A Highly Personal Tribute to American Fathers

“There are worse things in life than being poor or getting whipped in a worthwhile fight; and a man who does not understand and believe these things is a man that, at some point, will break faith both with his family and his friends.”

My Father

Today is a “minor” holiday that, for many Americans, is observed by sending a card, making a phone call, or occasionally by attending a usually brief family gathering. This, I suppose, is to be expected since there really aren’t a lot of ways to really commercialize a day that is dedicated to “Dads”. For my own part, however, I always get a little reflective when dates like this one roll around. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that remembering the true importance of fatherhood, and of all that it entails, is probably worth more than a Hallmark card. So, Happy Fathers’ Day to all of those men who, through good times and bad, perform the sometimes-thankless tasks of male example, provider, mentor, and even disciplinarian in a world that now, more than at any time in the past, seems bent on undercutting and even unraveling the social bonds of the traditional American family. A father’s role has always been a tough one, but probably never more challenging than it is today.

In the case of my own father, who turned 87 in March, the world has changed in ways that would have been unimaginable to him when he was growing up in the Depression-era South during the twenties and thirties. I remember, for instance, his description of his grammar school days and the field trip that his whole class once took to watch a work crew surface, for the first time ever, the main street — with a mule-drawn asphalt paving machine — of their small rural town. Or the times during which he and his fellow students would all be shepherded out of their classrooms to watch an airplane or a dirigible (both still technological wonders in those days) pass overhead. Like many of the young men of his generation, the outbreak of World War II completely transformed his life. He promptly enlisted in the Navy and departed his native Louisiana; he would only return in later years to visit his family.

Norman Rockwell "Facts of Life"
1952 Saturday Evening Post cover.
The years following World War II were, for most of the men of my father’s generation, a period — except for the unexpected interruption of the Korean War — in which to establish families and careers. And it was also a time during which hard work and grit, and not academic “credentials”, still counted for something in this country. My own father, for example, studied during his off-hours to learn the technical skills that ultimately took him out of a laborer’s job in a lumber mill, and propelled him into a field in which, by the time he retired, he had become a widely-respected expert.

As we get older, I guess that memories clutter up more and more of the attic of our mind. A great many years have passed since the time of my youth, but I — just like many others of my generation, I suspect — still hold onto many of the lessons about responsible and decent manhood that my father taught me long ago. I still remember, for example, the time that, while we were all on a much-anticipated family outing, my father saw a man collapse on the sidewalk as we were driving by and immediately stopped our car to render assistance (he was a former corpsman, after all) until an ambulance could arrive. The day’s outing, in this case, was a movie that everyone in our family (including my dad) was very keen to see, “Old Yeller”; but because my father felt compelled to stop to help a complete stranger, we missed our show time. I confess that, at the time, I was more than a little disappointed, but my father’s Samaritan actions have stayed with me to this day.

And there is another darker example of the many lessons my father taught me that still sticks in my mind although it happened over fifty years ago. In this case, the issue revolved around the ugly specter of racism and my father’s willingness to confront it head-on. This episode began innocently enough when I and my father met his good friend and mentor, a decorated veteran of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, for lunch in a roadside diner on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. My dad and I arrived first, but his friend pulled into the parking lot only a few minutes later. Being young, I didn’t notice the atmosphere in the diner change when Woody (for Woodrow), our Japanese-American friend, entered and joined us in our booth; apparently, however, my father did. Several things happened in fairly short succession that I have never forgotten: the first was that the waitress who had visited our booth as soon as my dad and I had come in, suddenly seemed to have forgotten about us now that we were three (this was something my father dealt with by standing up to block her path as she tried to move by, and by then politely explaining that we were ready to order); the second was more menacing: these were hostile looks and barely audible comments from a pair of men sitting at the counter. Not everything they said could be heard, but terms like “dirty Jap” and “slant-eyed backstabbers” did drift over to our booth. Woody, who had apparently encountered this sort of thing before, suggested that we all leave and go to another restaurant where he was confident there would be none of these kinds of problems. My father would have none of it, but instead stood up and walked over to the two men at the counter. “Something on you boys’ minds?” he asked very quietly. Neither man spoke or even looked directly at my dad, so he continued: “See, when I hear bilge like what you’ve been spouting, I don’t much like it. Maybe that’s because I know where I spent the war: in the Pacific; and I know where my friend spent the war: in Italy and then in France. But I can’t help thinking that a pair of heroes like you two probably never got much closer to the actual fighting than where you’re sitting right now. Or am I wrong?” The whole diner suddenly became deathly quiet. Finally, one of the two men sitting at the counter mumbled towards the counterman that it was time to get back to work and that he and his friend needed their check. The episode ended as quickly as it had begun. My father walked back to our booth and the two at the counter paid their bill and then exited the diner, taking pains not to even glance in our direction. In retrospect, of course, this was — unpleasant though it might have been — a very minor event in the larger scheme of things; nonetheless, it is an experience — because of what it says about friendship, courage, and ordinary decency — that is still indelibly imprinted in my mind, even now.

"Breaking Home Ties" Norman Rockwell cover
The Saturday Evening Post September 25 1954
One final example of my father’s influence on my life occurred much later, when I was preparing to ship overseas to Vietnam. I was on leave and he and I were working together in the small cherry orchard that bordered the large pasture in the rear of our house when he unexpectedly broached the subject of my impending deployment. “I know,” he said, “that a lot of things are probably different between the Army (my branch of service) and the Navy (his branch in two wars), so I won’t offer much advice about what you should do when you get to Vietnam.” At a loss for what else to say, I agreed that he was probably right. Then, quite unexpectedly he continued: “you’re going to meet a lot of fellas when you get to wherever it is you’re going, and some of them will end up being friends and some won’t.” Somewhat surprisingly he went on: “One thing that I want you to always remember is that, in combat, there are really only two basic categories of people; and those two types, when everything is said and done, have nothing to do with whether they are your friends, or whether they are the same race or religion as you, or, for that matter, anything else that you might think you have in common with them. When the chips hit the felt, there are only two sorts of individuals that you will ever really meet: those that you want in a foxhole with you, and those that you don’t. My advice,” he continued, “is that you learn to tell the difference between the two as fast as possible.” With that we went back to work, and he never directly broached the subject of what I should do while I was in the Army, again. Nonetheless, I never forgot his comments; and I have learned, over time, that this advice was just as relevant when it came to the people we meet in our everyday lives as it is on the battlefield.

I suppose that fatherhood, like anything else, can and does fall prey to false — or, at least, exaggerated — stereotypes. Thus, the old-fashioned image of the American dad as the baseball or soccer coach, as the scout master, as the family’s handyman and mechanic, as the outdoorsman, and as the parent who goes off to work every morning and comes home every evening is probably far rarer in our contemporary culture than it was when I was growing up. Moreover, nowadays, far too many of our young are way too impressed with the pseudo-heroism of professional athletes and celebrities. The “heroic” image of the father has given way to something else, and I’m not sure that that something else is an improvement over the past. Still, whether we like it or not, times change, and some cultural expectations inevitably change with them. Nonetheless, even as some of the traditional tasks of parents tend to shift and merge, others, I think, pretty much remain the same. In the case of fathers, one of those several tasks — perhaps the most important of them all — is that he teach his sons that being a man is about more than individual strength or financial success, that it is mainly about decency and about honoring his ongoing responsibilities to others, even those he does not know. These are the fathers that, when everything is said and done, really make a difference in their own families and in their communities; and it is these fathers, but especially my own, that I salute on this and every Fathers’ Day.


Post a Comment