LESSONS OF OUR FATHERS
The human heart beats approximately 4800 times an hour, over 100,000 times a day…an incredible 3.3 billion times in the lifespan of an average human. Consistent dependability like that would imply a level of reliability - behavior so unwaveringly predictable it can be found only in degenerate gamblers, phony Christian businessmen and sycophant Democrats. Life’s vagaries, however, preclude any such assumption regarding the untimely appearance of the Reaper - no respecter of age or wealth or innocence or health. Exactly when that final heartbeat will occur is a cosmic lottery. Believe it – this life becomes a precarious proposition after the age of 65 for everyone you ever loved and everyone that ever loved you, an irrefutable fact I came to fully realize this past autumn.
After exposure to the Hepatitis A virus - from a Grosse Pointe MI restaurant that will go unnamed (Champ’s on Mack Avenue) - Freddie Van languished on Death’s Door for four weeks and ultimately landed in Winter Park Hospital for 6 days suffering from a severe case of Jaundice, his skin as yellow as a canary perched on a Daisy.
After the second day in the hospital, I counted 55 scenarios that could kill me, (without even leaving the hospital), tabulating the different ways by marking on a legal pad 11 groups of five using four vertical strokes and a diagonal slash. On the fourth night, for the first time in 10 years I dreamed of my Father and was convinced I was going to die.
This was not the “Father as Prophet” with goatee, long hair and flowing white robes that came to me in the last dream a decade ago when the Prostate cancer, (another of life’s many unexpected surprises), nearly vanquished me - but this time a silent and ominous apparition that didn’t speak and vanished as quickly as he appeared. This was not boding well and, for the 100th time I contemplated, after nearly 67 years, if this is how it all ends - not with a bang but with a whimper - death by a thousand cuts.
The following morning when I informed my medical “team” of my imminent demise, the three docs did not take the news well.
The chief Doc, some off-brand Asian with a face like an old catcher’s mitt whose degree was doubtless obtained from some matchbook Medical College during the Tet offensive, was stunned. “What make you think you die? You much improve every day - we find nothing wrong. You good shape - you get very better”.(Although his diction was precise and he spoke with a perfect, non-regional American accent, his sentence structure and syntax screamed “In-country Hooch”.)
“Do more tests”, I remarked, “you’ll find something”, still thinking of my Pop’s unworldly visitation the night before and convinced it had some ethereal meaning. After several more days of seemingly random sticking, poking, blood-taking and waiting for results with extreme consternation - feeling like one of a dozen “possible” fathers nervously waiting for the results of the maternity tests on the Maury Pauvich Show - I survived and was released, weakened but heroically alive.
However, the looming ephemeral figure of my Dad in the hospital room struck a portentous note of dread deep within me. My father is currently deceased, having ridden off into the celestial sunset with his personal Pale Rider over 25 years ago. In the intervening years I had not been given to contemplation about his life and its affect upon me - over time the musings had become eerily silent.
This year, however, after some reflection I realized the attrition rate of many of my friend’s fathers is off the chart which - would be expected from an age group in their late 80’s and 90’s, even for paragons of indestructibility. They were a different kind of cat, this assemblage of men. From the incomparable successes of a single man who built a world-class company and achieved Furniture Magnate status to the myriad small business owners, this generation of Patriarchs were resigned, duty-bound and at times stoic - encompassing a world-view that was unfailingly unyielding.
I am part of that Boomer generation - American males, born in the middle of the last century to fathers, many who endured a Great Depression and survived World War II or the Korean “Conflict” - hard men, tough as month-old beef jerky who had seen much and were not simply proud of their resilience, but stubbornly exalted in it. It was an era in America, long before the fear of toxic masculinity and politically correct institutional emasculation of males when fathers fulfilled an important role in child rearing - especially boys. After the rigors of deprivation and war they dreamed big, and, upon their return many of them reasoned their unique sacrifices were not made to simply seek the normalcy of the suburbs, to burn beef on the backyard BBQ and acquire a second car to find only a modicum of satisfaction in merely grabbing their little piece of the American Dream.
They attempted to instill in us what we were told were the uniquely American values of hard work, fair play and, above all, winning. Their lesson was simple, direct and embodied the admirable certitude and determination of that generation; in Post-War II America, one’s self worth and value was derived from what one produced - the score was kept by the material stuff acquired and accumulated.
For the most part our young lives, if not perfect, were very good. As kids, life was simple. We idolized our sports icons – the Wheaties box heroes who, whether through clean living or a compliant press, never seemed to be challenged with aberrant social pathologies like drug addiction, wife beating, obnoxious braggadocio and the pathetic self absorption so prevalent in the New America. Life, as we understood it was uncomplicated, especially in Parochial schools (where there was no “Time Out”…maybe “Knockout” when you screwed up); everyone knew the rules and you violated them and got whacked at your own peril. This was no country for snowflakes - swift and uncompromising justice provided clarity.
Our teenage and college years were spent pursuing the mindful and purposeful indolence which was the hallmark of the ’60’s. But the tectonic plates of cultural change were shifting - cities burned, American icons and political leaders were assassinated, college-age kids went on strike and, in an ironic prequel, universities became the incubator for social upheaval (as the French say - “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose”).
Some of us grew our hair out, demanded freedom for John Sinclair (incredibly serving a 10 year prison sentence for possession of three joints), embraced the hipster nomenclature of the day and, to show we were unique and independent thinkers, embraced a “revolutionary - lite” social program that every swinging dick we knew was espousing. The entire University system was led by the phony radical, academician charlatans and poseurs of the period who self-recognized as the anti-war, cultural elite of the Midwest. (Curiously, many of of these very same toadies grew up to be the Bush neo-con crowd of today - now busily getting us into wars…go figure).
