On his last day while trying to help him with his phone, I asked Dad; “Do you know the password to your phone?”
“Yep.” Followed by awkward silence until his devilish grin forced us to laugh. His phone awaits a password that will never come.
For better or for worse, in sickness and in health. After 63 years, he proudly cared for our Mom and, by misfortune, his firstborn son, fatally stricken with an inoperable tumor and cancer. Dad took on hospice duties, and he would pick them up off the floor when they fell. Cleaned, dressed, and fed them, though he had a hernia and never asked for help. Not only did he push through the pain, I sometimes think he enjoyed it.
I remember as a young teen, in awe of Bruce Lee, who strapped himself in an electric chair trying to build tolerance. Houdini in a straight jacket under water. Evil Knevil flying over the Grand Canyon and risking everything. The least Grandpa Zelbert could do was set his arm on fire so he could watch my face in shock. So likewise, Dad had to impress me by pulling the hot meatloaf out of the oven with his bare hands and only express a sigh afterward, with his back then turned away from me. My Dad seemed to love mowing the lawn in the hottest time of the day, especially if you suggested morning or later afternoon when it was cooler. Once he showed me a newspaper clipping from The Sentinel in the 1950s. It told of a young Dennis who, during a Goldendale high school swim team event, was competing in an underwater swim competition. He passed out from holding his breath too long but fortunately was retrieved and saved from the bottom of the pool by Pete Brokaw, along with some other kids.
As grandson of third-generation original settlers of Goldendale, he grew up in a simple farm house with no toilet until he was about 10 years old. One electrical power source dangled from the ceiling. The single-pane window was just loose enough to let in a little draft by his bed. In the winter he told me he woke up one morning and there was a pile of snow on his leg. Only seven blocks from the courthouse, the little ranch was a hard life compared to mine, but he was lucky when World War II broke out and food was rationed. He could usually count on chicken instead of Spam. They made their own soap from lye. He had names for all the animals.
Denny got up and started his paper route at 4 a.m. He talked a lot about visiting Washington, D.C., and other parts of the country when he became an Eagle Scout. He was an excellent swimmer and lifeguard. Cracked his ribs sliding into a fence, snow skiing down the Simcoes. A guard in football, his team tied first for state championship (ironically so did his son’s team and against the same town.) He was quick at short distance in track. Being ambidextrous helped on the wrestling team and in judo in college. His trumpet playing got him a music scholarship at Central Washington University, where he met and then married Twila. They made mistakes, did not always balance their checkbook, but to me they truly were the pinnacle of what a marriage should be.
Altogether he had at least 10 different careers while raising three kids, I am not going to list all the jobs, but among his favorites, I believe were: surveyor, working at the auto shop, and electromechanical engineering at J.R. Simplot in Quincy, Washington.
He worshipped the outdoors: hunting, fishing, camping. He and his father-in-law had this in common, and sometimes we all went. We had picnics with all the family. Once when he was a Scoutmaster, he sent four of us to get firewood for the campfire and schemed with one kid, who did a really great bobcat sound, to scare us back to camp. Out of breath, yet still able to tell him about the mountain lion we heard, we had no idea his concerned face was fooling us.
At the hospital, when we were finally allowed to visit, my Dad still did not seem to know pain or discomfort. He had a few serious problems plus pneumonia but smiled and joked through it all. When we were leaving the hospital, I said we will be back tomorrow. Dad said, “OK, be sure and ring the doorbell.” He laughed, and I will never forget the playful twinkle in his eyes as he spoke those last words of his long-fulfilled life.
When he passed away, I went on social media, pulled a few highlights from quotes by some of the grandkids he inspired.
Derrick: “He was a man I have always aspired to be like, a jack of all trades. Above all else he was a family man. He was always the first one to break out the camera he had at the ready. He published and wrote a book on our family genealogy based on 30 years of research and using his own DNA.”
Ben Hansen: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” —Walt Whitman.
“Grandpa and Grandma would always hold these big holiday dinners every year. He knew the power of family and held us together. You could always count on an endless amount of great childhood stories, and conversations always came so easily with him. His skills as a carpenter made the home I grew up in. Whether it was building a skateboard, working on cars, or building my PC (things we both did together), he knew how to figure it out. He was a skilled musician on the trumpet, and this love for music continues to travel through our family. As I grew up, he would often spend downtime working on his garden, landscaping, and other various projects he had in his backyard, channeling the farming lifestyle he was brought up in as a child.”
Nick: “He loved fishing in Klickitat County. He was always helpful and tried to come up with a solution or the best answer when someone around him had a problem. I don’t believe I’d be able to replace any part on my car myself if it wasn’t due to his inventiveness he taught me. He’s one of the hero figures in my life. When I was a teen, he told me a story about throwing a newspaper through a lady’s window on his paper route and going up to admit and apologize for the mistake. I’ve always been glad to and enjoy creating a well-performing vehicle, housing repair, electronics, and more, thanks to him.”
Casey: “My grandpa was a deeply good person and inspired me to want to put good into the world. He will always live in me as a profound influence who taught himself many things and accomplished more than most people I’ve known. I just can’t say enough about how amazing he was. And I hope I can be half the man he was.”