Dad With a Capital “D”

Dad With a Capital “D”

The father is always a Republican toward his son, and his mother’s always a Democrat. – Robert Frost

I grew up in a house with four boys, where neighbors routinely referred to my mother as “that poor woman” and my father would walk in each night at 7 p.m. and calmly ask, “Who gets the belt?”

“Let’s see,” she would begin.  “Michael and his friends lobbed oranges at what they thought was a slow moving group of cars that turned out to be a funeral procession.  Our garage is full of audiovisual equipment stolen from the middle school after Tom used the glass cutter art kit we gave him for Christmas to cut a hole in the window.  The boys weren’t sure what to do with the merchandise.  Apparently your son does not have someone to fence the goods yet.  Miles was suspended for streaking what he thought was an all girls high school but mistakenly turned out to be the all girls elementary school and Patrick’s school counselor thinks he may have some form of personality disorder, as it’s the only acceptable excuse for his behavior.  Otherwise, it was a pretty good day.”  My father, unphased and a firm believer in corporal punishment, would swiftly mete out justice in hopes that his boys would grow up to be stewards of the community and not wards of the criminal justice system.

My father was a Dad with a capital D.  He would routinely break into tirades over politics, any form of incompetence, and “liberals” – including our local minister (Dad was convinced he was an agent for the KGB).  He never apologized.  Empathy was something “liberals” used as a Trojan horse term for income redistribution.  He never shared his feelings or cried, except perhaps at the collapse of the 1969 Cubs.  He was the king of his castle.  While his boys gave him a run for his money, our kingdom was under the martial law of a benevolent dictatorship – the illegitimate offspring of Pinochet and Marshal Tito.  While no one questioned for a minute that my mother was the real genius behind my father’s “success”, both as a businessman and a parent, he was the executive and judicial branch of the family.  Though Mom’s intuition could detect a fire, fight, any form of alcohol, illicit material or inappropriate behavior within a five-mile radius, he was the man.  Their partnership celebrated its fiftieth year this past summer.

Yet “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” generation carried obvious inequities.  Its chronic male chauvinism and silent female martyrdom led to unresolved conflict and dysfunction.  Later mothers and society, with the help of Gloria Steinem (another Russian Spy), broke through to celebrate equality and liberate women to apply their cunning intuition across a broader field of personal and professional opportunities.  The fathers, the Dads with a big D were left behind.  They grumbled, swore and continued to lament the erosion of societal values along with the slow emasculation of the American male.  As their sons wed and became a next generation of fathers, the sons quickly realized they were entering uncharted waters; Dad with the capital D appeared to be an outdated point of reference.

“I never changed as many damned diapers with all four of you boys as you do for her,” my father mumbled as I nimbly changed my newborn daughter.  He, thinking I’d been neutered in some UFO secret experiment; me, wondering when my wife would offer him a sprig of hemlock to stir his ice tea.  However, as I got older, I regained an appreciation for the big D.

Let’s face it, being a dad today carries a lot of benefits, though my job description is now titled with a lower case d.  While I see growing up in Big D’s house like France under Napoleon, he looks at my house like a twisted version of Lord of the Flies.  In my home, dad gets home from work to a wife and teenaged daughter locked in mortal combat over the amount of midriff her outfit is showing.  Like a UN peacekeeper, I don my blue helmet and try to break up the brutal internecine fighting, only to have them both turn on me and chase me into my office.  When disciplining my two boys, I’m supposed to use intimidating language like, “Let’s use our inside voices,” and the brutally decisive “Okay, mister, this time you really have lost a privilege.”  Dad with a big D wants to vomit.  The boys react to me as if I have the retaliatory power of Luxembourg and continue with their misbehavior.  You know what finally works?  A page out of the old Big D’s playbook – the occasional yell, immediate intervention, and the threat…always followed up with determined consequences.

Evolution is a funny thing.  The old big D Dad had to go, but the little d dad has to develop new tricks and methods to ensure his survival.  Occasionally activating those less politically correct genes to keep the herd moving west isn’t always a bad thing.  It’s nice to remember you can combine the soft skin of restraint and compassion with the hard sinews of being decisive, fair and tough – little d and big D combining to make a better man.

Arson and Old Laces

www.Army.mil
Image by The U.S. Army via Flickr

Arson and Old Laces

As a child, I was a backyard arsonist.  In the era of Vietnam and hidden enemies, my friends and I would spend hours, away from the watchful eye of my Mother, presiding over conflagrations of epic proportions.  It usually involved carefully laid Airfix 54 mm plastic soldiers advancing through a dense jungle of ferns and ivy toward a defenseless Marine firebase, and it was our job to “lay down that protective cover of napalm.”  Napalm took the shape of anything flammable.  As curious, red-blooded American boys in the ‘60s, we had never heard of things such as travel sports, electronic games or TVs with more than 13 channels.  We had more than enough time to discover the inflammatory properties of every liquid in our medicine cabinet, bathroom, cleaning closet and garage.

