The Colonel Father Sir
Originally published in 1995 in his twilight, now an annual ode to Father.
A sign declaring him a sesquipedalianist adorned his office door. How like him, the lover of one-and-a-half foot long words, to proclaim his eccentricity so proudly and chuckle at it with the same enthusiasm. He ushered me in, showed me his computer, the Mobius strip I'd sculpted for him displayed on a shelf, a mounted segment of sharkproof fiber-optics cable—his latest delight. It was my first visit as an adult to the place that consumed my father's focus, second only to his church. I looked for clues to reveal his character, to teach me who was this man I'd known only as a father.
Returning briefly from another life on the opposite coast, his prodigal daughter, I was presented to his colleagues, had lunch in the executive dining room—and worried that he had designed a chance encounter with one of the bearded young PhDs. But the tensile strength of such an unlikely coupling was not to be tested, for I knew better: "Never marry an engineer," Mother said, "They're a humorless lot, too anal-retentive—your father excepted, of course."
As we traveled the broad halls of Bell Labs, I saw a man in love with the potential of the human mind to realize a vision. A man honored by his peers and humbly delighted with their affections.
But still, I did not know him, this man who rolled up his sleeves but left his tie in place to putter in the yard after work. The weekend warrior who spoke not a word of the broken bodies he flew home from Viet Nam. The same man who taught me to ride a bicycle, to catch and cradle a lacrosse ball without flinching, to search for answers not his own, to embrace the written word, to dream of fairy tales while digging life's ditches.
There were many visits after that, one or the other of us leaping the bounds of human mobility to soar into the other's living room and reminisce, dance around discussions of religion, gossip of absent family members, dine on ice cream and other sweet succor.
And as we aged together, my Great White Father slowly gained human proportions. He suffered a dose of cancer with discomfort and graceful humor, sobbed at a loved one’s addiction, lamented his failure to produce a hellfire of fundamentalists.
In his retirement, he built a boat in which to scour the seas for adventure. While it sat in his yard, never quite finished, he rigged a chair on deck and enjoyed his morning coffee—not too hot and just shy two-thirds of a teaspoon of sugar—at one with his horizon.
And I, at last, began to know him, this man who wanted me to be happy but was afraid to ask if I was. A man who reveled in sharing tales of the women he met during the last Great War, of the love letters he saved for fifty years. The man who drew lush pictures of my mother reclining nude and handed them down to those who drew their own. The man who danced with the feet of youth and cupped the ears of an old fogey to catch and cradle my words.
Later, he talked fondly of lost war buddies regained. He remembered the dying highway commuter he held, whose last words of love Father carried to the man's wife. He bemoaned the foolishness and brash decisions of his youth, his failures as a father, his walk with a God unknown to me. And he laughed at escapades survived, disappointments endured, offspring playing the fool.
At times, when we met halfway across the country, I struggled to feel comfortable alone with my father, uncertain intimates in an uncommon place. No meal preparation for distraction, no siblings to bicker over bridge or charades. Just the amorphous relationship between us.
And then I watched him sleep, curled as a child, and I saw the vast years spread over him: seventy-three years, more than half of which we shared. There were a few I spent determined to hate him, but now I rue that we share them no more.
Father is long dead. But he surely soared to rest in the succulent hues of an Aubrey Beardsley landscape, his boat set to sail, for his is the soul of an artist, a fearful, brilliant artist turned to Christianity to sooth his passions and direct his life.
He was an aesthete, he was a genius, he was a holder of patents and a builder of sailing ships, he was one of the truly faithful and he was forgiven. Though he was not at peace with his progeny, he was loved and adored by us as only a good and kind man could be. And I am grateful to whatever god guided him that the Colonel Father Sir was mine.
He once said to me, "I am a dilettante; don't follow in my footsteps."
So tell me: How can I help but become him? Why would I want anything else?Love,