Dick’s Forum – No. 12
My father was a sick man all his life. At age 3 he had rheumatic heart fever which severely damaged the valves in his heart. As he grew older, doctors told him he would be fortunate to live to see the age of thirty-five.
Music, football and auto racing were the passions of my father’s life and when he went to high school in Denver his goal was to play football. A physical soon detected his heart problem and he was not allowed to play. He dropped out of school, never to return. After the eighth grade he was self educated. I know his constant anxiety over his projected early death influenced his entire life. Sad, because he was a very talented man and at times loving and gracious.
In his professional life he was a tool and die maker. He once told me that given a blueprint and block of steel with the proper tools he could make anything and work in incredible tolerances. This was a point of pride for him.
I grew up with the ongoing message that my father could die at any time. His belief and fear of the fact led us to a life of constant anxiety and a few humorous moments.
When I was nine years old we were living in Los Angeles and he told me he thought I should learn to drive his car in the event he got sick when we were alone together and I had to get us to help. Our car was a 1936 Buick with a floor shift and a clutch and brake pedal so heavy I could hardly press them. So, out in the street in front of our house, he put me behind the steering wheel, with him in the passenger seat. “Now put it in gear, push in the clutch, press down on the gas and slowly let out the clutch”. Well if you are old enough to remember this kind of car, you remember what I mean when I say we took off with a lurch “bunny-hopping” down the street. My father yelling instructions, me in a state of panic and the car seeming to have a mind of its own. Somehow I got it stopped at the end of the street.
Here, I had to turn right. So I started the same sequence all over again, this time adding the motion of turning the steering wheel to the right. Well, while holding the wheel to the right I started looking on the floorboard for the clutch. Yep, the car kept turning right, up over the curb, my father grabbing the wheel, yelling for me to stop, on through someones front yard, back into the street to a screeching stop. So ended my driving lesson for that day.
He continued to be unrelenting in his insistence that I was going to be a violinist. I began to feel I had no choice or options about my own life and the violin was the major point of contention between my father and I on that issue.
About my senior year in high school my parents’ marriage was headed for divorce later that year, and the relationship between my father and I fell apart. One afternoon, I confronted him, feeling very anxious, even fearful, and told him I was going to stop playing the violin. I didn’t know what he would do. Fight, have a heart attack, threaten me or whatever. Sadly, he seemed defeated, as if he realized the end of this subject was at hand and considering everything else going on in his life there was nothing he could do about it. I would not play a violin again for over twenty years.
After my parents were divorced I continued to live with my mother. My dad remarried, another unhappy experience for him, and his health deteriorated rapidly. He died in 1962 at White Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles at the age of 46.
During the last year of his life he and I began healing our relationship and began talking to each other. I had joined the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. He was absolutely opposed to my career in law enforcement but seemed to have gained a kind of respect and acceptance that allowed us to begin to talk.
Early in his adult life he became a Christian. Like most other aspects of his life this became an all-or-nothing, black-or-white issue with him. He took it seriously. During one of our last talks, he looked closely at me and asked, “How do you feel about Jesus Christ”. I told him. He lay back against his pillows and after thinking awhile said, “O.K.” He died within the week.