Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Best Man I've Ever Known

In the past, my Fathers Day posts have tended to focus on my own trials and tribulations as a father. Which is OK, I suppose, as far as it goes, even if a bit more whiny and self-focused than what I really aspire to. . .

This year, though, in honor of Fathers Day, I'd like to tell you about my dad. My father has been, in many ways, the rock of my life. Mothers have come and gone for me, over the years (strange as that is to say, and I really don't mean it in any way to denigrate any of them); my family has moved from town to town, and from house to house even when we stayed in the same town; I have changed schools; friends have come and gone. But from the time I was adopted around my first birthday, my dad has been one of the few constants in my life.

As well as it being Fathers Day, his 88th birthday was this past Thursday; it has not been unusual for his birthday to fall on Fathers Day. Actually, I count myself extremely fortunate that my dad is still with me - his two brothers were 47 and 58 when they died, and his own father didn't live to see 70, either. Ever since Dad turned 70, I've been mentally preparing myself for him to leave anytime; even so, I know that when he does, it will be an utter earthquake in my life. That he is still living midway through my 50s is a blessing of the highest order.


Dad was born and raised on a farm in central Michigan, the oldest of five children - three boys, two girls. He attended a rural one-room schoolhouse (which, of course, he walked five miles through the snow just to get to, uphill both ways). Those were the days before Rural Electrification; chores were done, and so was schoolwork, by kerosene-lantern-light. Electricity didn't come to my grandpa's farm until Dad was in his teens.

By a combination of genetic endowment and abundant hard work, Dad grew into a large man - he's 6'-4" tall. When he was young, he was rail-thin - about 180 pounds or so (by the time I came into his life, he was a fair bit bigger than that) - but his 'Popeye-esque' forearms bespoke many cows milked, and a good deal more physical strength than might first meet the eye. When I was in high school, and doing weight training for football, I got pretty proud of how strong I was becoming, and so I challenged my dad to arm-wrestle. The fruit of all my training was that I could then 'hold him off' for a second or two before he slammed me. Even to this day, I don't want to arm-wrestle him; I don't think my ego could take getting slammed by an 88-year-old man.

Dad is one of those 'Greatest Generation' guys, whose lives, into their 20s, were defined by the Great Depression and World War II. As a boy growing up, my grandpa always had the farm, but there were significant stretches of time during which the family lived in a larger city about an hour away, where grandpa ran a gas station, when farming wasn't so lucrative. Eventually, even that bit of provision went away, and they returned to the farm. My aunt recalls her dad saying that, as long as they had the farm, they wouldn't go hungry.

Dad graduated from high school in 1940, part of a graduating class of eight. He went to college 20 miles from his dad's farm. He wasn't the first of his family to go to college - both his parents had attended college, although neither of them had graduated. After two years, he transferred down to the larger school which I later attended, to study Chemical Engineering.

He only completed one semester there before he was drafted, and became the lucky recipient of an all-expenses-paid trip to Europe, courtesy of the US Army. He was in an artillery unit, which was probably fortunate for him, in that he generally stayed 15-20 miles behind the front lines, and so, besides firing his own big guns, he was not often being shot at in anger. He doesn't tell many 'war stories', but he has a few about being strafed, and diving for his foxhole. And during the Battle of the Bulge, the front lines got considerably closer to his position than was usual, or comfortable.

Dad survived the war, and even stayed on after the war for two years, working for the US State Department in the post-war reconstruction. During that time, he met and married my 'first mother', returning stateside in late 1947. He finished college on the GI Bill, earning his BS degree in Chemical Engineering in 1949. I have his college yearbook, and I was amused to find among his fellow-graduates a future head basketball coach at our mutual alma mater, and a future governor of Hawaii.


The one huge, overriding lesson that my dad taught me, by example much more than by anything he ever said, was a commitment to duty, and the deep connection of duty to love. Dad always - ALWAYS - did his duty, and I came to understand that 'duty' was how my dad expressed love. He is not the most outgoing of people (although he can be 'social' when he has to), and I often longed to just sit down and engage in a relaxed, flowing conversation with him, but, with few exceptions, Dad just doesn't do 'relaxed flowing conversation'. But he has shown his love to me hundreds of times over, often as not without saying a word.

