Thursday, April 24, 2008

A Head-First Slide for Home

Today would be my dad's 80th birthday, but if you're a regular reader, you know he passed away last September and back then I wrote, "I'll eventually write something proper." It's taken me this long, and I still don't feel ready. Maybe I just don't want to say goodbye. Maybe I'm not sure we ever fully said hello.

I have spent lots of time trying to think of what I got from him, in that classic sense of here's what passes down from generation to generation. For in so many ways we were so different--he was an engineer, mechanically brilliant, one of those 6 am - 6 pm workers cause that's what you did for your family (and partially because it was easier, much more solvable, than family). He also was a gun nut, a pipe smoker, a Reagan Republican (we finally bonded on our opposition to NAFTA, but from very different directions), a bit of a crank eventually (he bought all that Bilderberg stuff). But he was also a super-straight shooter, and I'm sure people loved doing business with him at his machine shop because you knew you'd get an honest job at an honest price. It's probably why he held no truck for unions--he treated his employees fairly, and couldn't believe others wouldn't do the same. It's why Republicanism made sense to him. He made it by sheer intelligence and force of will, and America paid him back.

More than anything, though, the poor fool wished he was a singer, not a dream one of too many kids from a coal-mining family in Scranton PA got to have. Particularly when his dad, who he admitted was a "hard man"--his words--died when he was just eight. Still, I hold many dreamy distant memories of after dinner with relatives or guests, and my sister playing piano and my dad singing. He wasn't bad, he wasn't good, but it was something he loved. How little that seems to matter to us, though. Even at our wedding just 10 years ago, the singer in the band talked to him during a break and the lightly boozed up big guy ended up joining the band for "Night and Day," of all things. I probably felt more embarrassed than charmed.

For he was a ham at heart (see photo, above), and loved corny jokes and this is how I know I am my father's son. Now instead of "Strangers in the Night" or "My Way" or one of his songs, I'm left thinking of one of mine, "And I'm the only one who laughs/At your jokes when they are so bad/And your jokes are always bad/But they're not as bad as this."

It doesn't help that his second wife, who we always got along well enough with, seemed to want to obliterate him once he passed away. She, her daughter from her first marriage, and her son-in-law went through and got rid of most of his possessions, from clothes to endless notes, as he was kind of a packrat, without asking us if we wanted to be part, and had it gone by his funeral. They finally sent my sisters and I several boxes of mostly crap, including, oddly, if all too perfectly a symbol, a bunch of empty picture frames amongst that dross. Now of course I wish I insisted to get to go through his stuff, just to see one last time the neat precision of his penciled handwriting, but I was too shell-shocked, too distant--perhaps one more of my genetic gifts from someone never good at being close.

More than anything I want his slide rule, which I do not know how to use. But he sure did, once running rings around engineers who actually had the luxury of going to college and having time to learn things not on the job. He always loved to tell a story about when on one job back in the 1960s he did some work that was part of the Stanford Linear Accelerator. The folks there said something about what a great job his team did, but his team was my dad and one other guy.

A slide rule is like working math with your hands, a sort of magic. It helps you figure roots and powers. Perhaps I could have learned to use his, if I was smart enough, just enough to make it sing.

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Blogger John Quimby said...

My dad passed some years ago.

He couldn't carry a tune in a bucket. But he often hummed or sang random melodies or fragments of songs as he puttered about.

This morning I ran today's busy agenda of work and family and appointments through my head as I was in the shower. Toweling off I found myself humming a random melody and saw myself in the mirror.

I said out loud, "Hi dad" because I knew at that moment he was with me.

10:11 AM  
Blogger Generik said...

Are you sure that isn't the "something proper" you wanted to write? It seemed very honest and a nice tribute to the man.

I'm also the son of an engineer, and recognized a few things in your father that I've seen in mine. (Like John Quimby's, my father can't sing a lick, either, but it doesn't stop him from trying.) I'll bet my dad still has a slide rule somewhere; next time I see him, I may ask him for it.

2:14 PM  
Blogger ahab said...

I'm with Generik, George. You love and respect the man. Nothing could be more proper than that.

5:55 PM  
Blogger ahab said...

My dad is a highly practical and mechanichally accomplished man too. But he has no art at all in him. Be glad (as I can see that you are) that your dad aspired to something creative, and that it brought him some small joy.

5:58 PM  
Blogger Smitty said...

George, that was a touching eulogy without being cliche'. Thanks, again, for sharing very private thoughts.

7:38 AM  
Blogger George said...

Thanks, everybody.

9:27 AM  
Blogger Trekking Left said...

That was very touching, George. Thanks for writing it.

9:55 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

Wonderful stuff, George.

Very honest, very nice. Very real.

4:38 AM  

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