Letters from Dad

James Kirkland: His 1920s Packard Twin Six was among the trappings of success in those early days.

As Father’s Day has approached in years past, we’ve featured dads whose lives have proved inspirational to their sons and daughters—men with special achievements, special contributions, special memories shared by those who know or knew them.

All of which caused me to wonder why, in our 20 or so years of honoring our dads on these pages, I’d never considered writing about my own.

The most likely reason, I suppose, is that he didn’t fit the mold we’ve typically used.

His achievements, considerable though they were in his early days, became diminished after I was born, a result of his long and, I’m sure, painful battle with rheumatoid arthritis that came upon him at a relatively young age.

The special memories, another of our unofficial criteria to qualify for Father of the Year in the small universe of this little hometown newspaper, were limited as a result of his illness, which no doubt stood in the way of him being a dad in the traditional sense: not many ball games, not much father-son camaraderie—simply said, not much to remember.

All of which these many years later seems to have given me the motivation to know more of the man about whom I know so little.

Tracing the history of this son of a small-town railroad worker and his stay-at-home bride—together they fathered nine children—is complicated by the many years that have passed. My dad, the next-to-youngest, was born in the late 1800s. Because a large number of census records from 1890 were lost in a fire 21 years later at the Commerce Building in Washington, D.C., at least a decade of relevant data is missing.

That leaves the stories told by my mother, herself now gone for 20 years; a few fragmented bits of information culled from online genealogical searches; and, of course, my own limited memory.

James N. Kirkland seemed destined to follow in the footsteps of the other members of his family: the railroad was the economic engine of this little Missouri town not far from St. Joseph. Somehow, though, the early days of his career took him to The Associated Press, where he worked for a number of years as a telegrapher and sometimes news writer.

Although no one in the family has ever talked in detail about this connection to AP, the letters he sent in later years seemed consistent with the skills a writer would possess. Those letters became, in fact, the only significant link I would ever have to this man about whom I ultimately would know so little.

As my father’s condition worsened in the late 1930s, as the economy struggled to regain traction and as political turmoil leading to World War II grew even more worrisome, my parents—I was four years old—decided to move my mother, our housekeeper Mrs. Britt and me from Missouri to California, where the economy was much healthier.

The plan, as I’ve heard it described, was to get us settled in L.A., wait for my dad’s condition to improve and ultimately be reunited. My mother did find a place for us to live—in those days, as unimaginable as I’ve always found this—no one would rent to a family with children. We ended up in a one-bedroom hotel room just west of downtown, where my mom fixed meals on a hot plate with smuggled-in bags of groceries (no cooking was allowed, although she always thought the manager knew what she was up to and let her get away with it).

It was during this time, which included the bombing of Pearl Harbor, air raids and a lot of scary nights, that my dad began his regular stream of letters. In those days, that’s how people communicated. Sure, there was long-distance phone service, but phones were a newfangled technology that just didn’t get used unless somebody died or was about to. Besides, I’m sure he didn’t have one, nor did we.

Although his letters weren’t on a one-per-day schedule (in those days, mail was delivered twice a day) there definitely were a lot of them—some to me, more to my mom. The ones to me were eloquent expressions of what I’ve always felt represented a father’s admonitions to a son, albeit one out of reach, out of touch.

Those to my mother, as she showed them to me years later, also were beautifully written, with a closeness woven between the lines that left no doubt about my father’s enduring love.

The war ended, we found a small rental house, Mrs. Britt returned to Missouri, I entered fourth grade—and the letters seemed to arrive less frequently. I’m sure we knew, but never said aloud, that my dad’s days were numbered.

He was being tended to at a home run by the Little Sisters of Charity, and it was that surrogate family that was with him to the end. From the time we arrived in California until the day he died in the late 1950s, I never saw him again.

That’s one of the reasons his letters have remained a personal treasure these many years, and why, yellowed and timeworn, they form an unbreakable connection with someone I otherwise could have hardly known. So thanks, Dad, and Happy Father’s Day.



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