My dad wasn’t cool. Other kids in the neighborhood had cool dads, but not me. My dad wasn’t cool at all.
Other dads did neat stuff. I grew up where autumn and early winter meant two things – football and hunting. My dad did neither. Oh, he tried. Occasionally he tossed the football to a few eager nine or ten year olds, but those boys soon realized they could have more fun without the old man getting involved. My dad didn’t play football.
He tried hunting for a few years. His eldest son was a true child of the ‘60’s. Dad was a true child of the Depression. There was no generation gap separating him and my big brother. It was a gaping chasm. It was the Grand Canyon. Dad thought he might find some common ground by spending the wee hours of the morning cramped up with his son in a rickety deer stand in sub-freezing weather. Neither benefited from the experience. It did not take long for both father and eldest son to decide hunting was not for them.
Dad never took his youngest son deer hunting. Instead, the two of us would go out to the hunting lease on 100 degree summer days. With .22 rifle in hand, I would try a little target shooting. The target might be a rock or cactus. Sometimes it was an armadillo or turtle. Eventually, however, Dad and I both decided there was something wrong with shooting live creatures merely for sport, with no intention of using them for sustenance. Besides, what’s the fun of traipsing through the treeless brush country of North Texas in the blazing summer sun?
The final straw happened one day when Dad hiked a hundred feet or so ahead of me. I suddenly heard the unmistakable sound coming from his direction – chshshshshsh. Dad ran faster than I had ever seen him run before, his ashen face a picture of sheer terror. Dad had a real phobia of snakes. He wouldn’t even enter the Reptile House at the zoo because of the snakes inside. Out at the hunting lease, with that angry rattler just five feet away from him, he ran. When he told his friend Tom about the snake, Tom’s face brightened up. Tom was a real sportsman. He even hunted rattlers with bow and arrow. Tom excitedly asked my dad if he shot that rattler. “Shot him?” my dad asked incredulously. “I ran!” He never took either of his sons hunting again.
Dad was not cool.
Dad took the family camping. He did it twice. It did not take long for him to decide camping was not for him. Once he helped chaperone a camping trip for a large group of boys from church. While all the boys and other fathers pitched their tents, Dad sat to the side reading a book. When bedtime rolled around and everyone gathered in their tents for the night, Dad got inside the Caprice station wagon and slept in there. Sleeping outside wasn’t for him.
We had a little piece of property in the woods of East Texas. A few times each summer, Dad would take the family out there for a few days. The kids slept in the large family-sized tent. Dad took mom to the nearest motel, about 15 miles away, and spent the night in air-conditioned comfort.
Dad wasn’t cool.
The father of one of my friends down the street was very cool. He refurbished two classic automobiles, an Alfa Romeo and an Austin Healey. As if that weren't enough, he even built his own 35 foot sail boat. How cool is that? A few houses beyond his, there was another friend whose dad assembled a miniature train track in the back yard. The train was large enough that kids could actually ride on it. It was quite the neighborhood attraction. But that’s not all. He also put up a big white screen in the back of their yard, and would invite his son’s friends over to watch scary movies outside.
We never rode trains or watched scary movies in my back yard.
Dad did not own a single power tool. He didn’t build stuff like a lot of dads did. He was pretty good with plants, though. He grew very pretty roses in the back yard, and we often had a very productive vegetable garden back there, too. But come on. Are roses and beans cool to a ten year old?
Dad was very formal. Like many men of his generation, he wore a suit every day to work. But Dad took it one step further. He kept his suit on after work. As a child, I rarely saw him without it. A tie was as much a part of his daily wardrobe as his socks. My mother used to tell the story that once, shortly after we moved to the house of my boyhood, a neighbor called on the phone. “Mrs. V--,” she said, “Did you know your husband is outside mowing the lawn in his suit?” Not just his tie, mind you. The entire suit. Mom was embarrassed, but not surprised.
To wear a suit while mowing the lawn is not very cool.
Dad wasn’t cool, but you know what? It really didn’t matter. Dad loved his family. He loved his wife, and he loved his children. There was never any doubt about that. He was generous, he was kind. When I look back on my time with him, I realize that he was not so uncool after all.
On hot summer days like today, I remember sitting outside on the patio watching Dad make homemade ice cream. I remember the times he and I would go to the movies together, just the two of us, and how special that made me feel. I remember the bike rides we took together. I remember the freedom he gave me as a teenager, allowing me to explore and find my own path to becoming a young adult. I remember the way he would recognize and encourage our talents. I remember how he, along with my mother, made our home a welcoming place for others, where anyone might drop by unannounced and immediately be welcomed inside.
When Dad died seven years ago, one of my childhood friends wrote me. He said the thing that he remembered about my dad was that he was always so nice to all the kids in the neighborhood. As he looked back on those days, he realized there was one word that summed up my father better than any other. “Your dad,” he said, “was a true gentleman.”
I couldn’t agree more. And that’s cool.
Dad with his two sons, summer 1958
Dad on his 80th birthday, fall 2004, just five months before he passed away