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Remembering my father

Dad almightyI’ve been in Korea a year-and-a-half now.  Over the past 18 months, I secretly hoped that I’d never get a call that someone in my family had passed away.  But that’s not the way life happens.

The call came from my son on Thanksgiving Day.  My father had died suddenly.  Even though I thought I’d always be prepared for such a call, it still left me a bit numb.  I couldn’t cry.  (I still haven’t.)  I was thousands of miles away from my family.  Even though I’m the eldest of my siblings, I was in no position to “take charge,” as I was used to doing in times of crises.

Coming home for the funeral was not a practical option because I was still teaching, and we were near the end of the semester.  In many families, the oldest children are typically used to taking control of situations.  I had been groomed to be the responsible one.  In this case, however, there was not a lot I could do.

I made sure that my kids were OK.  I spoke with my brother Sylvester often.  He handled the arrangements beautifully.  I offered to write Dad’s obituary.  It was the least I could do, I thought, and it gave me something to do.  My father’s story came to me quickly and smoothly.

My dad, Sidney L. Caldwell, was born in Forrest City, Ark., on July 29, 1929.  He was raised in St. Joseph, Mo.  My father had two sisters; he was the middle child.

Daddy graduated from Bartlett High School in St. Joseph, where he excelled in academics.  A short time after graduation, he enlisted in the Air Force.Sidney Caldwell Air Force

At the time, the Korean War was ending, and President Harry Truman had issued an executive order to integrate the armed forces.  My father served in an integrated unit, starting as a mechanic.

Dad was told that he tested well enough to qualify for officer’s training school, but as the Air Force began to integrate, there was no room for a “colored” man in those ranks.  According to the tests my father took, he had the aptitude to train as an attorney.

Another man might have been angry when he learned that he wouldn’t be allowed to go to officer’s training school.  However, my dad was not that kind of man.  He decided that he would become the best airplane mechanic he could be.  His hard work paid off.  He quickly earned the nickname “Boy Wonder.”  By the time he turned 21, he had earned the titles staff sergeant and crew chief.  He was the youngest man in his unit and the only African-American.

While he was in the service, Dad began to date the woman who would become his wife and my mother, Mary Louise Freeman of St. Louis.  My parents married on February 10, 1952.  They lived in San Antonio, Texas, where my father was stationed. After Daddy was honorably discharged from the service, my parents returned to St. Louis, where they started a family.  (My parents had planned to remain in Texas after my father left the service, but they returned to St. Louis because my maternal grandmother missed her only daughter.)

Four children were born.  Sadly, the first died when she was eight months old.  I made my grand entrance three months later.  My brothers followed, three and six years later.

Our parents were our first teachers.  My father was very hands-on.  By the time I went to kindergarten, I could read, count to 100, and enunciate my words.

That early training in elocution would serve me later when I began a career in broadcasting at age 18. My brothers became mobile DJs (disc jockeys) in high school; one has been working in radio for years.  When we were small, my dad would play around with the tape player, pretending to be the super-cool host of “Big Sid’s Jazz Show.”  My father had no idea that his children would “follow” his lead.

Mom stayed at home and raised us kids.  As a young parent, Daddy worked at International Shoe Company, Combustion Engineering, and Union Pacific Railroad.  He then changed careers and began working in real estate.  By the time he retired, he had put in 30 years as an operations chief.  In his free time, he indulged his hobby, amateur photography.  He built a dark room in our basement.

Sidney Caldwell July 2011 411x371For most of his adult life, Dad held two jobs.  He worked 20 years as an inspector and administrator for the St. Louis County Health Department.  He was one of the first African-Americans to be hired as a housing inspector.  During his tenure with the health department, my father also served as a restaurant inspector, coordinated the County’s lead poisoning prevention program, and worked on the hazmat team in Times Beach, Mo., the site of dioxin contamination in the 1980s.  While with the County, Dad also completed specialized training at a technical college.  He grew up poor in a family that valued education, so he was really proud of his diploma.

My father retired from St. Louis County and his real estate position in 1991.  However, true retirement did not happen for a few years.  Dad served as building commissioner for a County municipality in the 1990s.  Eventually, he would fully retire and pursue his love of travel.

We were fortunate to have my father for 83 years.  We know that he’s in heaven now with my mother, grandparents, and other family members.  The first Sidney in our family was my grandfather; my father came next.  Dad leaves more Sidneys to carry on the name, including my brother and a nephew.  My daughter’s son, age six, is the youngest Sidney.

My son and daughter represented me at the funeral and kept me posted on the details.  Many family members have been left behind to recount many warm memories of my father.

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Prelude to a new semester

It’s time to return to Korea for a new semester.  Hubby and I are completing our packing today.  We had the pleasure of returning to the U.S. for a couple of months, and we are thankful for the opportunity to visit family in other states.

As much as I love teaching in Korea, I still feel a bit of sadness just before we leave to go back to campus.  I’m very close to my kids.  My favorite six-year old (my daughter’s son) is my heart and buddy.  My kids are young adults and can take of themselves quite well, thank you, but I guess a mom is always a mom.  Thank goodness for Skype!

Hubby and I will fly out of the U.S. tomorrow afternoon.  After our 13-hour flight, we’ll land in Korea the following evening — in time to celebrate our wedding anniversary.

I’ve been listening to some music from R & B artist Anthony Hamilton to keep my spirits up.  Also heartwarming:  at church we received prayers, as well as a donation to help with our travel expenses.  Another church member, a sweet spirit, handed us a cash gift and shared her own experiences of visiting Korea in 1983.  We are blessed with a wonderful cadre of family and friends who have prayed for us and with us, and who have been totally supportive of our mission.

While I’m a bit sad about leaving the comforts of home, I’m also happy because I know we will reconnect with our lovely friends in Korea.  I’m also looking forward to meeting new students and faculty.  I also look forward to getting little reassuring notes and words of wisdom from my brother-in-law, who toiled for years as a career missionary.

As it was in the beginning of this journey, the big lure for me is still working in the classroom.  For me, it’s a natural high.