“My dad taught me everything I know. Unfortunately he didn’t teach me everything he knows.” ~ Al Unser.
“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” ~ Unknown but often attributed to Mark Twain
He’d pull on the oars on those chilly early mornings and the little wooden rowboat, not so much glided as moved in fits and starts with each pull, headed for some nook in the reeds at the lake’s edge. We rarely exchanged words during the crossing. The only sounds would’ve been the swish of the boat pushing through water and the wooden creaks and metallic clinks and clanks that seem to be built into rowboats. A rowboat could be brand new, wearing a bright shining coat of paint and still sound as if it’s seen 50 years worth of lake crossings.
I would’ve been staring blankly through an early morning coma, fixed on something as insignificant as water swirling around the boat as if I were trying to discern some existential meaning about water swirling around a boat. Dad didn’t have the luxury of mindless reverie, he was working hard on the oars. He’d long been out of his early morning stupor. I’m sure that it never dawned on me and I didn’t rightly appreciate that he’d been up since three in the morning to make sandwiches, a cup of instant coffee for himself and a Thermos of hot chocolate for the two of us to share while out on the lake. Get dressed, load up the car, get me out of bed and drive the big old family wagon up fog shrouded Highway 35 towards The City and the Lake Merced boathouse to rent a creaking vessel for a few hours of fishing.
Lake Merced is an urban lake in the southwest corner of San Francisco. The dorms at nearby San Francisco State look down on the lake that often wears a thin jacket of morning fog. The lake is close enough to the zoo that in those weekend early predawn hours and with just the right breeze we could sometimes make out the roars of the big cats awake and impatient for their morning side of beef.
Once at our spot dad tied the boat off to a half-submerged tree and then with frozen fingers we’d bait our hooks. Lines cast, a zing of the reel, a plop in the water then hunker down into our coats, harbors from the brisk gusts off the Pacific just to the west.
The morning usually passed quietly and the only sounds would be of the water lapping against the boat, the rustling of the reeds and the quiet conversations of other fishermen that carried across the lake. We didn’t talk much and any talk was in hushed tones, usually instructional on his part; “Check your bait.” “I think you’ve got a nibble there.” It was his rule that you keep quiet while fishing; “Don’t scare the fish.”
In retrospect I don’t know if that’s wives’ tale bullshit or if talking on a boat that’s yards out and several feet deep from the bait really signals danger to a fish. That was dad though. He was superstitious when it came to fishing. For a pastime that’s pretty much defined by luck, superstition is as required a piece of equipment as a hook and a nightcrawler.
It’s an unwritten rule of life that a father and son should share certain things. I guess the traditional thing is sports. Dad wasn’t a big sports guy but he did try. He got a set of baseball gloves and we’d play catch in the backyard. When I fancied that I wanted to be a pitcher he’d get in a catcher’s squat and catch the pitches that I delivered as hard as I could muster. He caught them in a mitt that had about as much padding as a sheepskin driving glove and even though my pitches were more tepid and less “heat,” they still had to sting.
There was that Sunday when he got hold of some tickets for a San Francisco 49ers football game. The only 49ers that dad had any passing knowledge about were the originals from 1849. The grizzled old guys in jeans and flannel shirts who dipped tin pans in the Gold Country rivers trying to strike it rich.
The football 49ers were playing in Kezar Stadium at the time. Kezar was a rickety old place, probably rickety on the day they first opened the gates. Hard wooden benches and a seating capacity that would be considered miniscule by any self respecting Texas high school football team, Kezar was located on the east end of Golden Gate Park, an area dad wasn’t at all familiar with. By the time we’d arrived at the park, found a place to park the car and then walked into the stadium it was halftime. After the game it was a long walk back to the car and a longer drive back home but he’d done his due diligence as a dad.
By the time I was in high school I was running cross country and track. He never came to any meets but that wasn’t due to lack of interest. He had to work and in those days if you were a working stiff you didn’t get to just take a couple hours off work to watch your kid perform.
Yet there was that one time; just that one time. I was a couple years out of college and I’d been training hard and running pretty well. It was the county fair 5K in our hometown of San Mateo. It was somewhere in mid-race and I was still in contact with the leaders but starting to sputter when I heard a familiar voice, “Go man, go!” Just ahead and off to the right was the old man. Dad had driven down from home to cheer me on. It would be a really great story to say that hearing and seeing him injected me with the energy to overhaul the leaders and finish victorious but I was out of gas, out of gears and out of will. But it was still pretty darn great. While I never felt put out by my parents’ absence, it was something that stuck with me enough that one of the few things that I got right about fatherhood was to make sure that I got involved in my kids’ activities.
