Sunday, February 28, 2010

For What Is A Man? – Part I

Copyright 2007 - Bruce Gaughran

I was raised in a family of ten children.  I was the seventh son and the second to the youngest child.  My father loved his daughters and was proud of his sons.  There is a twenty-three year spread between the oldest and the youngest.  My father was in his early 70’s before the last child moved out of the house.  My father was the breadwinner.  He always found a way to keep food on the table and a roof over our heads.  He was a mechanic by trade and could fix almost anything.  He worked hard ... usually twelve hours a day, six days a week.

Physically, he was very strong even though he was not a large man.  He had tremendous arm strength because he spent a good deal of time in a pit working on engines above his head.  When he was not working, he always found time to tend to the garden, help someone that needed his or her car repaired or a project completed, or visit someone who needed to talk to a friend. 

My father believed in God and hardly ever missed a Sunday church service.  He also believed in the power of prayer.  Many a Sunday afternoon he would spend visiting the sick or shut-ins.  I remember seeing him several times on his knees praying beside a person’s bed in the hospital or in their home.  When a neighbor was dying of lung cancer, my father visited him regularly.  He took me along to mow the lawn and perform some yard work.  I remember seeing my father run out of the neighbor’s house several times and throw-up because the stench of death was so strong.  Afterwards he cleaned himself up and went back inside.  He never complained once and kept on visiting until the man passed away.

While I was growing up, my father regularly used the term, “be a man,” which I interpreted to mean swallow the medicine and get on with life.  Excuses were for the weak.  A man always delivered on his promises and kept his commitments.  My father raised his boys with many values including that “a man” is responsible for his actions.  Several times, he told me never to do anything to embarrass the family name.  He also warned me that if the police ever arrested me for anything, he should be the last person I call.  Furthermore, if my name should ever appear in the paper because I did something wrong, I need not come home.  One thing I knew for certain is that he meant it.

My father was a strong disciplinarian.  As children, he expected us to attend church every Sunday.  He required us to sit in the front pew and misbehaving was not an option.  If you did something wrong, punishment was immediate and always heavy-handed.  He never gave you a chance to explain your side of the story.  Wrong was wrong, no matter what the reason.  There was one benefit to this style of discipline.  Once you were punished, he never brought up your actions or indiscretions again.  It was over with and forgotten.    

My father lived through the Great Depression.  Even into his 60’s and 70’s thoughts of the Depression left a sour taste in his mouth.  I believe that is why he always encouraged his children to work hard and save money for a rainy day.  He constantly encouraged me to find part-time work.  I was stocking shelves at a grocery store and delivering papers when I was ten.  When I turned twelve, my father asked if I wanted a job sweeping out buses at the bus barn.  Six days a week, I would go to the bus barn around six in the evening.  I received 10¢ a bus “if” I did a good job.  There was one rule, however, that I found difficult to accept.  Any money found in the bus had to be given to my father.  He placed the money in the “Lost and Found” drawer.  If no one called and claimed it and I still remembered the money was in the drawer after sixty days, the money was mine.  I remember finding a $5.00 bill once.  I was so excited because it was a lot of money in those days.  Every day for two months I would ask my father if anyone had claimed the money yet.  At the time, I really felt his rule was unfair because “finder’s keepers, loser’s weepers” should apply to something like this.  Later in life I realized that this was just a reflection of the kind of man my father was.  He was honest and there was no gray area surrounding that honesty.

He also did not believe in giving his children an allowance.  He felt he did not need to pay us for helping out around the house.  Mowing the lawn, shoveling the sidewalks, and performing other chores was our job.   

My father only had a seventh grade education.  He quit school when his father died to help his mother pay the bills and keep food on the table.  Even though my father valued a person’s education and wanted all his children to go to college, he always said that “street smarts” and common sense were also important.  He never asked what our grades were or whether we were doing your homework.  He always felt that since this was one of our jobs, we should do it and do it well.      

One of his favorite expressions was, “you’ll learn.”  This was always his response when I expressed my radical teenage opinion about something going on in the world.  It meant that I was wrong and that someday I would realize it.  Another favorite expression that went along with, “you’ll learn,” was, “what goes around comes around.”  This I took to mean that history repeats itself.  As a young know-it-all teenager, I could not imagine my father could tell me anything I did not already know.  Well, as I matured, I learned I was dead wrong and more often than not, he was right. 

Then there was my father’s expression; "can't never could do nothing."  He never wanted to hear me say, “I can’t.”  It was just unacceptable to give up.  I took that one to heart in the wrong way and those words should have gotten me killed several times as a youth.  I never turned down a dare even when I knew that it was dangerous.  I considered the challenges a part of the growing up process ... a sort of rite of passage into manhood.  I never used any common sense when dared to do something.  I am sure my guardian angel kept busy during those years.  Yet, my father’s words helped take me pretty far in life.  I might not have been the strongest, the fastest, or the smartest, but I always made it to the finish line often ahead of many who were smarter, faster, and stronger.  Giving up was not an option.

