My father died on March 1, age 91. I was with him when he peacefully departed the pattern about 0540.
Fourteen years before I’d held my mother’s hand when she died, early in the morning. Anticipating Dad’s death, I wondered if it might be somewhat easier the second time.
John Henry Tillman, Jr., was born in Portland, Oregon, in April 1922, the son of a construction engineer and a home maker of Swiss ancestry. Dad and his sister didn’t always have a full-time father as JH Senior traveled often. His construction work included the seawall at Seaside, Oregon, and the vista house overlooking part of the Columbia River Gorge. He bid on the Golden Gate Bridge but withdrew, leaving the earnest money on the table. That probably was about 1930, when money was tight.
Dad graduated from Grant High School in 1939, playing soccer and doing best in chemistry, history, and economics. He entered Oregon State College as an engineering student with aeronautical option. After two years he left school to become a draftsman at Douglas Aircraft in the LA area. He was still there when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
Though JH Senior owned a ranch in northeastern Oregon, Dad did not want to sit out the war on a tractor. But there are always losses in aviation: two of his room mates in Navy flight training died in the war: one disappeared on a PBY flying boat in Alaska, the other was killed in a Hellcat by U.S. Navy gunners off Japan in 1945.
Postwar Dad remained on the ranch rather than completing college. He would have made a poor corporate man, and I cannot imagine him stuffed in a cubicle, even with as fine a company as Douglas.
But first Dad had to face the challenge of a lifetime. Visiting friends in Puerto Rico in 1946, he contracted polio. He said that the government minimized the risk out of concern for the tourist trade, and whether it’s true or not, he became a Republican bolshevik. For the rest of his life he had an industrial-grade distrust of bureaucrats.
While Dad was hospitalized in Portland, JH Sr. brought a morale builder long-long before therapy dogs existed. Dad’s pet was a 70-lb Doberman. Soon as Clipper got off the elevator he began a methodical search of the floor, eliciting shrieks of laughter or distress as he padded down the corridor. When he jumped on Dad’s bed the white-clad authorities demanded his removal. Dad said, “You pull him off!” Clipper remained awhile.
Despite doubt that he would recover, Dad regained his legs, which were atrophied. Nonetheless, he had a gritty determination to do what he wanted. As soon as he could sit a horse again he took his .270 Winchester and his Canadian walking sticks with his mare, Blaze, and resumed elk hunting. Mother said that when she saw him ride off with her father, Henry Barrett, she knew she would marry Jack Tillman.
Mother’s family was pioneer stock, and she’d been a princess on the Pendleton Roundup court two weeks after VJ-Day. That’s where my folks first hooked up. (I never did get the full story but apparently there are some things that parents do not share with adult children.) My folks married in 1948; I was born that year, followed by John and Andy.
In the 60s Dad and partners built a grain elevator integrated with our 5,000-head feedlot. Designed with typical JHT detail, it was perhaps the first fully integrated operation in the area, with molasses and ingredients mixed for optimum nutrition of the beef on the hoof. Meanwhile Dad maintained a string of horses and pack mules for elk hunting, and a buffalo named Sarah for diversity.
Dad believed in supporting the community. He served on the county Red Cross committee, the board of Pendleton’s hospital, formed the Sand Hollow Volunteer Fire Department, drove for the Athena-Weston Ambulance Service, and carried a special deputy’s card for Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office most of my life. Our shooting range (aka Buffalo Wallow) was used by USCO for years, and if I say so myself it was the best firearms training facility in that part of the state. Some officers drove half a day from Salem and Portland to partake.
And Dad continued flying. Though he walked with a pronounced limp all my life, and took his time climbing in an airplane, he was an accomplished aviator. I flew more than 500 hours with him in some really interesting machinery, most notably our restored WW II Dauntless dive bomber. Most of the planes had conventional landing gear with tailwheels, which require agility on the rudder pedals. Despite his withered legs, Dad never had any trouble.
Our antique airplane group, the Scarf and Goggles Club, took annual jaunts around the west, alternating leaders who set the itinerary. Because we flew a 1940 Naval Aircraft Factory N3N painted trainer yellow, Dad became Yellow Leader. That was appropriate because he was one of those who could navigate reliably. Naturally I became Yellow Two—and if I was a so-so aviator I was a better than average navigator. But as much as I admired Dad’s piloting, I grew increasingly respectful of his refusal to succumb to his limits.
However, I don’t want to overstate matters: Dad could have paid more attention to Mother, and he drank more than he should have rather than rely on pain killers. That was not unusual for his generation, though he never bought into Tom Brokaw’s hype about “the greatest.” One evening at Christmas dinner with Joe Foss’ family, Dad and Joe concurred, “We weren’t the greatest—we just did what we had to do.”
Eventually the polio returned. Post-polio syndrome recurs in about 25 percent of patients, and eventually Dad progressed from a cane to a walker to an electric wheelchair that he controlled with surprising dexterity despite his tremors.
Yet the bolshevik under the skin remained. Our family collected machine guns, and Dad’s favorite was a Model 1917 Browning water-cooled. We set it up beside his easy chair for awhile, allowing him to use the affixed ammunition box as a glass holder. He would pat the water jacket, saying, “Old girl, I’m afraid we’re going to miss the revolution.”
Word quickly spread that Jack Tillman was dying. Throughout his life, but especially in the last 20 years or so, he became a mentor to more people than I ever knew. Though he was comatose most of his last three days, he had 40 visitors (including dogs) from as far as 250 miles away.
People came to spend a few minutes speaking in his ear, holding his hand, sharing their love.
Sorry—I gotta go. The screen’s getting misty again. Guess I need to call the computer tech.
Miss you, Dad.
Yellow Two, out.