It’s Father’s Day today, so let me tell you about my dad. Like most people who have lived to my age, there’s a lot I don’t remember before I was 4 or 5, and there’s a lot of things I get confused over as to exactly when they happened. I don’t know if that’s universal, but it’s something I’ve noticed in myself. So please forgive me if things seem strange or I ramble.
My Dad. One of the first things that comes to mind is going to something that was called “Indian Guides” in a neighbor’s basement. This was something for kids who weren’t even old enough yet to be Cub Scouts. We wore headbands and did cool things like wood burning, and it was (as you can see from the badge to the left) specifically designed for fathers and sons. Each of us took an “Indian” name. I think (though I’m not sure, and I did check with my brother, who was also there, on this) that one of us was White Eagle and the other was Black Eagle. What I do feel reasonably sure about was that my dad was Bald Eagle. If you ever met my dad, who now well into his 80s, still has his hair, you’d get the joke. But I digress.
The next thing I remember is going to Cub Scouts, which seemed to me less about learning to do things and more about holding an endless stream of “Derby” events. There was the Pinewood Derby (of course); the Space Derby (for which we built propeller-powered rockets that zipped along a wire stretched across the school gymnasium) and the something-or-other regatta. I remember the Space Derby best (because rockets?); Dad worked, at my direction, to fashion the rocket out of what was, essentially, a pointy balsawood tube. In those days (as it is still) fathers did most of the cutting and shaping. And painting! My rocket had the coolest cockpit windows! But I also remember that Dad, who loved the water, knew that there had to come a time when I learned to do things for myself, and so he let me shape my own balsa boat for the Regatta (he advised, but I shaped it against his advice, and he let me).
We built lots of stuff together. While go-carts (strictly gravity-powered, usually with far too many nail points poking into the interior) were the province of my brother and I once we learned to use a hammer, everything else I learned from my dad. Together we built rockets (the first ones launched with a piece of fuse—very spectacular), airplanes (the one that sticks in my mind is Lancer—a balsa frame covered in tissue paper, later treated with dope. The construction was so light that a rubber band could make it go just about forever). He taught me to solder and bolt and screw things together, to hammer (see above) and saw. I watched him fix pipes in our basement, and from that gained the confidence (perhaps foolishly) to do some of my own black-pipe work. He had this wonderful book of “projects for boys” that my brother and I were totally in awe of. I don’t think we ever even contemplated building any of those projects, but they had inspired him, and they inspired us.
My dad bought me The Model Rocketeer’s Handbook. He bought me bikes—the blue Schwinn, the gold Columbia, the brown Schwinn and—finally and most memorably—the blue Raleigh that carried me through college and into adulthood. He supported my ham radio hobby, not only buying me gear that—in retrospect—was scandalously expensive, but in helping to put up not only wires across the side yard but a massive 40-foot wide beam antenna on a ten-foot tower on top of our house. He put up with me abandoning classic music for rock, and paid for a number of my guitars. I remember going to B Sharp with him around ’79 when he bought me a 50-watt Peavey amp.
He bought me lots of stuff. That amp, the ham radio gear, my first computer, a car. I’ve been embarrassed many times about how much I owe to my dad financially, and the sacrifices he and Mom have made on my behalf. But I will not deny that Dad has made my life much, much easier than it would otherwise have been.
When I decided to change religions in high school, he was angry and hurt, but he didn’t turn away from me. He let me learn and make (many) of my own mistakes. And he watched out for me when I did stupid stuff. Sometimes, being watched-out-for was embarrassing, but I’m glad he was there.
When I was diagnosed with diabetes in 1971, it was thanks to him and my mom that I didn’t wind up in a hospital, like so many. They recognized what was happening to me, and got me taken care of. Because in those days the regime was to mix short- and long-acting insulin and adjust the dose based on that mixture (typically a 30/70 mix), he found a source for sealed ampules so that I could mix my insulin a week at a time, instead of having to mix it in the syringe each time I took a shot.
My folks drove me down to Chicago for graduate school, and I remember the look of concern on Dad’s face as we drove east along 63rd street, looking at the desolation. I remember him helping me move into my room in International House—I had brought zillions and zillions of books, and he helped get those up to the 7th floor and shelve them.
Dad was and is a great photographer. The walls of the house I share with my spouse and youngest child are covered with beautiful prints of some of his finest work. And there are a few of mine there, too, because my dad presented me, on (if I recall correctly) my 22nd birthday with a gorgeous, compact, Rollei 35 camera. I never developed his eye, but I had a lot of fun with that camera before it was stolen a little over a year later. Dad went with me to pick out its replacement, an all-manual Nikon. But it was Dad and that Rollei that taught me to love photography.
My dad, like all dads, likes to give advice. Is it always good? Nope. But on balance, on the whole it’s been good and comforting. It’s nice to know there’s someone out there ahead of you who has Gone Through Things before.
We haven’t always gotten along. Like (I suspect) most fathers and sons, we have fought like cats and dogs. Over religion, politics (though we’re reasonably aligned there), his stupidity, my stupidity, the best way to do things. But my dad gave me the confidence to know that I could do things, that I could change the world and not merely be changed by the world. From Penrod to Jules Verne. We watched Sesame Street and the Watergate hearings together.
So many memories. So very many. And of course, I haven’t scratched more than the surface here. Fireworks, camping the cross-country family death march, resident fish, trips to Gettysburg and Seattle, our cat, exploring France and Italy and sharing Calvados and Raclette…
Some people aren’t fortunate enough to have fathers in more than a biological sense. Others are estranged, or have lost theirs to time or illness or misfortune. I’m happy to say that I still have mine, and while I cannot thank him enough for all he has done for me and for my family, I hope that I can live in a way that honors him, today, and into the future.
So I’d like to hark back to that basement, more than half a century ago, and thank my dad. I’m old now, a father and grandfather myself. And I love my dad, and I’d like to think that—in spite of all the arguments and conflicts we’ve had over the years—the motto of the Indian Guides still rings true:
“Father and Son, pals forever.”