My Dad and I

Posted: August 21, 2018 in Family, Inspiration, Life, Parenting, Things I Love
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Note: I know some people don’t understand how I can write about the personal life experiences that are often the subject of my writing. I understand not everyone is comfortable opening up about such things. However, writing and articulating my thoughts is therapeutic for me. It helps me, and I’ve also been told by others that it has helped them on occasion. That said, if it bothers you go ahead and hit that back button up there. Totally your call.

As some of you know I lost my Dad on August 13th. What follows are some memories of one of the most amazing men I’ve ever known . . .

Some of my fondest and earliest memories of my Dad involved sports. Dad was a great athlete who pitched for Ohio University and once outdueled the future major leaguer Harvey Haddix in a game when Dad was just 16-years old. Haddix went on the be a 3-time Major League All-Star who once threw 12 perfect innings in a game that is considered by many to be the best pitching performance in major league history.

So yeah, Dad was good.

I can recall many times where Dad and I were out in the driveway shooting hoops. He even had a light installed, and our house hosted many a late night game with a bunch of local kids participating.

We also played catch in the front yard on a thousand warm summer evenings after dinner. Dad would be the catcher as I pitched, giving me pointers as we threw back and forth. I’ll never forget those evenings.

I recall Dad and Uncle Myrl or Uncle Paul loading up 6 or 7 of their kids and assorted friends in the back of a pickup and driving us to Cincinnati to a Reds baseball game or a Royals basketball game. Somebody would inevitably lose a shoe or hat, and it’s a damn miracle somebody didn’t get shoved over the side of the truck bed on Columbia Parkway. Hell, today a parent would be arrested for transporting kids like that.

Note: You’d be amazed how cold it could get going 70 mph at 1:00am on an August morning in the back of a 1963 Chevy C20.

They’d also take us to Ohio State football and basketball games, and even the old Columbus Checkers hockey games.

Sports was a huge part of my life, all because of Dad. But sports weren’t everything. There was much more.

Back when I was little, Dad was a smoker. It was the winter of ’60 or ’61, maybe even ’59, I don’t really remember. I just recall it was winter because there was a fire in our fireplace. It was in the evening, and I climbed up on Dad’s lap as he sat by the fire burnin’ a Lucky Strike. At one point I reached up and tried to grab his cigarette, because hey, I was a kid. I got my hand slapped, and it was then the following conversation took place:

Dad: “Hey, what are you doing? Stop it.
Me: “I want to try it!”
Dad: “You can’t. You’re too young and besides, cigarettes are bad for you.
Me: “Then why are you smoking one?”

And really, that was all it took. At that point Dad paused, looked at the cigarette in his hand, and flipped it into the fireplace.

And he never smoked another cigarette in his life.

I asked him about this recently, and he too remembered that evening. He told me he just didn’t feel he could justify smoking while at the same time telling me how bad it was for you. So he quit to prove a point, on the spot, for himself but mainly for me. And guess what? Although I’ve had a cigar or two in my day, I never took up smoking.

Dad was one of the toughest people I ever knew. When I was around 14 he was sharpening the lawnmower blades in our driveway as I watched. He had the push mower tilted on its side and was using a wrench to tighten the bolts that held the blades on. As I watched, the wrench slipped and his hand was sliced by the blade. He then grabbed his wrist, held up his hand to have a look, and there was his thumb basically hanging by some skin. You could see the bone and everything. As I stared in horror, Dad calmly said this:

“I probably need this looked at. Nobody else is here so you’re going to have to drive me to the hospital.”

Wait. What? First of all, “probably”? Second of all, I was 14. And the emergency squad was not an option for Dad, man. Couldn’t appear weak to the locals, ya know. Next thing I knew I was driving the old 1967 Buick Sport Wagon at a brisk pace to the ER. Oh, we did have to stop 4 or 5 times so Dad could wring the blood out of the towel that was wrapped around his hand, but somehow we made it safely.

And what did we do after Dad’s thumb was attached back to his hand? We went home and mowed the damn yard, of course.

Dad also had a pretty wicked sense of humor, something that a lot of people didn’t realize. Once he and Mom had installed an electric fence on their property, and I pulled in just as they were finishing up. I was probably 18. Dad was standing by the fence and Mom was doing something a couple hundred feet away. I asked Dad if it was working and he said yes but they hadn’t turned it on yet. At that point I absent-mindedly reached down to touch it and got the living hell shocked out of me. After I screamed like a cat on fire, Dad yelled this:

MOM! It works! I KNEW he’d touch it!”

This was followed by a maniacal laugh.

Yep, Dad had used his only son to see if the electric fence was working, and he thought it was hysterical.

Another time Dad had a friend at his house and they were building something in his workshop. I happened to walk by and the friend asked if I was going to help. Dad said, “Are you kidding me? Dave thinks Manual Labor is the president of Mexico.”

Real funny, Dad.

Dad was really a man ahead of his time in a lot of ways. He was a strong Democrat, albeit a conservative one, but he was pretty liberal for his time regarding civil rights. I remember driving in the south on vacation around 1961 or thereabouts and Dad pointing out to all the kids how terrible it was to have segregated bathrooms. He would often say this loudly, right in front of gas station and restaurant owners. I remember once we’d all gotten out to stretch our legs at a little store and had loaded back up in the car, only to have Dad come back and get me. He took me around back where the words, “WHITES ONLY” was painted on the bathroom door. Beside the door was a sign that said “COLOREDS” with an arrow pointing down a small hill in the woods. Dad took me down a path and showed me a log bench with a hole cut in the middle of it, which was used by African-Americans as a toilet. I was shocked and confused, which was the whole point of him taking me there. My father had followed the arrow, gone down to explore, was disgusted, and thought it was something I needed to see.

