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Stuff I learned from my dad

It is that time of year in Newspaper World when we are going back through issues from the past year trying to decide what, if anything, is worth submitting for the annual Nevada Press Foundation Awards.

It’s a really subjective process and, when it comes to columns like this I found myself wondering which of the things I wrote last year might just be a little too personal. And I know that, come next year, I will wonder that same thing about this piece. But, as Tom Cruise said in “Risky Business”, “Sometimes you just gotta say, ‘What the ****…’”

And, yes, typically for me, I am burying the lede.

You see, Saturday, after a band session auditioning a new bass player and as I was looking over the past year of writing and wondering if my daughter would remember to call me for Father’s Day, I got The Call. My dad had died about an hour earlier.

Yeah. The day before Father’s Day. Dad’s timing was never stellar and now that will be the way me and my sisters and many of his grandkids will remember that day.

My dad was not my father. Actually, he and his first wife were the next-door neighbors of my mom and my father. It was the early 1960s so, yeah, what you are probably already thinking was the case. In fact, family legend is that I, the eldest child, got the divorce ball rolling y asking my father why mommy went to “Uncle Bill’s house” when he went to work.

They eventually married and created a blended family. I had a brother and a sister who were blood-related from mom’s first marriage and two sisters from dad’s first marriage. Our brother died in 1974, which left me and three sisters. I don’t think any of us have ever really considered anyone a “step” anything.

It was a pretty twisted upbringing, even for the 1970s. My sisters and I have talked many times, only partially in jest about how it is pretty amazing that none of us turned out to be a serial killer. Really. This is a conversation we have had.

My mom and I are… what is the nice word? Estranged, I guess. It would be easy to say she was just bat-poop crazy, but there was alcohol and drug addiction for a lot of years, too, although she is —as best as any of us know —sober these days. None of my sisters really have a current relationship with her, either, so that is at best, a guess.

Anyway. It was a different time and as weird as it sounds, it was not any better or worse than the family situations of many of my friends.

Dad and I did not see eye-to-eye when I was growing up. I was a budding wanna-be rock star whose only job as a high school senior was playing with a band at stake dances on Saturday nights, which was enough to pay my car insurance and keep me supplied with gas and burgers. He was an Army brat whose dad was a full-bird colonel in the Corps of Engineers. He was, to put it kindly, a hard-ass.

But, as he aged (and especially when the union with my mom finally ended for real —after they got divorced and then remarried and then got divorced again) he mellowed. His new wife was a stabilizing influence. He found God and stopped drinking.

And, as I aged, I came to a deeper appreciation for the man he was and, especially, how he formed the man I became.

Every quality that I look at with pride in myself came from my dad. We did not share blood but he taught me all of the big lessons. Keep your word. Take responsibility for your actions. Work hard. Every time I try to take a shortcut that I innately know will result in shoddy work, I hear him yelling at me, “If you are gonna do it half-ass, don’t do it at all.”

And, while I tried really hard to be more “emotionally available” for my own daughter than my dad was for his kids, those are the same qualities I really tried to instill in her.

It has been almost 20 years since my wife and daughter and I moved away from California where he lived. And, you know how it is. Distance and busy lives. My dad and I only talked a few times a year. But, somehow, just knowing he was a presence in the world was one of those anchor points in my life.

My stoicism and personality that make most people think I am cold and unemotional, totally comes from dad. I am more than a little surprised at how adrift I have felt for the past few days now that his anchor has come unmoored from this world.

He was an auto mechanic by trade and, though he sold his shop and “retired’ decades ago, he was tinkering with that kind of stuff constantly. My inclination and ability to “turn a wrench” all came from him. And when I got stuck, I would call him to set me straight. He was way better than YouTube videos.

I always called for Father’s Day and his birthday and did not get to do that this year. I thought about it. I told myself I should call him early, on Friday but didn’t get to it. On Friday evening, while on a road trip in Washington state to be at the graduation of one of his wife’s grandkids, he took a fall and hit his head. My sister talked to him after and said he sounded OK. They thought he may have had a minor concussion. Then, on Saturday while eating a burger, he seemed to have trouble swallowing and then had a seizure and that was it. He was almost 89 and had signed a “do not resuscitate” order years earlier. So, that was it.

Father’s Day will never be the same. But I am grateful that he chose to be my dad. We never really had a common frame of reference in how we looked at the world. I’m not sure he ever understood how I ended up as a writer and musician. But I have been told by those who would know, that he read everything I wrote and posted online. Sometime in the past decade, he told me that I had “done good” in both my professional life and as a dad. He did not hand out compliments easily so that was a big deal. And it meant the world to me.

So, now, I’m just rambling. That is the other thing he taught me. No, not rambling. But I am a storyteller to this day because he was a great storyteller. Stories that would curl your hair, but great stories nonetheless.

I’m gonna miss him.

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