We quickly determined anything with alcohol content worked well to protect our besieged soldiers.  As the VC crept in, we showered them with a horrific ordinance of paint thinner, gasoline, model airplane glue, English Leather cologne, canned hairspray and Old Spice spray deodorant.  The air was a bittersweet miasma of odors and excitement.  The final barrage was intense.  We watched with great satisfaction as the enemy soldiers turned molten black and collapsed in utter defeat, melting literally back into the dirt, just yards in front of the protective wire of the grateful Marines.  The black eddies of thick toxic smoke would swirl and flicker with fire and, like Westmoreland, we would be satisfied.  As kids, we fashioned every conceivable homemade weapon and waged war on one another, building forts and digging ditches (the 20-foot tunnel we dug under the garage that almost caused it to collapse into a sinkhole during a rainstorm is another story…)

Our arsenal included firecrackers, crossbows that shot sharpened, green gardening stakes, slingshots made from surgical tubing, smoke bombs of salt peter and a healthy dose of imagination.  We had time and tools at our disposal.  We would leave the house every morning like pets being let outside, returning only for food or medical attention.  We floated like leaves blown from season to season.  If it was spring it was baseball or soccer.  Football in the fall.  Basketball in the winter and of course summers – a blur of day camps, sports, and long bicycle rides in search of a pool, creek, mischief or anything that could work up or relieve a good sweat.  Sport seasons were a maximum of 10 to 15 games followed by an all-star team that was usually thrown into a single elimination tourney against local towns.  There was really no such thing as travel or year-round sports.  I rode my bike to and from school.  A car ride to a friend’s house was an indulgence and walking home when the bike had a flat tire was standard.

My arson is now limited to my fireplace and my soldiers are arranged in neat rows in a display case, wishing a small child would break them out of their glass prison to wage war once again.  My bike has been replaced by a Lifecycle in the New Canaan Fitness Club.  My children have no interest in following in my footsteps.  They are too preoccupied and too in need of immediate gratification to meticulously build dirt bunkers, stick forts or rock bulwarks.  In addition to rarely playing in the dirt, their feet rarely touch the pavement – with muscles developed around soccer, not pedaling a single speed bike up a steep hill.  They are driven everywhere like dignitaries; the concept of walking is met with a martyred moan.  Couple this with society’s increasing trepidation that walking anywhere is unsafe…that the ubiquitous van full of pedophiles is out there, touring our neighborhoods looking for unescorted children.

I’m not sure if I am an anachronism complaining how society has gone to hell or whether there is legitimate cause for concern.  One of my peeves: is it really necessary to “declare your major” by the fifth grade when it comes to sports?  The pressure to specialize earlier and earlier has second graders in a 10-game soccer season and parents getting wound up over playing time and worried over nascent motor skills.  Meanwhile little Johnny is still pooping in his pants.  The beauty of trying everything is you gain different experiences and become more balanced.  Generalizing perhaps reduces your chance to become a multi-sport Varsity starter or a shoe-in to Yale, but you end up decent at inter-mural sports, passable at tennis, par at Frisbee golf and a great Trivial Pursuit partner.  Less organized activities sometimes brings a bonus of time – minutes of margin to innovate, imagine, experiment and, yes, occasionally get into trouble.

It seems that most kids literally have very little time for mischief.  And when they do, it becomes the great headline in our local newspapers.  Is it a sign of the decline of western civilization if kids occasionally go off “the reservation”?  Is it worrisome if they sit around the house, complain about being bored, and then get the ultimatum to go outside or start folding laundry?  Perhaps, one of them will wander over to the stream next to the house and dam it up until it overflows on to the Murphys’ property, getting me a late evening call from Charlie about the newly re-routed stream jutting across his driveway.  My Dad got those calls once a week.  Wilson tennis ball cans will be converted into a makeshift mortar that launches flaming number three balls into the twilight, triggering UFO calls from residents on West Road.  Perhaps a son or daughter might see a can of spray paint, then spy the hammer, nails and old wood, then build something – a catapult?  A crossbow?  Do I sound like Dr. Evil?

Given their schedules and our watchful eyes, it’s highly unlikely many kids will ever smell the acrid smoke of a burning battlefield of plastic soldiers.  Some would say that is a very good thing.  But I wonder…