He and my 'first mother' were married for nine-plus childless years before they adopted me. Not long before she died, I had a conversation with my aunt - Dad's sister - and she told me that adopting hadn't been his idea - that his wife had dearly wanted children, but he'd been ambivalent about adopting. But, out of care and concern for his wife, he'd signed on for it, and I came into their life. A year or so later, they adopted my brother. All of which became almost bizarrely ironic after Christmas of 1964, when my mother left him, and, in the process, my brother and me. I have no idea exactly why she left him, or exactly what her grievances were. I will say that, as I've known my dad over the years, he has not always been the easiest of men to live with. But, even so, he is, at one and the same time, the best man I've ever known.

So anyway, my dad, who'd been ambivalent about adopting in the first place, was suddenly a single father to two boys. We moved out of our house on Lake Huron (which, while we'd lived there, had been a pretty good working model of heaven), to a house in town where my brother and I could look after ourselves a bit easier. For a year, we ate a lot of mac-n-cheese, and I got introduced to kippered herring; Dad was not exactly a gourmet chef.

In the finest fashion of doing his duty for us, he quickly set about finding a new mother for us (and not incidentally, I'm sure, a new wife for himself), and by the following fall, he was engaged to the woman who would be his second wife, and my-brother's-and-my 'new mother'. She was a divorcee herself, with three kids, two girls and a boy. So when they were married in early 1966 (just before my tenth birthday), Dad was suddenly the father of five children, spanning less than three years in age. Which was pretty intense right from the start, as we were all trying to figure out how to live together. To say nothing of what it was like when all five of us were teenagers at the same time.

In the next five years, Dad and Mom had two more boys together, so my dad, who might have been content to be a childless husband in the mid-50s, was, by 1970, a father of seven. Without going into brutal detail, I'll just say that blended families have a unique set of challenges all their own, and Dad, in the course of doing his duty to his new family, endured far more grief than he deserved, for trying to do right by his new wife, and seven kids. It is a testimony to his and Mom's love and perseverance that today, 44 years later, their marriage, and our family, are intact, and stronger than ever.


Dad was my baseball coach for much of my youthful 'career'. Not because he knew so much about baseball; he didn't, and the 'baseball guys' in our town tended to regard him with a certain degree of embarrassed contempt (but come on, he wasn't as dumb as they took him for, either). But, as our dad, he knew instinctively that he wanted to have his hand on our lives, and coaching our Little League teams was just obviously a really good way to do that.

He was also very solicitous of our schooling; one of my enduring memories, especially of my young childhood, was that I had all the books I ever wanted, and maybe even a few more besides. It wouldn't surprise me, though, to find out that he got into the whole baseball thing when he started thinking I was becoming too much of a sedentary nerd. . .


As my own family has grown, and I have endured the trials that come along with raising my own kids, I have come to understand and appreciate my dad in new ways. As I've coped with my own kids' troubles, it has occurred to me, many times, that Dad had endured similar stuff, and at the hands of kids who weren't even 'the fruit of his own loins'. And he did it without complaining. Honestly, I never once heard him whine about the latest outrage that one of his kids had perpetrated, or the latest of their messes that he'd had to clean up after. I am sure that he grew from the experience, and is today a kinder, gentler man than he started out being.


As I said above, my dad is the best man I've ever known - by far. His quiet strength, his patient endurance, his utter faithfulness to his duty, no matter how unpleasant, have taught me volumes. I know that I am not, nor will I ever be, even half the man he is, but if I can even get close to being half the man my dad is, I'll have done well, indeed. Happy Fathers Day, Dad. Being your son has been a privilege. . .


June 21 - A brief (OK, maybe not so brief) postscript to Fathers Day. . .

