The Persistence of Fathers

by Charley Kempthorne

In 1951 there were heavy rains and devastating floods in the Mid-west. My hometown of Manhattan, Kansas was among those hardest hit. Manhattan sits at the confluence of the

Kansas (also called the Kaw) River and the Big Blue River. That year the rivers left their banks and turned half the town including all of the downtown business district into a pond.

My dad, a doctor, had his office on the second floor above a bank building downtown. The water didn't get quite that high, but it was deep enough that on his last day of holding office hours he was able to swim down the last half dozen steps of the stairway to his small suite of rooms above the bank.

The water in the street was about four feet deep. Now back then Dad was a robust, healthy middle aged man in excellent physical condition. Twenty-five years before in college he had lettered in every sport. Always something of a daredevil, he thought the proper response to danger was to laugh and be glad for the bracing effect of a challenge. So though I wasn't with him that afternoon as the muddy brown water swirled around him I'm sure he must have laughed, exhilarated, just as he must have been standing on the track field about to pole vault high into the air--and then he swam home.

Well--he didn't swim all the way home. He swam to the bridge on the downtown side of the Kaw where there was a steel stairway for pedestrians up onto the bridge itself. That was about four blocks from his office. Not many people were left in the downtown area. Perhaps only the birds perched on the flooded buildings could see a man in a gray pin-striped suit swimming down Third Street.

And so it was that my dad, the greatest dad in the world, swam to the bridge, chuckled as he walked along the bridge to where he'd parked his car that morning, got in and drove home to his family. He didn't stop practicing medicine but was busier than ever. He was the only doctor on that side of the river where there were hundreds of people living. He even delivered a baby or two--he, an ophthalmologist-- in the days following before the water went down enough for normal life to return.

End of story?

No. Stories like that never end. Fast forward now to 1996.

The big event in Manhattan this year isn't a flood but a new bridge across the Kaw. All of us who live on this side of the Kaw and cross the river daily or once or twice a week have learned a lot about bridge-bui1ding. The new bridge is finally open and the other day as I drove across it I observed that they were dismantling the old bridge. The huge steel stairway that Dad had climbed 45 years ago had been dropped to the ground by acetylene cutting torches and lay waiting for the salvage truck.

And then something very odd happened inside my head.

Winding my way down the long curve at the end of the new bridge in heavy traffic, I had this thought: I'll have to tell Dad about that. Then I caught my breath, stunned by what had popped into my mind. Dad died thirteen years ago. How could I tell Dad about that? Write a letter? How would I address it? Who would deliver it? Most of all, why did I think that crazy, impossible thought?

Dad persists. He persists in my own aging brain. He' s up there swimming right now, laughing at danger, swimming a left onto Pierre Street and perhaps shaking himself dry like a dog as he clambers up the steel stairs. So, I guess, is the persistence of memory that melts and misshapes the clock we only think we live by.

So does life go and on and on. ###

Comment? Question? Critique? email Charley at [email protected]

Visit Charley's Website!


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