Screams From My Father

Great title, eh?  Perfect for a Simpson’s Halloween vignette.  Not really applicable to what follows, but I like it too much not to use it.

I just came back from Ohio visiting my dad, who has Alzheimer’s.  He’ll be 83 in December, and he is in a facility.  Most shocking is how much weight he’s lost.  I have a picture of him when he was in the Army, stationed in Korea in the early ‘50s.  He is standing by a pond shirtless: he was ripped.  He was a fine enough athlete that at a mass tryout for the St. Louis Cardinals, he got an invitation for a second look, but for some reason he did not go back, but he went on to be a very good fast-pitch softball player, when that was a big deal in Columbus, Ohio. Later in life – as most of us do – he put on weight.  But the typical 225-230 lbs he carried on his 5’11” mesomorphic frame are gone; he’s a bony 155 lbs now.  He doesn’t eat enough, so they have to force Ensure down him to keep him going.  He’s not completely gone mentally, but when he’s not dozing he’s mostly confused, like asking about my mother’s whereabouts, and she passed away in 1989.  It’s sad that this guy that used to scare the crap out of me when he would turn and look at us fighting in the back seat of the car, and say “God help you all if I have to stop this car…” with this vein pulsing in his temple is now in such a state.  (He never stopped the car, just so you know)  Dad had the Clint Eastwood thing in “Gran Torino” down cold.  Get off of my lawn…

I’ve got this sweet gooey spot for father-son moments in movies.  When Kevin Costner’s dad comes walking across the “field of dreams” as a young man in a baseball uniform, I’m weeping.  Campbell dying in the arms of Hamish in “Braveheart”; Musafa and Simba in “The Lion King”; Darth and Luke, and on and on.  But the movie that’s the ultimate tear-jerker is a programmer made in 1945 titled “The Fighting Sullivans”, the true story of the five Sullivan brothers who perished together serving on the same ship in the Battle of Midway.  Their father was a conductor on the railroad, and the boys would run to a water tower every morning before school to wave at their dad as he passed by on the train.  When the always reliable Ward Bond brings the bad news to the family, while the Sullivan women sprint to kitchen and cry, Thomas Mitchell walks over to the mantle and stuffs his pipe, expressionless.  Finally he says “I haven’t missed a day on the railroad in 33 years, and I’m not going to miss my first day today.”  As he passes the water tower on the back of the train, he salutes the water tower. (I’m tearing up just writing this)

I’m not sure why I’m so emotional in that regard – maybe most fathers are, but we just don’t talk about it over our pitcher of beer during halftime of “Monday Night Football.”  My dad and I never had a real strong bond, and it’s not all on him, as I was a weird kid.  (I hear you, now I’m a weird adult)  Now there are a lot of good memories: going to many minor league baseball and hockey games; tossing the football or baseball in the backyard; watching Cleveland Browns football together. If you’ve read any of Pat Conroy’s books where his father Don is an inspiration (The Prince of Tides, The Great Santini, My Losing Season), you’ll understand me when I say Carl Walker was no Don Conroy.  The only time I could remember him hitting me was when I was 4 or 5, and he was washing the car.  I got hold of the garden hose, and was having great fun squirting him – so much fun I was oblivious to his repeated warnings of “OK, that’s enough” – and I got spanked.  My mother – moved by the joyous child laughter turned to piteous weeping – came outside and put the hammer down on him: no siblings were conceived that night, I’m confident.  Another great father-son moment was my senior year of high school, and he stopped coming to the basketball games.  I asked him why he stopped coming, and he said quite straightforwardly “You don’t play.”  I had no rejoinder for that one, as I was admittedly a pretty crappy basketball player.  Still, looking back he could have given me a little something…you know…for the effort.  It’s theoretically possible that my coach – after a particularly memorable night of sweet monkey love with Mrs. Coach – could have been in a good enough mood coincidental with us have a 50-point lead to put me in the game, and I could have made a nice dribble or something.  Wouldn’t a good father wanted to take that chance, making missing an episode of Lawrence Welk worth it? Meh, rhetorical question.  My biggest beef with the poor dope is the way he was mostly indifferent to my sons after my mother died and he remarried, like showing any affection to them risked cheesing off my stepmother.  It was with many such dark thoughts swirling through my head that I took to the nature trail near my home, after I got a phone call saying he was sliding.  “If they ask me to do the eulogy, what do I say?” was the question I wrangled with as I walked that day.  After all, if Bill Clinton could pimp Barack Obama at the DNC – whom he loathes – I could sincerely eulogize my dad.  And after an hour of vigorous striding, it started coming to me.

There’s a song titled “The Superman Song” by a 90s group called The Crash Test Dummies.  Every time I hear that song, I think it would be a great song played at my dad’s wake.  If you’re not familiar with it, here’s the music video:

Dad was a career service man for GE’s appliance division.  He took a lot of pride in his work and his appearance, always impeccable neat and precise in everything he did.  I remember he took ribbings from coworkers on these traits, like how he kept his shoes with a military-grade shine.  He was always getting awards for the service contracts he sold, even though if you spent any time around him he wouldn’t have impressed you as any kind of salesman.  I overheard him tell someone that secret to his success was……wait for it……always asking the customer if they wanted to buy a service contract.  Some of his colleagues found that simple step challenging.  I do know my dad didn’t particularly like his job – he liked the work itself, but it was the people part that got to him sometimes.  It seemed the more money people had, the more grief they gave him about how much his services cost, and would hover over him like they didn’t trust him.  Knowing this gave resonance for me to the aforementioned song’s lyrics, e.g:

Sometimes when Supe was stopping crimes

I’ll bet that he was tempted to just quit and turn his back

On man, join Tarzan in the forest

But he stayed in the city, and kept on changing clothes

In dirty old phone booths til his work was through

And nothing to do but go on home.

My dad loved my mother and he loved us.  His dad was not a great role model, being married four times, something of the Charlie Sheen of Waverly, Ohio back in the day.  But my dad always did what was right, the best he knew how.  He was always employed.  I never once felt insecure about my parent’s marriage.  In an inconstant age, Dad’s constancy counts for a lot.

Love you Dad.

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