It's been almost five months since my dad passed away. I've been wanting to write about his life, but contemplating how I would find the way to put all his years into words, to record what knowing him for so many of those has meant to me, seemed impossible. I just couldn't, there was too much. But friends sharing their memories of him paved the way. How he drove a childhood friend from Maryland to Virginia so she could visit me. A college friend remembering his quick wit and sense of humor. Another who'd never met him but remembered a story I'd told her about him. One of my dearest friends sending me grinning photos of him at her wedding.
I learned several things I didn't know about Dad upon his death. About his military honors for one...Legion of Merit, Bronze Star Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, Air Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Army Achievement Medal (and more). About an emergency helicopter landing in a schoolyard when he was in flight school. That he was called "Thumper" after a helicopter crash in Vietnam (which he miraculously lived through) left his leg in a cast. I learned more about his career as a health physicist for the Army Medical Service Corps. He was a stronger man than I knew in many ways, and while his last months of life fighting cancer demonstrated much of that strength to me, they're simply not how I can remember him. The end is too sad. I struggle not to focus on it and instead try to remember the beginning, and everything in between.
Dad was born Wolfgang Amadeus Kolsch on September 12, 1944 in Cuxhaven, Germany in his grandmother's living room. He was called "Wolfie" as a boy up until his mom divorced his dad, married an American in the Air Force, moved to England, and then on to the United States where he was legally adopted by his stepfather and renamed Gary Wolfgang Gaston. While he lost his mother tongue (he was discouraged from speaking German after the war), he didn't lose his heritage, or his nickname. Dad was always Wolfie to the family he said goodbye to as a young boy.
I remember stories about his childhood Dachschund named Mr. Hinkel. How my dad loved that dog as a kid, and how my grandmother showed great restraint in not killing it. I remember stories from high school and his fondness for his college days. About road trips home with his fraternity brothers where my grandmother would cook for them. It was in college where he met and dated my mom. Dad became the first person in his family to go to college and earn a bachelor's degree. And later, the first to earn a master's degree.
Random things, too many to count. He was a lefty. He played tennis and raquetball. He spent every Sunday evening shining his shoes and ironing his shirts for work. He'd give me the vodka-soaked olives from his martinis. He had the oiliest hair on the planet.
He was a loner in a lot of ways. To himself a lot, an avid reader, an analytical intellectual at heart. But also really social...always hosting friends at the house, enjoyed cooking for everyone. He was fun and funny. He was involved in the community and enjoyed the responsibility that went along with it. He was ethical. Intolerant of stupidity. And meticulous, about everything. He was fiercely loyal and devoted to friends and family. If I could crystallize my parents' relationship down to a common shared value, that's it. If my dad (or mom) was your friend, you were a lucky person. Maybe it was the military community culture that made them that way, I'm not sure, but I shared a table with a number of people throughout the years who didn't have anywhere else to go for the holidays, or were in town briefly for work, or for whatever reason my parents felt deserved their time and attention.
One friend in particular, a college student Dad had taken under his wing in grad school, sent my mom a touching letter when he learned that Dad had passed away. When people think of someone's legacy, maybe first and foremost they think of that person's children. My brother and I most certainly are a reflection of our parent's careful upbringing. But this letter goes beyond that, beyond immediate family. It's about the family we make in our friends, about the effect you can have on someone's life without even knowing it. This friend shared how Dad's presence and influence started him on the path to the wonderful life he enjoys and lives today. That most of what he has, and who he is today, is due to my parents. How grateful he was that Dad helped him get into the Army, mentored him as an officer, and explained war to him. How thankful he was that my parents welcomed him into their home and fed him at a time when he was skipping meals to pay for school. How Dad had accurately predicted he'd marry the woman who eventually became his wife. How my parents, quite simply, had changed his life.
When friends share their memories, and when I read the letter, I can't help but think of the very best of my dad: his devotion, his loyalty, his humor, his intellect, his big, soft heart. I'm thankful for all the memories people shared of him. I'm grateful for the love he gave to me. And proud of the love he gave to others.
May we all live so well.
Gary Wolfgang Gaston
September 12, 1944 - February 2, 2012