Some Thoughts on Fathers and Dads

 

My maternal grandparents and family around 1956, in Nyeland Acres, California. My grandparents are on the left. My mom is third from the left. Uncle Owen is in the middle.

Uncles and Grudges

For a time, my life’s ambition was to kick my Uncle Owen’s ass.

Owen had three sons. Of all of my eleventy-seven cousins on my mom’s side, I was closest with Jim, the middle son of Owen. One day I walked in the garage at their house just as my uncle kicked Jim to the floor. I was horrified. My dad spanked me now and then as I grew up, but usually, the only thing that got hurt was my feelings. I could not imagine him kicking me or hitting me with a fist. For the next month or so, I had nightmares about Owen delivering a roundhouse kick to Jim’s  side.

I decided that I didn’t like my Uncle Owen.

There was a problem with my quest to give Uncle Owen a big dose of his own medicine: He was a bad ass. By the time I felt that I could prevail against him, he’d ruined my grudge by giving up alcohol and making it his life’s mission to help people. His sons were grown and gone, but they seemed to give their dad credit where credit was due.

To put the coup de grâce to my familial grudge, Uncle Owen called me the day after my dad died. Owen had never been a verbose guy, but what he said was thoughtful. He was with me. He understood.

Before we hung up, he said, “If you don’t remember anything else that we talked about, remember this: A year or a year and a half from now, you might feel smothered with grief all over again. Be careful, and watch yourself.”

What I didn’t know during that phone call was that Uncle Owen was dying from complications of prostate cancer.

Four months later, my cousin Jim called to ask me to come to the hospital room where his dad was dying. I didn’t want to go, because I was very much wrapped in grief over my own dad’s death.

But I did go. Jim and I had practically grown up together. We got in stupid misadventures together, we fought other kids side by side, and sometimes, we fought each other. We were different, but we were family.

Jim and I were both 35 when I stood in that hospital room, watching Jim hold his dad’s hand until Owen took his last breath.

Jim called me the night before he flew home to Houston from Southern California. “Thank you for being there. You have no idea how much you helped.”

I didn’t tell Jim that I’d almost chickened out, that facing Owen’s death was almost too much after losing my own dad four months earlier.

I asked Jim if he had forgiven his dad. “I forgave him years ago. Maybe he wasn’t the best dad, but he died a good man.”

When Jim flew in from Texas to be with his dad, I hadn’t seen him in more than a decade. When he flew out after Owen’s funeral, I would never see him again. He died 15 years later in Texas. I don’t know how he died, or why he distanced himself from the family.

I’ll always remember something about that time, and that is that when Jim first arrived for Owen’s death watch, he referred to him as “my father,” but in the aftermath, he referred to Owen as “my dad.”

Jim forgave his dad, so I forgave him, too. Good thing, because now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure that I never could have kicked his ass.

Ken

Dad at the age of 50. He didn’t much care for being photographed, and if you asked him to smile, he wouldn’t, so this picture of him smiling was about as likely as catching a Sasquatch playing the banjo.

As a kid, it made me happy when my dad drank.

He was a good dad in many ways. He was a truck driver, and before I started kindergarten, he’d often take me with him on trips. Heck, when he was home, it seemed like he took me everywhere. If I asked him to play catch or shoot some hoops, almost never was his reply, “I’m too tired.”

But, he wasn’t the most communicative fellow in the world, and even as a kid, I could see sadness in his eyes. When friends or family would come over and Dad would down a few beers, it seemed that a weight lifted from him. He would smile and laugh, and I loved being around him during those times; my dad without sadness.

When he wasn’t drinking, I often felt sad for him, and sometimes, I wondered if his sadness was my fault.

I only had to think about stories from my dad’s mom to dispel that notion, though. My dad was born and raised in Arkansas; the family moved to Southern California during World War II. Before the war, my grandfather was about equal parts sharecropper and professional gambler. He would often abandon the family for a month or more at a time to head off on a gambling junket.

