in radio school in Chicago, and loved that city. He was on a ship that went across the Pacific to Japan, but the war was ending then.
They let him finish at Tulane, and when he mustered out, being from California with a degree in English, but an interest in business and a background in bookkeeping, he was hired on as a field auditor with the California Company, then on Elks Place in New Orleans. They sent him to Wyoming where I was born and then Colorado, where my brother was born in a company camp on the western slope. He spent thirty-eight years with that outfit. It changed its name to Chevron, and he retired in New Orleans.
These are just footnotes to a long life and a good man. I think about him every day. George Washington would have been 289 years and my dad would have been 100. People to remember. Something to celebrate.