by John Borel
Tell me about a complicated man
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
When he wrecked the holy town of Troy
And where he went and who he met, the pain
He suffered in the storms at sea, and how
He worked to save his life and bring his men
Perhaps because I have recently returned from Greece, where our democratic institutions and our western civilization were born, I harken back to the fundamentals of our society. And I feel that Arnold Borel understood and lived those basics — of fair play, equality, decency, citizen’s rights, freedom of religion and the press, freedom to assemble and to protest.
I think of Dad as a heroic figure from a time of the past. The son of an immigrant, he had to work as a youth to support his family in Erie, Pennsylvania; his family, who had been cheated out of their furniture business. He fought and won medals in the Great War, but at home in this country he had to avoid conversing in the family’s native tongue, German, because of jingoistic prejudice. Once he was nearly attacked on a public trolley. In Europe, he went AWOL to visit relatives in Switzerland, where he had memories of a wine so fine it could not travel out of its town.
After the war, he joined the westward movement in America and migrated to Montana to work in the mines and go to college. He arrived in Butte, worked in the copper mines while earning an Engineering Mining degree and starring on the School of Mines football team. When he died, Butte columnist Frank Quinn wrote that his death recalled “one of the finest combinations to play football in Butte. Borel, 200 pounds or better, played tackle. Alongside him was the late Gene Havey, who as an end weighed 138 pounds. There was never a tougher combination to get around than that of Borel and Havey. Both were all-state in collegiate play at the Mines in 1922-23. Edward Shea, who played with Borel, Havey and others in “22 said: “Borel was a great lineman—probably the greatest the School of Mines ever had. He also exemplified the highest attributes of sportsmanship.” Once, working deep in the mine, he saved his own life by running first, without looking up to see what was happening, when a co-worker yelled out an alarm of a cave-in.
Working as a mining engineer, research engineer, shift boss and assistant mining foreman, he could look forward to a promising career in the industry, until he defied management and went on strike in support of workers, losing his job and his career ladder opportunities. He went on to work as an engineer on the Fort Peck dam project. And he married a sweet and smart Montana girl named Mary and raised a family of seven healthy, intelligent and good looking children, during and after the Great Depression and World War II. During the war he traveled widely in his work for the Federal Government as he analyzed ore stockpiles for the war effort. He bravely drove his car between Coquille, where we were living, to Arcata where we would move, without lights the entire dangerous coastal highway because of the blackout. In Arcata, he always brought home a gift for the little ones at home, and he would toss his hat in the door for his waiting and faithful wife. He took me to see the manganese ore he was stockpiling for the government.
As a lifelong agnostic, he yet exemplified strong moral values and had great intellectual respect for the religious life. He had intellectual curiosity, and I remember long discussions over theology with thoughtful Father Kelly and fiery Father O’Connor. On Sundays, he would stay at home and make pancakes using his own sourdough recipe.
He was a man of ideas and pursued theoretical and controversial economic theories about Capitalism. As a Technocracy advocate and member, he thought money was a cause of evil. He once embarrassed beautiful and cheeky sister May when he pontificated to her college class at Humboldt State. In the 1950s in San Francisco, I remember he decried the wasteful use of automobiles, one person to a car. He converted to Catholicism in his last years, principally to please mother, or at least so I thought.
What is this country I have come to now?
Are all the people wild and violent
Or good, hospitable and god-fearing?
He was a lifelong gold prospector. He would take some family members up into the coastal range to prospect for gold, and he filled seven vials with gold, one for each of his strong and healthy children. But mother just thought the nuggets glistened and put them in her window after he had died. Where they might be seen and stolen by strangers. And strong and wise brother Gene saved them and put them aside.
He once took baby brother and family builder Bill on a trip as a child, and he accidentally left him at a strange house where no one lived. No one in the car realized fearless Bill was gone until some time had passed. Mistakes like that were rare for the great man; it is well known that he never lost anyone permanently.
