My father Jack would be the first to tell you that he was not God’s gift to fatherhood. He’d tell you that he was just a guy who tried every day to do the best he could for his family. I’d like to immortalize him in some way with all kinds of praise or flowery speech, but I know he wouldn’t really like that. If there was some kind of award involved – he’d rather if I saved the prose and gave him a new fishing pole. Daughters adore their daddies, and I wasn’t any different. In my eyes, there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do and not a problem he couldn’t solve. In truth, there wasn’t much around the house or in the garage that he couldn’t fix, but I always thought he was at his best in the woods. He could build a camp that kept you dry in the rain, his fire always lit on the first try, and he had a built-in compass so he was never lost in the woods. He was a decent shot, better with a fishing rod, and he could cook anything he brought home.
Dad grew up during the depression and always had some sort of a job. He was delivering papers when he was nine years old and he was never out of work after that. During the summers when he was in high school, he worked in logging camps in the Oregon woods setting chokers. This was hard and dangerous work for any man — let alone a teenager. He came out of high school with a B average and headed for the Air Force, joining in 1949. There he was trained as an air traffic controller. He was the tower chief at tiny towers with very little air traffic such as Phelps Field, Alpena, Michigan, and at busy towers such as Nha Trang Air Base, South Vietnam.
The thing I never noticed about my father until I was older was just how smart he really was. He could do complex math in his head as easily as he could string a new fishing pole. This was the go-to guy when you had that stupid math problem of the train leaving the station in St. Paul and heading for the train that just left Seattle. He didn’t need a pencil and paper to tell you the collision would occur in Missoula at 8:45pm. He could convert kilometers to feet, fractions to decimals, and dollars to pounds without looking away from whatever he was working on at the time. The man was a flat-out mathematical wizard.
When it came to work, he was at his happiest on a busy day in the tower. He considered himself to be at the peak of his abilities while in Vietnam, directing air traffic at Nha Trang. When it came to off-duty, he was at his absolute best in his boat fishing for salmon out of Winchester Bay. He loved to watch golf and football, and if he was simply sitting somewhere, I rarely saw him without a book in his hand.
Most people who talk to me about my father mention his smile and his laugh. He was a glass half full kinda guy and smiled much more than he frowned. He was also a man that loved to tease the people he loved, and he was the biggest instigator at family gatherings. He’d get everyone wound up and then once the ball was rolling, he’d simply sit back and laugh. Dad liked to laugh.
Dad was also a man who tried to accept the changing ways of the world – an old-fashioned man with a daughter of the seventies. He was not always happy about some of the decisions I made in my life. We had more than one fight about my choices. We’d yell, he’d point his finger at me, and then he’d order me to my room. The next morning, he’d apologize for yelling and tell me why I was an idiot one more time and then unless it was simply too much for him to bear, he’d leave the decision up to me. I know now that it was tough for him to let me go and do something that he saw as a bad choice at the time. But he was the best type of father. He let me make my own mistakes. More than once I landed on my butt in the dirt from those mistakes. Dad would shake his head and tell me I was an idiot, then he’d help me get up, give me a hug, turn me back around to face life, and give me a push. Each time with an, “I love you. Go do what ya gotta do.” He didn’t waste a lot of time on the blame game, he just went for the hug and the push.
He died thirty years ago this week at the age of 54. I’m now older than my father was when he died and I’m absolutely sure that he wasn’t ready to go. There were so many more things he wanted to do, places to go, fish to catch, and books to read. I’ve never been worried that he didn’t know what I was doing or that he missed out on my life in these last thirty years. My father always seemed to know what I was doing even when I didn’t want him to, so I’m sure he’s been keeping up with me. He’s probably shook his head more than once at my decisions, and I’m sure that I’ve felt him nudging my shoulder to get back in the fight and face the world. My only regret is that I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye, so I would like to have him back for just a few minutes. One more hug and one more I love you with that little push would be great. But this time, they’d be for him, not for me. I sure would have liked to have sent him off to face whatever it was he was facing with the same gifts that he always sent me off with. There’s no doubt in my mind that he knows that too.