Saturday, June 19, 2004

A Father's Gift

I never got to know my father well...he was 35 years old when I was born, his third son.

I know he was a World War II veteran, serving from 1942 to 1946. He wanted very much to be a pilot, but because he was color blind, he instead joined the Army and worked in communications. To my knowledge he never went into battle.

I know he met my mother on a train as they both traveled to Austin where they were marginal students at the University of Texas.

My father was a newspaper man, as was his father. During his career he managed production areas of the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post and Newsday. However at the end of his life he was commuting from our home on Long Island to Rochester, New York where he worked as a typesetter. It was a job for which he was highly overqualified, but it was the only work he could get. His career had spiraled downward - in part because he couldn't beat the demon of drink.

My father had a wry sense of humor and would go to great lengths to demonstrate it...if only for his own amusement.
For a very brief time in college he drew a comic strip for the University of Texas newspaper, The Daily Texan. The strip featured a character whose lisp resulted in him pronouncing the letter S as "th". Apparently my Dad started the strip with the sole intent of getting one cartoon published and he succeeded. That cartoon featured the lisping character complaining about his algebra class and saying, "I don't know ma'ath from a hole in the ground". At the time, that was pretty risqué stuff. It got by the faculty editor and into print. It also ended my father's career as a cartoonist.

My father loved photography, which was both a blessing and a curse. My brothers and I have a lot of photographs from our childhood, but not many featuring Dad...because he was usually the one taking the pictures.

Dad died on February 22, 1972. He was two years older than I am today when he suffered a massive heart attack while leaving work one night. He died in a cold parking lot in the dead of winter, hundreds of miles from his family. I was 14.

I remember my mother waking me to break the news. I also remember that my father had already prepared me for that moment.

It was in January of 1971. I was standing in the driveway of our home crying as I repeatedly tossed a rubber ball against our garage door. It was a senseless lonely game but it made as much sense to me as anything else that day. My father came out to the driveway, and pulled me into his arms. He told me he was leaving the next morning to bury his father, but that I shouldn't cry. He said his father had lived a long and productive life, and death was inevitable for us all. Then he passed along the lesson I will always cherish. He told me crying was okay, but that I should also celebrate the lives of people I loved. "That way" he said, "they will always live on within you."

Thanks Dad.

That lesson is one I'm glad I didn't miss.

Floyd Harold Main