The fact is we would have married regardless. Still, asking her father’s permission, or at least sounding him out about it, seemed the thing to do. I had no reason to believe he would object, which made the conversation a little less difficult for me. And I hoped he would appreciate the gesture, born as he was in a time — the 1930s, in some ways a gentler age — when such consultations were more common. I gave him one more chance to object, months later, minutes before I made the formal proposal, the family gathered.


Ah, go for it, he said. Not in those words, exactly, but close. Recalling the dialogue with precision is a bit difficult, these near 40 years later.


I owe the U.S. Forest Service. In the mid-1970s it transferred to Arkansas from South Carolina a ranger who had been helping manage the magnificent Francis Marion National Forest. Here he would assist in developing, as a tourist attraction, the equally spectacular if subterranean marvel that is Blanchard Springs caverns. At the time it was essentially a giant empty space beneath Stone County, nestled amid the pines and oaks of the Ozark-St. Francis National Forest. The cave’s wonders, some of them, were accessible, though exploration could be treacherous even for the seasoned spelunker. The mission of the Forest Service, to include its newly arrived ranger, was to open the beauty of Blanchard to all. They succeeded. But I digress, sort of.


The ranger brought his family to Arkansas, naturally: his wife, their two sons and a daughter, settling in Russellville. The daughter, eldest of the sibling trio, arrived in sullen protest; her father’s mid-summer transfer had denied her the senior year at the high school she loved, where her friends were. She got over it. Enrolled in Arkansas Tech, got a journalism degree, entered the workforce. And we met. Thanks, U.S. Forest Service.


Now, four decades later, and four years after he became a widower, his daughter was at the long-retired ranger’s bedside, holding his hand, whispering that it was okay for him to let go. "Mother is waiting," she soothed. But he hung on, tough old buzzard. Perhaps he sensed that the Pacific Coast was aflame, and hoped he would be ordered to fly west to aid in combating the fires. He had made many such trips during 36 years in that green uniform, at times risking his life, and always his health, to fight one or another inferno. Combat duty it was, stateside. He hated the fire but savored the fight, the comradery. His appetite for the battle never diminished, his wife’s prayers for his survival were unending, while his childrens’ presumption of his safe return was ever naïve.


His battle against life’s one guarantee was nearing its end. Captive to it, hostage to the near paralyzing uncertainty that infuse a loved one’s final hours, his


family stayed within inches of him. He had somehow escaped the coronavirus that was ravaging his state like a forest fire, but there is no vaccine against, no acquired immunity from, the ailments and indignities that 87 years can inflict. He had already let go, didn’t we understand? It was not his will that refused to surrender but his neurons, commanding his lungs and diaphragm to keep working. All we could do was see to his comfort.


So, someone suggested, his favorite hymn. "Amazing Grace," played by a bagpiper, was summoned to a smartphone placed on his pillow. Someone else then proposed the "Tennessee Waltz," Patti Page’s signature song — a slo-mo, three-quarter time polka. It had played endlessly when the ranger and his bride celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. I had hoped to never again hear that dreadful oom-pah-pah, but it was their song, and that was what mattered.


Across his four score and seven years, this mattered: He was true to his faith, to the only woman he loved, to his children and their children and their children’s children. An Air Force veteran, he would salute Old Glory wherever she flew. He gave the taxpayers an honest day’s work plus an extra hour or two, and did not ask for thanks when they admired the splendid, towering trees that owed their continued existence to him and others like him, to their bravery. He paid his taxes not on time but early. If the speed limit was 70, he drove 69. He enjoyed a party, but if he was driving his last drink was always black coffee. His culinary repertoire was limited to pancakes and chili, but both were divine. He incurred few debts, and retired them all promptly.


It was what we owe him that concerns us now, in these days since he moved on, reunited with his soulmate, secure again. It is the debt we owe his example.


The Tennessee Waltz — it’s not that bad, not really. It’s kind of — beautiful.