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Dad’s Day

This is the day when everybody posts about his father. I’ve never done that before, maybe because I’ve never had a blog before. FaceBook feels a little too exposed; this seems a little more sheltered, I guess one illusion being as good as another. Hearing some of my friends talk about their fathers makes me ponder the power and complexity of primary relationships, how love can coexist with darkness, how much humans can grow and forgive. Getting close to the third rail, there, probably should stick to my own father, and giving credit where credit’s due.

One thing Dad gets credit for is a hefty percentage of my collection of idioms. Fairly often, in speech or in print, I emit some saying prefaced or followed by, “ . . . as my dad would have said.” More than one colleague has said, “You should make a book of your dad’s sayings.” Maybe. It would be a thin book, it doesn’t take much of a page to say “Every rabbit needs two holes.” Or, “It doesn’t cost a dime to be a gentleman.” Or, “It isn’t who’s right, it’s who’s left.” You get thirty or forty of those, you’ve got two pages. Dad did everything himself— roofing the house, digging a French drain, finishing the basement, remodeling the bathroom. “Why pay for incompetence when you can do it yourself and have it for free?” he said. A high school science teacher, he worked summers on the school district paint crew for a number of years. “Every rabbit needs two holes,” he said. When I was four or five I didn’t really understand what a teacher did but painting looked like fun, so when somebody asked what my dad did, I would say, “He’s a painter.”

My father was born in Magnolia, AR.. He was quite a few years younger than his three older brothers and was back and forth between Magnolia, where he graduated high school, and his parents’ retirement farm in Louisiana. His brothers were off at war as he grew up hunting and fishing and picking up cigarette pack foils for war effort recycling. One brother was in the Army, one was a Marine landing craft pilot, one was an Air Force mechanic. His father (above pic) was in the oilfield supply business in Magnolia; I still have some MacAllister Oil swag around somewhere.

He rarely raised his voice. My parents never argued that I heard, but I can remember my dad, any number of times, beginning a sentence addressed to my mom (or me) with “Have you considered the possibility . . .”

The Socratic method was familiar to me long before I knew that’s what it was.

I won the Washington state solo competition my senior year in high school, thanks to my dad. We were waiting in the auditorium as they announced the winners. When they got to clarinet, I was announced as runner-up, someone else as the winner. Oh, well. My dad made a beeline for the office. He was in there for a while; evidently there had been an exchange like: “I’d like to see the judges’ forms for the clarinet division.”

“I’m sorry, sir, we can’t . . . “

“Let me rephrase that.”

Dad never said anything bad about anybody, he never swore, and he hardly ever got visibly angry, but he had a gift of saying exactly the thing that put the handcuffs of logic on you with a folksy twist, so he got to see the forms. He did the math himself and it turned out there had been a carry-the-one sort of error. I had won. The competition officials had some serious crawfishing to do, but facts were facts. I asked him, “How did you know?”

He said simply, “I heard both of you play.”

My dad smoked a pipe in college, where he met my mom. He was an excellent poker player. One of his older brothers had gone to college and lost his tuition money in a card game the first week of school, then joined the Army rather than go home and face his dad. My grandfather’s pragmatic solution was to teach his youngest son how to goddamned play goddamned poker. Dad started his college career as a heavy drinker and a lightweight student but Mom changed that. If Dad wanted to see her he had to study because that was what she did. It turned out that he was actually superbly intelligent, he’d just never seen the point of proving it. He went from not quite flunking to dean’s list in one semester. After a week, he told my mom, “I’m going to marry you.”

She laughed.

When I came along, she persuaded him to stop smoking. It set a bad example, she said. For better or worse, my grandfather Howell took care of the example-setting.

When I came home from college my freshman year with a pipe, Dad said, “Well, THAT didn’t work,” and we went to the Silver Dollar Smoke Shop where he bought a pipe. I only have one picture of him with a pipe, one that I took with a manual (no light meter) camera and developed in our home darkroom, which, together with my inexperience, explains the poor exposure and the overdeveloped print. We took a field trip to the Tinder Box in Olympia; his favorite tobacco was the Tinder Box’s Honey Cavendish, a Burley cut fine like steel wool. Good times.