This was the age of a cataclysmic social compact of radical thought and open, inclusive dialogue and we, the Boomers, were on the leading edge.This new progressive dynamic professed to encompass all ideologies and people - provided, of course, that they agreed with us. Naturally, all this political and sociological heavy lifting did not interfere with chasing girls, power drinking, smoking dope and living life “sans souci”.
But, ultimately the apples did not fall too far from the aboriginal tree as we eventually strove to fulfill the dreams of our fathers, greedily grabbing with both hands the stuff of life, fervently hoping that one of the things that we acquired would prove to be the Rosetta Stone, that singular piece of the Happiness Puzzle that at times eluded our depression era parents.
We sprinted through our prime, glided through middle age and ultimately (if fortunate enough) assumed senior status. Then, facing a shortened runway, irregular bowel movements, chronic bursitis and a heretofore inordinate and inexplicable fear of heights when ascending 2 foot stepladders, we exercised the prerogative of age seldom allowed in our salad days. Now, Fathers and Grandfathers ourselves, we cast back our memories to ponder our earlier, simpler lives and after a lifetime of striving - on those one-too-many-single-malt late nights - at times we yearn for what has passed and what is lost. And in those quiet moments of reverie, we remember the lessons of our Fathers, the good…and the not so good.
My father, a successful businessman, whose personal life was sometimes a Demolition Derby was a notorious boozer and gambler, an unrepentant, unreliable rounder and irredeemable rogue…and I worshipped him. In 1989, ravaged by the effects of chemotherapy and radiation and (against my mother’s wishes) adamantly refusing any additional “treatments”, he was quite aware he was never leaving St. John’s hospital alive. At the time he was waging a heated battle from his hospital bed (more of a rear guard action/fighting retreat) with my mother. With only weeks to live, the old man was resisting the idea of allowing a priest to administer the Last Rites of the Church.
The specific priest in question happened to be Father Barton, the Pastor of Our Lady Star of the Sea, who, over the years had been befriended by my mother. As President Emeritus and Board Member of the Alliance de Francaise de Detroit, my mom would invite Father Barton to receptions she hosted at our home when an important Francophile was in town. My Pop (a WWII vet) detested these functions and once, (after a near-lethal dose of Johnny Walker Black), called the French Ambassador a “…cheese-eating-wine-swilling-surrender-monkey”. Which, needless to say, did not resinate well with my mom. But, as much as my Pop may have despised the foppish Frenchman, his distaste for Father Barton was boundlessly inexhaustible, believing him to be a leach and a boorish clown. At these receptions, the good Father would guzzle champagne and stuff himself with the rich “Cuisine Francais” - Foi gras, Moules a la creme and Crepes - like a death row inmate who had a midnight date with the electric chair.
As I was in town between shows and, as the oldest, I was tasked by my mother to redeem my Dad’s mortal soul by convincing him to receive the final sacrament. “I don’t want that phony fish-eating son-of-a-bitch within 20 yards of me – dead or alive”, my old man croaked defiantly. “I’m going wherever I’m going and this Padre’s mumbo-jumbo won’t make any difference. What the hell does he know anyway…the fool is from Columbus”.
Now, my father actually had no idea where Father Barton came from, and, while not an un-travelled man, (having lived in Europe after the war until 1950), my dad was a parochial, wall-to-wall, native Detroiter (St. Bernard grade school, South Eastern High School). His intractable belief was that, with exception of a few World Capitals, the Motor City was the center of the universe – the town that put the entire world on wheels. In his traditional tool and die reality, if your business was not involved somewhere in the manufacturing chain of creating a widget of substance, weighty enough that if dropped on one’s foot it would leave a bruise, you did not even register a blip on his manufacturing Richter scale.
His standard disparaging characterization of any individual which had fallen into his disfavor, (a catalogue of miscreants and transgressors that had reached encyclopedic proportions over the years - the sort of number one might see on MacDonald Golden Arches signs), was to imply that these adversaries were ignorant small town hicks, i.e. : not from Detroit.
To my mother, a convent educated European, his irreligious heretical apostasy of declining this last chance at his heavenly reward, regardless of the officiate, was totally unacceptable. But the Old Man was uncompromisingly intransigent. Although he sent all his children to Catholic school, his Sunday Mass attendance when we were kids was only obtained by virtue of my mother’s guilt-ridden insistence - but he had been calling it in for years. By the time I was in high school my Father’s use for religiosity of any description had been worn threadbare and he ceased all church related events. Chances of the Last Rites being administered by any priest were absolute zero…especially by a rube from Columbus.
In a last ditch effort to create some semblance of peace for my mom in his waning weeks, I appealed to reason. Reaching back to Father Van Overbeek’s Religion, Logic and Rhetoric class from my High School days, I cited “Pascal’s Wager”, which states simply that rational humans bet with their life that God either exists or he doesn’t.
“At this point, what do you have to lose? Let Barton come in and go through a 10 minute ceremony”, I implored. “Pop, be reasonable…what if you’re wrong?”
My Dad smiled (more of a grimace) and barked a raspy laugh through his tracheotomy, slowly shaking his head. “Then”, he said softly, “God help me”.
Father Barton never showed up for the Last Rites. He did, however, show up at the old Hunt Club for the free luncheon and drinks after the funeral…a leach ’till the end.
In recent months I have reflected on the life and death of my Father. Like many of us, in later life I have come to realize that he, in no small measure, was a driving force in my successes and, perhaps, some failures. He was a hard man to know - a hard man to love who marched to the beat of his own impetuous drummers, incautiously dove into his life head first and lived and died on his own terms with few regrets.
When it’s my time, I hope I can do as well.
(a fatherless child of god)