Fair winds and following seas

My dad’s grave in North Bloomfield, California.

Two weeks ago, I was pondering the appropriateness of writing about my father on the anniversary of his death. Obviously parents are ancestors, but they’re so very close that I wasn’t sure whether it would be considered sufficiently genealogical. Then I got home and read Jeff Record‘s enormously touching tribute to his recently-deceased mother and the answer was clearly a resounding “YES,” so here goes.

Lieut. Commander John E. McEnearney, Supply Officer (left), and 2nd Lieutenant Folger Athearn, Disbursing Officer.

I’m probably not the only NEHGS member who’s watched The Crown, a historical fiction series about the current Queen of England and her family. Those of you who’ve seen it may have your own emotionally resonant moments, but for me it was watching a bearded Prince Philip and his fellow shipmates posing with penguins near Antarctica. That minute or two in the drama brought back so much of what my father told me about his thirteen months in Antarctica in 1959–60: the Navy, beards, cold, snow, sled dogs, and, yes … even penguins.

The most memorable exploit I recall (and I believe I’ve remembered the details correctly) involved joint maneuvers with Air Force personnel who had a reputation for being a bit coddled. The Navy guys predicted that their flying compatriots would not be assembled at the appropriate hour … and indeed there were no signs of wakefulness in the shelter where the Air Force guys were sleeping, a sort of insulated fabric Quonset hut. As a Navy officer counted down the seconds to the appointed moment of departure, several of his men simultaneously untethered the shelter along one side. The whole hut flipped back in the stiff Antarctic wind, and Dad said the Air Force guys mobilized very quickly after that!

Merry (Athearn) Herb and Jerry Athearn, with Diamond Head in the background, enjoying some R&R in November 1960.

Immediately after Dad’s return from Antarctica, he got a well-earned “thawing out” in Hawaii with his sister Merry, whose wedding he’d missed seven months earlier. A picture of them together on Waikiki Beach is one of only a couple taken in my father’s life showing him sporting a beard; he felt he could never grow a decent one, but it was a necessity in Antarctica.

My favorite memory about Dad’s time in Antarctica, however, came just a few months before his death. My six-year-old son was learning about Antarctica in school, and said, “I wonder how Grandpa Jerry could stand all that cold?” So I picked up the phone and we called down to California to ask him. It was wonderful to hear new stories and details, including the fact that the only time they wore their dress uniforms was on the Fourth of July, when they gathered in the commanding officer’s hut for a celebration. Evidently even with long underwear it was pretty chilly!

It was wonderful to hear new stories and details...

Not long afterward, as my father lay dying at home, the hospice staff explained that it was quite common for patients to process the experience as a journey. For someone like my father – who’d set foot on every continent – that proved to be very true. At one point he’d scrunched down into an awkward position in bed and, as my half-sisters and step-mother adjusted his pillows to make him more comfortable, he said, “It’s OK, I’ve flown coach my whole life.”

On the night before he died, Dad murmured something about penguins. Hallucinations were the obvious explanation, but then someone turned around and, indeed, there were penguins running around the muted TV screen. It was as if they’d shown up to salute him as he made his final voyage: “Fair winds and following seas, Commander!”

Pamela Athearn Filbert

About Pamela Athearn Filbert

Pamela Athearn Filbert was born in Berkeley, California, but considers herself a “native Oregonian born in exile,” since her maternal great-great-grandparents arrived via the Oregon Trail, and she herself moved to Oregon well before her second birthday. She met her husband (an actual native Oregonian whose parents lived two blocks from hers in Berkeley) in London, England. She holds a B.A. from the University of Oregon, and has worked as a newsletter and book editor in New York City and Salem, Oregon; she was most recently the college and career program coordinator at her local high school.View all posts by Pamela Athearn Filbert