Thursday, November 19, 2015

Richard Lee Ranger (1923-2015)

I have been remarkably fortunate to reach my thirties with three living grandparents, especially when all of them were born before things like penicillin, television, and the Great Depression. And I have been even more fortunate to have them all be an integral part of my life for all of that time. Which I suppose is what makes it so difficult to, for the second time in a little over two months, lose one of them. My grandfather and namesake (one of them - I'm named after both grandfathers) lived a fairly remarkable life over ninety-two years.

Richard Lee "Dick" Ranger was the second son born to Allen and Mildred Ranger in Swampscott, Massachusetts, a North Shore town of about 13,000 people that was one of the first beach resort towns for wealthy Bostonians (back before it was merely a suburb of Boston). He spent his boyhood tagging along as the kid brother with Don's group of friends, as the Ranger house was a central meeting place for many of the boys in town to get together on a given day.* They organized challenge games of football or baseball or pond hockey against boys from the neighboring towns of Lynn (to the south) and Marblehead (to the north) for bragging rights, and practiced for those games. The annual Thanksgiving Day high school football game (Thanksgiving Day games between archrivals were long a Bay State tradition) between the Swampscott Sculpins (now the Big Blue) and Marblehead Magicians (now the ‘Headers) was a major event that my grandfather, great-uncle, and most of their friends either played in or cheered on.

*For any Valdezians reading this, the Ranger house was effectively the Graika house of Swampscott, although I don't know if you could extend the parallels exactly to make Gage my uncle Don and Casey or Skylar my grandfather.

Nearly all of the boys from Swampscott enlisted when World War II came. Since the Ranger house had always been a central meeting place, his father offered to gather everyone's addresses and keep people informed of comings and goings with a newsletter that connected all of these young men as they shipped out from basic training to North Africa or Sicily or the South Pacific. On the front page of one of these newsletters, he printed a picture of the Swampscott police station, accompanied by a verse: "Roses are red/Violets are blue/Please hurry home/We are waiting for you." Some did not, or they came back injured. Don's life, for one, was forever altered when he took shrapnel in the back during the first few minutes in the invasion landing on the beaches of Saipan in mid-1944 (he was a Marine).

My great-grandfather Allen Ranger sold coal throughout northern New England in the early twentieth century. New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College was one of his most important customers. Not a college graduate himself, Allen fell in love with the beauty of Dartmouth’s campus, and determined to send one of his sons there.* My grandfather, growing up on the North Shore, had his sights set on Harvard from the time that he was aware of college, but his father wore him down with family camping trips in New Hampshire until he too fell under Dartmouth’s spell. So Dick enrolled at Dartmouth College shortly after turning 17 in 1940, and it was impossible to know my grandfather without learning of his incredibly passionate loyalty towards his alma mater, where even though his undergraduate years were interrupted by almost three years of wartime service, he was president of his fraternity, played intramural hockey, and was a member of the Sphinx, Dartmouth's oldest secret senior society. He similarly inspired his son, my father, to follow in his footsteps to Hanover.

*Dartmouth is an upper-echelon campus in terms of beauty, and the setting in Hanover is picturesque.

With World War II looming, Dick spent nights doing eye exercises with a pencil so that he could be selected for the Army Air Corps, because he felt that flying would do more to help win the war than just fighting in it. Not coincidentally, by 1943 it was pretty clear that serving in the infantry meant uncomfortably high odds of going home in a box. The exercises worked, and my grandfather got into flight school, enrolling in March 1943 and going to pre-flight training in Costa Mesa, California, back when Orange County was a collection of small farm towns and oilfields. He was more or less immediately enraptured, and shifted his New England loyalty to southern California for the rest of his life.

After completing flight training, he joined the 345th Bombardment Group, the "Air Apaches," in January of 1945 as the pilot of a B-25 Mitchell bomber. The B-25 Mitchell was one of the transformative weapons of World War II. It became so when Major Pap Gunn, an engineer of the 5th Air Force (based in Australia), discovered that by removing the bombardier from the "greenhouse" nose of the plane, he could install eight forward-facing .50-caliber machine guns, turning a rather ordinary medium-load bomber into a devastating low-level strafer. The revamped B-25 could attack enemy ships at mast height, using those machine guns to suppress defensive fire and skipping their bombs (like a stone on a pond) much more accurately at their targets. This change in armament eventually would have major ramifications for my grandfather.

