30 June 2007

Wherever You Go, There You Are.

I started this essay at the time of year when people were buying neckties and fishing poles for their dads. I got my dad a gift certificate. He's not much into ties or fishing poles, and the t-shirt thing has been done to death.

Daddy is notoriously thrifty. That's the polite way to put it. He puts it like this; I'm tighter than a crab's ass. And that's waterproof.  He never fails to amuse himself. I got an email from him this morning that I assume was a thank you for the gift card. It said,

Things your parents failed to tell you #47: A $2.00 card is cheaper than a $30 gift certificate.

I am and shall remain,
Yu Ben Phartine

He sometimes signs off as Ben Dover or adds "Esquire" to his name. For years I believed he'd belonged to a fraternity called I Phelta Thi.

My dad is a typical dad in a lot of ways. He is the king of scatological humor. I mean, this goes way beyond Pull My Finger or firing a pretend fart gun. My dad's fart gun had a pretend holster. He'd load it with a couple of rounds, click off the safety, take careful aim over the opposite forearm, and fire the appropriate number of bursts. According to how many rounds he had loaded. Police Academy training, right there. If my dad said, I think I feel a song coming on, you'd better duck and cover.

My dad would do a bad version of Steve Martin's Wild and Crazy Guy routine, trying to get a laugh out of Mom. If he was feeling especially romantic, he'd dance up behind her while she was doing dishes, singing I'm in the nude, for loooove ... simply because you're near me… He looked like he was trying to waltz and do The Robot simultaneously.

Daddy would play checkers or crazy eights with us when we were kids. For money. We didn't really get allowance, so our money was pretty much amassed from the washer and under the couch cushions. I have never beat my dad at checkers. He'd collect his winnings with Mom admonishing him, "Michael, don't you dare take their money! They're kids, you don't need their money! For Pete's sake!"

Daddy would shrug, That's why it's called "gambling". Is there a second chance in the real world? He’d turn to us, Did I force you to bet your money? Your mother thinks I'm taking your money unfairly. Did you make a bet fair and square?  We had, of course. If they're gonna gamble, they'd better be sure they can live with the consequences, he'd finish, scraping up our paltry collection of coins.

We didn't realize he was teaching us anything at the time.

My dad is known in our family for dispensing Pearls of Wisdom. Some of his oft-used sentiments are well-known gems, like you know what Assume does, don't you? Makes and ASS out of U and ME.  Others are his own special brand. He doesn't sugar coat anything. After all, if you roll a turd in sugar, it's still a piece of shit. You never knew when Pearls of Wisdom were going to fall from Daddy's mouth. It was pretty much a daily thing.

My dad was not impressed by excuses. There was a Pearl for that. Whenever we got in trouble, we'd offer up our excuses like currency, and invariably the words, "But I thought ..." would come out of our mouths. You thought? Doesn't look like you thought. You know what Thought did, don't you? Thought he had to fart and shit his pants.

Well. There you have it.

We were also encouraged to keep your nose clean. And we knew good and well that when your mother's happy, everybody's happy. We also knew that everybody deserves a fair shake, and that wherever you go, there you are. We were glad we listened when he advised, don't eat any yellow snow.  Above all, we learned not be slackers and that if you do a half-assed job, you'll do it over until you get it right.  We learned it was better to just do it right the first time.

My dad was not one for kisses or I love yous when we were kids. He believed in showing love, not saying it. He still believes that. He has been showing us since the day he met my mom. I can't say he's taken care of us since before I was born, because he didn't know any of us existed at that time. My dad was in high school when I was born. He would not meet my mom for another four years.

Daddy was 21 when he and Mom got married. I actually have vague memories of it. Mom was so beautiful and happy in the pictures, and Daddy looked like a handsome, boyish, college kid. Which he was. I can barely remember the small apartment my mom, little sister and I lived in before that. Mom worked in a dentist's office during the day, and put in hours as a bar waitress some evenings. My uncle sent her $50 a month from his Navy pay.

I do remember the first Christmas after Mom and Daddy met. I'd never seen so many toys. My sister and I believed in Santa that year.

