Monday, September 05, 2011

Richard "Dick" Moffatt - A Life Well Lived

They were a couple of Vietnam vets who returned home tormented by demons from the war.

And they paid the greatest honor an old soldier like my Dad could receive when they told the audience at his memorial service that he had literally saved their lives.

But it wasn’t on the battlefield, it was here, back home in Las Cruces, where while working as a mental health counselor that my Dad was able to help them confront and control their demons.

One vet went so far as to say his anger was so deep that my Dad’s counseling not only saved his life, but that of his family also.

They were just a couple of “Dick’s Desperados,” a support group of military vets my Dad had formed in the Mesilla Valley to help each other deal with their war experiences.

Thus it was a fitting gesture that a military honor guard and his fellow soldiers were at the memorial to salute him for the selfless service that he had given his country and community.

Widow, Eleanor Moffatt, was presented a U.S. flag by two U.S. Army soldiers during Richard Moffatt's Memorial Service in Las Cruces on Aug. 27, 2011.
Richard “Dick” Moffatt died on August 3, 2011, after 83 years of rich and rewarding life during which he celebrated over 60 years of marriage, raised four good sons and found his calling in a career that allowed him to care as much as this big-hearted man could.

I was lucky to have spent several days at his bedside while he was hospitalized fighting the cancer that eventually claimed his life and discovered something only a dying man might tell his son.

“You are one of my greatest accomplishments,” he said with a wink of his eye and squeeze of his hand.

I figured he was speaking collectively, as he frequently did when talking about his four sons, making sure to never put one above the other.

But it was later that I realized just how proud he was of me, when after the memorial service one of the vets remarked about how much he spoke of his son, the journalist, and then asked, which one of us was he?

Now in the wake of his death, I see the memories of our life together, like little video clips, and realize how much he helped to shape and form me into the man I am today.

There was the trip as a teenager, by bus, from our hometown of Malden, just outside of Boston, all the way up to Mount Washington in New Hampshire, the tallest mountain on the East Coast and notorious for its nasty weather.

Dick Moffatt and his son, Karl, on a trip to Mount Washington in New Hampshire  in the early 1970s.
We made the long climb to Tuckerman’s Ravine where I sat at the base camp with only a chipmunk for company crying out for my Dad who was somewhere out on the mountain enveloped in the low hanging clouds.

Like waves, the clouds washed in and then receded, exposing for a moment the grey, misty, mountainside.

And then I heard it, a faint “Hallo” echoing in the gloom. He had made it to the top.

It was he who stoked my love for the outdoors, something that is my primary focus these days as I photograph and write about New Mexico and the West.

I got to return the favor one day when my Dad asked me to teach him how to fly fish.

There was a beautiful, little, cutthroat trout stream off the High Road to Taos that I knew of where I took him one fine day.

There I watched as Dad crept into the thick streamside brush and used a bow and arrow cast to shoot a caddis fly into a swirling pocket of water.

Then I heard him laugh as he hooked a trout.

Beaming like a kid he extended his hand to show me a beautiful, little, cutthroat, ablaze with color.

Dad would later join the local fly fishing club but soon dropped out, having failed to find the camaraderie he was seeking and lamenting the snobby, elitist, attitude of some members.

I had tried to warn him about fly fishing, that it was a solitary sport and one in which some fishing buddies didn’t necessarily make for good friends.

Dick Moffatt's fly fishing gear will see action again someday.
Dad’s heart lay more with the common man, stemming perhaps from his small-town upbringing in the hill country of Pennsylvania where at the age of 18, having just graduated from Leachburg High, he enlisted in the Army.

He was trained to be a MP, a military police officer, and was shipped overseas to serve with the occupation forces in Japan.

He spent weeks traveling the ocean on an aging troop carrier and that’s where he learned to play cards, a talent he unveiled to two of his unknowing sons one evening at the kitchen table.

He took all of our spare change in a humiliating defeat and then returned it all the next morning.

That was just the kind of guy he was.

The war era colored my Dad’s worldview and his military service proved to be a defining experience in his life.

PFC Moffatt, left, and an unidentified Army buddy, Japan 1947.
I can only wonder how much of that played a role in my own decision to enlist in the Army and serve overseas.

My Dad’s pride in that showed through later when he made a contribution to the construction of a veteran’s memorial in Las Cruces in both our names; that way two bricks, one each inscribed with our name, unit and dates of service were laid out next to each other in the pavilion.

My Dad was a sensitive man with a keen, artist’s eye.

I’m blessed to have a great big oil painting of his, depicting a thunderstorm over the western plains, hanging upon my bedroom wall.

But it was his love of photography that really stuck with me.

His family photographs are cherished records of our upbringing and a historical record that I hope will be preserved and shared with future generations.

My Dad also instilled in all of us a love of reading as he exposed us to good books, magazines and newspapers during our upbringing.

Now I can’t sleep at night unless I’ve done my reading.

