[Originally published, here, on April 10, 2003 — almost 14 years ago. I’ve made a few minor edits/updates, but the bulk of this is as originally written. And I swear this wasn’t done intentionally — I was looking for older pieces worth reposting — but “Cool Night” was at its #11 pop chart peak this very week in 1982!
My father voted for T—-, and I’ve not spoken with him since the election. Not only do I not particularly want to, but I’m not sure what I could say to him without screaming right now. I still love my father, but these days I definitely do not like him very much.]
Was listening to Foreigner’s “Waiting for a Girl Like You” today at work, and it made me think of my Dad, and the cold, cold northern Indiana winter of ’81-’82. “Waiting” for some reason reminds me of “Cool Night” by Paul Davis – it’s got that similar, ironically icy, keyboard feel to it – and I’m incapable of hearing “Cool Night” without thinking of my father. We had a number of days off from school that winter, due to cold and snow (in climes which see hard winters, yes, school can be cancelled for extreme cold/wind chills). One of those days, Dad took me to work with him. As a sideline to our small family farm (64 acres, maybe 100 cows or so), he sold veterinary supplies on a multi-county route of farms throughout a 50-mile-or-so radius from our house. This particular day, the heat in his truck was broken, but he had a portable space heater rigged up somehow, at my feet. That was utterly necessary, because the air temperature that day might’ve only broken double digits if we were lucky; I recall a weather report at one point telling us the wind chill was –16 degrees. And we drove along, Dad letting me listen to the radio; I picked the then-giant from Chicago, WLS-AM. They played all the best hit pop and rock tunes, and I loved them passionately. Oddly – perhaps because of the weather and implicit irony? – the only song I vividly remember hearing that day was Paul Davis’s #11 pop hit. That day’s always held fast in my memory, I think because it was one of the rare instances in which I felt like Dad was paying attention to me, like he was really my Dad, not just some guy who worked back-breakingly hard to put food on the table and clothes on our backs. I felt loved by a man I craved a relationship with, but always felt distant from. I was not, I think, the son he imagined or perhaps even hoped for.
Dad’s the fifth of seven brothers, raised on a farm in central Indiana. He graduated from high school in 1960, by which point the oldest of his brothers (my uncles) was already a teacher at his school. Dad went on to receive a B.S. in Animal Sciences from Purdue in ’64. He married Mom in ’67, and three years later to the month, I was born, the first of four kids, but the only son. Dad was a dairy farmer for nearly 35 years, until he went into the ministry in the mid-‘90s (he’s now a Pastor in the United Methodist Church) [he retired in 2016]. His world revolved around hard, physical labor – I saw him sustain broken ribs on more than one occasion, either from being kicked by an ornery cow, or from falling out of the second-floor hayloft. When he finally came in the house and was able to relax, the den was his territory. Dad’s never been a drinker, so that wasn’t a concern. What he wanted to do was relax by watching some sports; it really didn’t matter what it was. As I got older, I felt increasingly distant from Dad. I didn’t understand his world of bluecollar work and football. Mom was the one who encouraged my reading, who went to PTA meetings and band concerts and spelling bees. So I summarily began to reject everything I saw my Dad standing for.
That’s unquestionably why, when I first registered to vote immediately after my 18th birthday, I registered as a Democrat. Now I better understand that choice, and stand firmly behind it – the Dems as the party of Ted Kennedy [or Barack Obama, of course], not Joe Lieberman. But back then, all I knew was that it was different from Dad. During most of my teenage years, I didn’t really have a relationship with him; he was a cipher who had nothing to do with my life, apart from making money. I made one last stab at pleasing him, by taking up a sport my sophomore year of high school. I was always fairly gawky; my limbs shot out before I was ready for them, and all through elementary school and junior high was one of the tallest kids in my class. I also wasn’t particularly strong. So cross country seemed ideal – anyone can run, right? Suffice it to say that I wasn’t fast, but I tried, I busted my ass out on the course.
Dad never came to a single meet.
I know now, and maybe even subconciously knew then, that he couldn’t – our meets, mostly held after school before twilight waned, were at the exact time when he had to start getting ready to milk the cows, to pay for things like my snazzy blue New Balance running shoes. And please don’t misunderstand; I adore my father now. There’s no living man I admire more. Adulthood has helped me to see and understand the sacrifices he made for his family. But back then, I wanted nothing to do with him, especially after my non-championship season.
I love sports now, some at least – most obviously to readers, college basketball. I like football a little [less over the years, as it’s become sexual assault central], though baseball’s appeal has always and likely ever will eluded me. I can go home and watch NASCAR races with Dad, and enjoy them. But as in most every man, I think, there’s yet a part of me that only lives to make my Dad proud, to earn his praise. Back on that bitterly cold day in January 1982, however, all I knew was that he was proud. We stopped at a local grain elevator where Dad liked to shoot the shit with the guys, and I distinctly remember him showing me off, perhaps even having me demonstrate to his friends what a smart kid he had. [I’m typical – too smart for my own good, and I knew it all too early. Which means I’ve always had a tendency to slack.]
I don’t want to marry a man just like Dad. But even as I make my way into my mid-30s, I do want my Dad to like the man I decide to spend my life with. And I still want to make him proud.
I love you, Dad.