Many years ago I was telling my father about an upsetting phone call I had received when he interrupted me. “That’s nothing”, he said, “You want a bad phone call? Once we were dug in near the Ardennes, when the Division Commander called us on the field phone. “Listen to me” he said, “Drop back one hundred yards, dig in, and get a clear field of fire – in the opposite direction.”
“What do you mean, the opposite direction?” Dad asked.
“The Germans have broken through our lines,” his Commander said. “They’re behind you.”
“You want a bad phone call?” Dad asked. “THAT is a bad phone call.”
This was the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge. Fortunately for Dad and his 78th Recon Troop, Patton arrived in time to save the day, and Dad didn’t get captured or killed.
As I grew up, I made a number of assumptions about Dads. For one thing, I assumed they all had stories like this, stories they rarely told, but ones that had that ring of truth, stories that caused my Dad’s friends to pause for a moment of silence, because they all had similar stories that they rarely told as well. I assumed all Dads had a couple of weapons they had taken from German prisoners of war and then smuggled home stuck in the back closet. When I was young I was allowed to take them out and hold them, marveling at the journey they had taken to find their way here.
I assumed all Dads worked for one company their whole life. Dad’s father had been a GE guy, and he started working for GE when he was in high school, then continued after the war, working his way through the co-op plan of the University of Cincinnati, and then staying on for a total of forty years, until he retired to Vermont. I remember he refused to use the so-called Watts line, which was a toll-free long distance line at work, to call me at college. He would drive home for lunch once a month so he could call me from his home phone.
I assumed all Dads played catch with their kids, I assumed all Dads were wise and funny, got angry when you screwed up, but would always, repeat, always, be there for you after you screwed up. I assumed all Dads went to see you play ball, encouraged you to join the boy scouts, went to church every Sunday, came to band concerts and school plays, and, when possible, track meets.
I assumed all Dads voted Republican. The Vietnam War came along, I grew my hair down to my toenails, and when I was home from school we started arguing bitterly about the war. I challenged him to read some books about it, most notably ‘The Making of a Quagmire’ by David Halbertsam. He did, and then a strange thing happened – he changed his mind. A year or so before it became fashionable, he began to quietly oppose the war. He still voted Republican, he was still an intense patriot, but he saw no valid reason for that war.
I assumed all Dads worked all the time. No sooner did Dad retire, than he went out and got a job. He became a Guardian Ad Litem in the court system of Vermont, a position where basically you stand in for a parent or close relative for children or mentally challenged people who find themselves in the court system and have no one capable of acting in that capacity. Vermont has the distinction of being the only state in the Union where GAL’s, as they are known, don’t get paid, but this didn’t matter a fig to Dad. It was a job, and for fourteen years he showed up on time, without fail, every week, until he retired from that post a few years ago.
I assumed that all Dads had a certain dignity, that this dignity armored them against the advance of aging, that as their shoulders stooped, as their steps faltered, as their hearing grew dim, this dignity remained a constant star, a light that was always there, however faint, day or night.
Last week was my parent’s 59th anniversary. Dad wasn’t feeling well, hadn’t really been feeling well for a while, but woke up at one point that afternoon to say to Mom, “Happy Anniversary.” Those were pretty much the last words he spoke. The next day he lost his battle with heart disease, and slipped quietly from this world, as quietly as he had passed through it.
I assumed all Dads left places better than they found them. Mine did.