He taught us all a work ethic born of the Depression era and most of our family get-togethers over the years have revolved around one form of a work party or another, whether it be painting the house, building a shed or doing some spring cleaning around his place.

Our world will be a lonelier place without him, for he was the glue that held us together.

A Moffatt family get together at the wedding of Karl and Wren Propp in  Jemez Springs, NM,  September, 2007.
He was a prolific writer, producing a very popular, weekly, “Friday Gram” for everyone on his email list and before that, yearly newsletters with notes from his trips and other goings on in his life.

They made for good reading and provided a fine historical record of our family life.

He even wrote his own obituary which can be read in the Las Cruces Sun-News at or the Pittsburgh Tribune at .

But most of all he managed to finish 18 chapters of his own book, a semi-autobiographical, wartime, account that I still haven’t summoned the courage to begin reading.

I felt that writer’s spirit when my mother, recovering from cataract surgery, had called for my help in looking through my Dad’s papers before the memorial service. We were looking for a journal of notes to his heirs and a list he had written of things he would miss when he was gone.

Like maybe buttermilk with a dash of ground black pepper, I wondered as I sat at his desk.

It was there that I felt his spirit envelope me like one of the many hugs he was so fond of giving.

And I feel that spirit in the kitchen too.

You see, my Dad was a line cook in college, at Kent State University in Ohio where he met my mother, a waitress, at the K-Shop Diner.

A Dick Moffatt self-portrait of he and his beloved wife, El.
And while we were growing up it seemed there was no meal my Dad loved to make better than breakfast.

I can remember him frying up eggs in a cast iron skillet, ladling hot bacon grease over a couple of sunnyside up eggs and watching as the clear, runny, whites bubbled up and cooked through.

Or flipping omelets, their underside a beautiful, crisp, brown with melted Velveeta cheese oozing out of the sides.

It’s my favorite meal now too.

He was a fun loving guy, a devilish flirt and possessed a great sense of humor -- traits I’ve tried to emulate with only limited success.

Dick Moffatt and son, Karl, share a laugh on a rare, snowy, Christmas Day at the family home near Dona Ana, New Mexico.
I remember when we were kids that he liked nothing better than to perch us atop his spinning barber’s stool and shave our heads until only a Mohawk remained.

Then he’d chuckle as he made us sweep up our shorn hair and called out, “next!”
The author at two sporting a Dick Moffatt Mohawk.
Once he took us all to a baseball game at Fenway Park, a long, rigorous, trip into Boston in those days, requiring numerous bus, trolley and subway transfers.

To avoid losing any of us he’d rope us all together, running the strand through our belt loops and towing us along, much to the amusement of the other riders.

At least that’s how I remember it.

And there are so many other memories that have come flooding back since he passed.

And questions that will now go unanswered.

This was my first birthday without a card from him in the mailbox and I knew then that he was really gone.

But in the end, there he was flirting with the nurses, demanding some real food and talking about how we’d get together again once he beat this thing.

We had planned on making it to the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta this year.

And somehow I think we will, Dad.

Now that he’s gone, the thing I come away with most from having known this wonderful man is that he always strived to keep himself active, engaged and informed, whether it was through his weekly coffee klatch, meeting with his vets or doing some kind of research on the Web.

And my Dad always tried to be a good, kind, compassionate man, one who put his life to good use and in which he helped his fellow man.

And if his memorial service was any indication and my memory serves me right, he succeeded in doing just that.


Carol Davis, Missouri said...

What wonderful memories you have of your dad. How happy he always looks in the pictures; I believe he was proud of you, probably all of you, and of your mom. I enjoyed reading your tribute; it was great!
Carol Davis

Anonymous said...

Karl, I only met your Dad very briefly in 2005 at his cabin up in northern N.M., but I could see in Him the very qualities you spoke of.. Sorry to hear of Your loss.. Bob the Builder...

Rob Boumel said...

Karl, I'm so sorry to hear of you're Dad's passing. I knew him, and your family, when we were next door neighbors in Malden some 40 years ago. He and your Mom had such a warm, alive home with all sorts of people coming in and out, all sorts of fun and creative ideas always being tossed about. I loved visiting. This was around the time your Dad changed careers. I was taken with his courage and confidence; to leave his traditional, well paying career and to do what he found meaningful. He knew that he'd find a way to take care of his family (his prime operative - always)and still follow his heart. I can still remember him sitting behind that big old desk he had upstairs in your Victorian home, talking about how none of that was what really mattered. After he made his move and your family left (set out), I lost track until you reconnected with me a few years ago. Readings your beautiful memorial showed me how he was truly able to walk the walk of his intentions, and make a difference to those around him. To a life well lived!

Lynn (NM Enchantment) said...

Karl, I'm so sorry for the loss of your dad. It's a wonderful tribute to him for you to share him with us. I hope all those good memories bring you peace and comfort as you grieve. You have my deepest sympathy.

Mordechai Y. Scher said...

What a privilege to have read this post. I am truly sorry to read of your loss. I pray you will have comfort in due time. You all are truly blessed, having had your dad.

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