10/16/16

Sixty years ago today, Louis Hochman was working on an oil well near Durango, Colorado — “sitting on a well” is how they said it. He was a petroleum geologist employed by Conoco. At some point that afternoon he climbed a telephone pole, tapped into a line and dialed a number in Casper, Wyoming, more than 500 miles away, to get news that I had arrived. His first child.

The anxiety he felt must have been intense, not just from being so far away for the blessed event, but that just two years ago, while he and my mom were living in Olympia, Washington,  she had nearly died in pregnancy from a kidney infection. The baby girl was stillborn. After that, a doctor had told them that it was too risky to try having kids again.

A couple of years ago, going through things after Mom died at age 84, having had me and two more kids, we found a letter Dad wrote around that time indicating that he drove to Casper as soon as he could, caught a look at me in the newbies ward, said hello to Mom, then turned right back around to head back to work. That was paternity leave in the Eisenhower years. We also found the photo shared here, likely the first one of him with me, probably a few days later.

Imagine what thoughts went through his head on that 1000-mile round trip. He was elated, certainly. But also likely worried. He was 36 at the time. Not only had he lost a child and nearly lost his wife, but he’d lost his own mom not long ago then, to cancer. He’d landed at Utah Beach 12 years before, returned to grad school at Stanford to get a degree in the field he loved, reenlisted as a Corp of Engineers officer in Korea mapping the topography to let the grunts “build bridges so that the Koreans could blow them up.” And now he was based in Wyoming, with a new son, and an uncertain future — the oil business had taken a bit of a dip and the company wanted to transfer him, a Jew, to Saudi Arabia. Transfer us to Saudi Arabia.

Instead, they (we) moved back to Santa Barbara, where Mom was born and raised and where Dad’s dad had moved after his wife died. Dad wound up giving up his beloved geology and became an hotelier, running a hotel his father-in-law built. We never heard him express any regrets, and disappointment in how his life had turned, though he jumped at the chance to talk geology with us — every family driving trip would feature lessons along the way: “See how that strata is angled up? That’s from the pressures of the continental plates coming together.” “Out there across the valley, look at how those alluvial fans spread out across the base of the hills…” And I very well remember walking in while he was watching news footage of Mt. St. Helens erupting, a look of pure joy on his face, before he had to sheepishly note that yes, this was a great event for geology, but at the cost of peoples’ lives.

When Dad turned 60, I was midway between 23 and 24 and, after a stint in New Mexico taking a documentary film program, was temporarily back in Santa Barbara, living with the folks and working for Dad at the hotel. I’d worked a lot for him at the hotel starting when I was 10 — bell-hopping, pulling weeds, adding chlorine to the pool, helping the housekeepers, working the old PBX switchboard, doing the books, checking in guests, trouble-shooting. My greatest memories were just watching him interact with the guests. He loved that so much, getting peoples’ stories, where they were from, where they were going. Everything. And he was so at ease with that. He was unfailingly kind, always tried to give people the benefit of the doubt, see their better nature. It took a lot to get him to think ill of anyone. That goes for him as a dad, too. Patience seemingly unbound, with a perfect instinct as to when to be indulgent, when to draw a line. Always interested in whatever we had to say, whatever interested us. Always eager to see our passions grow. And music. Oh, music. He played violin in various community groups, including the Santa Barbara Symphony for a while. And never cared what music I loved, just that I loved it.

This, though, was my first chance to be with him so much as an adult. Er, “adult.” Even if for just a few months before I moved back to L.A. to get going on my own again. And his kindness, his patience, his genuine, tireless interest in people made a deeper, more conscious impression on me. I treasure that time.

But one thing our parents didn’t tell us then was that Dad had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. They didn’t let us know for a few more years, when symptoms were hard to overlook. Never was sure why they didn’t tell us, but it doesn’t really matter. At the time, sure he had some leg shakes when he was sitting, and some hand tremors. And he took some medications, but that’s what grownups do, right?

As the Parkinson’s progressed (funny word to use for a disease, progressed) things got difficult, for him and mom taking care of him. He’d fall, of course. He had more and more trouble swallowing. The rotations of medication would stop working, or worse cause other problems, including some severe hallucinations that, understandably, freaked Mom out pretty badly. He’d get obsessed with the prospects of some new treatment or experimental operation, though it was clear that it would not help his particular condition and might be horribly harmful. We heard all this from Mom, not from him. He never said a word of complaint to us. Even when things were a struggle, he was upbeat, happy, to us.

When he could no longer play violin due to his tremors and diminished dexterity, he tried mandolin and harmonica, with enough success to give him pleasure at making music.  And there was tennis, the other passion alongside music. He played three, four, five time a week for as long as I could remember. If he was ever disappointed in his kids it was that he could never get us to share that passion on that level. But it got harder and harder.

For his 75th birthday we had a surprised tennis tournament for him — he was lured out to the courts on false, lame prospects, to see family and friends gathered. We all took turns playing doubles. Everyone wanted to play with or against him, of course. He still had some of his old tricks (he was the master of the spin-shot or sneaky drop). But just getting his feet to move was tough. Still, he had the time of his life. And when it was over, he hung up his racket. Never played again. Never expressed a word of regret, again. At least to us. And that was the case right to his death five years later, just a couple of days after his 80th birthday. We’d taken him to Disneyland for the birthday (his request). A wonderful day for all, him beaming throughout. A final image of him that sticks with me, capturing of his nature.

As I turn 60 today, I’m thinking of him a lot. My wish is that I could have more of his patience, more of his spirit, more of his kindness. There would be no achievement greater for me to honor him that way.

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