Father’s Day has been bittersweet for me for the past 20 years. I love the ways that my daughters remember the day, but I often find myself wishing that I could give my dad a huge hug and thank him for all of the ways that he influenced me as a person and as a father.
Dad grew up under difficult circumstances; his mother passed away when he was just two years old, and the Great Depression began when he was four. His father had no real ability to work and take care of his two children by himself, so Dad was sent off to live with his grandparents while his baby sister was raised by his childless aunt and uncle. According to the memories that he wrote down while he was sick with cancer, dad’s family subsisted on a small income from growing tobacco and on the food that they could grow in the garden.
I guess I can partially thank “The War” for changing those family circumstances; Dad joined the Navy after high school graduation in 1942, learned about electronics as a gyroscope repairman, and then went to the University of Florida on the GI Bill. He earned his Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering. As he told me on several occasions, though he graduated as number 200 out of 200 graduates in that school, he felt like he had done pretty well. More than 400 people started out as freshmen and dropped out before earning their degree.
Dad took pride in being a “good provider” (his words), but he also made a lot of effort to be there for all of his children. I think his early childhood with a distant father had something to do with that. He spent a lot of time with us in the outdoors trying to share his love of God’s creation. We camped our way across the country in national forests and national parks, we went fishing in the Everglades on weekends, and we were constantly encouraged to go outside and play.
Always proud of being a “farm boy”, he showed us how to grow things and how to turn kitchen scraps into compost. Though we lived in a moderate suburban house without much of a yard, we often feasted on home grown tomatoes, oranges, limes, mangos, tangerines, grapefruit, bananas, green beans, figs, star fruit, avocados, and probably some that I am forgetting. Dad loved to recycle; part of his personal recipe for abundant fruit production was that he raised rabbits. He fed the rabbits fruit rinds, leaves, flower petals, and other “waste products” and then dug out their droppings to place around the tree roots. We were always encouraged to take care of our belongings and to reuse them or recycle them when we were finished with them.
Dad also believed in the close relationship between work and money. As I noticed that some of my friends had new bikes or other goodies, Dad took the opportunity to show me how to earn a few extra dollars so that I could buy them. I learned to cut grass, to paint, to do deep cleaning, and later, I became a pretty good babysitter. To this day, I cannot pick up a paint brush without hearing Dad say “You can’t paint with a dry brush.” With his encouragement, I became skilled enough in those basic tasks to operate as an entrepreneur at age 14, expanding my customer base to neighbors and other acquaintances.
Dad also spent countless hours on pool decks during our family’s long involvement with competitive swimming. He was a timer, an official and a club officer and earned the respect of many for his willingness to help and his homespun honesty. (I did the same tasks as a father while my girls were swimming. That made me appreciate his effort with a renewed vigor.)
For many reasons, I never wanted to disappoint my Dad, but I managed to do so when I decided to major in English while attending the Naval Academy. I sometimes think he was worried about me joining the Navy; he warned me that I was “too much of a free spirit” to survive there. I did not realize it at the time, but I later overheard him talking to one of his colleagues and friends about how “he could have been a pretty good engineer.” Even today, many years later, writing those words has an emotional effect.
You see, Dad died while I was in transit between earning a Master of Science in Systems Technology at the Naval Postgraduate School and a new assignment as the Engineer Officer of the USS Von Steuben, SSBN 632 (Gold). I wanted more than anything to be able to invite him for a visit to the ship to hear my shipmates call me “Eng” and to let him understand that his love of engineering and math had been well transferred. I never regret my decision to delve deeply into literature and to try to better understand the humanities, but I really, really hope that Dad understands my decision and is proud of the way that I have blended his influence with that of my English teacher mother.
Dad, if you are watching over me, I hope you are able to tell your friends that the Adams Engine(TM) is named after you and that your son turned out to be a pretty good engineer after all.