MEMORIAL SERVICE: Due to the covid surge, we will hold a memorial service and celebration of Dad’s life in April. Details later. Thank you for your well wishes.
Here is a little tribute that daughter Kate wrote a couple days before Dad died.
Found out that my almost 93-year-old Dad is in his last hours. He is not eating and has to be prodded to drink. We thought Dad would live to be a hundred and it is just hard to sit and think of him passing. He has the best of at-home care and has lived a full life, but it is never easy.
Dad will die in the house where he was born in Glen Rock, New Jersey. My grandma gave birth to him in a downstairs bedroom in 1929. He was an only child of the Depression, lightly built with blue eyes, high cheekbones, light skin and curly hair. I remember my mother complaining in the mid-sixties that they had to buy his trousers in the young men’s department to accommodate his narrow waist. Couldn’t pinch an inch on Dad. In an era when football players were the hot dudes, Ridgewood High School recruited Dad for the pole vault. He also played judo and taught fencing in his thirties.
Dad’s enthusiasms would wax and wane, but my sister Liz, my mother Marion, and I were always pulled in the tractor beam of his latest obsession. When I was around six or seven, it was figure skating. Olympic champion Peggy Flemming’s photo adorned the walls of my bedroom. Dad took lessons at Friz Dietl’s rink in Westwood, NJ, every Friday night and learned to do a single Lutz. Mom sewed matching skating outfits for Liz and me with kerchiefs that tied at the throat. Not Miss Flemming, I would cling to the railing for most of the night, only stepping out into traffic during the closing minutes when my courage had warmed up for an hour or more. What a chicken. Dad would practice his figures and execute his Lutz wearing a gray lamb’s wool hat that made him look like a dashing cossak.
In the late sixties, the focus turned to Jean Claude Killy and skiing. Santa brought us long skis and leather boots with new-fangled buckles instead of laces and bindings that were impossible to close. Big sister Liz was a fearless skier. I carved careful turns down the hill, but to my mind, skiing was much more fun than skating. Dad kept his skis together in parallel, which was the hip way to go back then. The family skied until we kids outgrew our equipment.
Then we had a dog era where we trained and showed our bloodhound, Boris. Dad bought a Karmann Ghia ragtop in British racing green for my mother and we surely turned heads driving to school with the top down and Boris the Hor-is sitting in the back seat with his jowls flapping in the breeze and spittle flying; Mom with her cat-eyed sixties sunglasses and white bandana looking like a poor man’s Grace Kelly. Soon after, Liz was in middle school and we were outgrowing weekend activities with our parents.
Weaponry was a theme that ran through Dad’s entire life.There was the .22 caliber rifle he carried as a kid to eliminate rats in the chicken coop. (No chicken coop in the yard by the time we were born.) And then, cannons were the obsession; brass cannons Dad would turn on a huge lathe in the basement. I loved the curls of metal that piled up underneath. He was always polishing something, smoking his pipe, and leaving bits of sandpaper, oily handkerchiefs, and squares of paper with puddles of epoxy and a matchstick for mixing on the side table in the living room. Over the years, Dad made almost a dozen working cannons that were exact replicas of Revolutionary War and Civil War models.The Revolutionary War cannons were pretty decorative. Each rivet was perfect. Our bloodhound (don’t get me started) ate the water bucket from one and Dad had to make a replacement. Good thing because Dad gave that cannon to John and me for a wedding present. In Glen Rock, we had mortars and cannonades to protect the books on the bookshelves. I now host two of Dad’s cannons in my living room and I wonder if visitors find it disconcerting to have barrels aimed at their shins.
My Mom and I loved to tell the story of the Fourth of July celebration where Dad was about to set off one of his masterworks and my mother told our neighbor kid Nancy, who was probably only four, to hold her ears. And she did. She pinched her little ear lobes with her two hands and waited for the big bang.
Then there was the time, maybe the same year, when a cop car cruised down our street just as Dad lit the barrel. The wadding of kleenex and grass exploded out with a deafening KA-BOOM. Thinking he was under attack, the unwitting cop drove his cruiser right up the curb. Surrounded by neighborhood kids dressed in red white and blue, my parents had to explain their patriotic duties to the officer. Of course, Mr. Seaton got away with firing a cannon into a suburban street in New Jersey while surrounded by little children because Dad was Dad and all the cops knew him. He had lived in that house since 1929.
