About My Dad

  My dad in Ankeny, IA, spring 1983 (I think he is using a towel in the kitchen).
Photo by LGH.    

Donald George Higley
(1935-2004)

Mom asked me to write a short biography of Dad. I donít know how to do that so all I can do is share my memories and perspectives of my father.

Dad was born on Jan 13, 1935 in the Town of Tompkins, Delaware County, New York. Dad left New York permanently in 1957, but he and Mom always refer to New York as ďhomeĒ, much to the annoyance of Twinkle and I. The house where Dad was born is on Higley Road, down the hill from Ma and Pa Filerís. Ma Filer was Dadís great aunt (his Dadís aunt). I donít know if it was snowy when Dad was born, but I do know they once had to dig tunnels to get to the barn. That was the same winter when the snow plow got stuck, and the driver had to spend the night at their house. The next morning the truck was nowhere to be seen and they spent an hour or so looking for it by pushing sticks in the snow.

Dad never said he had to walk up hill both ways to school, but I know there were plenty of long walks and cold mornings. In Dadís family everything was secondary to the chores: school, sickness, whatever. So it always impressed me how much importance Dad placed on education and how supportive he was to Twinkle and I. Dad wrestled for the Deposit Lumberjacks in High School, but most of his education was in the Air Force and thereafter.

  Dad at 14.

Studio photo, unknown photographer, collection of BAH.

   

I knew Dad had a hard childhood, but I didnít know how hard until the last few years. Dad would tell us how he was scared during the blackout drills during the war, how his Gramma Higley wouldnít hug them or let them in parts of the house, and how they didnít have much for birthdays or holidays. Sometimes Dad would mention Uncle Lutherís accident and all the surgeries, or rarely (and always with sorrow in his voice), he might briefly talk about his sister Emma, who was crippled and died as a child. Then he always changed to happy topics and talked about cutting down a Christmas tree, making maple syrup, teasing Aunt Myra, or playing cards at Filers. But it wasnít until last fall that he told me he was plowing behind a horse when he was ten. And he never told me about his fatherís unrestrained anger, but Mom knew and eventually I knew too, although I could never talk to him about it.

 Dad joined the Air Force at 17 with his friend Bob Brown, but Bob didnít become a career man like Dad. Dad told me how cold it was standing guard duty at Sampson in basic, about the discipline in the ďold Air ForceĒ, and about his firefighting training. The Air Force saved Dadís life by giving him a future away from dairy farms and factories, but it almost took Dadís life many times in return. Probably the first time was in Georgia, when he was on the end of a line in a pit fire, surrounded by flames. The truck had just gotten back from the motor pool, but no one had checked the pumps. The filters were clogged with rust, and right after the hoses were turned on the pressure dropped. The flames blew back over the firefighters. Dad and the other men on the hose stuck to their training and tried to follow the hose out of the fire, but the hose began to burn and they couldnít see their way out. I donít know how they were saved, but I know Dad was hospitalized and for the rest of his life he had a scar on his left hand from the fire.

Mom and Dad in painted photos, mid to late 1950s.  Photos by Leroy (?), collection of BAH.

After Mom and Dad were married, they lived in California. Dad worked 24 hour shifts, worked to get his degree from Folsom High School, and worked doing auto repairs and maintenance at a local garage. Dad also started learning about accidents and death. A couple years ago at an air show at Offut in Omaha, Dad started identifying aircraft before we could see them Ė recognizing planes by their engine sounds. But at the sound of one plane (a C46?) Dad got quiet. Then he said that one bright Sunday afternoon when I was a baby he had to look for body parts after a C46 crashed, and they found more fingers than they should have based on the manifest. I know Dad saw lots of death Ė death from violent accidents and fire Ė but he never became used to it. When I was 5 or 6 I overheard my mother telling one of the neighbors about Dadís nightmares, about searching for body parts on the flight line. Even in the last couple years after I did some forensic entomology research and worked a couple death scenes, Dad never could listen to details about the cases.

HH-43 picking up fire suppression kit, Stead AFB, Nevada, ca. 1966; I don't know if Dad is aboard. Dad went TDY to Stead, and we then went to Sheppard AFB, Wichita Falls, TX where Dad was an instructor. (Practice fires, or pit fires, were conducted at Grandfield, OK [Sheppard AFB Helicopter Annex #1]; we got to go to one of these a summer evening in 1967.) Although Dad was sent to Thailand to be a airborne rescueman/firefighter on HH-43s, the fire department at Korat was so shorthanded that he worked there instead. This was a great disappointment to Dad both because it wasted his training and experience and because it meant he lost flight pay and hazardous duty pay (but not the hazardous duty). However, I learned from Mom last week that Dad did fly a couple of missions when he first got to Thailand, but I don't know any details about these.
USAF photo, from collection of LGH (DGH).  

