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Remembering My Father

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I would like to remember my father, Alexander Rae Baldwin, Jr. Born October 26th, 1927 in Brooklyn. NY. Died April 15th, 1983 after a battle with cancer.

A graduate of Boys High School in Brooklyn and Syracuse University, he served in the United States Marine Corps and was an expert marksman in riflery. He was honorably discharged for medical reasons after being shot, accidentally, during rifle instruction on Parris Island.

He returned to Syracuse University to attend law school, but dropped out and moved to Massapequa, Long Island, to begin his 28 year career as a public school teacher.

My dad taught "social studies," as they were referred to back then. History, economics, constitutional law, contemporary problems. My father taught them all. He was a much admired teacher during those years. So much so that, twice, the editors of the school yearbook dedicated their editions to him, a tribute normally reserved for faculty that had either died or retired. He coached football at the school. Led a cub scout troop. Coached Little League. And was coach of the Massapequa High School rifle team, which went to the New York State Public High School Athletic Association state riflery championship twice during his career. That honor was nearly always the reserve of upstate, and therefore more rural, schools. For a "downstate" school to win was considered impossible. My father's team won both times.

Years later, doctors informed me that the inhalation of lead dust from working in an unventilated rifle range may have contributed significantly to his death. On Parris Island in 1945, a bullet would not kill him. But bullets eventually did, at the age of 55, from lymph cancer that spread through his body.

As a father, he was tough and uncompromising. With six children, four of them boys, and little extra cash with which to spoil or bribe them, he implemented the "Fear Program." My brothers and I knew that any missteps of ours carried inevitable consequences. But he was more selfless and thoughtful than anyone I have known throughout my life. When my brother Daniel and I found out that local athletic champion Jimmy Luchsinger was teaching tennis at the nearby Marjorie Post Park, we sulked that we could never get the rackets we needed to participate. A day or two later, my dad came home from work and unwrapped two rackets, with the old wooden frames. He handed us the rackets and said, "If you miss one lesson, I'll be very upset with you."

As he did nearly every day I knew him, he switched on Huntley and Brinkley, lit his pipe and read the New York Times and Newsday, cover to cover. As he lay on the couch, I can remember the bottoms of his shoes with holes in them the size of half dollars. The man who would not resole his shoes had given us the rackets. That was my dad.

When he died, a part of me died as well. So many times in my life I could have used his advice. His wake at the local funeral home was mobbed with people. His funeral at our church in Amityville was overwhelming. In the intervening couple of years, I would ride the Long Island Rail Road and, on more than one occasion someone would say, "I had your dad as a teacher and he was a great man." Once in a while one would ask, "How is your dad?" and when I informed them that he had passed, some cried right there on the train.

My own experiences with fatherhood have been...complicated. But I always remember the words of my dad. "Fatherhood is a race between two people," he would say, "where the man always wins the bronze."

For all the fathers out there, biological, step or adoptive; gay or straight; divorced, single or married; rich, poor, unemployed, overworked, good at the barbecue, cuts his own lawn, spoils his kids, wishes he could: Happy Fathers Day. The one day you are awarded the gold.

Okay, the silver.