It's amazing to look back now and see which bits of my father's advice I picked up and which examples I chose to follow from all those years. I think it's in this choosing, which can change over time, that the child gets to choose who their father is.
I come from the days of distant fathers. Mine was a naval officer. 30 years sailing the ocean of the world. He didn’t have a single story to tell. Then he sat in a chair and kept his own conscience for another 30 years. But I saw the best of him a few times over the years. And the worst more than once. And that’s not to judge. Who am I to say. I learned equally from both.
He let me take things apart to see how they worked. Even things he loved. He said you always have to have the right tool for the job, though he rarely did, and that you got to have the qualifications, but he despised people who did and made a show of it. He said everyone has something to teach you. He told me anyone who would go to sea for pleasure would go to hell for a holiday. He told me not to drink or smoke, though he did both, but for whatever reason I listened. He told me not to think too much. To just do the thing my mother would expect of me as if it were right. I still try to take that advice.
He told me priests were vampires and he lost a friend because the man married a cat person. But he told me too young and I didn't understand they were metaphors.
I think there were times he hated me. And looking back now I think he was justified.
He was estranged from his family. I think it was just easier than loving them. That was something he did only in the abstract and the ideal. The thing he loved most, I think, was a problem. Maybe he just couldn’t help himself. He was just drawn to them.
He got invited to lots of parties. He often planned to go. But he almost never did. Those were the hardest days at home.
The year I was born he went into a fire on a ship. Fires on ships are terrible things. No one else would go. He saved seven men. Got the Queens commendation for bravery. And after the big trip to get the medal, when the navy asked him what he wanted he, a grown man, said “education.” He got it.
And there was a photo he kept in a drawer with a switchblade knife. I still have it. He’s standing on a hillside in Korea, 1951. In a little sod mud hut village. He’s dressed in black with a black knit hat, and a machine gun over his shoulder. His hands are filled with chocolate bars, which he’s giving out to dozens children surrounding him.
My mother once said he spent Christmas in prison in Tokyo that year. Though those words are simple enough it was an image too complex for me to process. All the dark stuff was like that. Whispers beyond my comprehension. A wreck on the highway. A dead brother. A drunken boating accident. A betrayal. The labyrinth of estrangements and the minefield of friendship. He genuinely hated it when my brother and I fought, but brothers can't help it. It was the only thing that seemed to near bring him to tears and bring out the dark whispers.
"I'm going to see a man about a dog" is what he said when he didn't want to explain his goings and doings. Sometimes when it was really cold he and my grandfather Wesley took black rum, molasses and biscuits to an Indian named Jordy Duck who lived out in the woods.
When Canada became officially bilingual he made a point of learning Gaelic words and using them where he could.
He had every Johnny Cash album and played Live At Folsom Prison loud on the best stereo he could afford. When a song came in the radio he didn't like he'd say, "there's a song that didn't need to be written." A lot of songs didn't need to be written I think.
The first time we really watched TV together it was spring and there were helicopters taking people off the roof of a building in Saigon, Vietnam. I remember because he was yelling at the TV, at the Americans. He never spoke loudly. When I was in grade four he brought home the most incredible snow suit and gear. Mom said he was asked to go to Wounded Knee, South Dakota to help the Indians and do something good but I couldn't tell anyone about it. A woman was lost and everyone was mad. He was gone for a month and came home cursing the Americans... even more than before.
Once we were walking with our big black dog in the woods around a lake in November. The dog ran off and out across the thin clear ice on the lake. He ran all the way to the other side and crashed through the ice near where a little stream entered the lake. The ice kept breaking. The dog couldn’t get out. And soon just the tip of his nose could be seen. And a frantic splash. I stood there. Screaming and crying. “Do something!”. He looked at me. He must have been as old as I am now. He swore. And then he ran through the rushes and peat bog all the way around the lake. When he got to the dog at the mouth of the brook he reached in to try and grab it. It clawed it’s way over him sending him head first into the cold water and under the ice. It seemed like forever. The dog was half way back bounding through the peat when I saw him again, climbing up onto the bank. By the time he got back around his clothes were so frozen he was walking like Frankenstein. And it was miles through the woods to home. He cursed the dog he saved the whole way.
He was the commanding officer of the dockyard where 1800 men, mostly burly welders with motorcycles in my remembering, called him sir. Only I called him dad. One day near the dockyard we came across a bunch of teenagers, big boys, circled around an even bigger guy pummeling a kid. My father joined the circle gleefully rolling up his sleeves. “This is great” he told them, “Whoever wins this fight can fight me.” The boys laughed and left. He dusted off the kid and sent him on his way. My heart raced with a kind of joy and I didn't know why. It still does sometimes.
I used to admonish him to quit smoking. Eventually he got cancer and half his tongue cut out along with part of his jaw. But he kept smoking and drinking Bonded Stock through a straw. I never bothered talking to him about it after that.
He thought I looked down on him. He thought I thought I was smarter than him. I didn’t.
He had beautiful penmanship, learned not in school – because he didn’t go – but in adulthood. He credited it with much of his success. He gave me the book he learned from. I still look at it sometimes but I'm hopelessly left-handed and have other problems with that sort of stuff.
Near the end, in the hospital, and probably one of the first times I ever seen him sober he said, “don’t let them resuscitate me if I’m going” and “look after your mother”. It was only a night or so later the doctor called us all in and I was the one responsible. I said pull the plug. The next morning around nine the phone rang from the hospital. It was him. “Why did you pull the plug on me?” He lived for another two years and never let me forget it.
These days I get along with him a lot better. He’s been dead a dozen years. That simplifies things. I can tell a story like this. And there’s no one to say what I left out.
Writing about life, citizenship, and Nova Scotia.