Then came the knife period. Dad made knives–I mean he forged them out of steel on a plain barbeque grill out back and whaled away at hunks of molten metal with an expertly guided hammer to make gorgeous blades from scratch. They had ebony and bone handles and decorative silver inlays and custom-sewn sheaths. I picked out a Scottish model that one would hide in one’s boot. You never know when you might need a really sharp knife. He later did his forging in a masonry grill that he built with stones that he and our neighbor Mr. Myers nicked from the parking lot of the local Policeman’s Athletic Club.
Oh, and speaking of our neighbor Mr. Myers, Dad forged two frog spears–yes, spears for piercing frogs–that he fitted over wooden poles so he and Mr. Myers could go out hunting in a local swamp. The canny hunter Jim had noticed the throaty mating calls of prey, and ripe for a big game experience, he and Mr. Myers commenced the hunt, Why? To eat grenouille of course. Dad would clean the legs and Mom would wrap and freeze them until we had enough for a feast with lemon and butter. I was a wimpy eater and wouldn’t touch food that twitched as it was cooked, even with parental assurance that it tasted something like chicken. And I wouldn’t eat the turtle soup she made from the snapping turtle either. The shell of that lost tortuga hangs in my parents’ beach house.
Then every kid in our commuting suburb had a Dad who forged boar spears and taught them how to squat and hold firm during the charge. And we can’t forget the working crossbow with wooden inlays that portrayed a medieval Swiss hunting scene. Didn’t every kid get to go into the woods by the railroad tracks and shoot crossbow bolts into maple trees? Or weave monkey nets? That later.
During this early period, Dad had a second Saturday job working for the Tonkin brothers at Continental Arms, a high-end gun dealer that had its offices above the Gucci store on Fifth Avenue. Dad did custom work for sheiks and others who required pearl hand grips on their pistols or a custom feature for their rifle. He made and renovated gun stocks and filled shells for deer hunting. Dad would take off in mid-winter clad in a huge Eddie Bauer parka armed with Hershey bars we kids had saved from Halloween. He never killed a deer though. We always thought he was less interested in killing the deer and more interested in just getting away and camping. Mom and Dad used to shoot woodchucks for farmers and skeet for sport. Guns were a part of our lives. He kept a loaded rifle in their bedroom just in case. We were told to never ever touch a gun. And we didn't.
Whether in Montauk or in Glen Rock, Dad was the best friend of the neighbors with plumbing or home fix-it problems. The elderly ladies’ friend would unclog and replace parts and accept nothing in return except their thanks. Dad made copper weathervanes in the shape of whales and gave one away as a gift. Or he would give away a knife that he had spent a couple months making to a friend. People encouraged him to sell what he had made, but he had no interest in selling. The idea of having money was attractive, but devoting his time to making money held no interest.
Dad’s stern father taught him how to build things. Being a childhood stutterer and a bit of a loner, Dad developed the skills of a master woodworker, smithy, and welder over years of trial and error. If something didn’t work, he did it over again. For example, he built an entire working steam engine for his first model boat, but made it to the wrong scale. Didn’t make that mistake again. He built the whole thing all over again to the proper scale.
His creations during my later high school and college years were indeed watercraft: working models of such high caliber that his first tugboat won Best in Show in New York and his first sailboat won Best Sailboat in the same show. Those early models were nothing compared to the World War I gun boat he later built to scale from Navy plans with a working steam engine and exposed plank framing. Or the whaling brig Kate Corey. You gotta see this model ship to believe it. Mom would stitch the sails on her sewing machine.
The Seaton family didn’t have a lot of money, but Dad always kept a real boat as well. We had a little motor boat on Greenwood Lake, then in the late seventies, Dad got his second ocean-going craft, a 31-foot Bertram (with the prized older model hull) that we would take out on the open ocean off Montauk to catch stripers. Dad studied and got his captain’s license, which is no small feat for an amateur seaman. Mom would drive the Dutch-Ess (since her nickname was Dutch and she was Dutch Seaton with an S) and monitor the fish finder. Cappy Jim would bait hooks and do everything else. My young family would arrive out there and enjoy fishing as if we were paying customers on a party boat. We did nothing except enjoy catching fish. Dad would clean the boat and filet the fish when he got back. Mom would cook them.
