My father died 37 years ago, a week before his 61st birthday. He was playing golf when he dropped dead of a heart attack while waiting to tee off. Not a bad way to go, really, especially if you are an avid golfer.
For the first two decades or so of my life, our relationship was ... okay. We were two very different people. He was good with his hands. I was not. Other than the newspaper, he was not much of a reader. I was a bookworm. He loved tools and fixing things. I never met a machine I could understand.
Things shifted between us after I went to Vietnam. He never got to serve in the Army due to an already bad heart. Like other men of his generation, that failure to serve in uniform gnawed at him. I think maybe he got a vicarious sense of vindication from my service. Certainly, I think he felt duty-bound to treat me as a man in full, especially after I came home on leave in my uniform.
What really sealed the deal between us was when I got married. I’m sure he and my mother were both despairing of that ever happening. The fact that not only did I get engaged but also she was beautiful and smart and got along well with them was … well, just about as good as it gets.
My father was a very talented man. He was a professional cabinet-maker and built custom homes in the days when homes were still stick-built. He could fix just about anything with moving parts. He was a scratch golfer who won the member-guest championship (First Flight) at just about every club in the area. He loved to play guitar and looked forward to his jam sessions with a few of the other local musicians.
The thing I remember most about him was his inflexible sense of honesty. He was the kind of guy who was honest when nobody was looking, if you know what I mean. I guess it rubbed off on me, or at least I hope it did.
The other thing we shared is a basic gregariousness. (My kids are rolling their eyes along about now.) He taught me that most folks are pretty friendly if you just treat them that way. It sprang from a fierce sense of small-town egalitarianism. Wherever he was, there was nobody any better than he was. After all, this was a guy who used to play with JFK and who knew secrets about Humphrey Bogart.
The one way that I am different from him as a father is in telling my kids that I love them. My father's generation didn’t do that. I know he loved me, but hearing the words would have been nice. I don’t hold it against him, though. That’s just how things were in those days.
So maybe on Father's Day it is fitting that I stop for a minute and tell my father that I love him, because come to think of it I don’t know if I ever said that to him when he was alive. Dad, if you are up there listening: "Happy Father's Day. You did all right in my book. I love you."
Reprinted with minor revisions from A Misunderstood God.