After California, it was Lakenheath, England; Rantoul, Illinois (with a long TDY in Nevada to become a helicopter rescue instructor); Wichita Falls, Texas; Korat, Thailand for Dad and Montgomery, New York for Mama, Twink, and I; Saffron Walden and Wethersfield, England; and finally retirement in Kansas City, Missouri. After that came North Platte, Des Moines, St. Louis, and Gladstone with Dadís second retirement.

I think we all loved England the best. Thatís where Dad and Mom got their love of antiques and collecting, where Dad learned to restore clocks, and where Twinkle and I got to have a childhood full of Roman burial grounds, castles, bangers, fish and chips, straining to see Ely Cathedral first, day trips to Paris and Holland, musty church steeples looking at turret clocks, and thousands of other memories and sights that made us the luckiest kids in the world. I remember Dad taking me down into Grimes Graves, a Neolithic flint mine in Norfolk (yes it was scary), and I remember him jumping out at me from behind a corner at Nottingham Castle (yes it was much, much scarier). Dad should have stopped when Mom said I was car sick, before I threw up all over his back (Dad knew it was his fault and wasnít angry with me). And Dad was so stubbornly unwilling to ask directions that twice we saw Edinburgh Castle from the city, but never got to the Castle itself (now a family legend). When we were lucky, locals mistook us for Canadians (most American tourists were so obnoxious we couldnít stand to be associated with them). But I also remember Memorial Days when we went to the American cemetery in Cambridge and looked at all those crosses, and we were proud and humbled at being Americans.

Dad and I in Saffron Walden, by the Ford Anglia, on our way to catch a train to London (Clerkenwell) to buy clock parts. Circa 1969.
Photo by BAH.  

I now know that my parents had very little money, but Twinkle and I thought we were rich because we got lots of toys at Christmas. Mom read to us and made toast soldiers if we were sick, and Dad would tease, wrestle, play games, and make snowmen with us. My only complaint was that I didnít get to see Dad enough because he was gone a day, or month, or, later, a year at a time. And sometimes, even as a little child, I could tell that when Dad went to work it wasnít like other Dadís going off from 8 to 5. I remember Mom ironing Dadís fatigues until they were flat like cardboard, hushed comments about crashes and fires, and I even remember Dad being gone on base and the suitcases out while the missiles were in Cuba. 

Mostly though, things were normal until Dad had to go to Thailand during the Vietnam War. I was nine, and Dad told me on the way to the barbershop. I promised to help Mom and be brave. I was brave all through our move from Texas to New York. I was brave until I saw Dadís tears when he said goodbye to us at the airport in NYC. Then I cried all the way home as we drove up the Hudson back to Montgomery, and I was miserable for most of the next year.

  Dad and Mom the morning of his return from Thailand. Dad caught a flight in a small plane from NYC up to a local airport to surprise us. One of the happiest days of all of our lives. Fall, 1968.
Photo by LGH.    
Dad removes the last safety pin. Mom had set up a chain of 52 safety pins for each week Dad was gone. The last pin was a big blanket pin. Twinkle is in the foreground and I'm looking on at the right.  
    Photo by BAH.

When Dad got back in 1968, he was the happiest Iíve ever seen anyone. He was so exuberant when we went shopping in a department store in Newburg, I thought the manager might throw us out. After Thailand, I got to see more of my dad as he started working regular hours (fire prevention). We had a glorious 4 years in England, with Dad repairing clocks with Gerald Penn down in Mr. Pennís cellar below his corner antique shop. After England, Dad had a rough time the first few months of retirement until he started with OSHA (or as Mom and Dad always put it ďthe Department of LaborĒ, as if saying OSHA might brand you). After twenty years of low pay, constantly being passed over for promotion, the second class status of being an enlisted man, (as well as the danger), OSHA was a god-send. Dad was respected, his hard work and accomplishments were acknowledged, and he could still try to save lives. Actually, Dadís greatest pleasures working as a safety compliance officer were working with people to improve safety. I think that desire to make friends of everyone, even potential adversaries, is one of the defining qualities of my fatherís life. Owning a house and having some financial security left my Dad humble, rather than proud. I remember working with him in our garage in North Platte staining bookshelves, and Dad saying to me that he couldnít believe that we owned such a great house and that he was making twenty-four thousand dollars a year.

