In Memory of Karl Mahonen loving father, husband and grandfather
May 13th 1945 – August 2nd 2021
My brother and I have decided not to have a public ceremony or service for our father and only a private family ceremony will be held. He preferred to keep things simple, so we believe this would be in accordance with his wishes. However, I'm writing down a few things that I feel should be shared about the man he was. I am going to try and make this as truthful and heartfelt as I can. Our father would have appreciated the former and gagged heartily at the latter.
Our father did not have the easiest life. He was born in 1945 in Leominster, Massachusetts. His mother was one of the kindest, most giving women you could hope to meet. His father was an artist and tailor, but since he unexpectedly died when my father was only sixteen, no one living in our family knows much else about him. Because of that, he had to support his mother for a period of time until she was able to go back to work. To do so, he worked full time (nights and weekends) while continuing to attend high school. After graduating high school, he worked his way through college pursuing a degree in chemistry at Rensselaer Polytechnic. After his junior year of college, he ran out of money and took a year off to work and save. At the end of that year, he re-enrolled at Rensselaer; but due to his year out of school, he was drafted into the Army for the Vietnam war shortly after re-enrolling.
After basic training, he was selected for the infantry, then he was "volunteered" for the Non-Commissioned Officer’s (NCO) Academy. Somewhere along the way, he was also trained as a mortar specialist. He went over to Vietnam for a single tour as an "E5", the lowest rank of sergeant (the exact title escapes me... sorry Dad). This should have placed him in charge of a single fire team within his platoon, but due to a huge shortage of officers and NCOs, he had command of his entire platoon for most of his tour. He was awarded several bronze stars for his service and returned home after his tour.
He talked freely about his time in Vietnam and I know the war had a profound effect on him in a number of ways. His feelings about it were complex. He went because he was more afraid of what people would think of him if he didn't go, than he was about dying. He later looked back on that view as ridiculous given the shameful way he was treated by many when he returned. I know he lost all trust in our government following the war. But like I said, his feelings about it were more complex than that. When I was barely old enough to understand what a draft was, I recall asking him what they did to you if you refused to go and he told me, "don't worry about that, I'll kill you first if you ever do that". Yet, some years later he said he would take my brother and I to Canada if there was ever another draft. I think he meant both statements. He was proud of his service, of having done his duty and simultaneously couldn't bear the thought of his sons enduring the things he had to endure. I know he was proud of those he served with; and even in a certain limited way, he was proud of what our country was attempting (however poorly) to accomplish. If you told him we lost the war, he'd get a bit offended and tell you we accomplished certain objectives, declared victory and went home.
One thing he was very clear on was how he viewed his responsibilities during his tour. He told us that he felt his primary duty was to keep those serving under him alive. When he first arrived, he walked "point" (first man in-line when proceeding through the jungle, and the most at risk) every day for six months (half his tour), because he didn't feel he could ask another man to do something he had not done. He took pride in the fact that under his watch, everyone in his platoon who got wounded made it to a medical evac alive. He wasn't always informed what happened to them afterwards but felt good about at least being able to get them that far. These were not things my father ever bragged about, just things that came out over time. He never talked about his commendations once that I can recall. He told me once that "people go to war for any number of different reasons, but once they get there that all becomes bull$#!%". He said that "you fight to keep the man next to you alive, because he's doing the same for you" (yes, you'll hear the exact sentiment almost word for word in Black Hawk Down, so it must be a commonly held view amongst American soldiers). Anyway, I've always thought that simultaneously one of the most beautiful and ironic sentiments I've ever heard; and probably the one that best expressed the way he talked about his service.
When my father returned from the war he re-enrolled in Rensselaer and finished getting his degree in chemistry. He took an overload of courses to finish in one year (he had to make up for the ones he failed during his first three years... too much partying). Everything "seemed so easy when you weren't being shot at" he told me. After that he worked as a chemist for a few different companies, eventually moving out west to Oregon. He met and married my mother Debra there, and I came along some time after (...we won't get into just how long after). After I was born, he and my mother moved back east to Leominster, where my brother Nathan was born. They later divorced and he eventually married his current wife Sharon.
