Saturday, June 18, 2016

Great Dad, Ordinary Dad: So Different for Sons

My son Nigel and I walking to Church

Young boys learn how to be men by watching their fathers.

The son of a house painter who works for his Dad during the summers then joins the family business has comfortable relationship with who his father is and what his father does.  The son learns over years of apprenticeship that he can do the kind of work Dad does. Dad is not pushing him to do something "great."  Nor is the son striving to do something beyond his reach.

I sometimes wonder how different my life would have been if I had not tried so hard to be my Dad. I simply did not have the physical ability to do the things my Dad did, so I spent 50 years striving to make up the deficit I felt.  

My Dad, as I have written elsewhere, was a middleweight boxer and a minor-league pitcher for the Reading Phillies.  I have no ability to play stick-and-ball sports, nor did I have any ability to box.  My biggest fight at age 17 was a school-yard fight that sent me to the hospital with several broken bones.  My Dad also dropped out of school at the end of the eighth grade and got a job to help his immigrant family.  When I was growing up, my Dad was a Teamster, a truck driver and warehouseman, who told stories about being a soldier, a boxer and playing ball.  

I knew boxer and ballplayer were hopeless goals for me, but Teamster and soldier were possible.  All through high school I barely passed classes not from lack of ability but because I want to hang with the kids who were not going to college.  My tenth-grade English teacher told me the only reason I passed her class was that she did not want to have me again the next year.  She told me I would never be able to write.  

During that summer, like every summer since I was 12, I swept floors at the warehouse where my father worked, 40 hours a week, Tuesday to Saturday.  During the breaks and lunch, I would sit on pallet and read.  That summer I read a half-dozen popular science books by Isaac Asimov about chemistry and physics and many chapters of Amateur Radio Relay League manual.  Because I was in the lowest level of English courses, it would be a decade before I learned of the magic in The Divine Comedy and 19th Century Russian novels. But if I had known, I would have been reading the Great Books out of love, not for grades.

Though my real interest was in science and literature, I made cars and work the center of my life, knowing that later I could be a soldier and a Teamster.  After high school I got a Teamsters warehouse job.  Six months later I enlisted in the waning years of the Vietnam War. For as long as I could remember, I was sure I was not the son my father wanted, but when I enlisted, a little of the burden lifted.  

When my Dad died 12 years later, I was in graduate school.  After seven years in the military, I got out, went to college, fell in love with Dante and the Russians and finally started the life I should have been pursuing since I was a kid.  Even with a successful career as a writer and a big family, I still felt the haunting feeling that I was not and would never be the man my father was.  I have met other men through my life who felt the same thing.  I know a guy who is a senior editor at the New York Times.  His Dad was leading surgeon, and wanted his son to be a surgeon.  My friend could feel that disappointment until the day his Dad died.  

We talked once about how we could keep from doing the same thing to our sons, and decided it was probably hopeless.  I was very proud of my Dad.  I loved the idea that I was the son of the toughest guy in a Teamsters warehouse with 300 drivers and dock workers.  But I never felt that he loved anything I was doing.

So for my sons, I am cheering when my older son boxes, cheering when my younger son sings and drums, and trying to help them figure out the best school for them to have a job and a life they will like. 

I did not get over thinking about being a disappointment to my Dad until I got home from Iraq.  Until then, I had doubted myself in many ways including personal courage.  But when I stepped off the plane that took us home to America, I decided I had nothing to prove on that score.  

In the 34 years since my Dad died, I have wanted him to meet his grandchildren.  I wanted to tell him about the 30 countries and five continents I visited.  I wanted to convince him I had done something he could be proud of.  But after Iraq, I just wanted to talk to him.  In his words, I wanted to "shoot the shit" about nothing in particular.  Finally, I felt as if my Dad and I could just talk.  And on this Father's Day, I will be thinking about how to make sure my own sons don't have to wait 56 years for that day.

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