Normally, we think about all those who fought for American ideals and dreams on Memorial Day. I can’t help but feel it more personally, too. My dad was part of The Greatest Generation, the oldest generation with any living members who fought in a World War.
He was 19 and a chemical engineering major at UW Madison in 1944, when he enlisted in the US Army. He spent his 6 weeks in boot camp, and was immediately sent to France. Two months later, he and a German soldier faced each other in a trench. The German’s bullet hit the pen in PFC Ranscht’s left breast pocket, and glanced off into his left arm, shattering the humerus. When he returned to the USA, he left his left arm in France.
He went back home to Racine, Wisconsin. He’d planned never to marry, but with one arm gone, he thought, “it would be good to have some companionship” in his old age. So he got married, started a family, and went back to school.
He soon discovered chemical engineering needed two hands, so he switched his major to mechanical engineering, graduated in 1955, and submitted resumes to promising companies. Each of them invited him for an interview. But back in the 1950’s, there were no laws prohibiting discrimination against the handicapped. He began to see a pattern: He’d walk into the room where the interviewer took one look, and said some polite variant of, “Sorry, the position has been filled.”
The response he chose could have been bitterness and a whining sense of victimization. Instead, he chose to see it as a challenge. He went on to become an aerospace engineer working for General Dynamics on the Atlas missile, among other things.
So my four sisters and I grew up with a dad with only one arm. It didn’t seem the least bit unusual. He did all the yard work, home repair, and car maintenance. I grew up believing every kid’s dad had big vices clamped to their work benches to hold things while they soldered and built stuff. And he could play boogie-woogie on the piano and make it sound like he had two hands.
His wife, my mother, died when they were only 50 years old. Another challenge.
With one hand, he dedicated himself to four life-long hobbies.
- Photography When I wanted to learn photography, he returned to an old hobby he had given up. We shot, developed, enlarged, and printed black & white and color. We mounted slides. When school demands forced me to leave photography behind, he kept working at it.
- Model airplanes He cut balsa pieces to build airfoils and fuselages that he covered with tissue and painted with dope. Some had rubber band powered propellers, some had gasoline powered engines, some were remotely controlled, and some were just for show.
- Pistol shooting For years, I helped him make .22, .38, and .45 caliber bullets. He held a national record that he earned at a competition in Ohio. I wish I could remember what category it was in.
- Computers He started with a PC Jr in the mid-1970’s — shortly before Mom died — and immediately upgraded it himself to a PC. Every time technology advanced and what had been new became obsolete, he upgraded and handed down his latest “old computer” to one of us daughters. He taught himself whatever language he needed to write his own airfoil design program. I still have the 3-1/2″ discs he saved it on. If he were alive today, he’d probably have switched from Microsoft to Apple. And he’d have owned a 3-D printer for years.
Dad rarely talked about his experience in WWII, but he lived with its impact every single day. I was 21 when it finally occurred to me to try putting my socks on using only one hand. It’s not an inconvenience; it’s a damned inconvenience.
I’m glad I thought to tell him that shortly before he died. He laughed.