Today is Father’s Day. Later I will travel to my daughter, son-in-law, and grandson’s house to enjoy a celebratory meal while socially distancing in this era of coronavirus. I am glad to be a father, and don’t want anything except time with the “kids”.
My father died earlier this year in January, a week before his 93rd birthday. He was buried in the middle of an ice storm in Missouri. A Merchant Marine veteran, he had a Navy honor guard play taps and fold an American Flag at the gravesite. Technically Merchant Marines were not officially military during WWII. They were employees of shipping companies. Still, they underwent the same basic training as sailors, and during the war, incurred a higher per capita casualty rate than any other branch of service, including navy, marines and army. My Dad was a fireman on a tanker hauling airplane fuel across the Atlantic to the war front. Ships like his were prime targets for German subs. He was lucky to have survived. Despite their risks and their service, however, Merchant Marines were not given the same benefits as GIs after the war—no GI Bill, no pensions. Much later after a lot of finagling in congress, however, they were given the benefit of using VA facilities, and apparently honor guards at funerals. There were bills before congress to give them pensions, but that didn’t happen. As Dad used to say: they were waiting for us to die off. Well, that happened to him. They gave me the folded-up flag.
Today there are a lot of stories about what was learned from fathers. Stories of how they took their sons fishing, for example. I don’t remember anything like that. What I do recall is apparently his idea of a good time was working on his hobby farm. Fixing fence, raising cattle, putting up hay. This was done after working all day as a construction inspector for the Missouri Highway department, and on weekends. He took me with him, and I learned how to build and repair fences, drive cattle, put up hay, and run tractors. For a while we had milk cows, and me and my brother and sister learned how to milk by hand as well. Oh, yes, and how to shovel and pitchfork manure out of the barn.
As a construction inspector he worked long hours during the summer paving season. He told the story of how one day he told his boss he was tired of working all summer and not being able to take a family vacation. With a “take this job and shove it” attitude, he decided to take some time off in the middle of summer and load up the 1959 Mercury Station Wagon and take us all on a family road trip vacation to Colorado. Before we left, he bought a car top carrier, then decided there was still not enough room. He built another homemade carrier made of angle iron and plywood, painted it white, and secured it to the front part of the roof. Now we were ready to go. Envision Clark Griswold in the movie National Lampoon’s Vacation and his lumbering station wagon, and you’d get the picture that we weren’t doing Wally World or bust, but Pike’s Peak or bust. I remember long stretches of highway across Kansas and Eastern Colorado, a trip up Pike’s Peak where we saw snow in July, and overheated brakes going downhill, which we survived by rolling into the parking lot a Santa Land. On the way home we stopped at Pierre, South Dakota, and had lunch of greasy hamburgers and fries at a café. The waitress sat down at our table and smoked a cigarette while we were eating.
One of my favorite memories of my father was his consoling me after being cut from the junior high basketball team. I was not a very good athlete and a terrible basketball player. My father had been a good basketball player in high school and played Legion baseball after the war. He was a good athlete, but not much for playing around. He preferred work. Still, his reassurance to me that I was still loved as part of the family despite my lack of athletic prowess was heartwarming.
My father outlived two wives. He didn’t expect to live as long as he did. Unfortunately, in his later years he turned mean and churlish. He would boss people around and tell them what to think and do, particularly to his children and their spouses. As he became increasingly difficult, I became increasingly insulated emotionally from him. We would talk weekly over the phone and usually the subjects were football and politics. I would shut him off if the conversation turned to criticisms of family members. I miss our conversations about football and politics. I don’t miss the other stuff.
Dad is buried now next to the graves of his two wives. He designed his own grave marker—a slab depicting his genealogy, a pedigree chart. His other hobby, besides work, was checkers (he was a champion player) and tracing his ancestry. From time to time he would send out updated versions of our ancestors to update our genealogy book he gave us. Thanks to him we know where we came from, all the way back to the original immigrant from Switzerland.
On this Father’s Day—a no Father’s Day for me—I say I miss him. Despite his flaws. But I guess that is all any of us have: our strengths and our flaws that make up the total package of our personalities. It’s what makes us human. To those of you lucky enough to be with your fathers on this day, good for you. For those whose fathers have passed, good memories.