It was hard for me to get my dad to talk much about his father, but one day when I was 12 or so, Dad told me about how Arnold – his father – came to move from Tennessee to Arkansas. Arnold was at a barn dance one night, and made the mistake of asking the wrong girl to dance. Her boyfriend took offense, a fight broke out, and my grandfather cleaned the guy’s clock. The boyfriend’s two brothers chased Arnold out of the barn and into the night. One of them drew a revolver and fired a shot, grazing my grandfather’s knee. He dived over a log, drew his own revolver, and from behind the log, he shot both of the brothers. One brother was wounded. The other brother died at the scene.

If I remember the story correctly, Arnold left home that night. He relocated to the Hot Springs, Arkansas, area. There, if a young man paid the county sheriff a monthly stipend and promised to keep his nose clean, he could start life anew.

That’s how Arnold met Vera, my grandmother. Vera was part of a family of German professionals who settled in Arkansas and ruined the family fortune by marrying into a bunch of poor white sharecroppers.

It was a match made in, well, somewhere.

Arnold and Vera divorced soon after I was born. I remember meeting him once; my dad took me to see him in his small apartment when I was eight. I remember that he talked even less than my dad, and while my dad stood six-three, Arnold towered over him.

And I remember something else: Arnold had cold eyes. Cold. I was 8 years old, and I’d never seen eyes like that.

As far as I could tell, my dad was the only one out of the eight kids who maintained a relationship with Arnold. Once a month or so, Dad would hug Mom, announce that he was going to see his dad, and leave. When he would return two or three hours later, he’d look particularly sad.

I remember seeing a photograph of my dad and his seven siblings (I think they were all there), taken after Arnold’s funeral. If memory serves, my aunts and uncles were all smiling. My dad wasn’t, and it looked like he had been crying.

To this day, I wish I knew more about my paternal grandfather. I think.

Nope, Not Me

Through my teens and 20s, I was damn sure that I didn’t want to be a father. Growing up with the threat of nuclear annihilation or a slower death of humanity through overpopulation, it just seemed selfish and irresponsible to bring a child into the world.

That was pretty common thinking at the time. But there was more, namely my favorite neighborhood enemy, Eddie.

Eddie and I didn’t really hate each other, but we liked to pretend that we did. Then, at the age of 11, Eddie died. You seldom saw kids riding bikes while wearing helmets in those days, and Eddie rode his bike like a madman. A car hit his bike, hurtling Eddie to the pavement. He lived for a short time in the hospital, but soon, my favorite enemy was gone.

I saw a faded light in his parents’ eyes after that. They soon divorced, and it planted a thought: Why the hell would anyone want to risk the loss of a child by bringing him or her into the world?

Mom and Dad would sometimes talk about other couples who’d lost a child, and that only cemented the notion that parenthood should be avoided.

My High School Girlfriend and Jiggy

It’s an old story, I think. Boy meets girl, they fall in love, boy goes into the Army, boy and girl break up.

Yeah, that’s what happened. I fell in love with Rhonda, I went off to Army flight school, and we broke up.

One day, the better part of two decades later, I found Rhonda’s mom. She put us in touch with each other, one thing led to another, and we got married 19 years after our break-up. Dylan was conceived 26 years after our first date. I’ve never been one to rush things.

At first, I mainly felt happy for Rhonda. Really, I was kind of, er, businesslike about the prospect of being a father. I mean, I was happy for Rhonda, and happy for me, but didn’t feel like my world had shifted or any such thing.

But then came the second sonogram. Rhonda had, at that point, nicknamed the baby “Jiggy” because of all of the movement. Sure enough, you could see him darting around in there, looking like he was impatient to greet the world.

Suddenly, Businesslike Hal was gone, replaced by Weeping Trembling Sack of Sappiness Hal.  That was our child. Yeah, you could make the case that an event such as a conception can hardly be called a miracle when it’s happened billions of times, but by gosh, it sure felt like a miracle.

Rhonda and I worried a bit about being older parents, but Dylan was born healthy and robust, and after he developed a sleeping pattern in a few weeks, he was an easy baby. Rhonda and I have often joked that a higher power said, “Geez, these folks are kinda old. I’d better give them an easy baby.”

The happy day. The perception of time is a funny thing. It doesn’t seem so long ago that our son was a tiny little guy, yet it seems an eternity ago that I needed a comb.

