Monday, January 30, 2006

Thoughts about my dad

When I visited my dad on Thursday, his last day, I could tell that he was in congestive heart failure. When he coughed up some fluid with difficulty and exclaimed, “oh, boy,” I said, “I’m sorry, honey.” With alacrity, and even a little cheerfulness, he responded, “I’m okay.” My dad was more than okay. He was a mighty man, into whose life, talent, and character I can give only a few glimpses.

My dad grew up on a farm in north central Iowa. He met my mom in high school and, on her graduation, they were married. My parents relocated to southern California shortly before I was born. We first lived in Venice and then moved to the idyllic Hollywood Riviera neighborhood of Redondo Beach a few months before I turned seven.

My dad joined the Navy near the end of World War II after having been deferred from the draft both for having a family and working in a defense plant. I am very happy to say that his answer to the (rhetorical) question, “What did you do in the war, daddy?” included such happy memories as these of his stay on postwar Guam:

He used large motorized equipment to smash open coconuts;
He made what might have been the world’s most expensive ice cream with augers and liquid oxygen; and,
He strung cowry shells onto wire and sold the resulting necklaces at the base hospital.

Although we watched every episode of Victory at Sea together, the war experiences he talked about throughout his life were these light ones.

My dad was a funny guy. One of my favorite memories is of opening the refrigerator in our home one morning and seeing annotated eggs in the door egg holder. My mom had, one could infer at a glance, boiled some eggs and, when she returned them to the holders, had distinguished them from the others by writing “raw” on all the raw eggs. When my dad discovered this he grabbed a pen and wrote on the remaining eggs something like this: “rah!” “rah! rah!” “go team!” and so on.

One of my dad’s greatest gifts to me and surely my best gift to him were the love of baseball and a World Series game. My folks and I, sometimes together with a favorite priest, would pile into the early 1950s Nash Rambler, purchased because the seats folded down into a frequently-used bed, to go to the Hollywood Stars games at Gilmore Field, in those pre-freeway days something of a trek. My first major league team, which I acquired the same way most children do, because it was my parent’s team, was the Cleveland Indians. The Indians were not the closest team to my dad’s Iowa hometown, as Chicago was much nearer, but I’ve always believed they were his team because their star was a big flame-throwing Iowa farm boy named Bob Feller. I followed the Indians closely since, as an 11 year-old, I subscribed to and read baseball’s trade paper, the Sporting News. (Baseball wasn’t all that I got from my dad, as you will see.)

In 1965, when I had begun to put baseball aside for nearly ten years to more fully immerse myself in the 60s, the Dodgers met the Minnesota Twins in the World Series. Unlike today, tickets could be obtained by the general public and by working the postal system I was able to get tickets for my dad and me. Looking at the records, I’m pretty sure we watched Sandy Koufax pitch but what I remember most about the game was the jubilation of the diverse band of fans in the left field bleachers and the wonder and gratitude on my dad’s face when I surprised him with the tickets. When I visited my folks over the years I’d always get my dad to watch a game on TV with me if possible. I think now that he just liked the game while I “worship at the church of baseball,” but that’s the thing about a good gift: in the right soil it can blossom and baseball remains a steady font of pure joy for me.

My dad was the most competent person I’ve ever met--he always was eager to learn something as deeply as he could. He had many avocations (the word “hobbies” seems inadequate to delineate the excellence that accompanied all he did). Sure, there were oddities, like the fact that his handmade (in the 1950s!) camper shell and our house were always economically painted the same color and, later, when his energies were focused on the contents of one suburban back yard in Kennewick where he grafted 6 varieties of apples onto one apple tree, but nothing was so emblematic of the man as the commitment and dedication that he mobilized when he decided to keep bees.

What follows is a brief piece I wrote about him on Father’s Day while on a writing and meditation retreat in June 2004. The Beekeeper.