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When the laughter stops 

Ranger Rich

The laughter bounced off the walls of the small New Hampshire motel room. Across the street was Lake Winnipesaukee, where my dad and I would drive out onto the thick ice each morning in his Pontiac, cut holes, and fish for trout and salmon.

Keeping a salmon was illegal during the winter. Still, when I hauled a five-pounder through the ice and prepared to set it free, my dad pounced on it. He was a Depression guy and was not about to release any salmon dinners. So, like any normal person would do, he shoved the flopping salmon down into his pants to hide it, lurched awkwardly to the car and stashed the fish in the trunk.

At night in the motel he'd read aloud from the small local newspaper and we'd laugh until our eyeballs hurt. Stories with lead paragraphs like, "Arne Ludfahr visited his brother in Vermont last week and said he had a pretty good time."

He'd read and we'd bellow and wipe a laughter tear from an eye and then we'd laugh some more.

The laughter stopped about five years ago. The twinkle in his eye is gone. He has dementia. His world no longer includes funny.

Nick Tosches was a newspaper guy. Editor of a paper in Massachusetts for 40 years. Interviewed President John F. Kennedy.

My first job was scraping the adhesive paper off the floor of his newspaper's composing room, where stories and ads were pasted onto a page.

Newspapers. I never wanted to do anything else. I wanted to be like my dad.

Years later, when I landed a job as a writer at the Los Angeles Times, my dad came to California to see it for himself. He called it the Holy Grail. We stood in the Times' sprawling newsroom and my dad cried.

In World War II he served in Europe and the Philippines. He, like most of the Greatest Generation, did not talk about the war. Ever. But then a few years ago, with no prompting, he told of a terrible day in an alley in Italy more than six decades earlier. A German soldier emerged from a doorway. Both men raised their rifles.

"I shot first," he said, slowly. "He fell. I stood over him and saw his face. He was maybe 15. A kid. He died at my feet."

I offered something like, "You must think about that once in a while," and my dad's eyes watered and he said this: "I see his face every morning when I wake up."

When he returned from the war he was cleaning a car engine with gasoline and the fuel ignited and he was on fire, the flames tearing away at his lower legs. In the hospital he had a knockout blonde nurse. Janet Dalrymple. My mother. Last week she had her 90th birthday.

My dad was there for my baseball games and basketball games and later, when I was struggling in college in Wisconsin he got in his car, alone, and drove 950 miles to see me, stopping just once in an Indiana truck stop where he slept in the car.

He talked about life and drank beer with my college friends and me for four days and we laughed and he slipped me $100 before he left. I cried as he disappeared but after that I was OK.

Those days are long gone. My father's become confused. Uneasy. Frustrated. Dementia's been stealing him away. It's relentless.

I saw him three weeks ago. When I had to say goodbye he steadied himself against a doorway in the home he built in 1954, grabbed onto a fold of my shirt in the back and pulled me close. I kissed him on the cheek. He squeezed me tighter.

Two days later he fell in his basement. Doctors think he had a small stroke. A few days after that we put him in a nursing home. That was his absolute worst fear.

He will not go home again.

And every day now I find myself wishing that I had just one more minute with my dad.

Rich Tosches (rangerrich@csindy.com) also writes a Sunday column in the Denver Post.

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