Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Distinction between "Role" and "Model"

Tomorrow is Father's Day.  I am not a father.  At this point in my life I have serious doubts I'll ever become a father.  This is disappointing.  Not only because having a wife and family was one of those things I wanted as I became an adult, or at least one of those things I thought I should have.  But also because I believe I would have made a good father.  I think this because I had a pretty good example of my own while growing up.  
My dad grew up in Arkansas, near a town called Ozark.  Same name as the mountains there.  His family was "the richest family on the poor side of town," as he once told me.  They got through the depression by raising their own food and selling the meat from the pigs they raised.  
He joined the marines when he was eighteen.  He did a Mediterranean tour and a Pacific tour.  He was stationed in Lebanon for a time, having landed there after the Muslims in the Lebanese army revolted in the mid-50's.  He described riding with ammunition convoys south to the Israeli border while Israel was fighting Egypt in the Suez.  These were illegal arms transfers by the way.  I don't think he'll get in trouble for it at this point.  
He was also stationed at the top of Mt. Fuji in Japan once, when the Marines operated a communication outpost there back in the 50's.  And he was stationed in Okinawa, which he described as his favorite station of all those he was assigned to.  Maybe that's where I got my interest in Japan from.  
He made staff sergeant by the end of his four-year term.  Ask anyone who knows and they'll tell you that was an impressive feat.  
He stayed in California after he got out of the service.  He met my mom at a party in Pasadena, in an apartment building that is less than a five minute walk from where I'm typing this right now, at the corner of Del Mar and Marengo.  His friend lived there.  My mom came with some of her friends.  Every time I drive by that apartment building on my way to the freeway to go to work, I shake my head at the coincidences one meets in life.  
For a time he was really into playing golf.  He taught me how to play.  Or...  Maybe it's more accurate to say that he kept telling me what I should be doing, and I kept getting mad at his pestering me with unwanted advice.  He's more into bowling now.  A few years ago he bowled a perfect game, a 300.  It made the papers in the town where he lives in Arkansas with my mom.  He's got a ring from the National Bowling Association to commemorate it.  
All of these are facts.  True things about my father.  But none of them tell you about how he was as a father.  This will...
My dad drove a truck for a living when I was eighteen.  He had lost his job as a supervisor of a paper mill a few years earlier.  Driving the truck was the best job he could find.  He had driven a truck for a time after leaving the service, so he had experience.  He didn't like the job though.  He described it as "dirty, tiring work."  When I asked him if it was really that bad, he had me drive along with him on a short run.  It felt like being strapped to the blade of a blender.  You kept shaking even after the truck was stopped.  When I told him I didn't want to do that again, he nodded and said, "Good."  
The worst part about the job, he once told me, was that it kept him away from the family, sometimes two, three days at a time.  But work was work, as he taught me, and a person had to make a living.  So he drove the truck and gave it his best.  
It was in June, 1979, that I graduated from High School.  My graduation ceremony was set for the first Saturday in June.  The Wednesday before, Dad got a call from work.  Someone called in sick.  They needed him to drive a truck north, make a switch switch in Northern California with another driver coming down from Oregon, and drive that other truck back.  
"You're gonna make it back in time?" I asked him, referring to my graduation.  
"Yeah," he nodded as he gathered up his thermos and his logbook.  "I should be back sometime Friday."  
On Friday, though, we called us from the road.  Turns out that whoever was supposed to meet him in California had called in sick, too.  He now had to take the truck he had driven there to the place where it was supposed to be taken, in Oregon.  He'd pick up the truck the guy he was supposed to me was supposed to bring, then he'd bring that truck all the way back to where it was supposed to go down here.  
"Are you gonna make back by Saturday," I heard Mom ask.  "I dunno," she said he said. 
"I'm gonna try, though."  She also said he sounded tired.  
It was while I was getting dressed in my suit Saturday morning that I heard him come through the door.  I went to see him.  He looked pretty whipped.  Exhausted.  There were grease and oil spots and other sorts of grime covering his clothing.  He staggered past on his way to the bedroom.  
"I'm supposed to be there by 11:30," I said to his retreating back.  "Are you going to be able to make it?"  
"Dunno...  Tired... Drove all night..."  I could barely make out what he said as he headed down the hallway to his and mom's bedroom.  
I nodded.  I had been bracing myself for something like this.  I told myself that it wasn't his fault.  He was working hard for all our sakes.  That was important.  Right?  Mom hustled me back to my room.  I finished changing.  I yelled down the hall toward their bedroom door that I was leaving.  When no answer came, I went outside and got into my car and drove to the school. 
My mood improved after I joined my friends at school.  Everyone was in high spirits.  I was able to forget about my dad not being able to make it.  A school chum of mine, a guy named McNamara, who was just ahead of me in the graduation line, made up a walking game for when we headed down the aisle to our seats, walking in step with each other in time to a cadence we counted out.  
Parents arrived.  We got our caps and gowns on.  McNamara and I played our little walking game and we ended up creating a big gap ahead of us, and backing up everyone else behind.  We had to hustle to our chairs when we saw that.  Speeches were made.  Prayers were prayed.  Finally, our names were being called off.  At the sound of my name, I stepped on to the podium to my left, shook the hand of Father O'Laughlin, our school's principal, took my diploma and stepped off to my right.  
That's when I spotted him.  My dad was standing amongst the other parents that came late, at the far side of the podium.  He was all cleaned up and shaved.  He was wearing his best suit.  He was grinning at me from ear to ear.  
I felt an indescribable something inside me.  To call it "happy" would be to demean the feeling.  It was a very, very good feeling though.  It brings a tear to my eyes as I remember that moment, even now, after all these years.  
I got to my seat.  More speeches.  We stood and threw our caps in the air.  I tracked mine down and got it back.  I found my dad amongst the crowd.  He gave me a big hug and told me, "congratulations."  He said he'd meet me back at home.  
I have other memorable moments concerning my father.  When I got home that same day with some friends of mine, dad offered us all beers.  We all looked at each other, wondering if it was a set-up.  One on friends took him up on it and got a beer right from our refrigerator.  He sat and talked with us and told us stuff he'd experienced growing up that I'd never heard before.  
I think it was fifteen years or so later, visiting my folks, that I got drunk with my dad for the first time.  He stopped at the liquor store on the way home after picking me up from the airport and bought several bottles of wine.  We sat together until 2 AM arguing about all sorts of things, finishing off most of what he bought.  Just before I stood up to stagger off to bed he said, "I can't remember what the hell we were arguing about, but I KNOW I'm right!"  
He once sent me a check, out of nowhere, for two thousand dollars.  When I called and asked him what it was for, he told me it was because I had never asked him for help after leaving home and figured he ought to send me something.  
There are other memories.  But my favorite one is him showing up at graduation, when I knew just how dog-tired he was, and saw him there not showing a lick of it.  It's also the reason why I think I would have been a good father, had I been given the chance.  
There are things one has to do in life, and there are things you NEED to do.  Knowing the difference is what makes a man a father.  
Happy Father's Day, Dad!  


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