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Don Rogers: Living through our fathers

“Haunt me any time,” I said to my dad shortly after his body was untethered from the machinery, his mind long gone.

His last memory was looking at his morning paper, a lifelong Republican disgusted by what had become of his party. Seemingly all principle abandoned and for what?

“Dad, you’re starting to sound like a Democrat,” I broke in during one of our last phone calls.



“No, no. I’m not that crazy,” he replied. “How’s the family?”

We shared a gallows humor, a compulsion to read, a taste for alcohol, his unquenchable, and a competitive edge that might not be entirely healthy.




Mine must lurk under an amiable aloha mien. A former colleague who came from the tough, brash New York magazine market once asked me how it was going at my new job.

“Great,” I said. “People think I’m nice.”

“I almost feel sorry for them,” she said.

Which is not to say that I’m not chill, that I don’t listen, that I’m not guided by modern themes that inform “servant leadership.” I am, fully. I believe in greater purpose and go all in for commander’s intent.

But underneath runs a weird intensity, like my dad racing sailboats. He was there to win. Hop off if that’s not you; this ain’t a pleasure cruise. We shared this hard seed, too. What we called fun.

 

FATHER

Once, I thought my dad was God. He was God. Old Testament, one you lived to please or hide from, depending what you’d gotten into.

He was my savior before I could swim, when I lost my grip on the edge of a family friend’s pool at the deep end, not supposed to be doing that. He was the white whale breaking the surface above me in a dive, swooping me up to sunlight, air.

He was Poseidon in a good mood stilling my bug-eyed terror as the sailboat he raced most weekends, a 210, nosed out of the harbor mouth shortly before sunset, wind filling the sails and the boat heeling, nimble.

“It’s supposed to do that,” he explained. “Here, look.” The sails billowed, the tassels at the leading edge of the jib flying sometimes straight up, sometimes streaming like banners when the sail caught the wind just right. “You try.” I had the tiller, me on his lap, his sure hand next to my tiny one.

And sure, other stuff. Sharp looks, a belt sometimes to the backside. “Wipe that look off your face,” uttered in a low growl. Commands to shake hands and call adults mister and missus Last Name. No guff.

Pride in me, too, of course. When I un-potty trained all the other boys in preschool. When the principal looked out a window at Aina Haina Elementary and thought he saw a riot. I’d gotten some friends to play swordfight with our arms, and it … escalated.

Later, when I fought wildfire. By then I’d reached something maybe all sons must with their fathers, as my son did with me. Ours isn’t a mother’s love.

 

MANLINESS

My dad was a Hemingway kind of guy: tough, hard drinking and with a certain world-weary wit, his sharper than most. Mix in John Wayne, Dean Martin, maybe a dash of Jack Nicholson.

My hotshot crew had some of this bearing. Certainly our bosses did. I swam these manly man waters — with my dad and for nearly all my 20s fighting fire, sandwiched around an adolescence with a single mom and a sister. Even then I was the scrappy devil on my high school’s basketball team, quick to brawl. My dad and I, well, I think we shared an inner rage.

Somewhere along the way I shed most of this, what, posing? I noticed myself caring a lot less what people thought of me, which only got in the way of trying to understand them, to see behind the masks we all wear for the world.

A literary mentor at an after party a couple of years ago commented on my “female” energy, and a friend recently called me a crushable pillow, presumably one that springs back into shape, then later amended it to sound-proofing tile.

I might have taken them wrong at a different age, when Hemingway loomed larger. My wife says I walked then like I had a stick up my butt; we all did. I see this in today’s crews and the kids in sports. The swagger’s still there. Times haven’t changed that much.

I knew what this author/professor was trying to get across, but I laugh imagining my father’s retort if this had been said to him, and it wouldn’t, of course. I smile wider thinking what he’d say to me if he were there with us, knocking back drinks and talking writing and such with the real deals in the dark bar on Haight in San Francisco. “You gonna stand for that?”

Absolutely. It’s a compliment, a sign of growth. Hemingway’s gone, Dad. Like you.

Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at drogers@sierrasun.com or 530-477-4299.


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