When Daddy asked Mom to marry him, she said no. Said he was too young to take on the responsibilities of a wife and two kids before his own life had even started. I'd imagine Mom was very cautious, having already been through divorce by the time she was 23.

But mom was quite the catch, in her red and white 60s-style sheath dress and knee-high, white go-go boots. He wasn't about to let her go that easily. (Years later, when Mom would tell the story, Daddy would throw a lascivious glance her way, growling, Your mother looked like just like a Christmas candy cane! He’d add the wiggling eyebrows and the Steve Martin dance, to our delight.)

My dad tacked a vinyl record up on her front door, with a note. Here's part of the song:

You know I've seen a lot of what the world can do
And it's breakin' my heart in two
Because I never wanna see you a sad girl
Don't be a bad girl

But if you wanna leave, take good care
I hope you make a lot of nice friends out there
But just remember there's a lot of bad and beware

Ooh, baby, baby, it's a wild world
It's hard to get by just upon a smile
Ooh, baby, baby, it's a wild world
I'll always remember you like a child, girl

from Wild World, Cat Stevens

I don't know what the note said, but Mom married him.

My dad was a history major in college; he's the biggest history buff I know. He used to randomly quiz us on historical facts. I couldn't stand not knowing one of his facts, and would secretly go look it up if I missed one. He'd planned on becoming a history teacher, but the Army offered an officer's salary, medical coverage, and family housing. He signed up during Vietnam. We went to Fort Benning and Fort Riley, and the war ended right before his number was due to head across the pond to 'Nam. He would've gone though. Daddy's a firm believer in you signs on the line, you does your time.

My dad signed on the line for us as well. He adopted me and my sister. And that was that. He's still doing his time with us.

As a kid, I knew I was half-adopted but it didn't seem that way. Friends would say, "Oh, so you mean he's your step-dad," and I'd say, no, he was my real dad. I couldn't figure out why they thought that. For years I thought my biological father was my step-dad. I remember in high school, I asked a friend what it was like, being adopted. She gave me a weird look and said, "I don't know, didn't your dad adopt you?" Light bulb moment. I realized that I had never considered myself "adopted", even though I knew the whole story. I also realized what a dumb question that was.

My dad is of the Rugged Individualist school of thought. He's politically conservative. He pulled himself up by the proverbial bootstraps, by God, and so can anyone else. He doesn't get people who complain about "not liking their jobs". A job is what you do to put food on the table. You want fun? Get a hobby. Nobody ever gave me a handout, now did they? Nobody ever asked me if I liked my job, did they?

It's maddening, sometimes. Try discussing institutionalized racism, or how education and health care for all would advance society as a whole, or how other countries that are doing those things are already overtaking us, or questioning why such a small percentage of fat cats hold such a large percentage of the country's wealth. What are you, some kind of Socialist? You think people should get a free handout from the government? Guess that's what living out on the Left Coast does for you – har har har!

My dad firmly believes in the whole Land of Opportunity deal. He asserts that with hard work and determination, any able-bodied person, regardless of gender, religion, race, or orientation can do the same damn thing. If you can't, you're not trying hard enough. Either that, or you're spending your hard-earned money on wine, women, and song. Despite his history buffery, he’ll summarily dismiss history’s effect on today’s disparities. Try discussing why, over the course of that history, some folks were a lot farther back from the starting line, or how the founding fathers consciously constructed our institutions for the benefit of white Christian males only, and you won't get far. The idea that while past generations of some families were busy building up a future, past generations of other families were on a plantation, building someone else's future, doesn't hold much sway with him.

Just catch up.

We joke a lot about Daddy's thriftiness, or as we call it, his crab’s ass tendencies. He pays cash for everything. He and mom are both on a strict "allowance". It's something like $25 a week. If Mom wants books or sewing supplies or a new skirt, she has to save up. She has taken "loans" from their bank accounts, but swears each time she'll never do it again. "I swear, honey, he's going to start charging me interest! He IS tighter than a crab's ass!" (Me: "And that's waterproof!") He lives by the same rules with his own allowance, though.

He and Mom paid off a 30-year mortgage in eight years on a cop's salary and, for part of that time, Mom's nurse's salary. Mom was diagnosed with MS not long after they had the house built, and was unable to continue working. That was a huge blow to her. I don't remember the timing, but Daddy had to take a medical retirement from the police department after that. (A fire truck ran into his cruiser as he was reaching to answer the radio, and buggered up his back.)

