Monday, June 18, 2007

The day after Father's Day

Yesterday was Father's Day, and I've found myself feeling distracted and melancholy all day today. I think I miss my Dad.

The odd part is, that would make a lot more sense if he was dead.

Let me explain.

Especially in the last several years, I've always had a pretty good understanding of myself. Some people go through life doing what other people expect, and never figure out why they aren't happy.

I got out of the military because George Bush got reelected. Unlike a lot of people, I've figured out what's important to me. I've looked into myself, found a person that I kind of like, and I cultivated that guy. I'm comfortable in my own skin.

My father was a career Army officer. A graduate of West Point and a field artilleryman, he eventually earned a degree in nuclear physics. So basically, he just kept finding bigger and better ways to kill more and more people. I always thought that was kind of cool.

But he was also a good officer. Which means that, to a large extent, he had to put his career first. "If the Army wanted you to have a family, they would have issued you one, maggot!" It's not just a line in a movie - there are people in every branch of the service who actually believe it.

And he always had great control of his emotions. He'd laugh a lot, but only occasionally a full-out guffaw - it was more of an echo of laughter than a real sound of pleasure. But I remember him seeing him angry several times (it was usually my fault), and I could actually see it in his eyes. But for the most part, he kept himself on a fairly short leash.

So while I was growing up, I wasn't as close to my father as I might have liked.

Then, sometime after I graduated high school, he retired and moved clear across the country, from Virginia to Oregon. I only moved halfway across the country (from Virginia to Texas), and eventually entered the Air Force.

I was never sure what my father thought about my choice of:
1. The Air Force, and
2. the enlisted branch of the Air Force
He had to feel some pride that I was continuing the family tradition of military service, I suppose. But most officers also see the enlisted ranks as "grunts." The low end of the evolutionary scale. Cannon fodder. So I'm really not sure how he felt about that.

I was never a great fit in the military. And I'd never planned to spend more than one tour in the Air Force anyway. But with one thing and another, I was enlisted for 21 years, plus a few months.

My first base was in California. A days drive south Gold Beach, Oregon, where my parent had chosen to retire. I used to go visit them every year or so. At least at Christmas, if not more often.

During that time, my father grew his beard out, relaxed a lot, and became a genial gentleman farmer. My kids loved him. He laughed and joked and built things for them.

He wasn't the same guy I knew relatively well as a kid, but I adapted. Never really managed to get through the distance between us, though. There was always just the thinnest of separations. And I always thought that was a shame.

My wife can wax eloquent about her father. She can reminisce for hours about the things they did together when she was a kid. It nearly killed her when he died.

My dad is just some guy.

When my mom died, I had to come back from Germany for the funeral. My dad had been married to her for decades, and for the most part, I'm pretty sure that he loved her. He broke down several times over the course of that week. I'd never seen that before.

But life went on. I went from Germany to Wyoming, and then down here to Albuquerque. My dad sold the farm and did some traveling; he even lived in a motor home for awhile.

And then he married a woman in Gold Beach named Ann. She had a relatively large family in California, and she'd apparently always been close to them. They drove south to visit them all the time. Eventually, they even moved down there, to build a house and be closer to her family.

But oddly, farther from his.

I don't think it's anything conscious on their part - Ann has just always visited her kids. They're very close. I've only seen my father a limited number of times since he married her. We're not.

Things haven't been getting better as the years have passed. I'll call on birthdays, anniversaries, Father's Day. We usually talk for a while, exchange stories about what we've been doing, but it's kind of like talking to somebody in a bar. You tell them what you're doing at work, but nothing deep or meaningful.

Admittedly, I never called on Mother's Day - Ann might have thought it was a nice thing to do, but I have to admit, I'm closer to my father than I am to her. And she's never been my mother. She might be a nice lady, if a little straight-laced for my tastes. But she's never warmed to me.

Maybe it's because I've never fixated on money and fashion. I'm not a "success," in the classic American "get all you can NOW!!!" sense of the word. I make enough money to get by. I'm not rich. But I'm not broke. And I'm happy. I don't see where getting rich is worth the cost. I work with people who are trying to "claw their way to the top." I'm happy down here, about halfway up.

I have no idea if that has anything to do with how things are. I'm just sayin'. She's very close to her children. I haven't seen my dad in a couple of years now.

And I'll admit it. I haven't made much of an effort to go see him, either. Our phone conversations have become more and more stilted. Neither of us really has anything to say to the other. We talk for about fifteen minutes, more or less. He tells me what he's been doing. I tell him what the kids and I have been doing. Neither of us really goes in to how we're feeling about anything. I say "I love you, dad," and he responds with "I love you, Tiger," (he's always called me "Tiger"), but it's more out of rote habit at this point, I think.

If I were to go visit him, Ann would have no idea how to react, and we'd have stilted conversations at close range instead of over the phone. An uncomfortable few days, and I'd go home again. It doesn't seem worth the trouble.

And that's probably where the problem is. You're ingrained with it as a child in Sunday School: "Honor thy father and mother." Movies and literature are full of people undertaking huge, heroic quests to avenge the death of their father. There's national days to honor each of your parents individually.

What if your dad is just some guy? What if you have little or nothing in common?

And I'm really not sure whether I miss my dad, or if I miss the concept of my dad. I don't know whether there's a hollow spot shaped like him, or whether I just feel like there should be. I know who I am. And I know how I've always been told I should feel about my father. But that place inside me seems a little empty. Society tells me that I should have a bond, and there doesn't seem to be one. No link on either side.

So yesterday, I had a nice Father's Day. I spent it with my family, and I managed to forget to call my own father.

I didn't realize it until today. And I should feel worse about that. What I feel bad about is the fact that I don't really feel bad about it.

Mostly, the only person who tries to make contact in the last couple of years is me. I call him. He doesn't call me. Hell, he didn't even call on my last birthday. And I failed to call him yesterday. I know that I'm supposed to feel bad about that. But you know what? The thing that I feel bad about, is the fact that I don't.

I wonder if he noticed? He probably did. Or if he didn't, I have no doubt that Ann pointed it out to him. I should probably feel bad about that, too.

I don't know if the problem is me, or the lack of him.

And I don't have any answers.

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