Sometime between the fall of 1948 and the spring of 1949, my Dad - Walter B. Lehmer - handed Clerk No. 3 at Peoples Department Store in Council Bluffs, Iowa, a dollar bill as payment for six screw anchors. Dad - better known to family and longtime friends as Jack - then pocketed his two cents change and returned to his new home at 420 N. 28th Street.
I know the details of the transaction because I have the receipt, one of several dozen receipts we found in an old Iowa Clothes Shop box when we moved Mom and Dad from that 28th Street home to an apartment in 2008. Mom died after just six weeks in the apartment; Dad lasted five years longer before dying on Jan. 5, 2014, at the age of 93.
Dad wasn't a pack rat but he did keep meticulous records of things that were important to him. That would include the construction of his own house, which Dad not only oversaw as his own contractor; he also recruited virtually every able-bodied family member to take part.
I'm sure that included his dad, Harry, and brother, Calvin, and I'm absolutely certain it included members of my mother's side of the family. My grandfather Jens C. Andersen, a cabinetmaker from Denmark, undoubtedly was a key member of that team, as was my uncle, Lyle Cody, a much-respected electrician in the area. Even my uncle, Richard Andersen, remembers laying sub-flooring "at a diagonal" as a 14-year-old.
But no one was more crucial to the team than Mom. Dad was working "second trick" (4 p.m. to midnight) at the railroad in those days so he would drive nails halfway during the day and Mom would finish them up at night. Plus, Mom had two young children to contend with, a rambunctious three-year-old and another who didn't reach his first birthday until February 1949.
It was the expanding family that created the necessity of a new home in the first place. Dad's first house was a hand-me-down from his grandfather at 2619 Sixth Avenue in Council Bluffs. When Dad took ownership, the Sixth Avenue house didn't even have a furnace. Dad fixed that, but it still wasn't suitable for an up-and-coming modern young family in the late 1940s. So he plunked down $600 for the 28th street lot and started construction.
Dad hired people to grade and escavate the site and to do foundation work, including installing some basic plumbing. Then the family took over.
There must have been some pressure to get things buttoned down before winter set in since our family would live in the basement until the rest of the house was finished, which pressed well into the spring of '49.
Dad spread the business around, engaging just about every company in the home construction business. He bought lumber and trim from Cohoe, Johnson Cashway, Platner, Joyce and Crawford. Besides Uncle Lyle, he had electrical work done by Square Deal Electric, Joos Electric and Wack Electic. There are also receipts from Hanusa, Bogardus, Hoagland and Beno's - all big names around Council Bluffs back in the day.
Dad even drew on his Union Pacific connection, buying a couple of truckloads of wood salvaged from old boxcars for a mere $6. While Dad was likely pleased with the purchase price of the wood that would eventually provide the sub-flooring, he was likely rankled that he had to pay twice as much - a full $12 - just to have the wood delivered.
We know from the receipts that Dad paid Ben Schneider to do plaster work, W.C. Turner did some grading, Melvin Pierce did some cement finishing and that Jim Deal - a neighbor of my Grandma Lehmer - cashed several checks for doing what was noted as "labor." He must have been good. Stanley Dofner was paid $5 for a load of cinders, probably for the driveway, which sounds like a pretty good deal.
It's all right there in the box of receipts. On Nov. 2, 1949, Dad tallied it all up. The total at that point was $4,691.41, including the $600 he paid for the lot. I don't know if that was the final total for the house he built, but I'm still impressed that a young man not yet in his 30s would tackle such a task. I suspect, however, that many of his contemporaries, raised in the Great Depression and tempered by the global devastation of World War II, might not see it as such a big deal.
When a person builds a house, it's a commitment to a project without end. Although we lived in the basement that first winter, the basement was pretty much unfinished for the 60 years Dad and Mom lived there. The attic was unfinished, too, until 1961 when Dad finished a room upstairs for me as a 16th birthday gift. It would be another year or two, though, before he added heating ductwork to the room, meaning I spent many winter nights sleeping on the floor in the living room.
