My father was a good man, with some glaring defects. There is no doubt though, he did a bang-up job with what he had. I have written, on more than one occasion, that I am one of the few recovering alcoholics that I know of who can honestly say I had a great childhood. It really was good times and noodle salad.
My dad taught me how to play baseball, he was a recruited catcher in high school but chose a different path, so I can throw a rope rather than some of these lame famous people who end up bouncing a ball to the plate for an opening pitch. I learned the outfield and to play a mean first base (can to this day). My favorite baseball memory was learning, in the front yard, the importance of not being afraid of the ball. I was fine with a tennis ball but put me at the plate with a hard ball and I had no nerve. My dad took me out in the front yard, made me put my hands in my pockets and threw the ball at my chest and stomach – not too hard, but hard enough that it hurt. Today I think the sissies call that child abuse – but it worked. I learned that the sting goes away and it’s not all that big a deal. From that day on, I absolutely loved baseball. The sports didn’t stop at baseball though, I played hockey, dabbled in football (too small) and basketball. Finally, when I was sixteen, after hitting a golf ball through the neighbor’s window, my dad started taking me out to the driving range and started sharing his real passion with me: Golf.
My dad and I played some serious golf together. He creamed me too, up until maybe eight years ago. We would talk about the game, watch some on TV. Talk about the swing and how I finally learned to bomb it (after some serious work with a pro). My fondest memories with my dad occurred on the golf course. Starting about six years ago, I took off every Friday afternoon during the summer to pick him up and play a round. Eventually he degraded to a point where he didn’t have the energy for the last few holes so he’d watch me finish up. Then we were down to nine holes. The last time I took him golfing he teed up a ball, turned around and hit it right at me. I only played four more rounds after that day. Each one broke my heart just a little more. I haven’t touched my clubs since. Now that he’s gone though, I’m feeling a little inspired to carry on, and pass on, the legacy.
Beyond the sports, my father was a hard-working fellow. He was so successful, his story can be summarized in just a few short sentences. We moved to Michigan in 1975 so he could help my grandfather run the family business, my dad was just 32 years old. I think he was on the job maybe two weeks when my grandfather (mom’s side, he owned the company) died of a massive heart attack. My pops took the reigns, ran the company himself and grew it. He did very well providing for us. If there was a time we wanted for anything, I can’t remember it. My dad did so well, my mother never had to go back to her nursing career which she left shortly before having me, until they divorced.
My dad was tough too (if you couldn’t get that from how he taught me to get over the fear of a hardball). Even so, I can only remember him ever hitting one of us one time. My brother and I were young, maybe nine and seven, and we were fighting in the basement. He kneed me in the nuts, hard. When I yelped, my dad came running down and asked what happened. When I told him, he went to town on my brother’s butt. I can still remember the cigarettes in his pockets flying everywhere. From that moment on, whenever we reached my dad’s limit for our screwing around, all he had to do was slam his hand on whatever table he was near and we straightened up.
My dad, when I was in fifth grade, helped me put together the science project that would last a lifetime. Before he and my mom met, he was a meteorologist in the Air Force. In fact, his four years ended just before the escalation of Vietnam so he didn’t have to go. Starting several months before my science project was due, my dad picked up a kid’s weather package and we hand-built wind measuring tools in his workshop in the basement. For the wind speed measuring tool, my dad drove and I sat in the passenger seat with the window open and I hung out the door with the gauge. I marked five mph increments starting at zero all the way up to 60 mph and with no seatbelt. My God in Heaven! I measured wind speed, temp, precipitation, cloud cover and type of clouds present twice a day, for a month, dutifully recorded the information and laid everything out on a spread sheet. The spread sheet and all of the tools were mounted on a display and submitted. I aced it. That little project, 33 years ago, has stuck with me to a point that I can still perform a look out the window, “rain will be here in fifteen minutes” weather report and be right every time (I was wrong once, down in Florida).
I started getting into trouble when I was 18 years-old. My dad bailed me out every time and did his best to turn that into a lesson right up until I turned 21 – and some of those instances were big. For one, I was facing real time. It was after that, I ended up getting pulled over for drunk driving… My dad showed up to bail me out and informed me that this would be the last time. Any more trouble and I was on my own… Monetarily and living quarters wise. Of course I screwed up again and he let the hammer down. I was in treatment shortly thereafter. They took me back in after I left and I never let my parents down again. Once my pops stopped bailing me out, I became a man out of necessity.
My dad had his fleas too. I inherited my drunk streak directly from him. We always knew he was loaded if he came home chewing cinnamon Dentyne. Damn that gum. He tried, when I was about 15, to turn quit and turn himself into Ward Clever but by that time my mom had given up. They were divorced, if memory serves, by the time I turned 23. In the end, that, combined with Alzheimer’s, did him in.
Being a drunk wasn’t my dad’s most glaring fault however. His biggest fault, if it can be called a fault, was that he made being incredibly successful look, from where I sat looking in, easy. It took a lot of years and a trainload of mistakes on my part to understand just how hard you have to work to make it, to pay all of the bills, to make the rent (now mortgage) and to be a good, honest person in the process. I did make it though, and without the need of bailouts and hands up. He set the example and I pulled up the boot straps until I could match his example, even surpass it in terms of being a dad.
My pops did an awesome job raising five successful kids. He is survived by his three sons, two daughters, eight grand children and my mom. A business owner, architect, fire fighter, fashion designer, stylist and mother, an independent beauty consultant and super-mom, a sign language translator and mother, a teacher and mother and a nurse. We didn’t get to where we are because he gave us opportunities. We made it because he gave us an example.
Rest in peace pops, you did a great job…and save a golf cart for me. I’ll be along in 50 or 60 years. Hit ’em long and straight, fairways and greens as always…and please, don’t practice too much – catching you down here was hard enough. I can’t even imagine the back nine in Heaven (but I bet it’s beautiful).
JRL 1941 – January 21, 2014
Special thanks to my wife, who my father picked as his last contact and who has made my life good. I couldn’t be handling this so well without her. To my mom, who is simply amazing through this. To my brothers who are my closest friends on the planet. Especially to my sisters who shouldered a huge load in carrying for our pop – I am so very thankful for them. To the people at Shepherd’s Gate in Hartland, especially Angela, Jordin and Barb for taking such good care of my dad and doing the tough work that we couldn’t. And finally, to Hospice of Michigan who made my dad’s passing quiet and comfortable. A truly amazing group of people and a blessing in our lives.
Finally, to all of my internet friends, especially you Sandra, for all of your support and prayers. When I wrote my post announcing my hiatus the other day, each and every time my phone chirped with a notification that one of you had left a comment wishing us well, I felt a little better. Thank you so much, the prayers did indeed work and we needed them.