We got up to go to church, and 7M (our 12-year-old son) was complaining that he didn't feel good. Nothing specific, he just felt lousy; didn't feel like he wanted to barf, or anything, just lousy. We told him to buck up, and get through church, and he'd probably feel better. But all through the Mass, he was just kinda mopey and dish-raggy.

We got back home, and he continued to complain. I was just about to tell him to go back to bed and sleep until he felt better, when I noticed that his lips were swollen, and his eyes were puffed up like someone had inflated a balloon inside his face. Obviously, he was having some kind of allergic reaction. In the past, a couple of our kids, and I myself, have had the swollen-lips allergic thing, and we've learned that it's nothing to be trifled with - Go straight to the Emergency Room, Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200.

But, you know, it was Fathers Day, and we had a bunch of Family Stuff planned. So we gave him an antihistamine, and waited to see if the swelling would start to subside (which, honestly, is what they'd have done in the ER, anyway). It didn't, at least not immediately, so we gave him a dose of another, more potent antihistamine. When that didn't produce immediate results, we started preparing to take him to the ER.

Then I remembered that the last time I'd been to the ER with the swollen-lips thing, they gave me an Epi-Pen and told me if/when it ever happened again, to inject myself. So I rummaged around and found the Epi-Pen, and told 7M that I was gonna give him a shot to see if we could start getting this thing settled down. At which point, the young man just freaked out. You know those kids who hate the idea of a shot about a hundred times more than the shot itself? Yeah, he's one of those.

So we practically had to tie him to the chair just so we could give him the shot. And in the midst of the chaos of his screaming and thrashing, I was trying to read the instructions, and figure out how to actually make the thing work. 'Press the rubber tip against the thigh'. OK, got it. And hey, that didn't hurt at all; 7M relaxed a bit. 'Now press the plunger at the end of the pen'. OK. And a split-second later, the spring-loaded mechanism in the pen fires, with a small bang! and drives the needle half an inch into his thigh. Which startled me as much as it did 7M. But for him, it was suddenly, searingly painful, and the conniptions began all over again. 'Massage the injection site'. Gee, ya think? We finally got the boy settled down, and after 20 minutes or so, we finally noticed the swelling starting to subside.

We gathered the family around the table for Fathers Day Sunday Brunch, and had a warm time. About halfway through the brunch, 7M was groggily swaying in the breeze from all the medications we'd dumped into him, so we sent him off to bed, and he slept the rest of the day. We went in to check him several times, just to make sure he was still breathing. When he got up around 9PM to use the bathroom, the swelling was almost completely gone, and we finally relaxed.

We never did really figure out what he'd reacted to. On Saturday, he'd had a baseball practice, and we'd gone to a graduation open-house. He hadn't eaten anything unusual. The only thing we could figure was either that he'd been bitten by an insect, or that the prolonged 'outdoor time' had just exposed his system to more cottonwood (or whatever) than it could deal with, all at once.

Anyway, we're all fine now. And 7M, who seems to attract more, uh, 'stuff' from the Universe than his fair share, could hardly be blamed for quoting Gilda Radner - "it's always something. . ."


  1. What a beautiful tribute to a fine man. I share in your joy that my father is still alive as well. Have a wonderful Father's Day!

  2. Nicely done. And Happy Birthday to your Dad! You're blessed to have him, but you obviously know that.

    Hope 7M remains well :-)

  3. thanks so much for sharing such a portrait of your dad. i'm so glad you've been blessed in such a way. i'm sure you've taken many positive lessons from him to apply to your own brood. and so glad 7m is ok.

  4. Cocotte - I'm at the age where many of my friends, even younger than me, are losing their parents; so I'm well aware of how blessed I am. . .

    Suldog - Thank you, my friend.

    And 7M was well enough to go 2-for-3 with a triple (of the not-fast-enough-for-it-to-be-a-homer variety) and 4 RBI. Not that I'm inclined to brag on my kids, or anything like that. . .

    Lime - I surprise myself, a little, by how often, when I'm facing some Knotty Conundrum of Life, I'll casually wonder what Dad would do in this situation. . .