A father's gift: Enduring curiosity
History is always being written, and this week, I got to read the newest chapter.
They finally found the Endurance.
I woke up to news on Wednesday about the discovery of a 106-year-old shipwreck, and I immediately thought of my dad.
He loved to tell the story of Ernest Shackleton’s maiden voyage in this ship that now sits 10,000 feet below the surface of the Weddell Sea.
Every winter, this frigid body of water freezes over and becomes part of Antarctica, a continent that Shackleton and his crew were trying to cross in 1914.
The only problem was that their wooden ship froze in ice that year. I can remember my dad sitting in the passenger seat of the car, during my mom’s turn driving on a road trip, halfway turned around and telling us the details he remembered from one of the books he read about the shipwreck.
These were the pre-YouTube days. The years when having a fresh VHS tape felt like having a full bank account. When a new National Geographic documentary meant having dinner early so we could watch it together.
Before there were podcasts, there were dad stories.
My dad jumped at the chance to speak to any group of people, and the three of us in the car constituted an audience.
We lived through the 90s with my dad explaining news events as if they were 10-minute episodes of his own show, History, According to Dear Old Dad. (‘Dear Old Dad’ was his favorite way to refer to himself.)
These little impromptu storytelling episodes are how we learned about current events — then, Waco and Saddam Hussein and the Iraq War — and historical ones: Daniel Boone and the Alamo, Jonestown, the Donner party, Lewis and Clark.
I’m sure he talked about a few of the influential people in Black and indigenous history — Harriet Tubman, Sacagawea, and Martin Luther King Jr. — but nearly all of his stories were about white men and their daring feats and incredulous behavior. He was a baby boomer Midwesterner who, through the 1950s and 1960s, lived through the Cold War and was the first generation to grow up with a TV in his home.
Although he was raised on a steady diet of John Wayne, Lassie, and Gunsmoke, he became aware of race, class, and gender dynamics, to a certain degree, thanks to his military experience, and in his adulthood, committed to progressiveness, even as it meant him giving up power as a straight white man.
When I look back at the stories he chose to tell us, I see themes: daring feats, incredulous behavior, and stories that — with some exceptions — had a happy ending. But it was mostly the stories that fascinated him.
And nothing captured his attention like an underdog.
I’m sure that’s why Shackleton was one of his all-time favorite stories to tell.
He told us how all 28 men on the Endurance survived the almost two-year ordeal — and then went on to fight in World War I. He told us about the sled dogs, who were playful companions until the very end when they became food to help the men survive the last months on the ice. He told us about Shackleton’s library on the ship and his passion for poetry and keeping spirits high.
That’s the role my dad assumed on our adventures, too.
Shackleton’s philosophy was: Yes, there were chores to do and a schedule to keep, but it’s a sorry day that doesn’t have a bit of fun with it.
After I woke up to the news of the discovery of his ship, I immediately did a search in my podcast player for a show that could give me a recap of the Endurance story.
Dan Snow's History Hit, a popular UK-based history show, popped up with a three-part series about the captain and this epic trip that ended with Shackleton and two of his shipmates dragging themselves into a small village on the island of Georgia, 21 months after leaving England, only to spend several more months trying to rescue the shipmates they left behind to get help.
I’d forgotten nearly all of the details of this trip until I heard this podcast this week, but as I listened, the snapshots in my head of my dad came back.
During his last few months, we knew his death was pending when his fixation on history, music, and Jeopardy waned.
This long-awaited turn in the Endurance story would have enthralled him. I imagine he would have done exactly what I did this week: Dive back in deep into this historical event to better understand what’s going on now and to tag along with the adventurers who also felt this passion for adventure in their hearts.
But it wouldn’t have been enough for him to listen or read about this Endurance news himself. He would have jumped on the horn to tell people about it. On Facebook. Via text. On our next phone call.
My dad was a forever student. A seeker who loved learning but who was really animated when he got to share what he was learning with others. He got a finance degree in college, but I think in another lifetime, if he hadn’t spent his early 20s enlisted in the military during a war he didn’t support, he would have studied philosophy or political history or some esoteric subject.
But maybe because of those Air Force years, when he had many overnight shifts monitoring the airwaves as a radio technician, he was a generalist, an armchair historian, a storyteller who was interested in everything and smart enough to know that without context, historical facts are meaningless.
Curiosity is one of the greatest gifts that he left with the world.
I love that I spent this week re-discovering a historical figure and event that he was endlessly curious about. I love that I recognized that this was an opportunity to see beyond the sadness that he wasn’t here to see the footage of this once-lost ship himself.
I love that I could tell my own version of this story, in part, so I could tell his.
Happy Friday, friends! We’re heading into spring break and a visit from my mom next week, so look for an SXSW-related post or two. I’m also taking my second all-day herb class on Saturday and looking forward to spring fulling springing soon. (Cover those plants for this freeze tonight! It’s supposed to get cold.)
Thanks, as always, for joining me on this indie journalism experiment, which allows me to write pieces like this as they come to me and deliver them directly to you, rather than pitching them to mainstream media outlets and publishing them that way.
Freelancers spend more time than you can imagine trying to find homes for the stories they write, and I *love* that my columns always have a home here. It frees me up to do other things with the time I would have spent pitching — like enroll in herb school — and that’s one of the greatest gifts that paid subscribers give me when they sign up. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Until next time,
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What a beautiful tribute to your dad. He was a gift.