Gregory G. H. Rihn (milwaukeesfs) wrote,
Gregory G. H. Rihn

Harold E. Rihn, Sr., R.I.P.

My father, Harold E. Rihn, Sr. died Friday morning, October 7th, of acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He was 76 years old. Lengthy remembrance follows.

Dad was born in 1934, at Portage, Wisconsin, the son of two school teachers, Earl Rihn, and Emma Rihn, nee Zinke. They lived in rural Lewiston Township, until the day that a kerosene stove exploded, resulting in the deaths of his mother and younger sister, Ella. Distraught and unable to cope with raising his young son, Earl fostered Harold out to his maternal grandparents in Wisconsin Dells. When Earl remarried to a woman they did not approve of, the Zinkes, who had become attached to Harold, refused to surrender him, and Grandpa George drove Earl away at threat of fisticuffs.

Harold therefore grew up with his grandparents in the Dells. He graduated Wisconsin Dells High School, and married schoolmate Alice Lambert in 1953. They had five children, myself, Harold Jr., Teresa, Michael, and David.

Dad had a number of different jobs during his early working career. One of his earlier ones was working as an inventory clerk at Badger Ordinance Works, south of Baraboo, which made gunpowder for the Army. The first job I remember him having was as a lineman for General Telephone. I remember being taken in the car down to Madison where Dad bought Carhartt overalls and a parka for the new job. Being a lineman in a rural area was hard, and often dirty and dangerous work. I remember one night him coming home very late, soaked through, and mired to the armpits after tracing and repairing a downed line out in the boondocks. He got a lot of use out of those Carhartts eventually, but not with the phone company, since he was laid off after about eighteen months on the job. When he came home with this news was one of the few times I saw my mother cry.

The next years were not bad, although sometimes strained. Grandpa Zinke, since widowed, still lived with us, and contributed his railroad retirement pension to the household. Mama found work intermittently waitressing, cleaning hotels, or working for the school lunch program for our school, until finding a long-term job at Snow White Garments in Baraboo. Dad, having taught himself electronics through Heathkit courses, ran a TV repair shop out of our basement that ran for years alongside other enterprises, such as grocery delivery, newspaper distribution, and a wholesale egg business. Sometimes when school was out, I rode with Dad out to pick up eggs from the farmers and helped Mama sort, grade, and box them for sale to the local grocers. I guess technically we were pretty poor at times in those days, but Dad and Mama never let us know that. We had all we needed, if not all we wanted, and I blush to remember how bratty we could be about some toy or another we desired but there was no money for.

Another job Dad held for a time was as a chef at one of the area’s better restaurants. He developed excellent cooking skills, which he seldom used at home, except occasionally to make the wonderful spaghetti sauce recipe he and the other cooks worked out while he worked there.
The night hours at the supper club didn’t work well, and eventually Dad got a job at Big Joe Manufacturing, a local factory that made hydraulic lift trucks, a sort of a cross between a forklift and a handcart. Big Joe was a union shop, and working there got Dad into the International Association of Machinists (IAM). In this period, I became aware of such things as labor relations, as his tenure there included a long, bitter strike that lasted much of one winter. He also worked as a machinist for Gisholt Machine in Madison for a time.

By this time, Badger Ordinance (now Badger Army Ammunition Plant) was working full out again, supplying nitro ball powder for the M-16 rifle and solid rocket fuel for helicopter Zuni rockets, both of which were in use in the Vietnam war. Dad went back to work there, this time as an electrician, and got into the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), which he was a member of the remainder of his working life.

When BAAP went into shut-down mode, Dad endured a period of working in electrical construction, which we all pretty much hated. Not only was the work sporadic, he was often working in unheated buildings through the winter, and sometimes had to get up at 4 AM to drive snowy roads to a remote job site.

Things got better when he got a job with the State of Wisconsin, initially as one of two electricians who served the State Capitol Building. Good pay, steady work (indoors!) and benefits were all pluses. The drawback was that it was impractical for us to move to Madison, so Dad had a 50 mile each way commute. Fortunately, he found a car pool, and the hour trip was still better than construction work. One day, we met Dad at work, and he gave us a tour of the building, including the staircase up between the inner and outer shells of the Capitol dome to the absolute top of the building.