Those two were like Click and Clack. When it got too hard to carry the luggage and groceries upstairs to the deck, Dad rigged an engine with pulleys to hoist their stuff up to the second floor. It looked something akin to a chopper rescuing a drowning person. When he wanted to service the bottom of the boat or a propeller, he built a working diving helmet and respirator from scratch. I remember him draping sheets of fabric dipped in a gooey plastic material onto a mold to make the fiberglass helmet. He had the mouthpiece chromed. Always something to do and a way to do it.
Another Dad thing was kite flying, only we would fly kites from the roof of the house. Liz and I would be up there on the second-story asphalt roof in our Keds holding a fishing reel with a steel line that enabled the kite to fly so high it appeared as a tiny speck. I would never allow my kids to pitter patter around the peaked roof with a fishing rod, but I guess we made it to adulthood in one piece. Dad told us as teenagers if we ever wanted to do drugs, instead, he would take us skydiving.
Through example, Mom and Dad taught us we could make almost anything. They made a single-story doll house with a roof that lifted off. Those two brought the Christmas tree up the stairs only after we were asleep on Christmas Eve. They decorated the tree quietly as we slept a few feet away. The big morning would arrive and the lit tree and wrapped presents would appear as if by magic. Many of our Christmas photos are of Jim and Marion napping on my grandmother’s sofa. One time they were late buying a tree and Dad filled in the empty places on the straggler by drilling holes in the trunk and inserting extra branches. Now, we do the same if our trees need a little boost.
As I grew up, I learned to buy things instead of always making things myself, but as a child who grew up with How to Survive on Land and Sea in the magazine rack–in the bathroom that all four of us shared–I can say that if I had to survive on land and sea, I could make a go of it.
I forgot to mention Dad’s sculpture period and his painted wooden birds. It all sounds nuts in retrospect, but that’s the way it was.
Eventually, Dad, who had been a plumber when I was little, worked for Rutgers University in Newark for the cognitive and animal behavior Ph.Ds in the psych department. He made prototypes they used in experiments. Dad was a bit of an odd duck in that environment; a Republican, early middle-aged family man without a college diploma in a world of left-leaning psychologists during the roaring seventies. Commuting during that period couldn’t have been easy, but at Rutgers, he had his independence, earned a state pension, and exercised his creativity. He built machines that made glow-in-the-dark circles move at a certain pace, and chairs that would spin at a certain RPM, and a compass that could draw spirals. He wove monkey nets and built snake habitats for the animal behavior guys. Newark could be a dangerous place back then for a slender white guy in a Bronco. Conveniently, Dad kept a huge Bowie knife he had made on the car floor at his feet and would pull it out and rest the bare blade on the steering wheel if anyone approached. He was a bit of a drama queen.
Dad still had the stutter when he met my mother. Mutual friends introduced them when he was 21 and Mom was 16. A dentist’s daughter and another only child, Mom had grown up on the right side of the tracks in comfortable circumstances. Her father graduated first in his class from dental school and was as straight as they come. He quoted Virgil while carving turkey at Christmas dinner. Mom’s mother “Nanny” was a Skidmore graduate who in many respects was the skinny woman’s alternative to Dad’s creative whirlwind; only she favored lapidary, jewelry making, calligraphy, and plant breeding. That’s how she won her blue ribbons. They did newspaper features on her all the time. My mother didn’t follow that path: she just married a guy with the same creative drive.
Mom got straight A’s, studied Latin and French, and was a chemistry major at Skidmore College. She fell deeply in love with this shy, older suitor named Jim Seaton who offered few real prospects for a comfortable life. She said the only impression she had of him when friends introduced her was that he owned an enormous Great Dane named Ace. Nothing like a little chemistry. They stayed together for more than sixty years; sometimes happy, sometimes mildly contentious. Not sure my maternal grandparents ever got over it.
Dad joined the National Guard to avoid Korea and lost his stutter by bellowing out orders on the drilling field. He was not a man of great words, but one of many idiosyncratic, local achievements. I’m so grateful to have been around to witness it all: the triumph of getting his miniature bilge pump to actually pump the liquid in his Scotch and water, shaving his arm to demonstrate the sharpness of his new blade, or the retrospective the town held in his honor at the Glen Rock Public Library in 2007 that featured all of Dad’s work. It was so heartening to see other men listening intently as he answered questions about his stuff. Mom looked beautiful and ten years younger that night.
Now Glen Rock’s longest resident is slowly giving up his life.
The can-do attitude of my folks is the greatest gift they left to me and my sister. Thank you Dad. Thank you Mom.
To send flowers to the family or plant a tree in memory of James A Seaton, please visit our floral store.