Sunday, June 20, 2010

Cool Daddy-O

Jean says: Happy Father's Day! I wanted to take this opportunity to remember my father.
His first name was John and his middle name was William, so he was "John Dubbya." My dad was one cool cat. Tall (6'3"), handsome (straight, jet black hair and grey eyes) with matinee idol good looks and a dry sense of humor, he was a hell of a guy. Here he is, looking dapper in his college photo. He was a track star at the Univerity of Idaho in Moscow and a member of Sigma Chi fraternity. I have his gold track letter "I" on a watch chain and his massive Sigma Chi ring with its carved agate Greek warrior's head. (Regular readers know what a pack rat I am.)

He was a farm boy, born in Rosalia, Washington, in the eastern part of the state - over the mountain range from Seattle, near the Idaho border. Here he is with his parents, his older sister Melissa (Aunt Missy) and his younger brother Robert (Uncle Bob) in the tricycle and, of course, the family cat. He also had a small Sheltie collie at about this time. He was a big animal lover. When my brother John and I were little, my parents got us a kitten (Clancy) and a small Sheltie collie mix (Jonesy). They were the best Christmas presents we ever got. Although Jonesy succumbed to kidney failure at age 16, Clancy lived to be 24 years old! When I left for college each fall, I remember my dad telling me to be sure to say goodby to Clancy since she probably wouldn't be there one of the times when I got home. Needless to say, she was around after I'd graduated college, went to grad school, and had moved to New York.

Here's my dad's high school photo. He's doing his best Scarlett Johansen imitation! He spent his summers and holidays working on the farm. And, in that part of the country, kids regularly skipped school at harvest time, in order to bring in the crops. I have his carved white gold Illinois wrist watch, simply engraved on the back: "John June 1932". (I also have the yellow gold Elgin he wore in the 1950s through the 1970s.)

My grandparents owned wheat farms and my dad and Uncle Bob helped plant and harvest wheat, barley, peas and hops. Here's a picture of my dad (right) and Uncle Bob on seed bags out in the rolling fields. My dad was in college at the time and Bob was in high school.

This shot captures Dad's goofy side. He kept an old cigar box in the bottom drawer of his dresser that held all kinds of neat stuff, including three rattlesnake tails from snakes that had been killed on the farm. ( I have also kept the rattles.) The farms were located in Colfax and Whitman counties in what is known as the Palouse Prarie, which was bordered by the forests of northern Idaho and the Snake River to the south, bisected by the Palouse River. Steptoe Butte is the highest point and dominates the landscape. It was named after Colonel E.J. Steptoe, a Civil War hero who came west after the war and lost a battle to the local Indians.

Here's my dad and my Aunt Missy. My older brother John and I each inherited one of the wheat farms in Washington state, while my younger brother inherited my parents' house in Maryland. Because both my Uncle Bob and my Aunt Missy moved to California, I didn't really know them very well growing up.

Although he was a Navy fighter pilot in WWII, he never spoke about the war. It was only after his death in 1987 that we learned why. His brother, our Uncle Bob, disclosed to my younger brother that because my dad had been assigned to fly an admiral somewhere, he did not accompany the rest of his squadron on what turned out to be a fatal mission. I cannot fathom my father's emotions at losing his comrades and at being spared their fate.

After his discharge, he relocated to Washington, D.C. to work for the Navy Department as a civilian, a naval engineer. It was there that he met my mother, who was working for the Government Accounting Office. Mom had been a school teacher in her hometown in Pennsylvania, but had moved to D.C. after her fiance was killed in the Battle of the Bulge. My dad worked on the development of sonar and eventually worked on rockets like the Nike and Tomahawk missiles.

Here's a picture of my dad with my older brother John, both looking quite debonaire. To differentiate the two and avoid confusion, my mother called my dad John and my brother "Johnny." (I was "Jeannie" and my younger brother was "Mikey".) My dad was a straight-forward, plain-talking Gary Cooper kind of guy, as were so many western men. He didn't smoke and rarely drank. He was a great driver. He was also the most honest man I've ever met. The best memories I have of my dad was when he'd read stories to me and my brothers. He could even make comic books hilariously entertaining. He'd stretch out on my parents' bed and we'd lie down, lined up on either side of him. My brothers and I were always jockeying for position since, with three of us, no one wanted to be "odd man out". It was a miracle that my brothers and I survived to adulthood. As my mother would say we "fought like cats and dogs". When we were particularly exasperating, my mother would warn: "Wait till your father gets home." What a joke. The last thing he wanted to do after a long day at work was deal with unruly kids. So, it was sort of an unspoken agreement between him and us to just pretend we'd been sternly reprimanded. He was definitely not the disciplinarian in the house. Heck, I even had a long red and white flannel nightgown that said "You're the apple of my eye."

