Father’s Day 2022 – The Sky Above

My father was born in 1943 in Fort Smith, Arkansas. He was the second of four boys. I’m guessing one of my grandparents wanted a girl and they eventually just threw in the towel. I don’t know a great deal about my father’s childhood, but I have a good sense from sepia-toned photographs that everything was covered in a layer of dust. Hairstyling had not yet become a respected trade and everyone’s pants were too big. I imagine my father and his brothers walked along dirt roads and railroad tracks, and I’m quite certain there were fishing poles involved and likely a frog, or many frogs. I am told that a bear, kept as a pet by a neighbor, chased my dad across the yard and tore his baggy pants. My grandparents and the four kids occupied a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house until my dad was a teenager. When I first heard this, I assumed they must have been living in a guest house separate from the main house with easier access to the pool and gardens. Apparently that was not the case, and, tragically, the pool that provided respite from the Arkansas heat was plastic and could be moved. As someone who grew up in a suburban home with a “guest” bedroom that no one slept in, I tried to imagine what it must have been like for my dad to endure the guilt of having his parents and three brothers all sharing the same bedroom. I would have felt just awful.

The sky above Fort Smith, Arkansas in the 1940s and 50s was unpolluted by city lights, perfect for viewing constellations, meteor showers and eclipses, and on the clearest of nights, the outstretched arms of the Milky Way itself. This may have been why my father’s imagination steered toward the heavens from an early age. He is an avid reader, an insatiable reader on all topics, but I remember in particular Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” on our bookshelf and on PBS. My dad loved to talk about space, and I was fascinated. He talked about how looking at stars was like looking into the past because of the relatively lazy pace of light. On our numerous car trips from Kansas City to Fort Smith, if I wasn’t in the front seat I’d lean in from the backseat to ask questions about the moon, blackholes, and the galaxy. He always had the answers. To this day I think about how at any moment a supernova that happened millions of years ago could illuminate our planet for days, pissing off nocturnal animals across the globe. He is also fascinated by natural disasters, but none of the promised events ever materialized. I never saw a tornado, despite being ushered to our basement during many warnings. Since moving to California I was promised that part of a Hawaiian island would sheer off sending a tidal wave that would cover San Francisco. Still, nothing.

My dad was not always focused on educating us on science. I think the principal reason he had kids was to mess with them. Capturing kids’ imagination is a big part of my father’s existence, a product of his creativity and sense of humor, as well as his toolkit for distraction. We were convinced he could create thunder by pulling on his ear, when in fact he was timing his ear pulls based on the appearance of lightning and the distance of the storm. On road trips to Arkansas we would wait anxiously to see where the giant chicken had crashed in the mountains, leaving only its feathers as evidence. Inevitably we would go around the corner quickly and he would ask if we had seen the feathers. He loved creative punishments. He would make us march in unison around the house, or put chairs back to back and make two of us sit in silence. In the car, if we acted up, we would have to put our head between our legs and be quiet; that was called going into “the cooler.” Once I remember him inventing some concoction at home that would cause our tongues to turn purple if we were lying. Someone was certainly lying.

Smart and driven, and with my mom at Mills College in Oakland, my father made his way to Stanford University where he graduated with a degree in political science. The Vietnam War had begun and it was apparent that my dad was at risk of being drafted. He joined the Kansas National Guard in hopes of avoiding the draft, but President Johnson eventually activated the Guard and my father went to Vietnam. I don’t know the details of his time there, but I know it wasn’t pleasant. My brother had already been born; when my Dad returned the family moved to Kansas City where I was born and my sister shortly thereafter.

My father got his license to fly single-engine airplanes. I remember the years he kept an Aeronca, a cloth-covered two-seater, at the local airport just a few blocks from our house. He would take us up one at a time to get a bird’s eye view of the neighborhood. On longer trips, we flew into the clouds where my Dad seemed most at home, enthralling us with games like “knocking off the knob,” which meant flying through a puffy outgrowth of a cloud. This, for a kid, was hypnotic. If my father wasn’t flying us around, he might be entertaining us by taking us sledding after a snowfall or hitting pop-flies into the air for us to try and catch. When he wasn’t entertaining us, he was watching golf on TV—and not at gunpoint.

After my first year of college in Chicago, I called my Dad to tell him I was gay. I remember his response verbatim—employing humor as a way of saying I love and accept you no matter who you are, just one pillar of an ethos passed onto him by my grandparents. He said “you can be gay if you stop smoking.” This was a reference to the Benson & Hedges Ultralight 100 Menthols that I had dabbled in to look cool; based on photographic evidence, it did not work. So I agreed and went with gay. A few years later after finishing college I spent a summer badgering my preferred law school to let me in off the waitlist. When they finally did the night before orientation, my Dad drove me to Chicago overnight and helped me move into my 300 square foot studio across from the school. Later in law school, my Dad would have a major stroke. I returned to Kansas City and saw my Dad in the hospital, not in good shape. After many weeks, his wife and my step-mother, Randi, at his side, he was very near the end before the doctors figured out that he had suffered adrenal gland failure. With that solved, he made it.

The stroke changed the course of my Dad’s life, oddly for the better. Physically, his movement was limited on one side but there was little he couldn’t do. The stroke made him more affable, which was the last thing he needed. My dad could make friends with a light post. He can talk to anyone, and does. He has the steady gaze of his mother, and her dark friendly eyes. He loves animals the way he loves kids. Dogs, cats, and wild animals. Squirrels and chipmunks follow him into the house for food, somehow realizing that the innate cruelty of humans is nowhere present in my father. He is a legend in the hummingbird community. But I posit that the stroke changed my Dad’s view of the world—changed the measuring stick he uses to assess his own worth and success. It did not change his eating habits, however. For breakfast he continued to order a slice of pie with a side of bacon—but only because restaurants don’t sell cotton candy. Without going into any detail, I’ll just say that most of my father’s doctors have nice watches and second homes.

I remember a picture in my grandparents’ house – four separate portraits of each of the boys printed together in the same frame. A couple of months ago, my father’s oldest brother Sherry died, this following the death of one of his younger brothers, Steve, to COVID in 2020. The fourth brother, Mark, died when my dad was in college. He had fallen off a horse and hit his head, a family tragedy that never fully healed. When his last brother died this year, Randi told me to wait a few days before I called. I understood why. I thought about the years of growth and change and family in that two-bedroom house, a mansion of memories hard to process so many decades later. And I can see my father as a young boy grabbing his telescope and walking outside to get some time to himself, hours passing like seconds before my grandmother comes out to find him looking into the sky.

Should I be so lucky, one day Tony and I will drive far away from the evening lights of San Francisco, crossing our fingers for a cloudless night so that I might show my son everything my father showed me.