Saturday, March 29

My Old Man

Today would have been dad's 104th birthday.

He's been gone for forty years, long enough now that if I spend any time looking at his image, he just doesn't look right. I can no longer hear his voice.

He died when he was the same age I am now, give or take, but he was really much older. He lived through the Depression in a small Kansas town, working at whatever he could find to help his family make ends meet. He mined coal, dug ditches and finally settled on his lifelong avocation, meat cutter.

His health was always in question. He suffered four heart attacks in one day in August of 1962, and his sudden mortality always haunted him. He was strong as a bull, but afraid he'd drop dead at any moment. One day  in June 1974, he did, in front of the building at 4620 J.C. Nichols Parkway, where he was headed to see his doctor. I was in my late twenties before I realized there were shops and Christmas lights on the Country Club Plaza. I always turned around just shy of the fantasy retail world when I took dad to the Plaza to see the doctor.

Dad could be monastic in his ways. He wore mostly the same thing every day - khakis, a white shirt with a wife-beater under it, white socks and black Navy oxford shoes. I made a run downtown to Copeland's Surplus every year to buy two pair of shoes for him, and always used that trip to play every instrument at Jenkins Music, right up the block.

He met my mom when they were both working at a Kroger store in Kansas City, Kansas. It was to be the second marriage for them both - he had been married to Josephine Long, and they had two children; my half-brother Bill and my half-sister Sonjalee. Mom's first was one Rudolph Chopp. I know nothing of him, nor why they divorced. None of this matters much, except as genealogical bread crumbs.

Mom and Dad, 1972
My dad was immensely popular with the kids I ran with. Long after our teenage breakups, ex-girlfriends would come visit my dad. He would, in turn give them things, things that might still be useful and wanted around our house, but dad had very little sense of ownership. Virginia Tackett, a stunning young Asian-American girl from the neighborhood - and by stunning I mean just plain pretty - was the recipient of dad's old Underwood typewriter, the one I learned to type on. I'm still holding a grudge on that one. My old friend Mark received a 1955 Cadillac 62 Series sedan from dad.

I got my manic-depressive tendencies from dad. When he was on an emotional high, he was invincible. When he was at the bottom, he was pitifully morose. At these times, he didn't give things away, he threw them away, destroyed them. Photo albums, home movies, tools, dishes all made it to the fifty-five gallon burn barrel in the back yard.

Dad painted everything. It was what kept me moving - I was afraid that if I sat still for too long, I'd get a fresh coat of paint. Dad was either an eccentric genius with an inferiority complex, or he was crazy as an outhouse rat. He was loathe to view anyone as a celebrity and would ceaselessly mock the starry-eyed, but if he liked someone, he was as fan-giddy as a bobby-soxer. He worshipped Red Skelton and was sure Red would like him as well, a sort of 1960 Facebook-ish mutual admiration connection in an entirely imaginary world.

Unlike my friend Tommy's dad, who had fought and served, my dad sat out World War II building B-25 bombers at the North American Plant in Fairfax. He wasn't the wry and patriarchal powerhouse that pal Steve's dad was. He was just, well, different than the other dads. To me he seemed weak, somehow unaccomplished. I didn't understand at all. I felt cheated somehow.

For all of his shortcomings, I never knew of dad intentionally hurting anyone or anything, save a few carp and catfish that came too close to his dough-baits, the source of much of his income and pride during the last twenty years of his life. His summer nights were often spent at area pay lakes doing R&D, while I waxed the Cadillac and listened to rock 'n' roll.

The day that dad died, a Monday afternoon, the day after Father's Day, I was building houses in Castle Rock, Colorado. My boss's wife walked the 300 feet to the job site to tell me that my mom was on the phone at the house, waiting.

"On a Monday afternoon?" I already knew what had happened. Dad always scheduled his appointments with Dr. Miller on Mondays so mom could take him on her days off. Mom never had a real day off for most of her life. Dad had collapsed on the sidewalk in front of the medical building and suffered a massive cardiac event. It was over long before the ambulance arrived.

He was buried in the only suit he owned, a simple blue serge from Robert Hall and wore a tie-tack manufactured and crafted by my half-brother. It was one of the first artificial sapphires ever created, a more perfect crystalline structure than any in nature. The morning of his funeral, the Masons swooped in an decked dad out in the appropriate Masonic apron and accoutrements, though I had never known dad to be active in the Lodge. It was slightly surreal.

Dad was one helluva cook, and could make shoe-leather-cheap cuts of meat into sumptuous fare. He never met a stranger, much to my pudgy adolescent embarrassment. He was entirely color-blind, both in visual acuity and in relation to the races. He was brilliant, if uneducated and eternally optimistic in spite of his hard life. He was delightfully goofy and innocent, and I was his reason for being. He gave me gifts of insight, gifts of inspiration and an appreciation in advance for all that I have, and all that I am now.

Finally, I understand. 

Happy Birthday, Dad.

Thus spake the rabbit.

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