My dad went back to Washington periodically to check on the farms, even after my grandparents moved to California. Here he is with one of his young cousins. Whenever he hoisted me up on his shoulder that way, I remember thinking how incredibly high off the ground it seemed. I always felt safe with my dad. He was solid as a rock and dependable. He was always there for me, in grade school, high school, college, and long after. While my mother could sometimes be emotional and moody, he was always even-tempered and smiling, quick to laugh. Although he was a funny guy, he was a terrible joke-teller. I remember when he taught me to ride a two-wheeled bike, he said training wheels were for babies. He'd hold the bike while I got on, give it a push and then run like hell to keep up with me and catch me when I'd start to fall. He taught me to throw a ball and was very proud when I made shortstop on St. Bernadette's girls' softball team and won the CYO championship. (I also still have that trophy.) Even though he wasn't Catholic, he drove us all to church every Sunday, was a scout master, coached softball and helped run the Christmas tree sales. In between, he fixed the car, built a stone wall in the back yard, made my mother a cedar closet and finished the basement.

Here's a picture of my Uncle Bob, Aunt Missy and Dad and one of their uncles. As you can see, height runs in the men of the family. Although my mother was only 5'5" and I'm only 5'4", both of my brothers are over 6' 2". They inherited my dad's good looks. And I look (and am) so much like my mother, it's scary.

After JFK was shot, my dad took me and my brothers to the Capitol to see his body lying in state. People were lined up for blocks in the cold. He parked the car in a garage under the Senate side of the building and when we got off the elevator, because the Marine honor guards thought we were some kind of VIPs, they just let us in line about 20 feet before the casket. Dad had this sheepish look like "Puhleeeze, kids, just keep your mouths shut and we'll get through this." He was so embarassed and I was just pleased as punch. It was a night and an experience I will never forget.

At some point, my dad became an aeronautical engineer and, because of his rocket experience, left the Navy to work at NASA with Werner von Braun in Huntsville, Alabama on the Apollo program. Needless to say, the phrase "It doesn't take a rocket scientist" took on a whole new meaning in our household. We drove that joke into the ground! After about 5 years, after the successful moon shot, he went back to work for the Navy. And, ever so briefly, after I graduated from college and was looking for a teaching job, I took the civil service exam and got a job at NASA in Washington, D.C. working for Rocco Petrone, in the Apollo program. It was really weird how many people, upon finding out that I was "John Dubya's daughter", would go out of their way to tell me how I needed to know what a great a guy he was and describe exactly how he had personally helped or influenced them. It provided a very interesting window on my father's life in the outside world.

At my college graduation, I remember one of my classmates coming into the ladies' room and asking "Is that your father? He looks just like a move star." That remark drew loud guffaws from one of the stalls (from my mother). He was healthy as a horse and rarely sick, so it was a shock when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1980. When my husband and I got married in 1986, we had the ceremony and small reception in my parents' house so my dad could be there, since he was no longer mobile. My girlfriends Quynn and Linda were my bridesmaids and my brothers were best men. My husband and I then had a wedding reception in New York the following week for our friends and my husband's side of the family. My brothers and my mother and her bridge club (dubbed "The Golden Girls" by my friends) and Quynn and Linda came to the Big Apple for the occasion. Linda took this picture of my dad just before his diagnosis. After a long illness, my dad developed pneumonia, most likely from aspirating food, and eventually died in March of 1987. Both my Aunt Missy and Uncle Bob have since died. Both had Parkinson's.

I thank you for indulging me and my reminicences. And wish a Happy Fathers Day to all the dads out there.

Valerie says:

Just a Bit About My Dad

Since I monopolized the Mother's Day column in May, I'll keep my Father's Day tribute brief (is that possible?), and give my father his due in a future post. Today, I'll just attach two photos.

People often comment that they find it hard to think of their parents as three dimensional individuals who had full, happy, meaningful lives before the arrival of their children. This photo has that effect on me. I think it dates back to about 1950, predating me. During my lifetime, I simply thought of my parents as sturdy, straightforward, goodhearted people with a strong work ethic. I don't know anything about the circumstances behind the photo, but both of them look as though they spent the day on a glamorous movie set working as extras in a film starring Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth, and were allowed to keep the costumes. I know who they are, but still I want to ask 'Who ARE they?' And of course I'm glad to see that whoever they were, they looked like they were having a good time. (Hey, did I inherit my love of hats from my father?)

