When it came to being smart and/or cool, my Pops was, I was sure, not in the ballpark nor did he even register as a blip on the radar screen that detects such characteristics. Or, so I once believed.
I can remember almost praying at night when I was a teen that I would first never grow up to look like that man I saw sitting across from me at the dinner table every night and secondly, that I would not be as challenged as he in the coolness department. I don't know if anybody else's old man was like mine, but I had one of those fathers who used to tell me all the things I was and was not gonna do when I grew up. It used to come down like from the mount. Oh, it was never one of those family pride kind of moments, like, ''Someday, my son's going to grow up to be president.'' No, it was more like, ''When you get to be my age, if you're ever lucky enough to get to be my age, you're gonna finally understand what it means to be a parent and have a kid like you.'' Or, one of his most famous utterances, something to the effect, ''No son of mine is ever going to grow up and join the United States Army.''
That was one he use to constantly beat me and my little brother over the head with during our youth. Then he'd tell my brother, sister and I how we should all be smart enough to grow up and move as far away from the Midwest as we could get. ''If you ever wise up,'' he'd say every time the weather changed for the worse, ''someday you'll move out of this part of the country, and live someplace where the weather's a hell'uva lot better than here.''
Those famous last words of my Old Man's came to mind vividly last month as I sat in my apartment, high above 17th Street in Dubuque looking out of my third-story window as 30-plus inches of snow descended from the skies into a world locked in sub-zero temperatures. That is when there wasn't a half inch of frost on the outside of those windows. I guess I should add at this point that it wasn't all that long ago that I was living and working in Texas -- just over a decade.
And for much of 1999, I was plying this trade in the high desert of the Four Corners' region of New Mexico, where snowfall is one of those rare events that evaporates in the daily drenching of sunlight. Never being one to pay much attention to my Pops, I always seem to return to the scene of the crime, here in ''sinus valley,'' as he used to call the Mississippi River valley.
I always seemed determined to prove the folly of my father's reasoning. At age 17, I came to him about midway through my junior year and asked if he'd sign the papers so I could leave school a year early and join the same United States Army he had such a disliking for. After about three months of badgering, he finally signed on the dotted line in a near-blind rage and threatened me with bodily harm if I ever complained about what he was certain was my ill-chosen course of action. Six months after joining, you'd be astounded at just how much smarter my dad had become.
And a year later, as I sloshed through the undergrowth of Vietnam in constant fear for my life, the Old Man seemed to possess the intelligence of Einstein and the wisdom of Solomon. I should also note here that Pops wasn't near as hard-hearted as he may have seemed when I was harassing him to sign those enlistment papers.
I can't remember a week passing while I was overseas that there wasn't at least one letter from John E. Stiles. He must have been almost as scared as I was during the 12-month stint over the pond. According to my mother, Pops wrote me more often than he had her while he was in Asia during World War II.
Obviously, the Old Man was smart enough to know just what an idiot he had for a son. On my 21st birthday I finally got around to trying to tell dad how much smarter he seemed since I'd taken my first readings on the subject a few years before. He looked me in the eye and said, with a deadpan humor (a trait I didn't know he possessed until years later), ''You know, I'm just as amazed you lived to age 21.''
It's been a little more than 11 years since dad died of a heart attack, sitting in front of the television set waiting on his daily dose of Chicago Cubs baseball, a fate he wouldn't have had any other way. As I continued to watch the snow fall on a late December evening in Dubuque, I thought to myself how my Old Man's intelligence never ceases to amaze me. And then it occurred to me that that reflection looking back at me in the window seemed an awful lot like Pops. But suddenly it didn't bother me nearly as much as I was once certain it would.