(This column was published previously with the ending inadvertently omitted. Here is the complete column.)
I read Tim RussertÕs book, ÒBig Russ and Me,Ó some time ago. His new book, ÒWisdom of Our Fathers,Ó contains letters from sons and daughters sent to Russert in response to his first book. Having missed the deadline, here is my letter.
Big Orval and Me: My father died two weeks before I graduated from high school, in 1966. He was 46. A sudden heart attack. Forty-six seemed pretty old to an eighteen year old. IÕve come to understand just how young it really was.
By most counts, my father was an everyday kind of guy. He graduated from high school, went into the service during WWII for four years, got out alive, married when he hit U.S. soil, in Virginia Beach, had one child, me, went to trade school and became a plumber, became president of the plumbers and pipefitters union, was commander of the local Legion post, served on the city council, and held the 100 yard dash record at the local high school for some twenty years. He drank a little too much, liked spending time with his male friends bowling, shooting pool, and playing golf. He loved to play softball, which he did the night before he died. He was a big Democrat, not into church-going, loved cigars, and always wore what we called a cat hat.
The evening he died I had just returned home from a baseball game. I was eager to tell him we had won the district championship and I had driven in the winning run. I never got the chance. My mother called asking me to come to the hospital, that my father had suffered a heart attack. She didnÕt want to tell me he had died until I got there. ÒIÕm sorry, Dad died. It was quick, they couldnÕt save him.Ó Hard words for her to say, and for an 18 year old to comprehend. Words youÕre never prepared for.
Eighteen years is not a long time. Still, my father taught me some things that remain with me to this day. One of the things he taught me was to have respect for others, particularly anyone older than myself. The lesson came while we were shopping for a new ball glove. I ran through the door at the store, bolting in front of an older couple. When I turned around, half-way to the sporting goods section, no dad. I went back outside, there he was talking to this couple. He was apologizing, not just for me for cutting them off, but for himself as well. He was sorry for the inconsideration, as though it were both of us who had stepped in front of them. I was all of 8 or 9. He told them, and me, that he hoped that would never happen again. It hasnÕt.
One of the things my father and I did together was go to the tavern on Sunday morning after I was out of Sunday school. While this wouldnÕt be highly thought of today, it was a tradition in a German town in 1959. Boys had to learn what a tavern was. One particular Sunday morning, I recall a black man, probably 60–65, coming in to get a six-pack, on his way to the creek to do some fishing. He got the beer from the cooler, and walked up to the bar to pay. Some of the guys at the bar told the bartender to not sell any beer to a Ònigger.Ó As though it were yesterday, I see my father getting up and paying for the old manÕs beer and escorting him out. When he returned, no one said a word, including my father. He never said anything to me, or his friends, or made anything of the incident. But I got the point.
Since I have limited space, one more story. I was probably 6 or 7. We were living in an apartment at the time that had a shared bathroom with another apartment, and no shower. I can remember my father and I going down to the power plant, where they had public showers. Those trips were a special time with my father. I donÕt remember any special stories or lessons to go along with them, only that they stand out in my memory as a special time, when my father and I, naked as jaybirds, enjoyed a shower together.
Since May 10, 1966,I have missed my father. I often wonder how things would have been between us, how our relationship would have developed, what he would think of me? How he would have dealt with a daughter-in-law and two grandkids? He would be 86. Anyway, sitting here on the back deck, thinking about it, tears run down my cheek. I suppose some would say I should get over it, but I prefer not to. Somehow those tears keep alive the memories.
I almost died myself at age 52. Now I realize just exactly how young he really was. My father never laid a hand on me, never yelled at me, never called me crazy names. He taught me to be responsible, to be respectful, and to accept others who may be different than myself. He tried to help others when he could. I made a career out of it.
Emotions were not freely expressed in a German community. I suppose they fancied themselves as tough. I remember seeing my father cry twice in those 18 years, once at the death of a friend, and another time at his fatherÕs death. I donÕt remember him saying he loved me or I saying that I loved him. It was shown, but not talked about. I waited too long to say, Dad, I love you. Thanks.