Just a few years after that that he was diagnosed with a glioma/astrocytoma. That’s a brain tumor of the glial cells, which wind all the way through the brain so there’s no containing it. Idiopathic. Same tumor that got Ted Kennedy and, life being full of irony, Richard Page, my predecessor on bass clarinet in the PSO. It took 11 months to kill my dad, would have been quicker but for one of the first ever stereotactic radiosurgeries performed at the Norris Center at UCLA. His favorite pipe was an E. A. Carey Billiard, a twenty-dollar pipe which, in a fluke of manufacturing, had absolutely even, perfect straight 360 degree straight grain. Twenty bucks, best straight grain I’ve ever seen. When I cleaned out his place in Aberdeen I kept an eagle eye out but didn’t find it.

For much of his career, Dad got the general science classes because he was the new guy and because he could handle them while the teachers with more seniority got Chemistry and Biology and Physics with the college-bound students. His facetious nickname among the students was “Screamin’ Jack” because he stayed calm and level — outwardly, at least — while wrangling tough, stoned kids who were a year away from setting chokers in the woods — if they were lucky. Remember the History Channel show (Aqua Loggers?) where between fights and safety violations they salvaged submerged old growth logs left behind from the timber drives down the Chehalis and Wishkah rivers? Then it turned out they didn’t have salvage rights and they got canned? That’s where I grew up, and my dad likely tried to teach those, ummm, gentlemen. Later in his career, after he had earned his doctorate in Science Education, he got to teach Biology.

But whether he was teaching Aberdeen’s exports to higher education or grunge rockers, he did his best. I spent many weekends with him at the high school as he built apparatus for experiments, graded tests, made little electric pin boards that he set up for students to take practice tests. This was before computers and before copy machines; rather than mimeograph a bunch of practice tests and answer keys, there was a copy of the practice test at a station where a student plugged one lead into the number of the test question on the board. When the corresponding correct A, B, C, or D terminal was touched with another lead, a light would go on. Crude but effective as Spock said, and flexible. The rig could be used over and over, saving on the mimeograph budget while providing opportunity for the students who actually cared. It was a good lesson on several levels, one level being, like roofing and painting the house, that there might only be so much money but there was always more work. I remember my dad as not much of a talker unless he sensed your genuine interest in what he had to say, in which case he would hold forth. Teachers were required to stay a certain time after school just in case students wanted help. Most of the time the science teachers wound up playing cribbage in the chemistry storeroom, but if a student actually wanted help, Dad would stay as long as it took.

We spent a lot of time outdoors together. His dissertation for his aforementioned doctorate was A Field Guide to Coastal Washington. There were many trips to the beach, finding and photographing the inhabitants of tide pools, many trips to the rain forest documenting the flora and fauna. The plants were relatively easy to photograph, for obvious reasons, while the critters, especially the ones with feathers or fur, were quite a bit more difficult. When we wound up in Colorado for the summers, we learned to fly fish for trout together.

My dad gave me much. He instilled respect for knowledge and logic, and he parented by principle, not by fiat. He taught me to walk quietly in the woods, and if you can walk quietly in the woods you can walk quietly anywhere. By example, he taught me to be of service. He set an example of speaking no evil but that’s a lost cause, I’m an abject failure there. He also set the example of treating my mother with the greatest tenderness and respect. I don’t measure up there either but it’s an ongoing project, I’m working on it. It was great luck to have for a father and hero a man who was loving, gentle, intelligent and ethical. Bad luck that he died young, but you get what you get and you do your best. I wouldn’t trade with anybody.

You know, if I had realized how much ache remains after 34 years I probably would have left well enough alone, blog or no blog. I can’t imagine how it is for my friends but I guess I don’t need to, none of my business. It’s such a singular relationship, such a void. Ahh, well. For years after he died I occasionally would dream that my dad was in some kind of danger and I could somehow save him if only . . . and here the dream would turn to molasses and I couldn’t quite move fast enough and I would wake up sobbing. That hasn’t happened in a long time but right now it feels like it still could.

Life, eh? To all of you fathers, Happy Father’s Day. If you’ve still got your dad give him a hug. If you don’t, here’s mud in your eye. To our dads.

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