My Sensational Father

January 9th, 2014

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“Life is not a dress rehearsal,” was one of my father’s favorite lines. And that is really how he lived, and how he insisted that we live.

He was raised with a kind of Depression era common sense, cutting to the essentials in life. Family and providing security for your family was the be all end all. And we learned many crucial things about living from our amazingly sensible father.

We were luck to have had all the wonderful times with him, all the many, many wonderful years with this extraordinary man.

On Friday last week, when he wound the ships clock on the mantel we had no way of knowing that it would be for the last time. But on that quiet afternoon after our perfectly normal Thanksgiving. And we all really did share how thankful we were for that–he kept saying how nice it was just to sit with us and his grandchildren and to not do anything.

To say that this has been tough for all of us is an understatement. For our family, loosing my Dad is like loosing a force of nature, something on the order of magnitude of importance as gravity. He was a solid guy, funny, charming, sturdy, adamant. His wishes and sensibility seem even stronger now that he is not here to represent them.

For nearly every crazy, impractical thought we ever shared with him, his instant response was: Jesus, Christ!
Get your head out of your [you know what].

Still, we still kept calling back, and running every nutty passing thought by him.

It feels like we live in quite a different world today than the one we grew up in, the stately quarters at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, where people left calling cards in a bowl when they visited. My mother’s special meal for company from around the globe was curry with the chutney and spices that the men who cooked for the Admirals aboard ships had brought from their native lands.

That said, if you listed all the adjectives that described my Dad: strong, amusing, witty, handsome. One, high one the list would certainly be uncouth—in a delightful way, of course.

I can always remember our dear friend Mrs. Collins or Sims Ross saying, “Oh, Chuck.”

His father, Sam, had been a traveling salesman. And the famous story that he brought his wife to a dinner, went to use the loo, came out, and went to his car and drove 300 miles before he remembered that he had left her at the rest stop. Sam was hired to play piano at a silent movie theater, but needed sheet music to play, so when they turned out the lights, according to the story, he ran.

For a son of immigrants who grew up during the depression, when paying the water bill wasn’t a given, my father did astonishingly well for himself. He followed his brother Gilven to the Naval Academy.

Pictures indicate he was movie star handsome in uniform. When he met my mother, he kept her out at a party until 4 a.m. Her parents likely should have known better. There are also early pictures of him at an officers party in Puerto Rico with an unnamed beauty. When Hunt traveled to Morocco, my father related that he’d been there in the Navy, and had cowered in his room Tangier was considered so dangerous at the time.

In an age before Facebook and iPods children were the centerpiece at family gatherings. We were the entertainment. And it was a wonderful way to grow up. And my parent’s friends weren’t just online. They were life long. The MIT group, Navy families, charming, charmed, wonderful family people. They helped to make America strong. He was a commanding presence. Younger officers in the Navy and his employees at IBM looked up to him.

And I can’t imagine how my parents gave us all that they gave us in life on his salary. It was a different world. They made sacrifices, for example, they sold their apartment at Virginia Beach to pay for me to go to Yale.

Besides an endless font of Salami Sam stories, early memories include getting spritzed at the fragrance counter. My father would grab a perfume bottle and spray me. I think it had to do with the fact that the stuff was free; hence, I’ve never been fond of makeup counters.

He was a bargain shopper, likely buying thousands of bathrobes for my mother onsale at Sears over the years.

We traveled, but mainly by car, back and forth across America, passed out and sweaty in the back of a station wagon, to Vegas, the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, in the days before GPS and online reservations (a source of consternation for my mother). When she wasn’t flipping the pages of AAA triptics, my mother would read books like Urma Bombeck, or, Help: I’m a prisoner in a Chinese Bakery, by Alan King.

And God help us if a bee got into the car. My Dad was brave but not in that way. An insect could present a life-threatening situation. And then my mother would reach over with a napkin and make the kill.

The girls would sing the songs of the ‘60s, and my dad would boom out, “Some enchanted evening, you will meet a stranger, across a crowded room.” Significant, because, of course he had.

I found an early photo of my dad online the other day in uniform attending a meeting, looking terribly dapper, smoking. Shades of Madmen. The picture of my parents in Hawaii (above), looks particularly glam. My Dad in the starched Navy whites, mom in a short silvery dress. There are home movies of them going off to Kawaii to get away from the kids. And if you think it looks unspoiled now, then, it was a complete paradise.

One early memory is of my father playing a game at parties out our quarters in Bremerton. He would start a Conga line, and everyone would follow him into a room, one would kiss the next and on down the line. And then the last one got a big unexpected slap. And then they’d Conga back into the party and add another person. Oh, Chuck!

And in Bremerton, in the beautiful country quarters, we had tennis courts horses, an orchard. But lets just say that we did not make the best farmers.
Our goat was allergic to the grass and died a sad death. Hunt raised chickens as he does birds now. And we cried when we had to pluck and cook them. One of the saddest nights we ever spent there was now when we had to eat a favorite rooster. Amy’s pony, Tucumsa (bought cheap) kicked, leaving a purple horse shoe mark on my mom’s thigh.