During a low-level bombing mission over Taiwan (then referred to as Formosa) on April 19, 1945, my grandfather's plane got its right engine knocked out by a 20mm or 25 mm anti-aircraft gun near a railroad bridge three miles northeast of the target, which was Japanese shipping along the west coast of Taiwan from Tainan City to Taichung City. Unable to deploy the bomb bay due to the damage, Dick made a strafing run and used the emergency system to drop his payload off the coast before turning and flying back with an escort back towards the Philippines. Often flying very low above the water because of the dead engine, he piloted his plane across the almost four hundred miles of mostly open ocean between Taiwan and the island of Luzon in the Philippines (parts of which were still very much under Japanese control). He crash-landed (the landing gear was also damaged) near Laoag in the northwest corner of Luzon with minimal further damage to the plane and none to the crew, for which action he was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross, an award of which he was very proud.

One of the lasting effects of my grandfather's war service was a sense of wonder for all the beauty and variety that the world had to offer. From the cockpit of his B-25, he saw the mountainous jungles of New Guinea and the crystal blue waters of the Philippines, the beaches of Vietnam and the small rocky islands that get bigger and bigger as one approaches Japan. This appreciation for the world did not exclude his own country, which he had been exposed to throughout his flight training, particularly California and Colorado. Upon returning from the war, he finished his degree at Dartmouth (along with business school) and went to work for Ford, a company to which he retained almost as much loyalty as to Dartmouth. He married Carol Roland from Nahant, Massachusetts in 1950 (her father, Phillips Roland, had attended Dartmouth in the late teens of the twentieth century but did not graduate) and they settled in Marblehead, where my father was born two years later. In June of this year, my grandparents celebrated sixty-five years of marriage together.

My grandfather's work as a marketing executive took them all across the country and beyond; Marblehead; Detroit; Charlotte; Richmond; Orange County (Tustin); Detroit again; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Detroit a third time; and finally retirement in Orange County. As they moved around, he got into trailer camping, so that the family (which expanded to include my aunt Pam in 1960) could go further and spend more time on the road, since there was no need to set up a tent. Long road trips with no A/C had zero effect on him; he loved the journey all the same. And he took thousands of pictures, turning most of them into slides (although he unfortunately never learned how to properly edit his collections, which led to some rather long presentations). In retirement, my grandparents graduated to an RV (a Ford, of course), which they took all over the country, including to Alaska during one of our first summers there. His favorite line about travel in the USA, which he would repeat to anyone, was first told to him by German tourists that they encountered at the Grand Canyon, after asking them what brought them to the states; "You go to Europe to see what man has created, but you come to America to see what God has created." That line stuck with him.

I get much of my passion for athletics from my grandfather. As stated above, he played intramural hockey at Dartmouth, and as long as he skated he never did so without a hockey stick. His chief joys were golf in the summer and skiing in the winter. He had absolutely no use for golf carts, which might as well all have been manufactured by Chevrolet as far as he was concerned. He followed golf intensely, pulling first for Palmer over Nicklaus, and then Nicklaus over Watson, as if (in my father's words) he had bet the mortgage on them. He loved college football, especially the fun-to-watch UCLA teams of the late nineties and the Pete Carroll USC teams, and he always retained some Michigan loyalty to Big Blue and the best uniforms in the sport. The opening of football season and New Car Introduction Week generally happened at the same time, which was always cause for elation. Ninety percent or so of the time that the television was on, it was to watch sports: football in the fall; basketball in the winter; golf or tennis anytime throughout the year, with my grandfather watching from the same overstuffed leather easy chair pointed directly at the television, frequently with popcorn or Trader Joe’s potato chips.

My grandparents spent about thirty years on the same cul-de-sac in Dana Point, one of the southernmost towns in Orange County, and became very involved in their community. They had the only pool on the block, which all of the kids on Rachel Circle (there were roughly twenty of all ages) were welcome to use provided they asked (and if pool usage came with a side of my grandmother's brownies, so much the better). They spent over two decades volunteering with the police department as members of a bike patrol along the beaches and the harbor area, assisting tourists and the like. Both of my grandparents retained significant athleticism into their old age; they celebrated their fortieth anniversary with a bike tour of France’s Loire Valley,* and my grandfather could still throw a perfect spiral pushing eighty. Until his health started betraying him, he spent at least half an hour on an old-school wooden Nordic Trak every morning in the garage, and my grandmother has been a dedicated and strong swimmer forever.

