Thursday, June 14, 2012

To Dad

This Sunday is Father's Day, so I’d like to take a moment to honor mine. As fair warning to you all, I’ve never actually written something dedicated to my father, so this may get a bit long and personal.

You’ve been warned.

My father was a pre-Baby Boomer, born to parents who were wide-eyed, innocent teens at the start of WWII and strained, world-weary citizens by the end of it. My grandmother was all of 18 when she married Dad’s biological father, Tom, and less than a year later, my father came into the world. Unfortunately, “Grandfather Tom” was a free-spirit artist who had more talent with a brush than he had with his pocketbook. The family bounced from place to place following art gigs, but they were never able to do more than eke out a meager living.

Dad was ten when Grandmamma finally had enough of living on the edge. She divorced Grandfather Tom, something unique in that day and age, and survived as a single mom for several years before finally marrying Chuck, the man that Dad calls his Pop. “Pop”, a long-time friend of the family, had served in the Marines during the war and had a steady job with Wonder Bread. Dad likes to say it was the first time he had a father-figure in his life that provided any direction.

In the years between the marriage and Dad leaving for college, Granddaddy Chuck provided not only financial support for Grandmamma and her three kids, but also moral support. The family followed Chuck’s career all over the globe, but everywhere they went, Chuck ensured they enjoyed life experiences while saving for the future. He worked long hours, but unlike life with Tom, there was always food on the table and heat in the house. Occasionally, the family would even splurge for English Muffins.

Most important, there was always laughter and love within the walls.

Unfortunately, Dad inherited a lot of his father’s free-spirit and college-life quickly went from fun to failing. With the prospect of being kicked out hanging over his head, he opted to follow in Pop’s footsteps and enlisted in the Marines. He spent a miserable three months at Parris Island, enlisted in the MARCAD (Marine Corps Aviation Cadet) program, attended flight school, and found himself three years later with a pair of wings on his chest, a set of “butter-bars” on his collar, and orders to Vietnam in his hands.

The year was 1967.

The late sixties were a bloody and awful time for the Marines in country. Unlike the war in Iraq where at the peak, America was losing approximately 75 warriors a month, U.S. forces in Vietnam suffered over 30 deaths a day. According to The Wall-USA*, total losses for the war were over 58,000**. Between 1967 and 1968, when Dad was in country, losses neared 28,000. To put things into perspective, my war has seen total losses of 4474 in Iraq and another 1966 in Afghanistan***. That’s over ten years of combat and it’s still only 25% the number of deaths covering the two year span that enveloped Dad’s 13-month deployment.

Vietnam affected every combatant personally and Dad was no different. His best friend and co-pilot was killed in the seat next to him during a hot-extraction, his base was shelled constantly, and for the last half of his tour in country, he was assigned as a Forward Air Controller (FAC) to a large airbase called Khe Sahn. He arrived ten days before the siege began and finished his tour two weeks after it ended.****  

What surprises me is not so much that Dad survived, but that he came home in tact. He’s never been closed-lipped about his experiences, but rather views them as a chapter in his life. Granted, it is one that was full of excitement, terror, loss, and boredom, but it was a chapter none-the-less. And when that chapter was finished, he moved on to the next one. First it was finishing college (Dad was the first graduate in the family) followed quickly by Law School.

And then a family.

As a kid, I viewed my father as not only the bread-winner, but also as an authority figure. Ours was a “traditional” household insomuch as Mom stayed at home with us kids while Dad inched up the ranks of the company. Hours were long and he was often gone before we got up in the morning and home right around dinner. He and Mom ran a tight ship, but not once did he bring “the office” home with him. When the tie came off, the stress and politics of the career went with it.

The interesting thing is that despite these long hours, Dad was always around when we needed him. Any time my sister or I had a band concert, play, or sporting event, Dad was there. Sometimes he’d be late, but I can count on one hand the number of times when he didn’t show. In high school, the folks attended every single home rifle meet. Afterwards, they’d invite the entire team over to the house where we’d watch Star Trek: TNG and Dad would bake cookies. For a lot of my friends, he was a surrogate father-figure who treated my peers like human beings and not like a bunch of dumb kids.