We realized, during that time, how wise his tightwad approach to finances really was. The mortgage is paid. They've got money in the bank. They've got health care. They've got Daddy's police pension, Mom's "disability" checks (until she hits 65, anyway), and he went to work part time at Toys R Us in order to put in time toward Social Security, so they'd have that as well. Plus, he couldn't deal with not working. He promised Mom he'd quit as soon as he had enough quarters worked for Social Security. That was two years ago, I think. I asked him how he could stand working part time with a bunch of teenagers and self-important "managers" after being on the police force for so many years. Well, you do what you gotta do, don't you? Plus, I get a discount.

During his years on the police department, Daddy was all about some Justice for All. He wrote tickets to judges, priests, the mayor, he didn't care who you were. The only person he ever let out of a ticket was a woman who had to go to the bathroom so badly she was nearly in tears. When you gotta go, you gotta go, he quipped, shaking his head and grinning.

We, however were in the same boat with the judges and priests. Don't try to use my name to get out of a ticket. He told me when I started driving. Wives get a free pass on tickets. Snot-nosed kids don't. Try to use my name, I'll say I don't know you. Don't speed.

My parents have not always been happy with my decisions in life. Some of those decisions, like getting married so young, caused huge rifts that I wasn't sure would ever be repaired. If I'd listened to my parents around those decisions, I'd be in a hell of a different place than I am now, that's for goddamn sure. I wish my kids could get that shit NOW, instead of decades from now. But that's not the way it works, is it? My parents wished the same thing, but I thought I knew better. I didn't.

I have earned my dad's grudging respect, which means a lot to me. He and I had a long conversation a few months ago -- not a common occurrence. He's a man of few words. (Another running joke) But that day, for some reason, after discussing jobs, baseball cards, the offspring, and whether professional "wrastlin" qualifies as a sport, the conversation took a serious turn. He's not one for mushy sentiments or empty praise, but that day he practically waxed poetic. He told me,
Well, one thing I gotta say about you -- you do what you gotta do for your kids. You've done the best you can with your life, and you're doing okay. You could do better with remembering to send your mother a card on her birthday, but I get my ass reamed for mentioning that, so you didn't hear it from me.

You're not stupid with your money, you don't seem to take a lot of bullshit, and your kids are good citizens. Hell, they might even be rich, they play their cards right.

You've shown some smarts and some responsibility, and done it without a whole lot of help. You got rid of your husband when he turned into an asshole playboy, even though you should've taken him for more money.

You seem to be good at your job and you're not a whiner. I'd lend you money, and that's not because you're family. Family don't mean shit when it comes to lending money. And next time, remember: You can marry rich as easy as you can marry poor.

And wherever you go, there you are.

My dad my not have been the most mushy guy growing up, but he took me and Sis and the neighborhood kids over to the old Fraternal Order of Police lodge and played baseball with us. That was fun. A lot of fun. He laughed a lot, and made us all laugh too. He passed on a sense of responsibility and honor to us, along with a scathing dry humor. He may not be politically correct, and some of his views and comments may grate my core, but you know where he stands. He says what he means and means what he says.

I remember asking my mom about the whole dad thing when I was still little; must've been shortly after they got married. I still didn't get the terminology. Mom told me, "Anybody can be a father, honey, but it takes someone really special to be a Daddy." She pretty much nailed it with that one.


  1. Your mom, your sister and you hit the jackpot when that man completed your family. But what you've written shows you already know that.

    It also goes a long way in explaining your own parenting skills.

    Again many thanks....

  2. I feel like I just watched a Hallmark special. (sniffle) Your dad is every dad. He is America's dad. Hell, I want to make him proud of ME!! lol

  3. It takes a very, very special man to be a Daddy. Being a father is a matter of genetics- being a Daddy, that's some hard work. Your Mom got that one spot on.

  4. What a great tribute to your pops,and what a great guy he must be.
    You know,from the description,it sounds like he and I may have been at Fort Riley at the same time..1971-1974..just wonderin'


I've got a fever ...