Role Models (Part 1)

Posted on March 14, 2011

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I couldn’t wait to grow up. I had things to do, big, important things, and when you’re five years old there are a lot of regulations holding you back. For one thing, there was bedtime, an annoying restriction that did nothing but convince me that the really great stuff all happened after I went to sleep. I was missing something, I just couldn’t get anybody to tell me what it was.

Then there were all the rules about eating, something I usually didn’t feel like doing unless it was pizza, ice cream, or candy. My mother made fish every other Friday, which by some inexplicable coincidence also happened to be the days when our cat parked herself directly under my chair at dinnertime. On other nights I developed sleight-of-hand skills, slipping pieces of breaded veal cutlet into my pocket and later flushing them down the toilet. I was incapable of swallowing steak, and spent countless hours seated alone at the table long after everyone else had finished eating, my plate of cold, blood-drenched meat the only obstacle standing between me and the Milky Way bar I had stashed in my room.

More than anything, I yearned to be an adult, to do what adults did. I wanted to experience life up there, close to the ceiling, where they strolled around making mature decisions, reaching things on the top shelf, and laughing at jokes I could not yet fathom. I was tired of living down near the floor, in a constant confusion of kneecaps and bottom drawers, and looking directly into everyone’s crotch. And so I chose my role models carefully, and with a logic that belied my tender age. They were, in chronological order: my father, Superman, and Saint Stephen.

* * * * *

On November 9, 1960, the day after the presidential election, I walked to school and told everyone in my kindergarten class that I was mad because Nixon had lost to Kennedy. I had no idea who Nixon and Kennedy were, but my father seemed mad, so I was too. Four years later, I would be mad again, when Johnson beat Goldwater.

* * * * *

We had an aquarium in our living room with dozens of tropical fish. One day I was jumping around like a lunatic and fell, hitting the glass with some blunt object I’d been swinging. A hole the size of a baseball appeared in the lower front corner of the tank, sending gallons of water cascading onto the floor. The fish flipped around while my parents tried to scoop them up. I’m sure most of them died. I don’t remember the immediate aftermath but I suspect it did not involve pizza, ice cream, or candy. I do recall my father talking to me about respect for living things, even tiny fish.

In my high school biology class about eight years later, the teacher stood at her desk with a small aquarium containing a single fish, about ten inches in length. During her lecture, she reached in and grabbed the fish and held it up out of the water while she described its various anatomical features. As the fish gasped for air, I sat in the back of the room, doing the same.

* * * * *

Every Saturday my father used the garden hose to wash down the driveway, a flat, concrete incline about twelve feet wide and a hundred feet long. He’d turn on the water and start at the top, moving the spray side to side and pushing dirt, cigarette butts, and dead leaves down the hill. I watched as the dark line turned into a small ridge and then a pile of stuff moving gradually toward the street, like a tiny landslide in slow motion. I would follow him along, wanting nothing more than to hose down the driveway myself. I begged, I pleaded, I promised to eat my steak. But for the longest time he insisted that I wasn’t old enough. The farthest he’d go was letting me hold onto the nozzle with him as he guided it back and forth. Then one day, he handed me the hose and stepped back. I was out of my mind with excitement. Holding on with both hands and bracing my little legs, I pulled back on the trigger. The force of the water jerked the hose sideways, drenching my father’s pants from the knees all the way down to his socks and shoes.

Of course, this was before he got too sick to walk the length of the driveway.

I used to watch my father smoke cigarettes. I remember sitting on his bed while he lit one up, and informing him that I was going to smoke when I got older. He told me I shouldn’t, that it was bad for you. We like to convince ourselves that people didn’t know better back then, but they did. My father knew. Still, he’d send me to the store around the corner to buy him a pack or two. It’s hard to imagine that now, a grocery store selling cigarettes to a kid under ten. But then, it’s hard to imagine a father puffing away on smoke after smoke in the car with the windows closed, hurtling down the road at sixty miles an hour while the kids wrestle with each other in the back seat.

People didn’t worry so much about things then. Helmets were for football players and astronauts. Sunglasses were for movie stars and gangsters. No one ever got dehydrated; sometimes we got really thirsty, so we’d drink a half gallon of water and then we were okay again. But my father found things to worry about, things he thought were important. At dinner time, no one began eating until everyone was seated. If we went out to a restaurant, we cleaned up after ourselves, leaving the table looking as though human beings had just been there. Behind the wheel, he was courteous and considerate toward the other drivers. He always rooted for the underdog, even switching his allegiance from his beloved Yankees to the New York Mets, a team that lost three-fourths of its games in 1962. And more than anything, he wanted to spend time with his children.

These were just some of the things that made it easy to root for my father. To hope he and my mother could find a way to repair their damaged marriage. To hope he’d recover from the heart attack he suffered when he was forty-eight. To hope he’d defy the odds, quit smoking, and allow his lungs to recover from a lifetime of abuse.

But emphysema would take away his ability to breathe normally, and therefore, to do anything normally. He worsened gradually over the years, eventually needing oxygen tanks in the house, and a rest stop every five feet on his way from the couch to the bathroom. Still, it was one of those ongoing conditions. He was sick and dying for so long that it always seemed he would die any minute. Thirteen years of that. Dying became a way of life. That’s how I began to think of my father. He would just go on forever, about to die. Of course, he didn’t go on forever. His struggle ended on Mother’s Day, 1984.

It’s impossible to believe he’s been gone that long. I still hear him call my name sometimes, so loud and clear that I turn to see if he’s there. And I suppose he is there, making sure I wait until everyone is seated before I pick up my fork. Reminding me to let that other driver go ahead, even when it isn’t convenient. Inspiring me to pull for the underdog, because there are already enough people cheering for the favorite.

My father didn’t help me grow up any faster. But I know he helped me grow up better.

 

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