The last few years of my father’s life were rocky.
Unlike my mother, who nearly made it to 103 with nothing physically wrong with her, my father, pushing 78, had checked off several of the major disease group boxes: colon cancer, prostate cancer, a new heart valve, a coronary bypass, just to hit the highlights. He was not happy and was afraid of death. His condition and his reaction to it made him tough to be around. Crabby does not do it justice, miserable is more like it. For years after his death my views of him were colored by his final days.
I am happy to report that, without trying very hard, I have completely rehabilitated his reputation and now continue to unearth memories that bring a smile to my face. I think it has something to do with our three grandkids. I inherited adult stepchildren and never did the fatherhood thing. Watching our grandkids grow up and the delicate dance of parenting made me appreciate how good a dad my father was. Yes, he was the disciplinarian and would take out a belt or a shoe after my mother ratted me out for excessive sassing and backtalk. He didn’t hit very hard as I recall and seemed to enjoy it in a playful way as I look back on these episodes from the safe and comfortable vantage point of 70 years, though as a kid I found no humor in getting whacked.
Some of the restorative memories are typical for many dads and sons, I suppose. Like field trips. Growing up outside St. Louis, we traveled to New Salem, Ill. where Abraham Lincoln grew up in a crude wooden cabin, or to Springfield, Ill. to the gracious home he occupied after getting into politics. No upbringing in the Midwest would be complete without a jaunt to Hannibal, Mo., Mark Twain’s boyhood home, to see Tom Sawyer’s white wooden fence and the cave from Twain’s classic novel.
And of course there were the motor trips to Nebraska to visit the grandparents on their farms. My father was a good driver and even a better emcee for the games we would play in the car to relieve the tedium. Like for many middleclass families in the 1950s the mandatory motor trip, pre-Interstates, to Florida was a real adventure, particularly when we passed by a chain gang in the South in their black-and-white uniforms. St. Augustine and Ft. Myers Beach were exotic places where we played in the water that stretched as far as the eye could see. My father was a jaunty cheerleader on these excursions, cracking jokes and making us laugh.
My brother, three years older, morphed into a serious student and football player. He had little use for me unless, as a center, he needed someone to catch his practice long snaps, invariably absent any conversation.
My father pulled his weight in the Boy Scout troop where I aspired to nothing and was drummed out after Bruce Koewing and I left early from an overnight camp-out without telling anyone. I think we were literally drummed out by some drummers drumming. My father didn’t seem to pay much attention to this reckless act.
He took me fishing. Not at any nearby lake but to one of the gigantic man-made lakes near Arkansas, Bull Shoals and Table Rock. Broiling in an aluminum boat, languidly tossing artificial lures to entice a bluegill or a smallmouth bass seemed to be the height of father/son bonding. Over the years we probably caught eight fish. But I became an expert at casting the practice lure in the backyard. I could drop one softly into your front pocket from 20 yards away. Or so the memories say.
With my brother out of the picture, my father and I dove into making a short-wave radio and some hi-fi gear from kits. I can smell the aroma of melting solder as we speak. Going literally above and beyond, my father strung up a house-long antenna in the attic for the radio. This allowed me to pull in English broadcasts from Montreal, Moscow, Mexico City and places around the world, including a particularly clear signal from Brazzaville in the then Belgian Congo. It seems impossible to rationalize the moment I chucked that radio and all its memories, but I did.
During the Vietnam War, I was maniacally pursued by my draft board and decided to go after a slot in the Navy Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I. I hadn’t really discussed my military plans with my parents, and when I told my father my decision, he said he was proud of me, mainly, I suppose, since I had probably avoided slogging through the jungles of Southeast Asia.
Then, he said, “Let’s have a drink.” He was always good about that sort of thing.