Today you’ll hear about what my father was like as a brother, colleague, friend and husband. I thought I’d start things off by talking about what he was like as a dad.
What I remember most about him as a kid was that he was always trying to entertain us. For example, he sang in the car constantly, and we spent a lot of time in the car with him over the years, driving to various vacations: camping in Yosemite, rafting on the Colorado river, taking the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard. He sang upbeat songs, novelty and pop numbers from the early 20th century, like “Mairzy Doats” and “Button Up Your Overcoat.” No one born in the sixties should know the lyrics to Cole Porter’s “I Get A Kick Out Of You,” but my sister, Susan, and I do.
He apparently liked to entertain himself too. He told me recently that sometimes when he drove through the toll booth on the Golden Gate Bridge he’d pay for the car behind him just to watch the driver’s reaction in his rear view mirror. “Some people looked so angry,” he’d said, incredulously.
My dad was no stranger to anger himself. From him, I learned how to swear properly. He could swear a blue streak and he had an incredible temper, which I unfortunately inherited. But I never saw him direct it at anyone. Instead, he trained it on inanimate objects, assembly instructions and maps. Especially maps. About a year after he and my mother separated, when I was 9 and Susan 13, he took us kids on a long road trip down to Baja, California. He was looking for a particular beach. Susan remembers him driving around, totally lost, swearing up a storm and finally concluding, while looking at the map with absolute bewilderment, “Jesus fucking Christ! You can’t fucking get there from here.”
Yet he nevertheless made his way around the world. There were so many times over the years, when he was in various far flung places, that I worried about him. When I was 10 years old I watched the fall of Saigon, knowing he was there. I remember going right up to the television and watching the people clambering to board the last helicopters out, trying to pick him out of the crowd. I watched, worrying for his safety, as riots broke out in West Oakland during a free grocery distribution program that the Symbionese Liberation Army had demanded from Randolph Hearst. I worried about him when he was in Lebanon. I worried about him when he was in Iraq. One night I turned on the television to find him underwater, floating in the center of a giant cage, cavorting with sharks in a most worrisome way. It’s one of life’s little ironies that a man who lived such an extraordinarily adventurous and dangerous life would end that life in such a mundane way.
And he worried about us, probably more than he needed to. My dad had a huge heart, but he played his emotional cards very close to his chest. He could be very cerebral and in general preferred the concrete to the abstract. For example, he never read fiction or poetry; I don’t think he saw the point of it. But he was a big reader and devoured thick political biographies and books about history. When Susan or I had a problem he was apt to respond with an anecdote about Eleanor Roosevelt or Mamie Eisenhower.
My dad also had a great sense of humor, one that tended toward the absurd. One night in December my better half, Jonathan, and I met up with Dad and Betsy at their apartment before going out to dinner. As we sat with our glasses of wine, their dog, Max, began to frantically mate with the couch. “I don’t care if Max humps the couch,” my dad said. “Just as long as he doesn’t get it pregnant.”
It’s difficult to boil down the essence of a person into a few words, but in thinking about him over these past few weeks a series of declarative sentences emerged that I feel capture his life philosophy, as it were:
And I’d add to that, as a coda of sorts, Let your work speak for itself. My dad won lots of awards for his work, and I’m glad he was recognized throughout his career by his peers, many of whom are here today. But even though he was distinguished as a television reporter, he was fundamentally a writer. He was such a natural, creative and intelligent writer. His writing was spare and unadorned, yet remarkable for its elegance, clarity and wit. It read well on paper and out loud. I try to write like he did, using those qualities as my guideposts.
One of my best memories of my dad is from that trip down to Baja in 1974. On a beach, warmed by the sand, I sat with him, this man who never read poetry, and watched the sun setting over the ocean. As it got smaller and smaller we spun metaphors.
Now it’s a mountain.
Now it’s a Volkswagen Beetle.
Now it’s a surfboard.
Now it’s a piece of paper.
Now the sun is gone.
Now it is night.
Filed under: everyday life