This father’s day I want to tell you about my dad. Now, why should you read yet another blog about someone else’s dad? I can’t answer that, and to be honest, I don’t need to. This particular blog is not about you or me. I invite you to read along, though, so you can learn about a great man. Over the years, I have called him Daddy, Dad and Pops, though I never addressed him by his most deserving title: Father.
I’ve known my dad my whole life, but as I sit here smoking my father’s pipe and trying to decide what to write, it occurs to me how little I know OF my father. Most of what I do know I have learned from my mother and from observation over the years. My father has not been the most open person I’ve known; getting him to open up about his past has been like pulling teeth. I’m not saying he refused to talk—well he refused some topics; Viet Nam for example—but it is more like he just didn’t like talking about himself. Perhaps it was that quietness that lent to the air of authority he projected when I was growing up. Somehow, I knew he would have the answer to any questions I could ask.
His authority was reinforced by his role as disciplinarian. Many was the time I would hear my mother say “wait till your father gets home,” and I knew that would mean a spanking or at least a firm talking to. He wore a Mason ring and I felt that ring on the back on my head more than once. He also had this way of glaring that could wither and quiet the rowdiest of children. He used that glare to emphasize his point in conversation as well, and that point was not quickly forgotten.
I can only assume he developed this authority in his career in the Army, where he served as a transportation officer from before my birth until 1977. My earliest memories are of life on a military post; trips to the commissary for groceries, the PX for clothes and such and to the base swimming pool. A lot of my childhood activities were with other Army brats in the scouts or Pee Wee athletics. We attended base family activites as well. I remember when we were stationed in Fort Eustis Virginia, my dad’s unit played this game called Hash (at least I think it was called hash) where one person would start running through the woods leaving a trail and then everyone would take off after him trying to catch him—kind of a grown-up game of hide-and-seek. The men would play Hash and the women would socialize and the kids would stay with the mothers and play kid’s games. It was during one of these Hash activities that I had my first experience with beer. I saw the men all drinking it and I wanted a taste. Of course, my parents both refused at first, but after repeated pestering on my part, my dad finally relented and gave me a sip. The taste scarred me enough to keep me from trying it again until my late teen years. I like to think he planned it that way.
One day, while we were stationed at Fort Polk, Louisiana, my dad took me to work with him. I had no clue what my dad did for the army, only that he was gone to work before I got up and he got home just before dinner. I am not sure of my exact age, but it had to be between the ages of seven and ten. I remember him giving me a stack of paper to draw on to keep my occupied while he worked. He introduced me around to his co-workers, though I had no idea of any hierarchy at the time so I didn’t know if they were working FOR him or WITH him. I think I assumed that he was the boss. He did try to explain the rank structure, but it didn’t sink in. I remember he introduced me to an older man and that person asked if I was his son. My dad looked at him as if he had asked if I was human. “Just look at him,” dad had said. “He looks just like me. Who else could he be?”
Being in the army meant deployments—which meant long periods without him in our daily life. Fortunately there were not too many of these, but Viet Nam was a big one. We were living in North Little Rock during his last deployment and my mother worked hard to take care of my siblings and me by herself. Fortunately, she had Granny living nearby as a support structure and we spent a lot of time between our house and hers. My mother bought a cassette tape recorder so we could send him recording of our messages since we had not learned to write yet—at least not well anyway. I remember mom patiently holding the microphone while I tried to think of something to say. I drew a blank and could not think of anything to say to a box. She let the tape roll for a few seconds while I struggled, then she stopped it and rewound it and cued it back up. She encouraged me to say something again, and I tried hard to think of something—anything. When she pressed record again, I opened my mouth and was really going to say something intelligent, but “Blah blah blah” was all that would come out. I laughed nervously until I saw the aggravation on mom’s face. I don’t remember if I ever said anything for that tape. I wish I could remember. I wish I had said something significant. Somehow I doubt I did.
I remember when he came back from Viet Nam, we were all excited to see him, but for some reason, mom took him into the living room and closed the door behind them. We waited impatiently and it was several minutes later when they came into the den and we could all jump on him and welcome him home in our own energetic way.
In 1977 he left the Army just as I was becoming a teenager, and we relocated to Houston. Like most teens, my teen years became less about family and all about me. I was discovering my own interests and my sense of identity. One of these hobbies I was cultivating was model rocketry. I asked for and was given as a birthday gift an Estes model rocketry kit. I dived into this kit with a passion nearing obsession (it would be the first of many times I over-did a hobby). On the day I was ready to launch the rocket, my dad and I went to the empty field near our home and I set up the launch pad. I asked him to setup the igniter and he fumbled with it for a few minutes and it occurred to me that he didn’t know how to do it. I was taken aback. No—I was stunned. My dad didn’t know something? How could this be? He knew EVERYTHING. I recovered from my surprise and showed him how to hook it up and we spent the rest of the afternoon launching the rocket. It was a fun time and a pleasant memory, but it is colored by that one realization: my dad was not infallible. I was 13 at the time and lucky in that I enjoyed 13 years basking in the glow of a perfect father. Most kids come to this realization way too young these days.
I remember my dad letting me sit in his lap to steer the car, he let me shift the gears in our 1972 Pinto and he took me for my driver’s test. He regularly attended my athletic events (which consisted of my sitting on the bench for most of the time). He was a dad, and more to the point, he was my dad. He listened to me on the few occasions I was willing to talk about my troubles (which was not nearly often enough—my fault, not his). He tried to counsel me during my first divorce, he tried to counsel me during my time in the Army. Like most stupid young people, I realized too late the benefits of my father’s counsel.
Why am I going over these memories? Because I am the only one who can now. My father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s several years ago. Last year was the last time he acted like he recognized anyone. He can no longer access the memories I have shared here. I cannot ask him to tell me stories of his youth. I cannot ask him for advice. I cannot communicate with him. All I can do is record my memories so my children and my grandchildren can get this barest of glimpses of the man who brought me into the world.
Take every opportunity to learn about your parents while you can. Time is precious and our memory fleeting. Cherished history should be recorded and shared. In these stories, our fathers can live on in the memories of our children. And to my Father, I love you and I miss you.