Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Eulogy For My Father

My father died on September 17, 2016, at the age of eighty-eight. The following is the text of a eulogy I read at his service in Franklin, Michigan, on September 27.

In 1991 I left Detroit for San Francisco. My father was in his early sixties then, which must have had something to do with why I began asking him, from the other side of the country, detailed questions about his youth.

Most of his answers came to me in letters typed on a forty-year-old Smith Corona he bought used for twenty-five bucks. He’d answer the questions, update me about Marilyn, and usually enclose pictures of their various pets, or whatever house they happened to be living in at the time. He and Marilyn used to buy and sell homes the way I bought and traded baseball cards as a kid.

Those recollections inform some of what I’m going to talk about today. I’m less interested in talking about his career, some of which, in any case, may be fairly well known to some of you. For those who do know some of his career, you may not know that he once played a character named Cactus Jack, and another time a character named Ranger Jim – both of them on a couple of children’s programs in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Some lost TV trivia.

When I was small, and my father knew everything, he was the one who told me about the world. This is as it should be. He told me about gravity. He told me about perpetual motion and the space program. He told me that in spite of my most fervent wishes, a time machine would never, and could never, be invented. He told me about the Great Depression and explained World War Two. He told me about Saint Louis, where he grew up. He told me just about everything I knew. He wasn’t always accurate – but that hardly matters.

What matters is that he did the things that fathers are supposed to do. He reserved time for my sisters and reserved time for me. He came to my Little League games. He gave me an allowance and made me mow the lawn. He drove me to a weekend campout with the Boy Scouts, and surprised me by stopping at a rural grocery store along the way to buy candy bars, which he called our emergency supplies.

On longer, family road trips, he indulged my obsession with baseball by driving past stadiums we could just as easily have bypassed, because he knew I loved seeing big league stadiums. Crosley Field in Cincinnati and Atlanta Stadium where the Braves played, really stand out.

Back home, of course, we made regular trips to Tiger Stadium – to me, the greatest of baseball shrines. I was lucky enough to have once seen a game from the press booth way up on the third tier, courtesy my father.

But that was when I was a kid, and my father knew everything. By the time I was a teenager he didn’t know anything, and I began to keep him at arm’s length. This is a privilege of youth. How could I trust anyone who liked Stan Kenton?

In spite of this, he managed to tell me more about Saint Louis – in particular about his years as a jazz drummer, and the Saint Louis musicians he knew, and about smoking marijuana with the cats. My father smoking marijuana. I can’t begin to tell you how shocking that was. Please, don’t let it leave this room. He said they called it “muggles” – dated slang I’d already heard, somewhere.

Somehow I continued to age, and my father gradually became human, as three dimensional as anyone else, and with a history – like anyone else. That history intrigued me, and is what those questions of mine addressed. I already knew he was a Navy veteran who in his twenties served on board a Destroyer Escort called the USS Raby. There are pictures from his Navy days in the family archive. But I didn’t know many details. Then nine or ten years ago his old producer Dan Weaver sent me what he called a milestone. “After much prodding,” Dan said, “I have gotten your dad to write a short story about his naval days.”

The story, a brief essay, describes how the Raby once gave chase to a submarine. “Seas are calm,” my father began, writing in the present tense, “but we are slamming and banging and trembling and sonar says we have a target. It is bright and sunny and we drop a full load of depth charges. This evolution requires flank speed (that means full out and balls to the wall) so that we don’t get nailed by our own charges. I am on the open bridge just behind the captain and can see and hear and feel the depth charges, which are mainly in the form of oil drums, aside from a wee beast known as the Hedge Hog, which looks just like a porcupine only each quill is an explosive device, thrown out ahead of the ship and spiraling down to the target. On each side of the ship, K-guns and Y-guns toss out the oil cans and others are dropped from a pair of racks on the fantail...the absolute tail of the ship.

“Ultimately the only thing we know we killed were lots of fish...

“We were much concerned with a wee hole that opened up in the starboard side of our own ship. Seems too much rust or something. As pointed out earlier the seas were calm and so we quickly slowed to a stop, dead in the water. In a pretty good balancing act ballast was shifted around so that we rolled pretty steeply to our port...left...side...It took us two days of slow steaming as we turned around and headed for Guantanamo Bay...and there, repairs were made.”

Here are some things not commonly known about my father. From childhood well into adulthood, he answered to the name “Jack.” He had an interest in Scuba diving and an interest in aviation, and used to pilot small planes. He punted footballs with his left foot. He grew up a Saint Louis Cardinals fan, and as a kid belonged to their fan club, called the Knot-hole Gang.

From my new home in San Francisco, I asked him about the Knot-hole Gang, right around the time I began receiving those Smith Corona letters. I sent him a replica 1930s-era Cardinals jersey as a gift, and it reminded him of a ballgame he once attended with his father. “It was a day game as most were in that time,” he wrote. “It was a great day – I got to watch Johnny Mize play ball, and I was full of hot dogs and Cokes and peanuts.