*Major anniversaries for my Ranger grandparents were celebrated with a big trip somewhere. They were off in Mexico for their twenty-fifth when my dad, attending the Keelers’ twenty-fifth anniversary party as the Ranger family representative (my grandmothers were roommates for a time after college), went on his first date with my mother.

I spent a couple of weeks every summer with them as soon as I was old enough to fly solo, and they took me all sorts of places: Angels games in Anaheim; the La Brea Tar Pits; the Santa Ana and San Diego Zoos; the driving range; and most frequently, Salt Creek Beach at the bottom of the high bluffs of Dana Point, where we would boogie board and body surf for hours. When we stayed home, I played in the pool at all hours (I loved water from a very early age), often with several of the other kids on the block, almost all of whom were either a couple years older or younger than me, but who were also friendly and welcoming (the Nathanson boys, two doors up the street, were particularly tolerant of someone who was, if memory serves, two, four, and six years younger than them). Or I spent the entire day, except for a lunch break, playing basketball at the park with Kevin, a boy across the street and one door down who was a couple years younger. You will notice that all of these destinations were of the outdoor variety. That is because both of my grandparents were among a subset of New Englanders who worship the sun “like Aztecs.”* The whole reason that they retired to southern California in the first place was because, as my grandfather told a fellow Ford executive, he wanted to be somewhere where his toes could be tan.

*Another line cribbed from my father. If you have read much of my work or know me at all, you understand that Richard Lee Ranger, Jr. is a pretty giant influence in my writing. Consider that a citation for this whole post.

My grandfather had a low tolerance for bullshit or excuses. As we have seen, he believed golf courses were meant to be walked, not ridden on. Having grown up in New England, he felt that encountering blue ice or the occasional rock while skiing was merely part of the experience, although once he discovered Colorado powder he felt that nothing could compare. After seeing his father (a two-packs-a-day smoker) die of cancer in the sixties, he quit smoking cigarettes cold turkey, although he allowed himself an evening pipe before bed as long as I knew him. Whenever he suffered a physical breakdown, he followed the rehab instructions to the letter. He was not the type to sue when a surgery went wrong, as one did several years ago on his leg when the surgeon touched a nerve, limiting his mobility and hampering his balance. He soldiered on, and being fiercely independent, declined any assistance unless it was forced on him. It was not until he was past ninety that he could be persuaded to move out of the house on Rachel Circle, which was a difficult house to manage for someone who had mobility issues.

He had some quirks. I would be remiss in reminiscing about my grandfather without mentioning that you did NOT want to discuss politics with him under any circumstances, especially not if you had any leanings toward the Democratic Party. He is responsible for what my family calls "the Ranger Rule" when it comes to watching sports; an inveterate supporter of underdogs when he had no other rooting interest, my grandfather was infamous for declaring games over ("That's it! That's the balllllgame."), even if it wasn't yet halftime, or the fifth inning, or whatever, when he felt that a game or match was out of reach. He would not acknowledge his advancing deafness later in life, meaning that you had to use an outside voice with him if you wanted to be heard. And the pain of his last years frequently made him difficult, although he continued to undergo whatever treatment and perform whatever rehab was necessary.

In the end, however, my grandfather was an inspirational man, who worked hard throughout his life and retained a curiosity and fascination with the great wide world that led him to travel to dozens of places, from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and the Grand Canyon to the savanna of East Africa, and the tiny dots of the Marquesas Islands. He was resourceful, successful, and principled. I remember him as a great grandfather who enjoyed telling jokes and trying to sneak food from my plate at the dinner table when I wasn’t paying attention. He was an inspiration to his two kids and grandson, particularly when it came to exploring the world around them, and after just over ninety-two years, he is at peace. He would be thrilled to know, and it is only fitting, that for the first time in decades, Dartmouth finished first (tied with Harvard) in the Ivy League. If there is indeed an afterlife, I can’t think of a better way for him to start it than to open the sports page and see the Big Green on top. Love you, Grandpa.