Father’s Day used to be a date of great angst for me. I had no relationship with my dad. He was a drunk who said about a hundred words to me my entire life.
I even wrote a book about my dad. It was turned into a play. After it had been published, and even after the hundreds of emails and letters I received from readers who got so much out of the book, I still wondered if I had the right to share this story. I guess at the time I had to get it out of me.
Afterward, and because of the book, I discovered from a total stranger who had worked for the Veterans Administration that my dad was a multiple medal winner who fought in World War II’s most deadly battle, the Battle of the Bulge. He experienced horrible atrocities and suffered “battle fatigue” as they called it in those days. It kind of explained why he might have turned to the bottle and I eased up on the memory of him a bit. My dad had never said one word about his time in the war, which I found out is reasonably common.
I didn’t discover any of this till I was in my 50s. By then, without realizing it, I had spent decades searching for a father figure. As it turned out, this rummaging around was divided into five distinct categories.
I had two amazing coaches. They were caring, fair, really knew the games they taught and didn’t take it all too seriously. I loved these men. But here’s the weird thing; away from practice and hours after a game would end, they too would hit the bottle hard. This didn’t affect my love for them then or today. I’m just telling it the way it was. Weird that the first two men to audition for the job of father figure had the same problem that my real dad had. But I was too young to realize it.
This was a total disaster. The fathers who populated television back in those days were the all-knowing, bland, lame dads from shows such as Leave It To Beaver, My Three Sons and Father Knows Best. Those men might as well have been aliens from another planet. They did not resemble my dad in any way whatsoever. Today’s TV dads are much more layered and problematic. But back then? I was going to have to look elsewhere.
Music is the primary love of my life. But the problem with attempting to find a father figure from music is that most of us listen to music that’s being created by musicians who aren’t that much older than us. That’s the way pop music works. But sometimes a voice sneaks through like Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers (“You never close your eyes”) or Otis Redding that’s so mature sounding that it gives off a father figure “sound.” When I got older, I would say that Sinatra’s voice filled that role.
Now this sounds weird but as I have gotten older, I have had friends who were actually a little younger than me who morphed into father figures for me. And you know what they all had in common? They could fix stuff. Build decks. Figure out what is wrong with a car. I never even saw my father attempt to fix anything. And I guess I had it in my head that this was what a father was supposed to do. The broken window latch? The peeling wallpaper? The busted out electrical outlet? Well, they would just stay broken, peeling and busted forever. Now I don’t want to totally blame my dad for my own lack of fixerupper ability, but I too am just as useless with any tool unless it’s a butter knife.
It seems silly on its surface, but the truth is I found more father figures in movies than I did anywhere else. I’m of an age when the first time you saw a film was in a movie theater, not at home or on a mobile device, but on a huge screen and that made them seem even more powerful and all knowing. Here are five of my favorites:
Marlon Brando in The Godfather.
Yeah, I know. He’s a stone killer. But c’mon, guys. Which one of you reading this wouldn’t have wanted a dad you could bring a problem to who you know could guarantee that the problem would go away? And there would be no waiting in line at the school cafeteria either. Or waiting in line anywhere when folks would discover who your old man was. And, he seemed so kind and decent, didn’t he? Tell that to the horse!
Martin Sheen in Wall Street. Michael Douglas wins the Oscar for the greedy Gordon Gekko, but it’s Charlie Sheen’s dad who steals the show for me. Right from the beginning when Charlie Sheen meets him at the working-class bar with all his pop’s buddies to hit him up for some money, he’s the real deal. Or, again, what I wanted the real deal to be. My dad was a loner with no friends. And that scene in the hospital where they profess their love for each other after Martin Sheen has had a heart attack? My dad and I could have had that moment, but I blew it.
Darth Vader. Great cape and helmet.
Laurence Fishburne in Boyz n the Hood. Ok, his name, “Furious” Styles is a little over the top. But at the end of the movie, Cuba Gooding Jr., Fishburne’s son, gets out of the car on the way to a driveby shooting. Gooding does not get out of that car if it’s not for Fishburne’s moving portrayal of a single father.
Pa Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. His son George ends up stealing the show, but it’s “Pa” (he doesn’t even have a name) who gives the movie it’s all important backbone. From the very moment the young George confronts the evil Mr. Potter (“Don’t let him talk to you like that Pa, you’re the biggest man in town.”) the movie revolves around Jimmy Stewart honoring everything his old man stood for.
Happy Father’s Day, dudes! ¦
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 3 (June, 2017).
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