Yep, he was an easy baby, and an easy toddler, and he’s even kind of an easy teenager to be around as long as one overlooks his smart-ass tendencies, which he obviously got from his mother. (Ahem.)

So now, he’s closing on his 18 birthday, and like so many parents, Rhonda and I can hardly believe that he’s out of high school and will soon be a legal adult. I’ve heard from friends who say that facing the empty nest can be enormously difficult, and I can’t imagine it will be any easier for us, older parents of an only child.

That’s why we often tell him that he can’t move out until he’s 30. We usually get an eye roll in response.

I look at him now, 6 feet tall and quite charming when he puts his mind to it, and he reminds me of my dad. Like my dad, he has a nearly superhero-like tolerance for heat and cold, and like my dad, he tends to clam up when something is bothering him.

Dylan was nearly always a happy little guy, as long as you didn’t let him get hungry. Actually, he’s pretty much still the same way.

Do I still worry about what could happen? Oh, yeah. When Rhonda was pregnant with Dylan, I had lunch one day with my friend Ren, who had been a Navy Helldiver pilot at the end of World War II.

I asked, “Ren, do you ever stop worrying about your kids?”

He sighed, and said, “Hal, I have kids who are now grandparents, and I still worry about them.”

The message was clear: Once you’re a parent, you’re in it for life. All of the blessings, all of the burdens, all of the joys, all of the sorrows.

When Dylan was a baby, I would sometimes wake suddenly in the night, stabbed with fear that something had happened to him. I would watch him sleep, and think, just keep breathing; just keep breathing.

Advice? Who, me?

I started this column with the intent of writing strictly about my experiences as a dad, but I soon realized that the piece would turn into a sappy mess if I did so. Maybe I should have written about the history of Father’s Day, but I wasn’t in the mood to do all of that research. Maybe this piece should be titled, “Fathers I Have Known.”

As far as advice on being a dad goes, I hardly consider myself a source of sage wisdom. I’d love to fish for compliments by listing all of my shining victories as a parent, but I really tried to stick with two rules.

One: Do everything you can to make that little person feel loved.

Two: Try not to f*ck up.

Oh yeah, and don’t be too hard on yourself. Even if you deserve it, it probably won’t do your kid any good.

When Dylan reads this, it will probably piss him off, but once in a great while, when he leaves his door open, I’ll still do that. Just keep breathing; just keep breathing.

Sometimes I feel envious of my own kid. Man, I would have loved to have spent a bunch of my time growing up on Shasta Lake.

At 17: still a swell kid, if a bit of a smart-ass.

There have been times, as a teenager, when our son has sorely pissed me off. That kind of comes with the territory, I’m afraid. Still, Rhonda and I often talk about how lucky we are that he often gives us a hug even when he doesn’t want anything, or how we can kiss the top of his hairy head in front of his friends, or how when we’d drop him off at Shasta High he’d call out, “I LOVE YOU DAD!” or “I LOVE YOU MOM!” without a care in the world as to who heard him.

I never much thought about it before my dad died in 1991, but one day, a few months after he passed, it hit me: I didn’t remember my dad ever saying, “I love you” to me, or me saying, “I love you” to him. Talking with other guys around my age, it’s plain that men from the World War II/Korea generation just didn’t do that.

It kind of haunts me, if I’m honest. I would love to travel back in time to the last time I saw him, just to once say, “Dad, I love you.”

I doubt that will happen. But, that’s okay. I tell him now, especially when I watch his grandson sleeping.

Hal Johnson
Born and raised in Ventura County, Hal Johnson moved to Shasta County in 1994. After a 38 year career flying helicopters, he can now sometimes be spotted around the North State singing and wrestling his guitar into submission. He always feels funny writing about himself in the third person. Contact him at shastalivemusic@gmail.com.
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21 Responses

  1. Avatar Eleanor says:

    Thank you, Hal. A nice start to Father’s Day, even if it brought a tear to my eye. We all have so many stories – I am glad you told us yours. Well said.

  2. Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

    What a lovely column, Hal. Thanks so much for a gentle read this Sunday morning.

  3. Avatar Mark McAbee says:

    Very nice, Hal. Miss you, buddy!