The North Platte years were great, with endless poker games, playing catch in the backyard, photography club trips, and countless other happy occasions. Mom and Dad made the house a place where Twinkleís and my friends were always welcome. In fact, sometimes my friends would come to visit my parents rather than me (is that a compliment to my parents or a sad statement about me?) Later, when Mom and Dad were in Iowa and Missouri, they made the transition of having a son and daughter-in-law and the transition of becoming grandparents.

  Papa and Gramie Barbara with the grandkids (left to right): Jared, Cameron, Alicia, and Addison.
 Photo by LGH.    

I know the grandkids Ė Jared, Alicia, Addison, and Cameron Ė were Dadís great joy. He loved spoiling them, and they, especially Cameron, loved being spoiled by Papa. Last March after Dad stayed in Lincoln with Addie and Cam, the first stories Dad had were all about being with the boys: how they got lost driving to Wal-Mart and Camie saying it didnít matter because he just liked being with Papa; how Camie debated Samantha next door about who had the best grandfather; and how Addie reached over and touched Dad while they were driving, to silently let him know he loved his grandfather. Mama says Dad spent his life looking for approval and recognition from his parents that never came Ė I think thatís true. But I know Twinkle and I and his grandchildren gave Dad so much love and respect that it must have filled much of whatever void there was in Dadís heart.

Thatís the chronology of Dadís life, but thereís a lot more to life than dates and places. Dad was the best at playing red bug Ė blue bug (a good reason for bringing the VW beetle back), the best at cards and Risk (or said he was), and the best at getting up first and falling to sleep first (usually on the couch). Dad loved being active, working on his yard, restoring antiques, and helping his friends and neighbors. Iím not so sure he liked it when Dick or I called him for help fixing or repairing this or that, but he always came through for us.

I think Dad was a Dodgers fan as a kid, but since we first came to Kansas City in í72 weíve been diehard Royals fans. After Dad retired, I think Iíve gotten to see at least one or two games with him each year. But as much as Dad loved the Royals, he truly hated the Yankees, and so do I and my boys. Mom says ďsaying that Dad Ďhatedí the Yankees is too strongĒ, but I guess that shows Mom doesnít understand the true Higley tradition. Dad and I played catch listening to the Royals on the radio, we  got to go to Cooperstown and the Negro League Museum together, and I remember seeing The Natural for the first time with him. So baseball was a bond for us.

There were other things besides the Yankees that Dad disliked, but not too many. Dad hated to see the flag improperly handled or displayed. He disliked horses and horses disliked him. A horse had bitten him on the shoulder as a kid, and a passing racehorse crossing the road in front of us reached back to kick our VW van in Newmarket, when we lived in England. Dad claimed he didnít like cats, but given that our cats always chose Dad as their favorite and heíd always get on the floor and play with them, I never found his denials convincing.

Wreckage of F-105 (JJ 462, if I can read the tail correctly; JJ indicates 34th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 388th Tactical Figher Wing; the 462 [last 3 digits of the serial number] indicates this plane was a model F-105D-10-RE). Korat RTAFB, 1968. I don't know which accident this was, but it wasn't the one described below. Although Dad had some photographs of that accident, Mom says he ripped them up in the past couple years. She also says he was having nightmares about that and other accidents in recent years.
USAF photo, from collection of LGH (DGH).  

I canít write about Dad without talking about his heroism. I hear or read people using the word hero all the time, but one certainty in my life was that my dad was a real hero. In England, I saw him run into the Robinsonís smoke-filled kitchen without thinking, after Margaret came to the door crying saying the stove was on fire. And I know a few Air Force  stories. Like the time at Korat when a pilot had engine failure on takeoff and stood on the brakes to stop the plane instead of taking it into the barrier. As Dad was getting ready to have the plane towed to the spikes to blow the tires, the squadron commander, Lt. Col. Wilson, pulled up and started swearing at Dad saying that no one was spiking the tires on one of his planes. As he finished that statement the tires blew, shards of metal flew everywhere, and the gear collapsed so the plane fell onto the 750 lb bombs it was carrying. Shrapnel cut open the wing, and as aviation fuel poured out it hit the hot brakes and ignited. Dad yelled to the driver of the crash truck to start the clock (in theory you have 5 minutes before the bomb will cook off, assuming the casing wasnít cracked), and he and the men with him waded into the flames to fight the fire.  