He took me into the Siskiyou mountains to the town of Cecilville, with its wide open spaces, big sky country, few roads and fewer cabins. We visited a hermit, someone he knew about, who lived in a miner’s cabin with no running water and only an outhouse, pots and pans and kitchen ware hanging from the walls. But this grizzled old hermit with a long gray beard and scraggly hair, had current editions of the New York Times and other literary publications on the tables of this rustic cabin, and they talked long into the night after I had gone to sleep. There were no people to be seen or heard for miles, but that Saturday night he took me to a barn for a country dance that was filled to the rafters with people and music; country people came out of the woodwork. As Dad might have said, “Ye Gods and Little Fishhooks.”
What was the life I remember of this great man? Only snippets from my own experience. He took us down to “Our Beach” in Arcata on Sundays, once chased for miles by loyal dog Whitey, who refused to be left at home. He called our wise and much-loved mom “The Missus” to people he met on the street. He saved beautiful and shy sister Joan at the swimming hole when kids tossed her off the raft, and she couldn’t swim. “Save the Old Man,,” everyone yelled, as he put her on his shoulder and instead of going to shallow water, headed into the deep. Of course, he couldn’t see where he was going. He took us to friendly Madge Buck’s cabin in the mountains, but he was mortified when he thought she, who owned a liquor store, saw him coming out of a competing liquor store with some wine. He didn’t drink ordinarily, but we had wine at holidays — even the kids — and he preferred port. His favorite music was Rossini’s William Tell Overture (The Lone Ranger). He played cribbage along with other family card games, and he is one of the few humans who had a 29 hand (but he lost the game.) He once played cribbage with crafty son-in-law Mark and got terribly drunk on the wine they drank. It was a baby-sitting event. He was an inventor — he created a chart for scoring football games real-time, long before the media developed their systems. He taught manners —like don’t put your foot on the sofa to tie your shoes, and go to the bathroom if you have gas. On occasions he would drive the carload of family members from Arcata down to Garberville to play and swim amongst the beloved redwood trees, where we learned by swimming underwater. He honored brilliant and adventurous sister Ann with accolades for her bravery in entering the service and marrying brilliant son-in-law Harry.
I don’t recall any corporal punishment, although I got some kind of licking once for being in the wrong field nearby and thereby disobeying some orders. But one doesn’t remember these things, does one?
No man can plan and talk like you,
And I am known among the Gods for insight and craftiness.
Athena to Odysseus, The Odyssey
I only knew him as an older man, but I think he was a bit of a rogue in his youth.
I only knew him in his mature years, including when he retired to work in the Arcata Post Office. I worked with him in the post office during my college years, and it paid my way through Humboldt State and the University of California.
He got support from a former classmate, I believe, a wealthy Mr. Werlihy, for a final great adventure, to find gold in Venezuela. Little is known about the travails and tortures and near-death experiences he faced, but the venture failed. He returned home, like Odysseus, and reunited with our true and faithful mother and his worried family after a long year of absence, during which she had had to go to work as a private nurse to help support the family.
Listen to me my friend,
Despite our grief,
We do not know where
Darkness lives, nor dawn,
Nor where the sun shines
Upon the world,
Goes underneath the earth,
Nor where it rises.
I was in Afghanistan in the Peace Corps when he died. He had “hardening of the arteries” in his last years. I was traveling in India on a monthlong adventure of third-class train rides, alighting in Delhi. I went to the hostel frequented by the Peace Corps, and I was met there by a Peace Corps friend from Afghanistan who told me my father was dying, and the Peace Corps had bought me an air ticket to return home. How anyone would know I was going to arrive there, let alone go to the hostel and bring me an airplane ticket, I would never know. But my true friend said I should cut off my beard, and he sent me on my way. I went through Singapore and Tokyo, and when I arrived in San Francisco, my famous and wisest sibling, my magnificent and powerful, all-knowing sister Mary, herself a pilot, had arranged for a good friend to fly his private plane to San Francisco and pick me up. As the plane approached Red Bluff, my great and true brother-in-law Joe saw it and met me at the airport. I arrived at my father’s bedside just before he died.
Odysseus was glad to go to sleep,
After his long adventures
On that bed
Surrounded by the rustling of the porch.
July 19, 2018
©2o18 John Borel