  4. Avatar gmonteri says:

    Good work. Thanks for passing it along.

  5. Avatar michael kielich says:

    Hal, this made my day. Thanks! I have a third rule: Make a list of all of the not so great things that we did as teenagers to put it all in perspective. I am glad my long term memory seems to be gracious to me.

  6. Hal, I love this column. It’s such a beautiful combination of love and pain and joy and angst. Well done! And happy Father’s Day to you. I hope Dylan realizes what an awesome father he has.

  7. Avatar s. keller says:

    Love it! Thanks so much.

  8. Deb Deb says:

    Beautiful post, Hal. Thank you.

    • Deb Deb says:

      I didn’t write this in my original comment because this story is about Hal’s family, not mine, but it reminded me of this snippet out of my life – which Hal has suggested I include as a comment after all, because (a) he is a super guy, and (b) as he said, “It may give some young person the courage to say those magic words.” So here it is:

      My dad and I were so similar in so many ways that it meant that we had huge, dramatic fights (hey, I inherited his temper), but the day came when 15 year old me said out of the blue, “I love you, Papa.” He blinked in surprise but grumbled, “I love you, too.” Because he was a gruff ol’ Bavarian he followed it up with, “…so what do you want?” I laughed, kissed his cheek, said, “Nothing!” and flitted off to do whatever I did at 15 (mostly listen to loud music and howl with my friends on the phone for hours).

      My Mama later said, “You will never know how much that meant to him.”

      But I did. And I said it a lot, thereafter… and he learned to say it back, too, without the wry addendum.

  9. Avatar Erika says:

    What a beautiful tribute to the many facets of fatherhood.

  10. AJ AJ says:

    I miss my dad .. . EVERY DAY! He’s only been gone 59 years, after all. One of the biggest regrets of my life is that my children never got the chance to know him. I was blessed with a demonstrative Dad, but as a pre-pubescent teen I was growing my independence wings and didn’t want anything to do with those dad hugs. I had a dear girlfriend who was a bit older than me. She had just lost her dad. She witnessed the scene where Daddy tried to hug me goodby as I went off with my friends and I responded with a shrug and whiny “doooon’t!” The minute we got out of earshot, my friend took me to task. I remember her saying, MAKE yourself give your dad a hug at least once a day, whether you feel like it or not. To this dayI am so grateful for that advice and that somehow I had the presence of mind to heed it. I lost my dad only few years later. Happy Father’s Day, Daddy.!!

  11. R.V. Scheide Jr. R.V. Scheide Jr. says:

    Just got home from visiting mom and dad on father’s day, and this story made a satisfying end of a great day. Both brothers showed up. He’s 81 and still sharp as a tack. Family is awesome.

    • Hal Johnson Hal Johnson says:

      Love you too, Ann!

      Heh. Rhonda is about to head to her office, but she was looking over my shoulder as I wrote that.

      In her best theatrical mock indignation voice, she belted out, “You’re writing ‘love you’ TO ANOTHER WOMAN?!”

      I crumpled in laughter for a while, then came back with, “Well yeah, sweetie, but this is the Ann who was the proprietor of The Savory Spoon.”

      “Oh. Okay. Please carry on.”

  12. Avatar Joanne Lobeski Snyder says:

    Hal, this is the finest article I’ve every read about the complexity of fatherhood and the importance of loving parenting from both parents. Thank you so much. I lucked out that I had a brilliant, bilingual and honest father, who, because of losing his Polish dad when he was 9, ended up on a chicken farm in So Cal, and was digging ditches in L.A. the year I was born. I wasn’t so lucky in that he showed no love for his kids but disciplined them in the way his European parents had disciplined his sister and he. Complex? Yes. Thank you again.

  13. Jon Lewis Jon Lewis says:

    Happy belated dad’s day Hal, and thanks for this nice piece of writing. I got a hunch your boy won’t be that upset over it 😉

  14. Lovely piece, Hal — your son is a lucky guy.

  15. Hal Johnson Hal Johnson says:

    Thank you all for the kind words. I’m glad the column struck a chord with some folks. I’m giving most of the credit to caffeine.