Sunday, June 19, 2016

Father's Day Reflections

I have on occasion written about my dad here in ye old blog, but for Father's Day I am inclined to record a few more in-depth thoughts about him. Last week, he would have celebrated his 86th birthday. Fair warning — this will probably be long, and it is mainly for my own edification and perhaps for any readers who knew Dad. I might mention that it's a hot, muggy day, and I wish I was at the beach. From the time I was 18 until my mid 30s, we owned a time-share unit at Regency Towers in Myrtle Beach, SC, and our assigned period was the third week in June, which usually encompassed Dad's birthday and/or Father's Day. I always looked forward to going, particularly when I was in my 20s because, well, it was the beach, and there were lots of young women to chase after (though I can't say I was all that good at catching them). But it became a tradition of special family time, for relaxation and togetherness. The good old days, those were. And though cynics will always tell you there was never any such thing, it's all subjective. To me, the good old days were when the people I loved most were still alive. So many are gone now.

Dad came from a family of meager means, but he was smarter than a whip and dedicated to building a comfortable life for himself and his family. For 30 years, he worked for Dupont, mostly in Martinsville, VA, where I grew up. He had simple tastes and was pretty frugal, but he was sometimes known to splurge on the family, especially around Christmastime. For weeks before the holiday, right up through Christmas Eve, he'd often have to "run up the street" to pick up something he'd thought of for my brother and me. He did enjoy his shopping, and he was a bargain hunter. If he bought something but saw it cheaper somewhere else, he'd turn right around, return the item, get his money back, and go purchase it at the better price. (This could sometimes be frustrating for us young 'uns when we just wanted to go back home.) His main indulgence for himself came in the form of a couple of Ford Mustang convertibles, one a 67 model (pale yellow with a black top), the other a 72 (fire-engine red with a black top). I learned how to drive in that 72 Mustang, and Mom used to quip that Dad wanted to be buried in that car. It didn't last that long, but he did keep that car until sometime in the late 1980s.

His favorite avocation was stamp collecting. He had a massive collection of postage stamps from all over the world, and in the late 60s or early 70s, he started a stamp business called Virginia Stamp Exchange, which became quite lucrative for him. As an adolescent, I took a brief shine to the activity, but it wasn't one of those that lasted. Still, I knew enough about it that, in my late teens, he paid me some small wages to help him out with it when the business overwhelmed him.

Dad loved his golf. He wasn't exactly a great player, but for years he golfed with a regular bunch of gentlemen at Forest Park Country Club, and when I was a teenager, I took up the game and spent many weekends on the course with him and his cronies. Now, at home, he rarely uttered language stronger than "Dadgummit!" or "Friggit!" but on the course, he could sure let some words fly. Most of the epithets I currently use for bad drivers and other annoying assholes I learned from Dad on the golf course.

Now, Dad was generally a patient man — to a point. Once you passed that point, you needed to watch out. He probably swatted me a time or two when I was a kid, and lord knows I deserved it, but his main disciplinary power came from his voice. He could bend steel with a few words, sometimes low and growling, sometimes sharp and piercing, designed to paralyze his target with dread. Whenever Mum caught me doing something terribly wrong (a not infrequent occurrence), the worst thing I could possibly hear was "I'm going to have to tell your father about this." Chilling, horrifying words, those. Along those lines, back in the late 90s, his brother Gordon came for a visit, and we were all sitting around the sunroom table while the two of them reminisced about their sordid past (and my lord, did they have some stories). Deadpan, Gordon said, "Carl, you may not be able to relate to this, but our dad had a temper." I thought Dad was going to choke to death laughing. I have largely inherited my father's disposition, which came down from his father before him. Clearly, we came by it honestly.
Dad on his honeymoon, circa 1956

Like Mom, Dad was a Christian — his father was a Methodist minister, as a matter of fact — with simple faith; no fire and brimstone judgment, no biblical scholarship, just a heartfelt following of the Golden Rule and trusting that the lord would lead him where he needed to be in life. Perhaps the most telling example of Dad's faith was when several church members were gathered at our place for dinner. Dad knew that the choir was trying to raise money for a trip — I can't remember specifically where — and they had come up short on funds. Quietly, Dad called the choir director into his office, asked how much they needed, and then wrote a check for that amount. He gave it to the choir director on the condition that he not reveal where that money came from. He didn't want any attention drawn to himself, only that those folks get to go on their trip. That was largely how he lived his faith. No showmanship, no fanfare, just quiet sincerity and deep care for others.

Politically, Dad was conservative, of the Eisenhower persuasion; the current GOP would have revolted him. He instilled in me a deep sense of personal responsibility and compassion. But one of his strengths was seeing and understanding alternative viewpoints, and whenever we had discussions of any depth, he always presented me with thoughtful counters to my points, regardless of whether he believed in them himself. He wanted me to understand that personal decisions are not made in a vacuum, and to make sound ones, I needed to gather as much information as possible before committing to an idea or goal. Yet, almost paradoxically, he hated indecisiveness in others, and he always pressed me to not waffle at decision-making time. This has been a powerful motivator in my life, the downside being that, especially in my younger days, I made lots of quick decisions, either not understanding or ignoring the consequences of rash action. A difficult balancing act, to be sure, but it was one Dad mastered from an early age.

In the late 1960s, Dad was afflicted with a very severe case of diabetes, the complications of which eventually took his life. Despite dedicated effort on his part, and Mom's, he could never keep his blood sugar regulated, and he had terrible insulin reactions that one could have mistaken for epileptic fits. These were violent and painful, and they scared me to death when I was a kid. In later years, he lived with endless pain, eventually to the point that he could no longer work. Fortunately, Dupont offered him early retirement, with excellent benefits, at age 52, so he was able to still have a few quality years with Mom before he became completely physically debilitated. He died in 2001, at the too-young age of 70.

Dad and I had our conflicts, diverging opinions and philosophies, and outright personality clashes from time to time. But according to Mom, at no time did he ever stop being proud of me or respecting my views, even when he could not understand them (I was a bit weird). He supported me when I didn't deserve it more times than I could count. Yes, Dad had plenty of flaws, but as an increasingly self-aware individual, he never ceased struggling to overcome them. His life was testimony his success. He made me proud to be his son, and to this day, he is my hero. With my mom's health failing, and me having to take over more and more of her personal affairs, I feel I need him more than ever. And he is with me.

I miss you and love you, Dad.
Dad coached my City Recreation League basketball team, circa 1970.


Rob Lee said...

I think he did a fine job as a Dad. Very much enjoyed that post.

Mark Rainey said...

Thank you, good sir. You clearly were brought up with some right proper home training yourself.

Anonymous said...

What a nice tribute. I never realized your dad had such severe medical problems, yet he kept on as long as he good. In spite of your normal differences, sounds like there was a good connection. And he sounds like a great dad.