My father had a heart attack in his early sixties and could not work for a year.  Being a teenager at the time, I was not prepared to see this icon of a man crumble emotionally after being confined to the house for months on end.  I could not understand how someone so strong and confident could retract into a shell and spend endless hours every day sitting in his favorite rocker watching television.  This from a man who normally only watched Lawrence Welk and Friday Night at the Fights.  He was just not the same man.  Then I found out that while he was recuperating he lost his business because one of his partners embezzled funds and did not pay the company’s bills.  For days on end, I remember my father calling creditors and telling them that he would repay every cent that the company owed once he could go back to work.  One thing about my father, once he gave his word, he would not go back on it.  A man was only as good as his word.

Since my father had lost his business, he no longer had to work six or seven days a week.  I was in the Boy Scouts at the time and, because I was a typical teenager, I was considering dropping out of the Scouts.  I was worried about my image with my school friends.  For some reason, my father joined our church’s Boy Scout troop and starting taking me to the meetings every Monday.  He also started going on the camping trips.  With his newfound interest and involvement, I stayed in Scouting and became an Eagle Scout, was a member of the Order of the Arrow, and received the God and Country Award, the highest church award in Scouting.  My church project was to build bike racks for the Sunday and Bible School classes.  My father taught me how to cut, bend, and weld iron rod.  It was a wonderful experience because we were doing something important together.  He remained in scouting and several years later the district council gave honored him with the Silver Scout Award.

My father was a man of few words.  He did not have a lot of time for conversation.  If he said something, he did not expect to have a discussion on the subject.  His word was the gospel.  When I first started dating, my mother must have told my father to have one of those ‘birds and bees’ talks with me.  He showed up at my bedroom door one evening and asked if we could talk.  I was immediately suspicious what “talk” meant since we never just talked.  He sat down on the bed and asked if I liked this girl I was currently dating.  After I said yes, he stood up, pointed at me, and said, “Well then, keep your pants zipped up.”  He then walked out of my room without saying another word.

Another example of how well we communicated took place the summer of my senior year in school.  I won the local tennis tournament and was given the opportunity to represent our city at the state championships at the University of Minnesota.  That evening over dinner, I related my experiences on the court that day and showed off my first-place trophy.  The next morning my father came to me and mentioned he was planning to take off a day of work next week to drive me to the state tournament.  I was shocked, but also honored.  My father never took off work for anything.  I could not have been more proud the day of my first match knowing that my father was sitting in the stands watching me play.  I won the first two sets easily and then my game fell apart.  I began to make poor shots and double-faulted several serves.  Normally I could talk myself out of a slump, but this day I found myself looking repeatedly into the stands and wondering what my father was thinking.  The more I looked, the more mistakes I made and the more frustrated I became.  I was in a death spiral.  I lost the match three sets to two.  I was crushed; not so much because I lost, but because my father had never came to watch me play before, and the day he did, I lost.  The two-hour drive home was the longest in my life.  Neither one of us spoke the entire trip nor did we ever speak of that day again.  I was too embarrassed to bring it up. 

Because my father worked so hard, he never had time to take me hunting or fishing.  I would go hunting with friends and occasionally with their fathers.  When I did bring home a pheasant, duck, or squirrel, dad always seemed to criticize me for wasting a shotgun shell or for tearing up something so small.  One Saturday he came home from work early and asked if I would like to go out for some target practice.  We went to the local dump.  Dad placed several soda cans on the ground 30-50 feet in front of me and asked me to shoot them.  I carefully aimed and hit most of them.  He then took the .22 rifle and danced a coke can down the path.  Shot after shot hit the can even though he hardly took any time to aim.  I could not believe how good he was.  He then had me throw cans into the air and he would shoot them before falling to the ground.  On the way home, I asked where he learned to shoot so well.  He explained that when he was a boy, he could not afford shotgun shells.  If you expected hit a South Dakota jackrabbit with a .22, you had better be a pretty darn good shot. 

