Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Last Cold Warrior

That would be my Dad, who died nearly eight years ago. I had tritely posted this photo of him on Facebook on Memorial Day, and a friend asked what he was like.

Well, let me tell you: Dad threw the first baseball ever thrown to me.

“He probably dropped it,” he’s saying right now to a passing angel.

He’s saying it with a smile, I am sure. Because the smile means that he’s not serious, that he doesn’t think he was a better man than I am and that, after all, he understands me.

This last comment, I’ve come to believe, is true.

But not the other two things. Deep down, like all fathers, Dad really is serious and really does think he was the better man.

This is the hole in the theory of evolution: No one I’ve met is ever quite as good as his father was. It has do to with the eroding impact of time and the consequent change in values – something that is beyond the control of any father and son.

When Dad graduated from college (he had qualified for both an academic and sports scholarship at Seton Hall), his mother bought him a shark skin suit with money she had saved by hiding it from my grandfather. Dad wore it that day, and then again two years later on the first day of his new job. He couldn’t take a job right after college because he first had to serve in the Navy.

When his active-duty requirement was fulfilled, when he was 23, it was a Friday in 1955. He began his job at New York Telephone, wearing his shark skin suit, the following Monday.

In 35 years there, he never took a sick day. He raised his family. He literally sailed around the world with the Navy, but he figuratively lived and died in New Jersey. He achieved the rank of captain as a reservist, in the Intelligence division. But his politics were never my politics, and I – who knew so much when I was so young – used to teasingly call him “The Last Cold Warrior.”

Dad drank bourbon and quoted Shakespeare when he was drunk. He was a talented calligrapher and artist, and at the age of 17 drew an intricate and richly flourished rendering of the seven last words of Christ. He liked to spend money. He invoked fear in house cats. He had terrible taste in music (witness Aker Bilk, Tom Jones and Trini Lopez). He once was the opposing pitcher to a young Whitey Ford in a semi-pro baseball game.

Despite it all, one day more than a decade ago while Dad watched me dote on my pre-teen daughters, he remarked, “You’re a better father than I was.”

“That’s not true,” I protested.

“You play with your children all the time. I never did that,” he said, trying to toss me a compliment.

“Let’s just drop it,” I said, trying not to disappoint him.