Amazingly, my friends seemed to take a shine to that.

Dad was also always a well-spring of cliched, yet amazingly accurate advice. When I was an awkward teen pining about how a girl was out of my league, he sat me down and said, “Son, no woman is out of your league. After all, someone has to date the supermodels and it might as well be you.” When my sister complained about an overly dramatic and needy friend, Dad offered up, “People are like car batteries: There are those who will charge your battery and those who will drain it. The goal in life is to surround yourself with the battery chargers.”

Yup, that’s the kind of stuff I grew up with.

But he was more than just someone who spouted fatherly advice. He was also a man who walked the walk of fatherhood and one of the most glaring examples of this happened when I was ten. I became horribly sick and spent three months on the children’s ward of a mental hospital. From Thanksgiving through Valentines Day, my world was the sterile walls of the hospital and not the crackling fireplace of our home. It was lonely, scary, and demoralizing, but Dad was there every single day. No matter if he had a meeting or client, he would always come by the hospital for a few hours before heading home. We’d play Foosball in the activity room, watch movies on the Betamax, or just sit in my room and play with matchbox cars. We even saw Top Gun for the first time on a projector screen in the gym.

The longer I stayed there, however, the more I came to realize that mine were the only parents to visit regularly. The other troubled or sick kids saw their folks on holidays or, at best, every couple of weeks, but Dad was there 7 days a week. Rain or shine.

The impact that kind of parenting makes on a kid, especially one alone and afraid, is dramatic and it was certainly a defining moment in my life. It was an example of what a strong, loving father should be and Dad went from being just a father to being a man I wanted to emulate.

When I expressed an interest in joining the Marines, Dad emphasized I shouldn’t feel the need to follow in his or Granddaddy’s footsteps. Instead, he wanted me to pave my own way in life, whether or not that included the Marine Corps. But the thing was, the path I wanted to pave was influenced by the leadership and the fatherly example he instilled in me as a kid. So I signed up and shipped out.

What’s funny is that when I finally returned home, he and I spent many late nights sipping wine and recounting tales from our different wars. It was both a bonding experience and something internally cathartic. Sharing that unique bond did more for my own mental health than any post-deployment vacation ever could. And when I finally decided to end my own chapter in the Marines, Dad was right there to give me a hug, hand me a beer, and join me in a toast to the Corps that so greatly shaped the both of us.

Over the years, our relationship has evolved from parent-child into something more akin to family-friends. We don’t always agree, but Dad is part golfing buddy, car fanatic, parent, leader, and wine connoisseur*****. As a kid, I didn’t realize how special the man was, but as an adult, I thank God every day for being one of the lucky ones.

Recently, CobraMrsFit and I started having The Kids talk and while I’ll admit the prospect is a little intimidating, I feel a lot more confident staring down that path thanks to Dad. And if I can be even a fraction of the man to my children that my father was to my sister and me, I’ll count myself extremely lucky.

So here’s to you, Dad. Thank you for forgiving me when, as a baby, I had my first bowel movement on your chest and for not killing me when, at two, I ripped the needle out of the record player. Thank you for being an excellent role model, a humble hero, a passionate patriot, a dauntless leader, and a roll-your-eyes goofball. Thank you for playing with hand-puppets at the end of the bed, telling bad jokes, teaching me how to cut down a tree and chop firewood, always screwing up 'Twas the Night Before Christmas so that Sis and I laugh until we cry (even though Mom hates when you do it), encouraging us to love and accept others who are different than us, and showing us how to stick to our morals and stand by our friends, even when it’s not the popular or easy thing to do.

But above all, thank you for being an amazing father.




Dad and I on the Yard of Bricks at Indy this year

 


**These numbers start in 1957 (1 death) and run through the period of 1980-1995 (66 deaths).


****For an outstanding and completely horrifying read about the siege, I highly recommend The End of the Line: The Siege of Khe Sahn by Robert Pisor.

*****And by connoisseur, I mean we drink only the finest cheapo wine.

2 comments:

  1. Such a touching post! What a wonderful dad you have. :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Cheers, Cobra. To you and your dad.

    ReplyDelete