Until I was in my early twenties, I never realized that my father had any other hidden talents.  When I was in high school, anytime I mentioned I wanted to go downtown to shoot some pool, he would tell me he did not want me hanging out with those hooligans.  After I returned from Vietnam, my older brother, Dick, and I talked my father into going out for the evening.  Somehow, we ended up at a pool hall.  When we first walked in, I began to explain what the game was all about and he gave me the strangest look.  When I recommended that we play a little Eight Ball to start, he walked over to the snooker table and said this would be a better game.  I commented that snooker required greater skill to play because the pockets were smaller.  He looked at me and just smiled.  So, we played snooker.  Soon, he was putting balls away left and right and he beat both Dick and me handily.  He then wanted to play billiards and this time I kept my mouth shut.  He once again amazed us by calling and then making two, three, and four rail banks and kisses.  Dick and I just kept shaking our heads not believing that he could make these shots and use “English” to position the cue ball where he needed it for the next shot.  Again, he beat both of us easily.  While we played, my father hardly said a word.  He just methodically went about his business and he really seemed to be enjoying himself.  When we were through, he commented that he was a little rusty since he had not picked up a cue for close to forty years.  He also mentioned that the equipment and tables were far superior to those he played on in the 1920’s.

I left the pool hall that evening wondering if I ever really knew my father.  On the way home, I asked why he was always against me playing pool.  He explained that when he was a young man, he owned a pool hall.  He said he saw several young men in those days who thought they were good enough to drop out of school and make a living shooting pool.  He did not want me ending up like them … no job, no education, and no family.

I never saw my father cry while I was growing up.  For that reason, I just assumed that a man does not cry.  On the day I was leaving for Vietnam, he hugged me at the airport, told me to keep my head down over there, and to write my mother at least once a week.  Then I noticed his eyes began to tear up.  He did not turn away from me and I could tell he was not embarrassed.  He just continued to make eye contact.  Then, he hugged me one more time, wished me a safe trip, and walked away.  Talk about an eye-opening moment for a nineteen-year-old.  It is also a day I will never forget.  Could it be that I never really knew my father at all?

In my father’s later years, my adult years, I was amazed at how affectionate he was.  He would hold anyone’s hand, give great hugs, and always have a smile and kind words for anyone ... family, friend, or a person in need.  No one was a stranger to my father.  A stranger was just a friend he had not met yet.  He enjoyed living life to the fullest and he never missed an opportunity to laugh or to cry.  He loved to visit his family and you could find him spending hours playing games with his grandchildren.  When he came to visit me in California, he brought his tools along and a tool belt for my five-year-old son.  As my father walked through the house looking for projects to work on, he had my son walk beside him and hand him the tool he needed to perform the repair.  My son beamed with pride because he was “grandpa’s little helper.”     

One early fall visit, my father and I were working on his car out in the driveway.  I noticed that every twenty minutes or so he would take a pill from his pocket and swallow it.  I asked him what they were and he said glycerin tablets for his heart.  He explained that the doctor told him to take them whenever he had significant chest pain.  I asked him if he was okay and he brushed off the question by stating that he was just getting old and his ‘ticker’ was wearing out.  My last evening in town, my father came downstairs to wish me good night.  Something about his demeanor told me that this was more than a casual visit.

We chatted for some time, but I noticed that at least twice he began a sentence by saying something like, “Just in case we don’t see each other again.”  After the second time, I chuckled and told him that I would see him again at Christmas.  He shook his head and said that he would not be around then and that this was our last chance to say goodbye.  Tears swelled up in my eyes.  I could not believe what he was saying.  I told him he would live to be 100.  Again, he shook his head and this time I noticed he was also teary-eyed.  He told me how proud he was of me ... something he never really expressed before.  I started to cry and told him how much I loved him.  We then really talked about my family and life in general.  He shared so much with me, things that we had never talked about before yet were important to both him and me.  I did not want the evening to end.  My heart ached, but also I felt this moment was a real breakthrough for the two of us.  We shared our innermost thoughts and feelings without embarrassment or fear.  We were both men with opinions and perceptions, yet still father and son.  Then, before leaving, he shared a little fatherly advice.  Something that I never realized had troubled him until that evening.  After one more good cry, we hugged and he walked out of the door.

As the door closed, a hollowness came over me.  I wanted to run after him ... to ask him to come back and talk some more, but something else held me back.  I knew that we had our moment ... one that could never be shared or replicated.  That was the last time I saw him.  Less than two months later, my father, who was 79 years old, died at work.  His boss reported that he just slid off the bench while having a cup of coffee.  I felt he died with his boots on ... just the way he would have wanted it. 

I love my father and I am honored to be one of his sons.

So, what is a “man?” 
·         Is he the strong, hard-working breadwinner or the person who humbles himself in a hospital room by kneeling beside a bed praying for someone to be healed? 
·         On the other hand, is he the fun-loving, pool playing, weekend hunter who goes out every Friday night with his pals or the father who cries at the airport when his son departs for Vietnam?    

More importantly, how will the “man” be remembered?  I am certain that anyone who knew my father will remember him because he was a kind, loving, supportive husband, father, grandfather, co-worker, and friend.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please feel free to comment on any story. By taking a moment to share your thoughts you add to these and future stories as well as inspiring me.