On my fishing trip yesterday, on the cusp of Father’s Day, I thought a lot about my Dad, Benjamin Franklin Duerksen. Now how many men do you know named after that Founding Father! I am sure he was smiling at the fun I was having catching those frisky trout. He gave me my love of the outdoors—we spent many days and nights on the banks of the Little Ar-Kansas River near my hometown in Kansas fishing with worms and frogs for channel catfish, bullhead, and anything else that would bite. Dad was also a pro at noodling—illegal handfishing for big flathead catfish. Even Mennonites have vices!!
We later graduated to minnows and lures in lakes and chasing white bass, crappie, and anything else that would bite. On those exciting overnight trips to Kanopolis Reservoir, 60 miles away, we just slept in the big old 1951 DeSoto car, Dad in the front seat and me in the back.
We also spent a lot of time bird watching, especially on Sunday. After Sunday School he would head out into the sandhills in the DeSoto with my sister Susan and me while Mom was fixing our dinner (noon meal). I still have my first Audobon bird book…a prized possession.
Dad was a simple, laid-back Mennonite farm boy. He played football in college at 5’8” and 150 pounds, married Mom the day after she graduated from high school in 1942, served on the crew of a B-17 bomber in the Army Air Corps in WWII (which was highly unusual for a Mennonite kid given Mennonites are a pacifist religion). He came back home to farm with his father after the war, then started teaching in the 1950s to supplement the farm income when a couple of wheat crops got hailed out. He taught math and social studies for over 30 years in nearby small-town grade schools, sometimes serving as principal, always coaching basketball and baseball. A couple of years he coached my Cub Scout baseball team to the regional championship. We sat in front of the radio and listened and went to a lot of Hutch Juco and Wichita State basketball games together back then. On special trips to Kansas City, we watched the old KC Athletics at Municipal Stadium—still remember seeing Mantle and Maris hit back-to-back homers in 1960, the year Maris broke Ruth’s record. I got us into trouble when I jumped onto the field after the game to run the bases. Fortunately he rescued me before the umps could corral me. Thankfully he continued to farm so I got to spend a lot of time with him every summer driving tractor, hauling wheat to the mills, plowing fields, planting wheat in the fall while listening to the World Series on my transistor radio. Not many boys get to spend so much what we now call “quality” time with their dads. Not saying at the time I fully appreciated the dawn-to-dark work regimen during plowing season!
Dad was very easy-going. I only saw him lose his temper a couple of times and the closest he came to cussing was saying “by damn!” But he was also very competitive—never ever did he let me beat him at ping-pong or checkers, although I could best him on the b-ball court in H-O-R-S-E. He still shot a two-handed set shot of his day so I called jump and hook shots which he had trouble with. Mom was the day-to-day disciplinarian in the family, but believe me I remember well each of the three spankings I got from him. The worst was when as a teenager I was disrespectful of my Mom. Yikes!! Lesson learned!!
Dad never pushed me in sports or academics, and indeed he didn’t say a word when in my junior year in college I switched my long-time plan to be a doctor and instead went to law school. But I think I got his slight nod of approval the day after my graduation from law school, which he and Mom had driven to Chicago to attend. He was leaning back in a big easy chair in our apartment when he looked at me and asked, “So how much does a young lawyer make these days?” That was an unusual question from a Mennonite–they don’t dwell much on money. I answered, “About $16,000.” Which was about twice what he was making as a teacher after years in the classroom. His response? “Hmmm, I guess being a lawyer isn’t so bad after all.” I still can’t stop laughing when I think about that!! Thanks, Dad, for everything. Miss you.