“When it was over,” he continued, “and we got back to where Dad had parked...the car wasn’t there. To this day I can see him standing there and asking helplessly, ‘Where’s my car?’ It was stolen, of course, and it never did turn up. Did the police come? How did we get home? I have no idea. But Johnny Mize and Dad wailing are crystal clear.”

At my urging he described another incident where the police did show up. When he was about twelve, he and a couple of friends used to play a variant of baseball they called “triple nip-in,” which only required three guys. They were playing it one day in Carondolet Park when they made a terrible discovery.

“I was pitching,” my father told me. “One of the guys hit a big one. Went way over my head, and the other guy’s head, and rolled over to this guy I’d notice before – we all had. He was sitting in this cluster of oak trees. Sitting on the ground, leaning against a tree.

“So the ball rolled over toward him. I remember calling out, ‘Mister, look out for the ball!’ But he didn’t, and the ball hit him, and he didn’t move. So we went over there – and he was dead. He – I think he had eaten a pistol. Blew himself up.

“What a shock! We went to somebody’s house ... and called the police. So the cops come, and they took statements from us. By then our parents were there – my dad came home from work. I guess the other guys’ dads did too; I don’t remember. There were cops there in suits – I’d never seen cops in suits before.

“It was a suicide. And that’s the story...”

“Did that bother you?” I asked.

“I guess it did – I don’t recall. But the story sure stayed with me.”

I mentioned that my father was a drummer, partial to jazz, and in addition to Stan Kenton he really liked Buddy Rich. I don’t know how seriously he considered music as a possible career, but he gave it a shot for a few years, at least. He played in many jazz bands – trios, quartets, and big bands.

He wrote me once that the years during World War Two were a great time for a teenager to be learning the professional music ropes, because of a shortage of adults. “The draft had sucked up men all around us,” he said. “It affected everything from industry to baseball to the music scene.” So there were plenty of opportunities, even for beginners. His first band was a trio called The Three Jacks, because they were all named Jack. “It was two accordions and drums,” he said. “We were awful but we got work!”

With time and practice he got better, and got gigs of his own. “I played in country clubs, saloons, upper-snooty night clubs, one or two black and tans, once on a riverboat and even as a fill-in for another drummer friend in the pit band at the Grand Burlesque theatre,” he told me. “I learned to drink and smoke and tried grass for the first time when it was called tea or muggles. There was a tenor man named Junior Bullock that I met and jammed with at a black place named the Red Dragon. It was a typical smoke filled, low lighted blues wailing club where I stuck out like a sore thumb but was welcome on the bandstand. Junior played great. During the day he was a funeral director.”

Somewhere around this time, my father sent me a tape recording of a jam session he’d participated in years before, in the Sixties. We were living in Peoria, Illinois at the time, and an outfit called the Peoria Jazz Club rented a hall. By then he was a family man, and except for drumming along to Errol Garner records, the obligations that go with that had pretty much forced him to give up playing. But opportunities, like this jam session, still came along now and then.

“It was wonderful for jazz freaks like your old man,” he told me, “and a helluva gang of other folks. Some brought food...most brought booze and other drinks. There was a good crowd on hand right from the opening but not too many musicians.

“What saved the day was the arrival of a trumpet guy I knew ... Neither of us knew, or cared, that an individual on the edges of our concentration had entered and set up some kind of primitive recording situation.”

Five or six years ago I digitized my copy of the tape, and burned him a CD. By then his hearing was getting pretty bad, but he still loved it. The tracks include a passable rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan;” that Tin Pan Alley song, “Back Home Again in Indiana;” and a tune I called “Start Working Out, John,” because someone says that as the track begins.

“We had a great day,” my father said. “But it was the last time I gave music a serious shot.”

One of my literary heroes is the novelist Philip Roth, who wrote a remarkable account of his own father’s final illness, published as Patrimony in 1991. At the end, Roth admits to his readers that he had been writing the book even during the events it describes. And he related a dream he had shortly after the funeral, in which his late father scolded him.

“I realized that he had been alluding to this book,” Roth said, “which, in keeping with the unseemliness of my profession, I had been writing all the while he was ill and dying. The dream was telling me that, if not in my books or in my life, at least in my dreams I would live perennially as his little son, with the conscience of a little son, just as he would remain alive there not only as my father but as the father, sitting in judgment on whatever I do.

“You must not forget anything.”

I won’t forget anything – not my father’s drumming, or his long career in broadcasting, or his Smith Corona letters – or anything else, I hope. One of his letters, written in Farmington Hills and sent to me in San Francisco, ended very simply, “Remember this. You’re my son and you ain’t got no idea how much I love you and miss you.”

I never doubted it. Unlike the teenage version of me, I know now that the one who knows nothing is me. Me, and – no offense – just about everyone else. We all make it up as we go along. I feel lucky to understand this, and to have been able to see my father as human, with varying degrees of the same flaws and the same grace we all possess.

Here are a couple of tracks from that 1965 Peoria jam session: "Caravans" (or "Caravanserai;" with reeds), and "Start Working Out, John" (before the trumpet guy showed up). Also, scroll down for more photos.