I’ve always been grateful to be his namesake, and the sound of “Russell Mead Clark, Jr.” resonates pleasantly as far back as memory will take me. I’ll be forever grateful that I had the chance to tell him before he died, “Dad, I’ve always liked my name.” He smiled, and his countenance spoke more than words ever could.
He was a son of Pennsylvania, born in the “foothills of the Alleghenies,” as he labeled them. He knew the woods, especially around the old homestead, and he learned how to hunt and fish and survive. He gladly passed the torch to me and to my brothers, although it never quite “took” the way it had with Dad. We can never can call ourselves “woodsmen” while keeping a straight face.
He taught me how to be a man. He modeled the best of what masculine identity should be. He grew up in hard times, The Great Depression, World War II, and Korea. He chose a rougher path than most, serving in two wars, and learning to live off the land at home and overseas. Yet he was much more than “machismo.” He embodied the male myths of King, Warrior, Sage, and Lover, although I’m sure these archetypal categories were unknown to him. He was too busy living, learning, providing, protecting, guiding, and loving to find time to analyze himself.
Dad was a romantic at heart. He learned to read early, and some of his favorite writers were Hemingway, Whitman, and Frost. He loved the challenges of the rigorous life and reveled in Nature’s grandeur, but he also learned her tough lessons in storm and snow, wind and lightning, and frozen nights with little heat.
My father was a patriot through and through. He wept when the flag waved high over the cemetery on Memorial Day, near the place where he would eventually rest in peace. He rose in the ranks to retire from the Air Force Reserve as a Lieutenant Colonel. He supported our nation when he could, but he was not hesitant to protest when he couldn’t. As a disabled veteran, he believed that war was to be the last resort, only after all means of diplomacy had failed. I’ll always remember what he said to me when a Republican president (Dad was GOP all his life.) led us into the Iraq War, “This is an unnecessary war.”
Russ Clark, Sr. was more than anything else a man of deep faith. Committing his life to the Lord while sitting in his boyhood sanctuary at Centerville Methodist Church, he started on a path of knowing the Bible and sharing it with others. Of following the way of Christ and embodying what it means to be a Christian, filled with the love of God for others. Of avoiding the temptations that plague every man and trusting in divine forgiveness when he failed. He was imperfect, and he confessed to me later that he had several regrets. But he also conveyed to me and to my siblings the truth of the Gospel, that God’s grace is stronger than all our sins. He spoke this, and he sang it; the Lord gave him a resonant baritone voice that he shared freely with all who would listen. And many did.
I remember a man who loved his family. He adored my mother, Gertrude (whose name mysteriously changed to Trudy in the mid-sixties), and I learned much as I observed when he went the extra mile to bring flowers, to take her out to eat, and to embrace her with a tenderness that I seldom see in other men. Even in myself.
His love for me and for my brothers went to the limit. Financial constraints prevented lavish vacations, but we had trips filled with laughter and delight. One event that comes to mind is the cross-country journey we made from California to Pennsylvania in 1955. Because we were into the Davy Crockett hysteria of that time, my father took us to the Alamo, where our hero had died for the cause of freedom. If you look at a map, you will find the most direct route from Oakland to Corry is hundreds of miles north of San Antonio, Texas. But Dad and Mom did it, just to make it a memorable pilgrimage for four boys, all under the age of ten.
I remember when Dad taught me “the birds and the bees” while we were trimming grass at my Little League field, named “Olin Bracken” after one of the leading citizens of my home town. I recall that I was about to enter Junior High, and he wanted me to be prepared when I heard about sex from my “worldly” classmates. He didn’t seem embarrassed at all, but I must have been turning several shades of red during our little talk. Again, he was doing what fathers have been doing since time began, teaching pubescent sons the meaning of manhood through the rites and rituals of passage.
At around the same time, he warned me that alcohol could become my worst enemy. He had a brother whose battle with the bottle was an unfolding tragedy, and he wanted to keep me from falling into that hell. How I wish I had heeded his warning. My life beyond high school, college, and the Marine Corps would be buffeted and battered by bad choice after bad choice, and I became addicted. How grateful I am that Dad never knew this. And how thankful I am now to be sober, by the grace of God and the support of AA.
Dad showed me that men can be vulnerable. I sensed when he was hurting, although he held to his generational mottoes of “still upper lip” and “no pain, no gain.” Some of my most vivid memories were bathed in my father’s tears. When our beloved Lassie was killed by a car on West Church Street hill, my brothers and I ran inside, sobbing and wailing. And Dad came in after burying our dog, blending his tears with our own. When I boarded a plane at the Indianapolis airport on my way to Vietnam, I said Goodbye to my family. I’ll never forget the agony that disfigured my father’s face, as tears of fear and grief fell over his cheeks.
Then there were the awful months when the wars caught up with him once again. He was in the VA Hospital in Marion, Indiana, where Mom and Dad had made their home by that time. The stress of the past, the memories, and the soul-crushing burdens had taken their toll, and he admitted himself for treatment. I visited him more than once, taking time from my graduate work to attend to his needs, but he was the one who became the care-giver as we talked. His concern was the burden he was placing on my mother, my brothers, and me. Yet he shared without a hint of embarrassment that he needed the treatment he was receiving. This was another lesson from my father that sent me into the hands of the VA decades later, when my own flashbacks and addictions crushed me beneath their weight.
He was a heroic figure in my life and yet when I visited his Hoosier home, he would meet me at the door with his customary greeting, “Hello, Russo, my big Marine (yes, that is what he called me). You’re my hero!” And I would try to convince him that the reverse was the truth, but he would have none of it. So I just played along, grateful for his tribute but always aware that Dad was somehow more intelligent, courageous, wise, and stable than I ever could be. I always looked up to him, and I always will.
So on this Father’s Day, 2019, I thank God for my father, and I will say to him once more, “Well done, Dad. Well done. Thank you for everything. Love, Russo.”