Dad and I shared fishing, camping, books and chess. Early on he taught me the value of books. While other dads were reading their kids fairy tales he was reading to me, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Treasure Island and The Red Badge of Courage. To this day I still reread Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and it brings back a memory of lying in bed while dad sat on the edge of the green plaid bedspread, a dim light from the little lamp on the nightstand and the redolence of his pipe tobacco and a hint of bourbon as he read to me the Klondike adventures of the big dog Buck.
Camping came later as I entered my teen years. He’d come home from work on a Friday afternoon and pausing only to change clothes, he’d load the car with all the gear and then drive the two of us south down the San Francisco Peninsula and then west on a winding road to San Mateo County Memorial Park or Portola State Park. He still hadn’t even caught a relaxing after work breath when we’d arrive at our campsite and he’d have to supervise the unloading of the car and the setting up of camp. Mom wasn’t a camper. Her part was to pack up some fried chicken and macaroni salad for our first night’s meal and wave goodbye. In the evenings we’d play chess or just talk. By this time in my life I’d developed an interest in history and politics and these dominated the discussions.
As a young man my father lived through the hardship of the Great Depression. He spent time in Coeur d’alene, Idaho away from his home in Salt Lake City, working with the Civilian Conservation Corps. During World War II he did his duty in North Africa and Italy and returned home with his Italian war bride.
Dad’s formal education was limited but he didn’t let it be a limitation. He taught himself math all the way up through calculus. He taught himself to be a writer, good enough to land a job as a columnist for a small town newspaper. He was a stickler when it came down to the value of good communication skills, a dogma that continues to be handed down through the generations and probably to their chagrin, to his great grandchildren.
He was a principled guy. At some point in his life, whether it was his war experience or through voracious reading, dad took a hard lean to the political left putting him at odds with his conservative siblings. My wife and I still have a good laugh over dad’s loathing of Ronald Reagan. Anytime Reagan made the evening news, which was just about every evening, dad red in the face and eyes raging would rail against “That goddamn sonuvabitch.” I can’t even bring myself to imagine how dad would react to Trump.
Upon his return from the war he was writing editorials for a small town paper in Utah. A few years ago I came across a scrapbook that contained clippings of his column, Cabbages and Kings, a title that he’d borrowed either from Lewis Carroll or O. Henry. He wrote during a time when Jim Crow still held sway, a time when you didn’t question the reputation of local high ranking military men. And yet there it was in that scrapbook, a piece dripping with sarcasm that took to task a general for being racist. It took some testicular fortitude to write it and even more for the paper to publish it.
Dad’s service in Italy produced an undying love for Italy and anything Italian. Well maybe not so much the food. He was a meat and potatoes guy which was sometimes cause for tension at the table. Mom liked to experiment with international cooking and every now and then she’d stick something Japanese or Russian or German under his nose. Well he’d push it around his plate a bit and then mutter something about it being,”OK.”
As cultured as he could seem with his love of Shakespeare and classical music he could still be a slapstick guy. We spent hours watching The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy and The Keystone Cops. We howled with laughter in the living room, tears rolling down our cheeks while mom poking her head out of the kitchen looked on in disgusted puzzlement. It was a guy thing.
We did have our moments. There were a few years of civil war over the length of my hair; it was a common conflict that raged in American households across the land when rockstars started sporting shoulder length hair. Coming out of high school I wanted to major in Physical Education. Dad wouldn’t have it. I’d major in something “serious.” or I could make my own way.
He left many years ago; his mind having become a blank slate, his memories of Italy and his family as foggy as the Lake Merced mornings we spent together many years before. He wasn’t a perfect man by any means but he certainly didn’t deserve the last few years when the man who’d long prided himself on his communication skills had trouble finding the simplest words from the depths of a darkened mind.
I regret not having thanked him for putting up that basketball hoop over the garage, for taking me camping, for getting up after just a few hours of sleep just to take me fishing, for passing on a love of books, for building a kite out of the Sunday paper that we christened the lead balloon because it never did fly, for taking me to my first rock concert at The Cow Palace or for the thousands of other things that dads are expected to do and are rarely thanked for. I regret that dementia robbed him of the chance to be the doting, nurturing, educating grandpa that he could’ve been.
The last few years weren’t easy ones. He’d become alternately combative and congenial. He was in a nursing home in French Camp, California when we got an evening call that his time was near. We arrived just in time to be with him when he passed. We stood at his bed in a silence that was broken by his grandson, “He’s finally free.”