And to this day the image is still burned into my mind.

Another time we had an African-American kid move into our school from Detroit, I think around my 3rd or 4th grade year. Bourneville, Ohio wasn’t the most racially diverse area in the world, and I hadn’t heard the n-word in my life. The day this kid walked in my classroom that changed, as I heard some other kids whispering it at recess. Later that evening Dad was sitting in his recliner reading the paper when I casually walked by and informed him that we had a new kid in my class, a ****** from Detroit. In the next instant Dad had risen from his chair, given me a swift kick in the ass, and was looming over me:

“You will NEVER use that word again, do you hear me? It’s a a bad, bad word!

Then, as he pointed to his chest, he said this:

“You judge a person by what’s in HERE, not by their color, whether they’re a man or a woman or anything else.”

Got it, Dad. Crystal clear. And since that day I’ve tried my very best to do just that.

I can still recall the first time I saw Dad cry. I can remember the exact day because it was Friday, November 22nd, 1963. I got home from school, and I can’t remember if Dad had come home from work early or it happened after he got home a little later. Anyway, I’d been outside playing and walked in to see Dad looking at the television. They were talking about the Kennedy assassination a few hours prior and were showing photos of Jackie and the Kennedy children. I saw that Dad’s eyes were watery, and then he wiped them with his shirtsleeve and just got up and walked outside. That made a big impact one me, seeing my father showing (for him) what was a lot of emotion.

I’ve written about my Dad on this site before, including the time he wouldn’t let me quit Cub Scouts and when he taught my very difficult Junior Achievement class at school. Click on those links for some more insight on my father.

My Dad and I didn’t have the best of relationships during my middle years, and it was mainly my fault. I was a rebellious, stupid kid. Oh, I was fine until I was 13-14 years old, but then things went sideways. Dad was a tough, old school parent. We fought over the length of my hair, how I dressed, and a million other things.

This continued for years. It was more often than not an awkward, difficult relationship. I knew he loved me but I never really saw evidence of it. He certainly never told me. There were no hugs, no proclamations of love, none of that soft stuff from Dad. I realized later of course that it was a generational thing. Guys like Dad who grew up during the Great Depression wanted to make their sons tough. This meant being hard on you, and by showering love upon you made you weak. He was trying to prepare me for the future, and it wasn’t until I was older that I realized this.

And I wasn’t the only kid with a father like that. Many young men my age had fathers who were very similar. Not all, but many. For me, all this would change later in life, but trust me when I say that from the age of about 14 to 28 Dad and I could barely be in the same room together.

One day I ran into one of Dad’s friends, one of the guys in a group that Dad met at McDonalds every morning for breakfast. He mentioned that Dad had talked about me one day and I said, “Uh-oh. I bet that was interesting. What did he have to say?” The guy replied, “Are you kidding? He never stops telling us how proud he is of you.”

I was shocked. Dad, proud of me?

It was then I realized how he really felt, but coming from his background he just didn’t vocalize it to me.

As for the grandkids, great grandkids, kids at church or any other kid Dad met in his life, they have absolutely no idea of this side of him. As my son Kip put it, “Growing up, I always heard stories about Pap and his tough love but that was not the man I knew. He was slow to anger and quick to tell you he loved you.

And Kip is absolutely right. For a couple generations removed it was different. And our situation wasn’t unique. Many people my age will recount the exact same experiences between themselves, their parents and their children.

So yes, the truth is that Dad and I had an up-and-down relationship over the years. Those early years were great and full of amazing memories. The middle years were a little tougher, as I was trying to find my way and decide what I wanted to do with my life. Looking back I totally understand why my father was frustrated with me. As a father I’d have felt the same way. Thankfully I figured out what I wanted to do with my life, got at least a little grounded, and things between us improved a lot. We still hadn’t had that breakthrough though, and I was pretty sure I’d have to be content with a friendly, yet not really close relationship.

But as Dad advanced in age and started to slow down, things began to change. Cracks started to develop in those old walls. I think we both sort of realized it wasn’t worth it. Maybe he knew he didn’t have a lot of time left, I’m not sure.

Then at one point about a year ago we were sitting on his front deck, overlooking the lake. I’d began asking him questions about WWII because I was trying to keep his mind sharp and I’d read where stuff like that helped. He was telling a funny story and started laughing, I mean really laughing, and I soon joined in. I suddenly realized that I’d never really laughed with Dad like that, that we’d never opened up together so much before. It seems like such a simple thing but believe me, it was not.

When I left later and fully realized what had happened, it hit me really hard. A wave of emotion came over me, and I rest my head on the steering wheel and cried. We’d just been laughing and talking just like regular guys.

Like friends.

So yeah, in the end we came to an understanding, patched up and healed old wounds, and made up for a lot of lost time.

And on one of his last days, as I said goodbye before leaving his bedside, he told me he loved me.

I guess the point is no matter how hopeless things may seem, how entrenched some behavior may feel, it’s never too late for change, never too late to make things right. Somehow, someway, Dad and I figured it out.

And I’ll be forever grateful that we did.

Comments
  1. Colin Kelley says:

    You have a writing gift. I think your dad would have approved of this article. Very touching.

  2. karencoey says:

    I too had a dad like this..I loved him dearly…He was born 12-14- 1917 It must have been a generational thing ..Thanks for walking me down memory lane.

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