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Dad Died 30 years Ago, Yet …

Chris Erskine

Let me tell you a little about my old man. His fingers quivered when he knotted a necktie, and he wasn’t as patient as he could’ve been in traffic. I seem to have inherited his affinity for being thoroughly uncool in slightly stressful moments. I also inherited his affinity for adventure. For instance, my dad loved old shacks and country roads. We once stumbled upon a fishing shack on the outskirts of New Orleans, the kind of authentic and earthy spot he adored. The shack was set on stilts over brackish water, and there were trapdoors in the floor where the Cajuns dropped their fishing lines. Occasionally, they’d pull in a gator. Sometimes a gar. By trade, my father worked in the glitzy, maniacal world of live television. But what he really liked were good books with texture and grit. Or taking out a rental rowboat at dawn — a thermos of coffee, a good cigar to ward off the bugs. You don’t need a network expense account for that. Not for the good stuff. Not for the stuff you remember. When Dad baited fish hooks, his fingers never quivered. Though he is gone now, I still see him in a summer sunset. I still see him in a flight of geese. He had only a little college (night classes at Northwestern) but a no-nonsense Catholic education. Let’s be honest: Isn’t that better? He seemed to know everything about everything, read the paper front to back to sideways, chatted up cabbies and cops. Mom used to say Dad knew every barkeep in Chicago.

Some women prefer difficult men. Dad wasn’t difficult. But he was a little tricky. He liked the Tijuana Brass, Neil Simon and the Beatles. He rocked a $50 sport coat, preferably plaid. I remember the day he brought home his first leisure suit. To me, it represented the end of civilization as we knew it. Dad!!! Really? What’s next, sideburns? Granny glasses? Mostly, he was a traditionalist. Loved steakhouses, hot dog stands and gumbo shops. Drove Chevys and Fords, while buying Mom big, buxom American sedans. In summer, he smelled of tomato plants and Sea & Ski. In winter, Old Spice and Italian beef sandwiches. When he ate Greek for lunch, there was so much residual garlic that Mom would have to bunk in another room. Like I said, he could be a little tricky. I remember when I found a stack of Playboys under his bed. I was stunned because I was pretty certain he was deeply in love with Angie Dickinson. Then later, Mary Tyler Moore. His heroes were wise-guys and iconoclasts: Tim Conway, Peter Falk, Lee Marvin, Alan Alda and anyone else who skewered the pompous and thesmug. I’ll never forget when he latched on to Ronald Reagan — like a man clinging to a life preserver. I was appalled because Dad had solid working-class roots. He’d always been a devoted Kennedy Democrat, a fan of Studs Terkel and Slats Grobnik. Reagan? Really? I was stunned because I knew Dad was mostly right about things.

I still see my dad in a summer sunset. I still see him in a fl ight of geese.
I still see my dad in a summer sunset. I still see him in a fl ight of geese.

He knew that Gibsons were superior to martinis. He knew that Nicklaus was better than Palmer. How could he be wrong about Reagan? Like many sons, I pushed back, while knowing that my dad had the best radar ever — on a par with Twain, Truman or Cronkite. Dad!!! He passed three decades ago. If he survived to see the world today, the state of modern sitcoms alone would’ve killed him. Not quite sure what he’d think about the current roar of worry … the brittle state of the republic. Having survived the Depression and WWII, I don’t think he’d have much patience for so much complaining. Trust me, Dad never lost much sleep over the plight of middle-class American kids. Life today might’ve turned him bitter and mean. Or it might’ve made him funnier than ever — added more sparkle to his squinty Irish eyes. I was his only son. Imagine having one son, and it turns out to be me? That’s where humor comes from. But he was always a good sport about it. In many ways, he was my best and greatest friend. So, I’ll gladly accept his handme-down mirth. And cherish a couple of his soup-stained neckties. I could never crush a golf ball the way he could … or nail the punchline … or land a fish. But I got something else: His wonderful sense of mirth. Thanks, Pops. Happy Father’s Day.

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First published in the June 1 print issue of the Pasadena Outlook.

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