My mother always said that she never went to Europe until she was 50. But they would later travel to Switzerland, England. They took me up the spectacular Fjords in Norway. There are photos of them, I think in Thailand riding a water buffalo, with a giant steer in Arizona, Australia. China with Mrs. Jong. And they could tell you the life story and about the children of all the many people they met along the way.

Someone as practical as my Dad was beyond verklempt when Hunt moved to New York to become an artist. Just driving through New York gave him apoplexy. But at a certain point he gave up worrying. He was terribly impressed by Hunts many successes. A friend in college who visited our house thought it was a kind of shrine to my brother’s work.

In a way, my Dad’s practicality made it possible for Hunt to be so impractical, and I happen to know my father had great faith in him. And even in my writing career–he would have rather had an IBMer–some years back he mentioned, I’d been doing well at it so many years, he was no longer concerned.

One thing he taught us all, Amy Anne, me, Hunt, was to work as hard as he had. His theory that when you were asleep, someone else was working, outdoing you. And Anne and Amy and Hunt and I have pretty much followed in the workaholic path.

He was a rock solid citizen and father, but not so perfect at things you might think he would excel at. One would have assumed he learned to sail at Annapolis; Jack Cummings just showed us a photo of the young hunk leaning against a sail. But when my parents lived in Newport Rhode Island in the 80s, my Dad took me out on the water, and we ended up hitting another boat, maybe filled with kids. I believe the Coast Guard temporarily took away his license.

We tried to catch up on recreation later in life, went out to play a round of golf here in Manassas. My first ball I hit went out into the road and began bouncing off windshields of cars, bounding up into the air, clocked a few trucks. His solid citizen advice to me, “Run, Jeffrey!” And we made it to the bushes before any locals came after us.

He was a great family man, but not always there when my mother had to handle emergencies. That said, I do recall two clutch situations he fielded:

Believe it or not, an astonishingly naive Anne came home one time in High school really proud of the fact that she had landed a job as a receptionist part time in the afternoons. But as we asked questions, it turned out the place had bamboo on the façade out front and was called The Tiki Tiki massage parlor. He hurried and took back her application. And nothing else.

And there was an equally poignant moment in high school when Amy got a false positive for syphilis back from the Navy hospital during a physical “Amy is there anything you want to tell us?” he exhorted.

FYI, we were all taught about the birds and bees in terms of Parquets oiling the pipes, as Hunt had scores of the small birds in Hawaii. What parents would indulge a child like that? Likely a big parenting no-no. To this day, Hunt keeps huge cages filled with birds

But Chuck wasn’t all just work. His humor is legendary and jokes were a specialty back in the day.

In one, prisoners just called out the numbers of jokes and all the inmates would laugh, and then, when a new prisoner called out a number, nobody laughed.
When asked, they offered, “You just don’t tell it right.” It was like that with us after a while, where we could almost just call out the numbers, mainly punch lines to get a laugh.

The widow Dune in Ireland, sends someone to look for her son at a small white house in America. The white rest room at a gas station fits the bill. The man knocks on the door and says, “Are you Dunne?”
“Yes.”
“Go write your mother.”

And by the way, my parents had all the time in the world for the grand children; kids were their main interest in life.

But one of the most telling signs about who he really was, came last week. My sister Anne told me on the phone that the women who have been helping them take care of my parents at the house were inconsolable when they heard the news.

Anne went to the bank to take care of business, and when the employees at the heard, they, too, were all broken up. He apparently used to go there often, stop for cash and “presumably free” coffee.

My parents were terrific at bickering. But Chuck was wonderful with my mom over the last number of years, and that was a special thing to watch. It was amazing in his condition with the weakened heart, he worked so hard to always make sure she was okay.

And God bless the neighbors who checked in on them. Jim White called during Thanksgiving weekend at lunch one day, and you could just tell how much it meant to Chuck when he thanked him, he appreciated the kindness.

My Dad used to say that you had to “walk on water” to get the big promotion in the Navy. Well, to us, our Dad walked on water at home, as a son, a brother, a neighbor, a father, and finally as a husband.

His presence was so larger than life, so magnanimous, so true to character to his final day, I don’t think that to any of us, it will ever truly seem as if he is gone.

Finally, Hunt and I, who are overscheduled and likely in a kind of perpetual Quixotic quest to “make Admiral,” would like to thank our sisters who live in the area, and who have done so much for Popi and Mima over so many years.
Putting together this wonderful day. Bring meaning and comfort to my parents to my father’s final hours. We adore you and appreciate you. And together I know we will all, even our children, honor our father’s memory in our hearts and by deed.
We are, one and all, blessed by our blessed time with our beloved “Popi.”
Your life was not a dress rehearsal; we’ll miss you Chuck.