Monday, March 15, 2010

Entering the No Brag Zone

General D.C. Helix with Colonel William Ashley Chapman (in civvies), 1994, at the 30th anniversary celebration of the U.S. Army's 351st Civil Affairs Command. Col. Chapman was then president of the 351st Alumni Association.

Since the death of my mother--and the sorting out of things in the family home--I've learned so many things about my father that I never knew. The photo above is an example. I never knew that when he retired as a full colonel from the 351st Civil Affairs Command, he was elected president of its Alumni Association. I was working on the East Coast then and his letters were filled with news about the latest church picnic and the size of his tomato crop. Sure; he was president of a big group of retired, high-ranking military people. But he found it unnecessary to mention it.

I also learned he gave tours to school children when they visited the Water Quality Department at the City of Palo Alto, where he worked as an engineer. Dad, giving a talk? That stumped me, since he only ever said about four things at the dinner table each night including: "Bless this food. Amen." and "Please pass the margarine." But now I know he hosted students at his Water Quality Plant (aka sewage treatment facility) because I found a picture to prove it. It is from a City of Palo Alto press release:

The photo caption on the back of the picture reads: "Ashley Chapman, city engineer, shows Greg Hayward and guide Gwen Taylor how sewage unit works.

Did he inspire the kids with his talk of primary, secondary and tertiary sewage treatment? I wonder if young Greg Hayward is still around and if he became an engineer too?

I discovered my father was elected to two engineering honor societies in his senior year at Auburn: Tau Beta Pi (1940) and Pi Tau Sigma (1940). Never mentioned that either.

He came home from the war with five medals, the last one, the Asiatic Pacific Medal with 1 Bronze Star. "Oh everybody got that stuff," he told us when we found out.

I found the grades he earned at San Jose State when he received his Master of Science Degree in Civil Engineering in 1972. He got all As and Bs. We never even celebrated with a cake, nor attended the ceremony. And he earned the degree while working full time and never missed a class or a day of work.

I discovered he won 29 medals as a sharpshooter on the U.S. Army Pistol Team between 1956 and 1971, winning all first place ribbons and a few seconds shooting with .45s and .22s. The trophies and ribbons and patches were stuffed in a shoe box and never displayed in our house.

In the years before he retired from the Army Reserves he graduated from Command and General Staff College, at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas and was awarded the Army Commendation Medal (December 1971) and the Meritorious Service Medal (April 1973). Nobody at our house framed those citations, though Dad did wear the medals on his chest as per Army regulations.

Oh, and I learned he was once threatened with a gun while on the job as an engineer. I found this in an article dated November 1, 1983 from the San Jose Mercury News headlined: What's Smoke Doing HERE? It read:

"When smoke billowing from under the toilet frightened a Palo Alto woman as she showered recently, her husband did what many husbands would do: he threatened to shoot a city crew chief who showed up to tell the couple the smoke was part of a test to detect leaks in local sewers. "There was no injury or damage," said Ash Chapman, project engineer for the sewer program. "It's understandable that she got a little bit frightened.""

Good thing the husband didn't know the project engineer was a dead shot with a .45.

All of these things--both funny and accomplished--are part and parcel of Dad's life. But he said nothing about them. Told no amusing stories featuring himself. Wrote my sister and me no letters filled with tales of his outstanding, hilarious, heroic achievements.

He let my mother stand in the spotlight. He watched quietly from the sidelines spending his time doing exactly what he wanted to do, exactly as he wanted to do it. The fun for him seems to have been in the doing and in having things come out precisely. He seemed not to need or like any congratulations at the end of the day.

When he built his first home in Los Altos, he keep a meticulous record of his hours worked on each day of the two years it took to complete the home. At the end his hours in the house totaled 369: the adding machine slip of the total is included in the small notebook. He never showed anyone the notebook. I never laid eyes on it until last week. But it was important to him, because he saved it in his bureau drawer. All these years.

Which means that even though he often looked like the man who only held Mom's coat, he knew that his quiet life went much deeper. If you didn't know this, he simply didn't care.

Dad, doing that coat holding thing, in this case doing it with a car door. The picture's focus is on Mom.

And this is bittersweet. My sister and I wish we had not had to wait until several weeks before his death to learn how truly superior a man was our father. His silence about himself and what he did also left us with little knowledge or direction about how to handle the family trust he has now left to us.

Did we fail in our efforts to reach him? Or was he too busy living his inward life to be a deep part of ours?

We are left with a mystery. On this side, the story of a man who excelled and was recognized and admired. And on the other, two children who wonder what part they played, if any, in the plot.

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Devon C. said...

There is so much we don't know about G and Pa. In the obituary you wrote, I learned that Grandma was in the Alpha Gamma Delta sorority. I never knew and interestingly enough, Jeff's sister is an Alpha Gam girl. Not bragging and talking about yourself are excellent qualities and there are people who could learn that lesson. But, sharing your life experiences is completely different and I would have loved to hear more. Grandma did share with us once how she met Pa and it was fun to hear.

Florida Beach Basics said...

Your update was lovely. marge

Robin Chapman said...

Oh Marge, my heart is breaking.