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the road home

1947 – 2012

When I was a child, I saw my father as a kind of superhero. He was a big man who wore a uniform with shiny badges on his chest. He drove a tank. He leapt out of airplanes in a single bound. Literally.

My dad served 29 years in the military, a career that he loved. In 1969, he enlisted in the Marines and after returning from Vietnam graduated from LSU and became an officer in the Army. He ran Platoons and Companies and later Battalions, retiring at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, and my impression is that he was pretty good at it, too. Perhaps a better, more reliable testament to his professional life was summed up recently by a man who served under him and later rose to one of the highest ranks possible in the state of Texas, “During forty years of service, he was the best commander I ever served under.” I served under my dad in two of his units and I can appreciate the sentiment, but I never thought of him as the commander, only as my dad.

My dad. The man that used to make me open every door and pull out every chair for my sister and my mother, telling me that how I treated them would be an insight into my character. The man who expected me to look people in the eye and stand at attention when in trouble. The man who made me clean our shower tiles with a toothbrush. The man who spent months teaching me to drive while making me explain my reasoning behind every flick of a turn signal. The man who probably had marginal interest in soccer or theatre, but sat through countless high school games and hours upon hours of dramatic plays.

In junior high, I stole Gummy Worms from a grocery store. I was arrested, but I was acutely aware that I had more to fear from what awaited me at home than from the legal system. But, my dad, other than a withering look, surprisingly said nothing. The next day, while I moped, my dad returned to the scene of my crime. He came home and instead of lecturing me, handed me a package of Gummy Worms and the receipt. I always thought this was some Jedi Mind Trick intended to teach me that it was ultimately better to pay your dues in life instead of taking short cuts. Now I think my dad was just telling me to have a sense of humor, especially regarding my own stupid mistakes.

As I grew older I began to see my superhuman dad as less super than human. He changed into a man of contradictions, strengths and weaknesses, just like everyone else. We clashed in epic wrestling matches typical of Old versus Young, Authority versus Attitude – seemingly pointless battles in which my dad cursed the stubbornness he probably thought I inherited from my mom. Over time, as we both mellowed and grew closer, our matches became more like dances – awkward, tongue-tied two-steps of diffidence and affection with neither person knowing when to lead, nor when to follow, and often stepping on the other’s toes. Actually, this is a terrible analogy since my dad was a pretty good dancer and could seriously tear up a ballroom floor. But I think my dad was a man who, in matters of the heart, didn’t always know how to place his words. Our hellos and goodbyes were big hugs, and I always thought the strength and length of his hugs were meant to express all the things he left unsaid. An interesting contradiction in his personality, because he could have a gift with words. He was a closet poet and artist, but unless you were married to him, you’d haven’t a clue. Some years ago he wrote me a poem for my birthday. It was a funny, sweet recount of his memories of my growing up. I thanked him, but I don’t think I ever really expressed to him how genuinely touched I was – I guess in matters of the heart, I don’t always know how to place my words.

So, here are some images of my dad: He loved golf, cigars, and scotch, though I don’t know in which order. He told funny stories that would have been funnier if they were shorter. He loved to talk, but often silent in a group, let others do the speaking. Having a benign form of skin cancer on his arms and scalp, he would circle multiple spots needing to be removed with a black permanent marker, showing up at his doctor appointments looking like a child’s drawing of a dalmatian, his favorite dog when he was a boy. He was left-handed and had beautiful, though sometimes illegible handwriting. When he learned that his family had some distant Scottish ancestry, he started wearing kilts and listening to bagpipes. Known as Papa Don, children loved him. Occasionally, he left messages on my answering machine as if he were speaking on a military radio network: “Meet me at The Draught Horse Pub. I say again, Delta, Romeo, Alpha, Uniform…” I was never really certain that he was joking. He could organize and manage a Battalion of men and women and execute large-scale missions in his profession, but couldn’t organize his desk drawers or computer files. He visibly loved and doted on my stepmother to a degree that would have been corny had it not been so sweet, genuine, and something worth emulating.

My dad spent the past fourteen years as a senior instructor for a high school JROTC program. After his death, the school held a football game half-time tribute to him, where his JROTC Drill Team played Taps and unfolded a giant American flag in his memory. I know he would have been touched, but I think he would have been more touched by the number of current and former students that considered him an inspiration, the mother who said her four sons stayed in school and went on to universities because of him, the former-student-now-Army-captain who flew in from Wisconsin simply to be present for the occasion. This video tribute made by his students and played during their half-time show speaks for them better than I can. I’m certain my dad would have been moved, flattered, and perhaps inwardly surprised that a person who never took his own formal schooling seriously or intended to be a teacher could inspire so many students.

Contradictions and contrasts. Strengths and weaknesses. Maybe they’re just compliments that make up the whole of who we are in life and in memory. My dad was a man of both – not exactly the way we envision our superheroes; but sometimes sons, like fathers, have quixotic expectations. But I feel my dad was a person who was always trying to better himself, trying to improve his imperfections and live by and up to his own principles while inspiring others along the way to do the same. And I think that’s heroic and laudable and something to be proud of. My dad was a man who, for better or worse, shaped a large part of who I am. He was man I admired, a person I loved, and someone I will miss dearly.

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