The Old Warrior’s Birthday

Today would have been my father’s birthday and I would have called him on the phone to wish him well. He wasn’t a talker.  His answers were often grunts or a strange chortle which I could once imitate but not since his death.

Dad with his good buddy, Captain Wug

My early memories of him were brutal. He could not tolerate weakness.  Thus, we were never given the option to quit on any project we started. We didn’t have to be the best but we had to finish. And generally without taking a break.  For this reason, many hobbies other people enjoy, such as skiing, ice skating and camping I hate.  Illness was also something he attributed to weakness. The only time I remember him going into a hospital was when he dropped a hammer on his big toe and it swelled up so badly he couldn’t put on a pair of shoes which meant no skiing or hunting.  As he got older,  whenever he said of a medical procedure “that wasn’t so bad” I vowed to never go through that particular procedure while conscious.

Our house in rural Michigan

Because he was a hunter and hung his dead animals in the garage to bleed out, all three of his kids ended up practically vegetarians. When I refused to eat any animal whose sad eyes had stared out at me, I got slapped and sent to bed hungry. My younger brother and sister managed to choke down the venison and rabbit on their plates but only because they didn’t want the same thing to happen to them. 

JFK is the first president I remember and he was young and charismatic but in my house, he was the Anti-Christ. During the Nixon years, one of Dad’s hunting buddies was profiled on the news show Sixty Minutes because as sheriff of a small town in rural Nevada, he locked up black folks and long-haired hippies just for the sin of driving through his town. Dad still went hunting with him.  On the other hand, he always treated African Americans, jews, and asian people with respect and worshipped the Native American culture.  As I mentioned in a previous post, he often said that when he became a burden to the tribe, he would disappear into the desert just like an Indian warrior.  

When I was a young adult my parents split and my father quickly remarried.  By that time, my mother had quit the Republican Women’s Club and was veering back towards her working class upbringing.  A few years after my father’s remarriage, his new wife threw a sixtieth birthday party for him and called it “Equal Rights for Whites.”  Apparently she wanted to air her displeasure that a black man (albeit Martin Luther King Jr) would dare to be born on my father’s birthday.  I did not think it was funny.  I did not attend. 

But, because we were denied a television until I was around fourteen, I have a fair knowledge of classical music and, if given the title of a Broadway song, can tell you what musical it is from and probably sing all the lyrics. That was a great gift from my father. I also obsessively complete tasks ahead of me. I almost never leave something undone.

RIP Carol Channing, my favorite Dolly.

But what I will remember most as I careen towards senility is the time we got lost in a ghetto in downtown Oakland and some homies in a lowrider next to Dad’s car tried to provoke us whiteys with middle fingers and curse words and Dad looked over at the car and said calmly, “those are probably some of my students.” It was a joke. He was the dean of mechanical engineering at the University of Nevada, a primarily all white school at the time. Perhaps I owe my oddball sense of humor to him.

I don’t think I’d want to relive my childhood but he raised us the way he was raised.  In fact, I suspect his life was far tougher.  Anyway, I’ll miss calling him today.

I should mention that it’s also the tenth anniversary of Sully’s infamous landing on the Hudson River.

32 thoughts on “The Old Warrior’s Birthday

  1. Thank you for sharing. It’s tough to lose a parent, and I think we look back over time and we can peel back the prism of a child’s view. I’m sorry for your loss. May he Rest In Peace. I was saddened to read about Channing yesterday, too.🙁

  2. I’m sorry you can’t make the call. We never fully understand why people are/were the way they are. We take the good with the bad and make something. You seem to have made something better,

  3. Like your father, mine was filled with complex conservative contradictions. I wouldn’t have gone to the 60th birthday party either, but can understand why you miss calling him on his birthday. People are complicated, as are our feelings about them.

  4. Oh, the complexities of life. We’re all a mix of how we’re raised and by our experiences throughout life—likewise our parents. Thus, no matter what happens, they’re always a part of us. Wished you could still make that call, Jan.

  5. Men of a certain generation, place, & time really seem clueless when it came to their female offspring in particular. Thanks for posting this Jan – you captured all sides of him as well as your feelings.

  6. This is an utterly fascinating story!

    Your Dad sounds like quite the man + I loved how you honestly talked of him in a very respectful way. Since I have a cowboy friend I loved the picture of him with his horses + can appreciate his respect for Native American culture. Being from Michigan you must be a fan of the Great Lakes + well aware of snow. I grew up in snow country in upstate New York near Lake Ontario + often miss those amazing lakes.

    Thx for posting! 🙂

  7. It’s so difficult to find places of forgiveness and understanding towards a difficult father. I know…I had one as well. However, I envy the fact that you miss calling him on his birthday. While I have forgiven my father and continue to grow to understand him, I must admit I’m relieved to not have to call him on his birthday, during the holidays or on Father’s Day. Along with the forgiveness, this brings me peace.

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