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My dad came first in our family. In those days, the men always came first–at least at the table if not everywhere. He was a modest man, having been told innumerable times that he wasn’t quite as good as most because he didn’t read well. Dyslexia–difficulty with reading–was seen as a different condition then. They called it “stupid.” Dad wasn’t stupid, but he never stopped worrying that he might be. His self-image suffered further insult when he attempted to join WWII and was told he couldn’t. He had a scar on his lung from having TB as a child. He told us the scar was from double pneumonia. He was 4-F–ineligible for military service. He never recovered from the shame.
He was lanky but not tall, a hard worker. He once earned $2.00 per week as a lumberjack. He was happiest in the forest. People were not kind to him—the importance of NOT being earnest. Purity, honesty, guilelessness–not traits Americans value in fact. We like the tricky ones, the powerful ones, the artful dodgers. My dad was none of these. His brothers talked him into jumping off a train trestle into the current of a river when he was a boy–a scary trick when you can swim. He couldn’t swim. But he did it. And he invented swimming for himself. He was good at fashioning what he needed.
He found my mother in a campground. He wasn’t the type to seize what he wanted. He didn’t seem to want anything. He was too busy trying to make the people around him happy. But my mother was a damsel in distress and my dad was a quiet hero.
Her father had inflated himself into a robust character that exceeded human dimensions. Grandpa’s temper filled a room like a smoke bomb exploding into the center of his charm and good humor. One day when he grew frustrated, he abandoned his wife and little daughter in the heart of a Chicago ghetto. The locals took pity on the only two white people in the neighborhood and helped them find a way to return home.
One of the first times my dad arrived to take my mother out, he watched a heavy black telephone crash through the front window of her house and bounce onto the lawn. Grandpa was annoyed about something. And Grandpa drank. He defeated the dependency to morphine he developed when he broke his hip, but he never conquered the booze. My dad couldn’t walk away from the shy, green-eyed beauty of my mother. He had to marry her, take her away from the drama, and spend his life loving her. He believed in being a hero.
I didn’t see it at the time, but Dad certainly was a hero—someone who was unfailingly honest and selfless. When he lay slowly dying, he insisted on giving my sisters and me the money to go to Disneyland so we wouldn’t just sit waiting. We didn’t want to go to Disneyland, but we did as he asked. He wanted to make us happy that one last time. Thanks and Happy Father’s Day, Dad.