        One minute: they work to get the flames down to reach the fuselage and wings.

        Two minutes: the metal in the wing is starting to burn and the fire wonít go out.

        Three minutes: they canít stop the fuel from pouring out the wings and reigniting; Dad backs out and calls for a truck with some wedges.

        Four minutes: the truck shows up and Dad frantically tries to hammer rubber wedges into the torn wing to stop the fuel flow.

        Four minutes, 50 seconds: Dad radios that the fire is out.

I figure Dadís decisions saved the lives of every fireman at that scene, but there were no medals for that, although there is more to the story.

        Thirty-six years: I call Dad and ask about some details on the accident so I can use the story in a lecture; Dad goes through the details dispassionately until he suddenly bursts into tears and canít go on.

  Bronze Star presentation, RAF Wethersfield. None of the family got to attend.
USAF photo; collection of LGH (DGH).    

Dad did get the Bronze Star in Thailand, although his citation doesnít describe what led to the medal. A pilot with a fully armed plane lost hydraulics on a taxiway. The end of the taxiway was a drop off, and the sides were lined with fueled and armed planes. Somehow Dad jumped from a truck onto the wing and then under the plane with a set of chocks. He kept throwing the chocks under the wheels until finally they jammed and the plane stopped. Later at the station when Dad heard an officer asking about his name and rank, Dad expected a chewing out. Instead, he got a thank-you from the pilot for saving his life.

Not all heroism involves bombs and fires. If you look south on Interstate 80, past North Platte near the Sutherland exit, youíll see the cooling towers of the Gerald Gentleman Power Plant. Maybe one of those should be a monument to Dad. One day Dad and another compliance officer did an inspection while one of the towers was being built, through a continuous pouring procedure. As the concrete cured, the forms were moved and the process continued. But Dad found they had been moving the forms before the concrete was set, and for the only time in his career with OSHA, he did an Imminent Danger posting and forced everyone off the tower. I donít know how many men were on the forms that day, a dozen, two dozen? Maybe the tower wouldnít have collapsed, but I think itís more likely that many people who never heard of my Dad, maybe even cursed him for interrupting their work, are now alive because of him.

  Dad in his garden at dusk. Ankeny, Iowa, 1980s.
Photo by LGH.    

I canít garden like Dad, I donít take care of cars like my Dad, and I certainly canít do anything mechanical like my Dad. But he never looked at any of my deficiencies; he only told me how proud he was of the things I can do. Dad said he was just a country boy but that was never the whole truth. Dad was skillful and stoic, courageous and caring. Because of my parents I got to have a joyful childhood, I got to go to college and grad school, and I got to realize almost all of my childhood dreams. Why is it that the more education I received, the less certain I am of what I know? And why is it that from year to year as Iíve grown older, Iíve also grown to realize my parents are wiser and wiser than I ever imagined?

A couple years ago I was in front of the house with the boys, and Addison said he wanted to be just like me when he grows up. Iím the same as Addie, I just keep wanting to be like my Dad.

    - Leon Higley, Lincoln, June 15, 2004

Leaping Through Flames

  This is a photo I had on my wall throughout my childhood. It is a picture by the noted photographer Glen Fishback of Dad in a pit fire at Mather AFB, Sacramento, CA, 1961. This photo appeared in a retrospective about Fishback in Popular Photography in the mid-1980s, and was I ever shocked to see it. The photo originally appeared in a Kodak magazine called Applied Photography (along with other USAF photos). Fishback shot pictures of three fireman: one without a belt, one with a belt, and one with a belt and knife (Dad). It turned out that Dad's picture was the best of those Fishback took. I'm hoping to find a better copy of this photograph, but I haven't been successful yet.

I've been using this photo and stories about Dad in some of my lectures on risk (and heroism).
Photo by Glen Fishback for Kodak, 1961.    

 

After the fire

  The foam covered background is the old aircraft fuselage used in the pit fire. You can see the belt differences in this photo. The silver, heavy asbestos bunkers are exactly as I remember seeing as a child. Dad is on left. Mom says the other men are 'Gus' Gustafson in the middle and Carl Turpin on the right.
Photo by Glen Fishback, 1961; collection of LGH (DGH).    

 

Abbreviations
BAH - Barbara A. Higley
DGH - Donald G. Higley
LGH - Leon G. Higley

Last edited by Leon Higley on 06/28/2004.

Return to home page