His weak heart was, nonetheless, a big one
—by Bill Haglund
As I recall, I was about 7 years old when my dad took me aside and told me that it was time for me to receive a weekly allowance.
He set the amount to 20 cents a week and, in 1950 or ’51 that was enough for a youngster to buy a bottle of pop or two, a candy bar or two and just about anything else, within reason, he might fancy. I got in a routine at that early age — receive my allowance, ride uptown to Fischer’s Drug Store in Duncombe and buy a bottle of Nesbitt’s orange pop and a candy bar. That left me enough to make a similar trip later in the week and still have a few pennies remaining for life’s necessities.
After our family moved away from Duncombe and took root in Alleman, I suddenly found myself swimming in real cash.
You see, my dad had taken a job with the Alleman schools as custodian and his already-weakening heart made the task of keeping three floors of the old school, plus the basement of locker rooms, a lunch room and gymnasium pretty taxing for a young man with an old heart.
I became part of the solution to his dilemma.
Of course, I was far too young to realize the seriousness of his heart disease. At 10 years old, even at 11 or 12, a boy never gave much thought to life longevity. I just knew that dad needed my help and that help came with rewards.
One day, my father set me down for a talk. He told me he needed my help and offered me five-times the amount of my weekly allowance. He’d give me 20 cents a day to help him sweep the school — a whole dollar a week.
Suddenly my affluence had quintupled.
Religiously after school I’d stay and help for an hour, sometimes two hours. Dad gave me the chore of sweeping the large study hall, which was on the third floor, directly above the gymnasium. I’d sweep that large area and also clean the floors of several top floor classrooms. My daily task was finished as soon as I received final clearance from Dad.
I had all the money I needed to buy baseball cards at a penny apiece, candy bars for three cents each, bottles of pop for six cents. I could even splurge on occasion and buy a chocolate ice cream sundae at Bessie’s café. For that delicacy I was charged eight cents.
Naturally, everything worked out well with my new arrangement. That is, it worked well until the Alleman High School baseball team began its season in late March. At the time, the school played two baseball seasons — one in spring and one in fall. There was no fall football and there was no summer baseball. I was in high school when Babe Ruth ball started for 12-15 aged boys and I started a Little League program and coached that until I’d graduated from high school.
But, it was the high school team that caused a concern for my daily work schedule in 1954 and 1955.
I’d beg and cajole my dad until he finally told me to “go ahead, go watch the baseball game.”
Down the stairs and out the door I’d dash and head to the ball diamond to watch the day’s game. Alleman didn’t have a very good team, but it was baseball after all and baseball was the most important thing on anyone’s schedule.
In 1955, however, I discovered just how serious my dad’s heart disease really was, even though I was still too young to understand.
That year my dad suffered a major heart attack. He was just 36 years old. Instead of seeing my dad at the school, and helping him with his daily chores, I saw him under an oxygen tent at Lutheran Hospital in Des Moines. It seemed he was there for months, although I’m sure it was a far shorter stay than that.
I just remember that life changed shortly after that. My dad’s slow recovery uprooted the family. Suddenly, our home at what was known as the Alleman Teacherage was no longer available to us, although the school was nice enough to allow us to live there until dad recovered a little from his heart attack. Nonetheless, we were forced to move.
We stayed in Alleman, lived in a few other houses and finally my parents purchased a house in town. By then, my mother had been forced to enter the workplace (she had worked as a cook at the school, but that was only a few hours a day and only on school days). My dad took other jobs, but none of them were the type suitable for a heart attack survivor whose already weak heart had become suddenly extremely weak.
My 20-cent-a-day job was gone. It’s really sad that a job like that, to a 12-year-old boy was so important, but it seemed as if my life, too, had been tossed into turmoil.
I got over that soon, but I don’t think I ever really understood the seriousness of my dad’s health. I just knew that he found it difficult to do some things that other kids’ dads could do. He couldn’t even watch one of my high school basketball games. Mom said it made him too nervous and it got his heart pumping too hard. When we played, dad would leave the gymnasium — it was easier for him to hear the cheers than it was to be a part of them.
He lived long enough to see me graduate from Waldorf College in 1963. He died two weeks later, in June. He was only 44.
Not only was he my father, he was a dad who’d cart myself and a younger brother off to Des Moines to watch Minor League baseball, who’d give up time to take us roller skating, fishing and to the Iowa State Fair.
I’m sure it wasn’t easy for him. But, that man I called “Dad” did everything he could for his family, including giving his oldest son a first job.
Bill Haglund is a former staff writer for the Dallas County News and the Boone News-Republican. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org