I've chosen this photo because it shows off my father's full head of nattily styled gray hair. Once it had been prematurely gray, but when this photo was taken it was 'on time' gray. My mother was very taken with my father's hair style, and I remember that even at a very young age, when I had no idea how to judge a man's looks, I too thought my father's hair very appealing.

So you can imagine our shock and devastation, one very hot summer, when my father suddenly had it all cut off in favor of a crew cut. If you look at the movies of the time, when military themes predominated, even suave sophisticated Glenn Ford traded in his pompadour for a crew cut and his double breasted suit for a uniform. It was suddenly the manly thing to do. To my mother's chagrin, he kept that haircut for decades.

Later in his life my father, like Jean's, succumbed to parkinsonism, complicated by a series of strokes, and slowly lost the ability to keep up his fastidious grooming regimen. My mother became his caretaker, and for the most part she was a good and dutiful wife. But in one way she defied him: she got rid of that crew cut. When he died, at the age of 83, although he'd lost some of the volume of his salad days, he had a full head of hair.

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The Flip Side of Father's Day

Yesterday, while riding a crowded bus, I saw a handsome father get on with his cute young daughter. The little girl, maybe 9, walked to the back of the bus, while the father stopped in the middle. He called to her three times, and when at last he got her attention, he wordlessly made a sweeping arc with his eyes and his chin, and pointed more or less to his shoulder. Clearly he meant 'come here'. It was none of my business, but I was offended by his lack of warmth, particularly the day before Father's Day. Couldn't he have said 'Please come here', or 'Let's stand here', or 'Come back'?

The little girl soon found a seat, but the father had to stand for a while. He had an iPod, and two ear buds in his ears, and later also pulled out a cell phone and reviewed that, completely ignoring his daughter. Finally, a seat became available beside her, and the daughter happily called to her father. He was looking away, and neither heard nor saw her, so she had to call him several times. When he turned around, he saw her holding the seat for him, but he ignored her thoughtful gesture. Poor little girl, I thought - so few things a 9 year old can do for her father. She's found one, and tries to show that she's a good daughter. But instead of saying thank you and sitting, he acts as if she hasn't done anything at all. He almost acts as if she isn't even there.

Eventually, the father DID sit down, and kissed his little girl on the head, which put him back in my good books.

This is not the kind of blog that fathers read, but I have to say it even if it only goes out into the ether: Fathers, put down your iPods and your iPhones while your kids are around. Let them know where your priorities are. Enjoy your kids now. Your iPod and iPhone will still be there while your kids are asleep, AND they'll still be there 20 years from now when your kids are grown and gone. Love your kids now. Love your things later.

What Do Readers Want?

This week we had first time readers from Guatemala, Korea, Taiwan and Uganda. Welcome all!

Sometimes readers are looking for us (thanks, readers!) or the things that interest us, and sometimes they find us utterly by accident. This week one of our readers found us while googling IDIOSYNCRATIC FIT. I'd never heard of that, so I googled it too.

One of the places it's explained is in a dissertation entitled How to Attract Customers by Giving Them the Short End of the Stick, written by a doctoral candidate in business management. (And idiosyncratic fit is not all of it - there is also idiosyncratic fit heuristic. Raise your hand if you have ever even seen that word before. Notice I am not raising my hand.) The theory looks like it's adapted from the Bernie Madoff school of thought.

This is depressing. It's one thing to get the short end of the stick, to know you're getting the short end of the stick and to resign yourself to getting it probably every day in every aspect of your life. It's another to see in black and white that people are actually paid to conduct studies devoted to giving customers the short end of the stick - and getting them to like it.

Well, everyone needs a job, and not everyone can be something useful like a fireman or a marine biologist, I guess.


  1. heey, i loved your blog and it was great to read about your father! he was so handsome, but thats not all. his face was so expressive. there is something so special on his photos. i am sure he will live forever in your heart. thank you for sharing the photos with us^^

    by Paula

  2. Hi,

    It's so nice to read about two of my favorite things, dads whom their daughters love and rocket science!
    As a daddy's girl myself, I can feel your pride of being your father's girl!

    My father is my best friend, philosopher and guide, and was quite the disciplinarian growing up. I feel the current generation lacks that respect for their fathers. Their loss.
    Here's to dads all over!!