I don't know all the companies my father worked for in the first half of his career, but he spent the better part of his working career (30 years or so) with California Paint Products in Cambridge who make paint and a wide array of recreational products (running tracks, tennis courts, etc.). He worked there as the lead chemist for most of his time until he retired. Few people love their work, but my father found his work interesting and engaging enough that he said he “wouldn’t retire until he didn’t find his work fun anymore”, which eventually happened, but not until his mid-seventies. Like everything he did, he took a lot of pride in his work. I worked a couple summers there during college and know that he was well liked and respected by everyone in both the factory and the lab.
If you knew our father at all, you knew that when he wasn't at work he was engaged in his hobbies. He had a lot, and if you knew him outside of work and you're not family, it's probably through one of his hobbies. Later in life I think his love of fishing took first place amongst his hobbies and he was able to make some truly awesome fishing trips to Alaska with some friends. How he pursued his hobbies is what always impressed me the most. He made a study of everything he took an interest in, whether it was a practical skill, sport, or purely academic subject; reading about whatever it was, the practice of it, history of it, and any technology behind it. He had a lifelong love of history itself and that found its way into his other pursuits. He also soaked up knowledge like a sponge and could teach himself new skills in a way few others I have met can. When he was younger, he never hired anyone to work on his car or house (or anything else, for that matter). He'd just go get a book and figure it out. Similarly, when he wanted to learn to type, he got a teaching program, swore at the computer for a week, and learned to type. When he wanted to learn to program in C++, he got a book, swore at the computer for a week, and was typing code for work the next week. He told me any number of times that the most important thing to learn was how to teach yourself. I have some small successes in that regard, I am happy to say, but will forever feel completely incompetent compared to my father.
My father would often speak in a very humble diction and was often crass (if not outright vulgar) for kicks. Yet he could be extremely articulate when he wanted and unleash an absurdly wide vocabulary at will. When he was younger he read a wide range of fiction and poetry (that one may shock a few). He could quote Shakespeare, Kipling, and various classical works at length. He could also quote from the Bible at length and would read it at night sometimes (he was rather private about his religion so I can't add much on that account). He was, simply put, the single most competent and widely read person I have ever met.
I save for last the aspect of his life where I knew him best. He was not a perfect father, but he was a phenomenal one. It was the part of his life that he cared most about and the responsibility he took most seriously. He was a hard-ass (not going to bleep that one out). If you've seen That Seventies Show, Red Foreman is a close approximation (though with more hair... sorry Dad, couldn't resist). As a young child, I never took my continued existence for granted. I truly believed there was a point I might one day push him to where he would in fact "take me out". He was extremely demanding and had one hell of a temper. He had no tolerance for excuses. As a result of the way he raised me I'm rather independent, have a strongly ingrained sense of responsibility, and hold myself to a high standard in any important thing I do (even if I don't always meet it). I don't say these things to brag. These are gifts from my father, and I can't think of a more valuable gift for a parent to pass on to their children. I would have appreciated them being passed on a little more gently and patiently... but hey, no one gets parenthood perfect. I wish I could have said these things to him when he was around, but we just weren't that way with each other, and I didn't have the strength to break that mold before he passed.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. It's something I needed to write for closure, not something he would have wanted written (sorry again Dad). But on the other hand, not many people knew him well, and certainly very few knew more than one or two sides of him, so I felt compelled to share. He was an impressive man, and the world is a less impressive place without him. We love him and will miss him very much.
August 3rd, 2021
Karl’s remains are being cremated and his ashes will be spread in accordance with his wishes. A marker has also been requested for him at Massachusetts Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Winchendon, Massachusetts. He is survived by his wife Sharon, two sons Chris and Nathan, two wonderful daughters in-law Wendy and Charline whom he treated as if they were his own daughters, and four beautiful grandchildren Lily, Elaina, Benjamin and Lyla whom he loved to spoil endlessly. The Mahonen Family asks that in lieu of flowers, people make a donation to a local veterans support charity.
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