I wish my father was alive. I lost him decades ago, when he was only about six years older than I am now. As Father's Day approaches later this month, I have some thoughts to share.
I wish my father was alive today, and for many, many reasons, but one is so that I could ask him lots of questions. What was it like to grow up on a farm, as he did, and roam the woods? What were his inner thoughts as a boy living in a small house without a bathroom or running water on hundreds of acres, isolated in the sand hills outside Cameron, North Carolina? What did he do to occupy himself on those solitary days in the pine forest, or walking along the big stream bordered with huge boulders that ran through the land? Did he have a creative and lively inner life? Did he populate an interior world with friends and exciting adventures? How did he imagine his future? Was he a dreamer or a worrier? Was he eager about life, or afraid? Did he in those days have a dog to be his companion? I don't even know that about him.
He worked hard when I was a boy, and was away long hours each day. But when he was around, we did great, fun things together. We built toys, made sling shots from the limbs of dogwood trees, and flew kites so high we could hardly see them and their decorative tails as they rode the warm summer breeze of the day. We took long walks, full of wonder, through the woods around my little childhood home on the outskirts of Durham, NC. We played basketball, or threw a baseball back and forth. My dad taught me how to do a Yo-Yo and a Hula Hoop. He showed me how to play a harmonica, and the way to make a pretty decent drum out of an Oatmeal box.
He built me a real wooden club house in the backyard, an impressive structure, at least six feet by six feet square inside, with maybe an eight foot ceiling, and a real roof and a door. He found somewhere an old short wave radio, with a large dark wood cabinet, and put it in there for me and my few neighborhood friends. I remember helping him to string thin wire around the back yard as an extensive antenna system. We'd turn on the radio, and slowly turn the dial through static that we knew was from outer space, and then we'd hear a faint broadcast of something we were equally sure was from China.
My dad and I built bright red scooters, and rubber band rifles that shot huge thick bands that would tear through newspapers we'd hang on the outdoor clothesline as targets. We'd lie down on the floor and play marbles. We'd spin tops, and play cards and watch television together on the old black and white set. We built a "jumping board" in the back yard, like a see-saw but only about a foot tall. I could leap onto one end, as my friend stood on the other, and would then be launched up a foot or two in the air. He'd land and shoot me into the air, in turn. And this could go on for hours.
My dad was a master badminton player, and even better at horse shoes. He'd do either with me as long as I wanted. And he once set up a high jump in the back, and promptly broke his leg leaping over it.
He also sat and told me stories, now and then, about the farm, or the second world war, where one day, he was walking toward enemy territory carrying bands of machine-gun ammunition strapped across his chest, and he noticed a rut in the dirt road, and stepped in it for no reason, and as his body tilted left, he heard, and thought he even felt, a bullet whiz by his right ear. If he hadn't stepped into the rut, he would have been killed, he told me, and I never would have been born. He thought the reason for that step was so that I could come into the world. The concept filled me with the miracle of existence.
I heard about places like Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and Saipan. One night out in fox holes, he was on guard duty and under strict orders as to what he had to do if he heard a sound in "no man's land" between his position and the enemy. Late into the moonless evening, in pitch dark, he did hear a noise. "Halt! Who goes there?" Nothing. "Halt! Who goes there?" Silence. By now, some of the other soldiers were awake, and mentally preparing themselves for something bad. Their adversaries were close. An attack could happen at any time. Then there was another sound of movement, or rustling. Once chance more, by the designated sequence of things. "Halt! Who goes there?" And then his orders had a final step. He had to shoot into the dark, in the direction of the sound. And he did.
After the echo of his shots, there was no further sound. Tense minutes passed, and then hours. And when the sun first began to rise, he could see that there was a body, dead on the ground, some distance away. It turned out that it was his best friend. That was a story he told me only once. It ended with silence as thick as that night was dark, I imagined in the moment.
His sister, a sweet, greatly loved friend and childhood playmate on their lonely farm, had suddenly grown sick, and just as suddenly died. So, before his teens, he had lost his first best friend. Then he lost his second one.
He was in many ways, in the years after that, a quiet person. As a teenager, he had left the farm and gone to Baltimore, Maryland, and applied for a job at Martin Aircraft. The interviewer asked, "What do you want to do?" He answered, "Everything." The man looked puzzled. My father said, "Start me in any department. As soon as I'm as good as anyone else in there, move me to another one. I want to learn everything." And he did. By age nineteen, he was in Experimental Design, helping to build the newest airplanes for the military. His boss wrote the War Department that he should never be drafted, because he was needed stateside for his aeronautical expertise - this young high school graduate. The War Department wrote back that no one his age could possibly know that much. And soon, he was carrying a rifle in the infantry.
He built radio stations, ran them, sold all the ad time, and learned to deal with all kinds of people. He got into some amazing business deals, and then was shut out by crooked partners. He had a promising future, and then nothing. He sold cars, and encyclopedias. He managed a bowling alley. And then he learned that, in real estate, he could walk the woods as he had in childhood. So he started his own company, and returned to the land, building environmentally sensitive developments.
My mother had been raised in an orphanage, and had emotional scars from those years that did not allow for a happy marriage or a good parenting experience. And yet, the two of them stayed together. And it was tough for my dad, during my years of growing up. So he would often retreat from the house, to find peace. I missed him when he wasn't around. But I understood.
And then, as a teen, I developed my own interests. I was in a band. I played guitar. I traveled a lot. I was a good student. I read and studied off by myself. I then got a scholarship and went off to college where I began to chart out my own life. I left for graduate school, far away. I got married, and had my own family. The teen and early twenties drive for independence, and separation, and a life of my own, had instilled habits that were not good to have. I didn't call my father enough, when I lived a thousand miles away. I didn't write him very often. I didn't see him enough. And when I did, I was too caught up in my own life and career and didn't have a sufficiently deep curiosity to ask about his childhood, and his teens, and his life and thoughts and feelings through the years. I wish now that I had. I almost desperately wish I had. It's a connection with the flow of life and the existential stream of where we come from and who we are that we should never ignore or neglect. I had made a huge mistake.
I sat with him when he was dying, and beyond conversation. I told him he was going on to prepare a place for me and the rest of the family, one day. I made sure to say that he had been a great dad.
I kissed his bald head when he was dead.
I wish my father was alive today. If yours is, please talk to him. Ask him all those things I can't ask my dad now, and didn't when I could have. And listen. Really listen. Then remember. And give him a little hug and a kiss. While he's alive. Ok?
Oh, but in case you think your old man's a jerk, or annoying, or you've had a bad disagreement with him in the past, here's the honest truth: None of that matters, in the big scheme of things. He gave you life, and he's going to die. And so are you. Don't live with regrets like I have, regrets you can avoid. Show your love with sincere conversation.
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