After a couple years, Dad transferred to the University of Wisconsin, which lead to some adventures of its own. Dad related working with a partner in the infamous steam tunnels under the campus, which were always hot. They came to a manhole cover and decided to come up for some air. Lifting the lid from underneath, they discovered that they had come up in the middle of the Library Mall—and also in the middle of what became know as the “Dow Chemical Riot” protesting the presence on campus of recruiters for the manufacturers of napalm. Police were chasing protesters every which way, and tear gas was bursting all around. They closed the lid and beat it out of there underground as fast as they could.

By the time I began college at Madison, Dad was based at the University Hospital and Laboratories, doing Electrical Safety and Electronic repair. He oversaw the installation and safe connection of some of the most advanced medical and research equipment, and undoubtedly saved many lives and prevented many injuries by his work. This was the job he held until he took early retirement due to disability related to the back injuries he had suffered in his work.

But there was more to his life than work. In his younger days, Dad was quite athletic. He lettered in Track in high school. (Grandma Zinke forbade him to play football, which she thought was too violent.) He was an avid bodybuilder and weightlifter. This was one of a number of enthusiasms we did not share: I found repetitive physical exercise tedious and boring, and still do. I also wasn’t interested in electronics. Dad had hopes that I might go into engineering instead of the liberal arts, but I didn’t care for math that much.

There were other hobbies we did share, such as model planes (although he preferred flying models, and I preferred plastic display models). Whatever Dad did, he tended to do in a big way. When I asked for a pet hamster, Dad got two, and then proceeded to breed them, which ended with us giving away a dozen or so before that experiment ended. The ten-gallon tropical fish tank I requested for a birthday grew into fourteen tanks ranging in size from fifty to five gallons, holding hundreds of fish. One of the better joint projects was the slot car layout, which grew to take up a third of the basement and was a magnet for neighborhood kids as well as the family. Another interest we did share was shooting. Dad was a life member of the NRA, and for several years an organizer of their local banquets.

One thing we did NOT share was politics, and we had some spirited arguments over my refusal to support conservative candidates solely due to their stance on gun rights.

Dad was a very intelligent man, and had a great capacity for self-teaching. There was very little he set out to do that he didn’t accomplish. Besides electricity and electronics, he did his own home remodeling and repair, including plumbing, laying concrete, installing a new furnace and complete new ducting, replacing the roof, and residing the house. He knew auto mechanics and body work and rebuilt a number of cars he had bought as “totaled”, some of which he sold, and some of which we drove. He taught himself to weld and had his own arc welder, which he used to build hamster cages, which were later recycled as fish tank stands. He dabbled in wood carving, photography, leather tooling, and knew how to play a few tunes on the guitar. He liked music, but didn’t go out of his way to listen to it. I don’t think he ever went to a play or a concert unless out of duty because one of us kids was in it. When younger, he had a record collection and enjoyed going to the movies, but in later years, with access to just about anything he wanted on cable, television became his major recreation. Like all of us, he was a reader, and in fact turned me on to science fiction, but he became disillusioned with it in the “New Wave” period and stuck to mysteries and “thrillers” after that. He never understood my fascination with fantasy literature, costuming, or attending science fiction conventions.

Dad knew what he knew very well, but also had the American working man’s disdain for what he didn’t know. While I was still practicing law, we had vociferous arguments about legal principles, with the fact that I was the one with the law degree and was actually working in the field carrying absolutely no weight.

Harold and Alice enjoyed vacationing by motor home, and were able to visit a good part of the lower 48 states before they became unable to travel. I would like to report that they enjoyed a happy and healthy retirement, but unfortunately that isn’t the case. Mama was incapacitated by strokes shortly after retiring, and Dad became her caregiver until he himself became too feeble to look after her. This resulted in a number of bitter arguments between Dad and we children about Mama’s care. Understandably, the two of them wanted to stay together and in the home they had shared since their marriage, but as this grew increasingly impractical and dangerous, we got more insistent, and Dad got more and more stubborn, until finally a terribly cold February caused him to capitulate and move both of them to a nursing home where they’ve been reasonably safe and well cared for, and miserably unhappy, ever since.

If a tree is known by its fruit, then Harold E. Rihn, Sr. was a good man and a good father, despite his faults. Of five children, now all over fifty, all five are alive and in decent health. We all have professional jobs, which we’ve managed to hang onto in these hard times. None of us has been in jail or a mental hospital. There is no history of drug addiction or alcoholism. We all have intact first marriages, four of the five of more than twenty years duration. How many other families can say as much?
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