Toastmasters Speech #6: Vocal Variety
Today I’m going to talk about my father. I will discuss two facets from his life, and one aspect after his death. That’s why I call this speech “Postcards from Heaven.”
My father, Waldo Nielsen, was named after Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was the son of two immigrants, his father from Denmank, his mother from the German Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. He married the daughter of Italian immigrants and they had three children, myself and my two younger siblings. We all lived in Rochester, New York, where Dad worked for Eastman Kodak.
I’d like to tell you first, about what happened to him during World War II; second, about his advocacy of converting abandoned railroad beds to hiking trails; and third, how he seemed to communicate after his death.
During World War II, in March 1945, my father was a sergeant in the U.S. army, leading a platoon near Hartungshof, Germany, just over the boarder with France. His platoon came under small arms fire. Bullets kicked up the dirt around them. He was hit by a bullet that passed through both of his legs. He fell. A G.I. came running across the field toward him and kaboom! went flying through the air. Dad was lying in a mine field.
He survived the night, and the next morning, rescuers started toward him. Dad stopped them and directed them to the other side of the mine field. He sat up and pushed himself to them, not knowing whether he would sit on a mine along the way. He made it. He cheated death when he was 21 years old.
Fast forward to the 1970s. My Dad loved to explore and go hiking. He realized that the beds of railroad tracks made excellent hiking and biking trails. They have gravel to keep the brush down. They are level, and they often pass through beautiful scenery. Thousands of miles of railroad tracks had been abandoned due to America’s love affair with the automobile. Dad became a leader in the rails-to-trails movement, pushing for the conversion of unused railroad tracks into hiking and biking trails. He wrote a book that mapped out unused tracks state by state, so people would be able to find them.
Fast forward again, to 1989. Dad was biking alone on the W&OD trail in Virginia, built on an abandoned railroad bed. He suffered a heart attack. He managed to get himself to an emergency medical facility, but death would not be cheated twice. He was 65 years old when he died.
At the time of Dad’s death, he and I had a great relationship, but his relationships with my brother and sister had ups and downs. In particular, my brother frequently argued with his wife, and Dad always, sometimes unfairly, took the wife’s side. My brother and I spoke at Dad’s memorial service, but my sister was too shy to speak in front of so many people, and she felt bad about that.
Fast forward four more years, to 1993. We’d all moved on with our lives. My sister had married a wonderful man, and enrolled in a public speaking course. For her last speech, she gave a eulogy to my father, telling him that despite their strained relationship, she loved him. My brother and his wife had divorced, and learned to speak civilly to each other when making plans for their two boys. Setting an example for his children, the pizza restaurant he owned began a tradition of delivering free pizza to a homeless shelter every Christmas Eve.
Meanwhile, my husband and I had moved to Japan, where he worked at the U.S. Embassy. My mother visited us, and had her mail stopped while she was away. The post office handed Mom a bag full of mail when she returned, and the last pieces she pulled out were two postcards. She called to tell me about them. Remember, she received these postcards in 1993:
“Donna, one of the postcards is postmarked October 1960, and the other, August, 1963.” Chills sped up and down my spine. Those dates were a few months before the births of my brother and sister.
“Both postcards are from Denmark, from your father’s parents.” They were long dead, but every so often my grandparents used to take an oceanliner back to Europe to visit relatives. “Each post card has a picture of storks on a rooftop. One said, ‘Just found out that one of them was going on a trip to Rochester, NY. Our best wishes for good arrival.’ The other said, ‘North or South, it is all the same, those birds are there.’ It’s the oddest thing, dear, these postcards referring to my pregnancies with your brother and sister, both arriving at the same time. Whatever could they mean?”
We decided they meant Dad’s approval of my brother and sister. In her public speech four years after Dad’s death, my sister told him she loved him. It was his way of answering, “I love you and your brother, too.”
What about Dad and me? Well, after he died, I had a dream during which I spoke to him. I asked, “Dad, you had gotten to an emergency medical facility while you were having the heart attack. Why didn’t you survive?” He replied, “Actually I was given a choice when I got here, whether to stay or return to Earth. I knew your mother was provided for by my pension and health benefits. And I looked around here and thought: what a wonderful place to explore! So I decided to stay.”
My Dad was a remarkable man, suviving a life-threatening experience during World War II, advocating for the conversion of rails to trails, and finding a way to communicate from the Beyond. At least that’s how we like to see it.