A Father’s Day Memory

Some memories are of the photograph of an event and no longer of the incident itself, but some feel to the rememberer like they are a photo, with the details so clear and so accessible. This is one memory … it feels like I could count the rocks in the creek bed if I would just take the time.

Today is Father’s Day. It is a difficult day for my girlfriend, as her father died in February, a sad fact that brought us together in our house-that-is-becoming-a-home.

My father will be 81 next month. That sentence, while I know it to be factually accurate, has the effect of making me feel like a child lost in the mall. Where am I? Where have I been? If August 15, 1935, is known for anything, it is not known for the birth of my dad but for it being the date that the comedian Will Rogers and famous aviator Wiley Post died when Post crashed their airplane north of the Arctic Circle near Point Barrow, Alaska. (The plane was not de-iced because no one yet knew that that would be necessary. Barrow and Post may have been the first celebrities to have perished in a plane crash.)

When I was a boy in the 1970s, Will Rogers, Jr. appeared in television ads for Grape Nuts cereal. Because of this coincidence of my father’s birthday being the same exact date that a one-time star died, this somehow felt meaningful in a child’s logic, an emotional syllogism:

A. My father was born on August 15, 1935
B. Will Rogers died that day.
C. Will Rogers, Jr., and I should both eat Grape Nuts.

Nowadays, outside of Oklahoma, which was Will Rogers’ home state and where his tomb is Taj Mahal-enormous, few will note that I have never eaten Grape Nuts cereal.

But this coincidence of dates was a fact I knew, like every other one I assembled in my child’s brain, my protective fort of facts: my dad was born the day a famous star died. I almost remember him saying something self-deprecating about it, something like, “It figures I showed up with bad news.” (Because I was surrounded by old books when I was a little boy, I actually had a book about Will Rogers, along with my Hardy Boys books.) My father himself no longer remembers this fact, and he thanks me politely every year on August 15 when I post a Happy Birthday on Facebook with the famous facts of the date. His memory is changing.

Both of my parents are on Facebook and they both read this website, which I am (usually) happy about.

My dad was 33 when he and my mom started a family and I showed up in 1968. He was the third out of four brothers, so my paternal grandparents were already in their 60s when I was born; in their 70s by the time I was aware of anything. (They each lived into their 90s; my grandmother Aldrich passed away only seven years ago this month, weeks shy of her 99th birthday.)

My dad was raised on a tiny farm on the side of a rocky hill in a tiny community split by a tiny river in Vermont. Books from the 1800s sat on bookshelves and even sometimes on tabletops, not for show, but because they were being actively read on any given day in the 1970s and beyond. On a visit with my grandmother in the mid-1990s, I looked at a book she was using to copy a knitting pattern: it was from the previous century. Until high school, my father attended a three-room schoolhouse.

My dad wrote me a letter last year with a bit of a start of a memoir in it:

My grade school building was in the building which is now the Londonderry Town Office. The building was set up with three classrooms, and three teachers were employed for the eight grades. Desks were set up in rows by grade. I do not remember anymore how many kids were in each class, but I do recall that when I was in the fourth grade I had six different teachers. The one thing I do remember is that the school is on a hill and the playground was at the bottom of the hill. I had one classmate who did not like me and he always tried to push me down the hill when the bell rang. There came a day that I decided to push him first and of course I got caught and sent home with a note.

It was as if he grew up in the 1840s and not the 1940s. Thus, those 33 years between my father and me sometimes felt much larger. On occasion when I was in high school, I suppose I treated him like someone from the Victorian Era. “He can’t relate to me,” I would think. This is of course what every teenager is legally mandated to think about one’s parents, in every jurisdiction. I was not at all unique in deciding that I was unique and frequently declaring same.

Of course, just as I was typing my dad’s memory above, I remembered that I have an identical incident in my own memory banks, an incident from when I was 8 and in elementary school, except I did not get caught when I knocked a bully into the mud, and I never had to tell my parents or the school principal (Mr. Howard) or anyone. If I had known my own father’s story in 1976 or whenever it happened, maybe I would not have been inclined to keep a secret.

He wrote one other memory for my sister and me last year:

On January 6, 1947, I was walking to school mid-morning (I guess that I must have been sick and stayed home, and Mother sent me to school because I was not sick enough to stay home) and was on the bridge over the West River when I heard a very loud noise coming from the mill next to the bridge. I then saw a large amount of fire coming at me from the mill. I started running off the bridge and down the street to where my Father worked and told him about the fire. I then ran back up the street to home and the other buildings and told them all about the fire. I then finished my walk to school. When my Father came home from work that day, he came over to me and gave me the biggest hug I had ever had from him and that I have never forgotten.

My grandfather. My grandfather Aldrich was a man of few words, but in his obituary I wrote that when he hugged you, you stayed hugged. He died in December 1995 and was buried the following spring. After the funeral I saw my father and his two surviving brothers sitting together and laughing in the living room of the home they grew up in; it was the only time I saw the three of them together. My dad has outlived them both. Later, I walked down the hill to town with him, still wearing his jacket and tie. We approached the bridge he writes of above.

The West River is a tributary of the Connecticut River, and at South Londonderry, the tiny town my father is from, it is shallow and narrow; the days one can call it a river are the days it is about to wash out the bridge and hurt people. It spends decades in a row not being like that, so this day was not one of those days. It was more stone than running water.

Like his father, my father is a man of few words, and when we approached the bridge he simply told me to continue on the bridge. He was going to cross the river from stone to stone, like when he was a boy. He loosened his tie and took off his jacket. (I guess he trusted himself carrying his suit jacket on possibly slippery rocks in a river more than he trusted me, a 26-year-old newspaper reporter at the time. As I alluded to above, we had communications issues.) He crossed the river, dry stone slab top by dry stone, and met me on the other side.

It was glimpse in 1995 of his childhood, whether 1947 or 1847 or whenever it was. If I take the time and close my eyes, I could number the stones in the creek bed.

Happy Dad’s Day, dad!

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