My brothers Dave, Ron and I logged many hours on that floor on hot summer nights in the 1950s as our window air conditioner was capable of cooling just half of the main floor of the house. So Mom tacked up an old chenille bedspread to contain the cool air in the living room and their bed room.
Dad and I had a fairly contentious relationship in my younger years. It's understandable given that I was the first-born child of parents who were themselves first-born. We were all learning as we went and, as part of the first post-WWII generation, my world view was much different from those upon whose shoulders I was carried. By the time I left home for good, I truly realized and appreciated how much my parents had done for me.
It's easy to overlook the daily influences of a parent. How they petition the city to ban parking on a busy street where their children play. How they spring for pricey wall-to-wall carpeting to cover burns on a beautiful hardwood floor caused by careless childplay with matches. How they stand up for a kid whose new tennis shoes are stolen from a school locker. How they build a new porch designed to provide shelter for the family dog. How they assume coaching duties in a sport they don't understand just so their child can play.
Yes, Dad did all that, and more. Like taking cheese sandwiches to work every night while working odd hours just to provide for his family. Like taking responsibility for a laundry tub full of "fancy" mice after his oldest son takes off for military service. Like forgiving another son who had the misfortune of having the entirety of the family movie collection stolen while at work. (Mom even found humor in that situation, quipping "Imagine the guy that stole the movies, instead of seeing pornography, having to watch a young man sipping fake tea at a tea party with his three young sons while sitting in a closet.")
Mom and Dad were teetotalers, except for a brief time late in their lives when they tried wine because they read that it was good for their health. Turns out they didn't like it at all. Nevertheless, when I turned 21 and was still living at home, they let me have hard liquor in my room. They let me smoke, too, although it must have stunk up the house. (I never allowed smoking in my own home after kicking the habit as an adult.)
Dad ended pretty high up in his railroad job and for a time was part of the Union Pacific staff. He was an expert in cleaning up derailments, which kept him on-call. He traveled quite a bit, which he hated, but it was cool to know that people thought enough of his advice to ring him up. His most interesting duty (I think) was the time he was the railroad's escort on a private train belonging to Howard Hughes. The trip involved a middle of the night stop near Las Vegas, removal of a man by ambulance, and a tense meeting with reporters in Los Angeles. I love the story, but Dad hated that situation, too.
Dad was a devoted employee, so much so that he turned down a post-war job in the oilfields of Southern California near where I was born so that Mom could show off her new baby to family back in Iowa. I often wonder what would have happened had he stayed in California, but I'm eternally grateful that he turned down the general car foreman job in Green River, Wyoming, just before my senior year in high school.
It was something of a shock to me when Dad announced that he was retiring from the railroad at age 60. He had given 40 years to Union Pacific and had no real hobbies, outside of photography, which he pursued intently during the 1960s and early 1970s. He dabbled at woodworking and considered model railroading. He played some golf and rode bikes with Mom, but most of his retirement years were spent just hanging with Mom.
They attended Seabee reunions, did a lot of country music jamming (Mom on fiddle; Dad on dobro) and were South Texas snowbirds in the winter. They provided RAGBRAI support for me and my kids and spent most weekday mornings sharing breakfast with a wide assortment of friends.
When the house became too much work, Mom and Dad moved. Six weeks later, Mom died. In September 2012, my brother, Ron, died. Dad followed on January 5 and our family of six (my brother, John, died as an infant in 1952), has been trimmed to two - me and my younger brother, Dave.
Although I joke about it, it's a sobering thought to think that I'm now the patriarch of my family. That's a role previously assigned to old men, like my great grandfathers, grandfathers and Dad. And, as you can read here, Dad left some mighty big shoes to fill. I'm proud that he was my Dad. I loved him ... and I will miss him.