A Strong Presence In Our Family


June 16, 1996|By ROB KASPER

When I was a kid in the Midwest, Baltimore was where my dad went to meet his boss. My dad was the manager of a Social Security office in St. Joseph, Mo., outside Kansas City and every so often he and other office managers from around the country would be summoned to Social Security headquarters in Baltimore for a week of meetings with the brass.

The end of "Baltimore week" meant a family trip to the Kansas City Municipal Airport to greet Dad on his return. This was the late 1950s, when airports were simple structures and airplane travel was a big deal.

Standing on the breezy observation deck of the airport, my mother, my three brothers and I waited for the plane from Baltimore. Suddenly the "Connie," or Constellation -- a massive TWA plane -- swept out of the night sky. It rumbled to a noisy stop near the terminal. A set of stairs were rolled up to the plane's door and men in suits walked down them, happily waving to all on the observation deck.

My brothers and I engaged in competitive dad-spotting. Each of us claimed to be the first one to see Dad coming out of the airplane. But we couldn't verify our identifications. From certain vantage points, all dads look alike.

Today is Father's Day, the day that a lot of us size up our fathers, and our relationship with them. I now live in Baltimore and my dad lives outside Kansas City in a fog. Alzheimer's has him in its cruel, creeping grip.

Now communication with my dad is faint and garbled. Mostly my dad treats me as a friendly if mysterious visitor. "What do they call you?" he asked me when I spent a week with him. Not long ago my mother put my dad on the telephone to speak to me, and he simply whistled me a tune.

One odd effect of losing the ability to talk with my dad about family, sports, politics and the like, is I find myself going over old ground. I dredge up the small stuff, the old habits of his everyday life, and compare them with my own.

My dad was a strong presence in our family, a man who lifted his hand to calm the nightly clamor at the supper table by calling for "Peace, peace." His conversational technique was to go around the supper table and ask each of us what we had done that day "for the good of the cause." Responses such as "cut some grass" or "trimmed the hedge" were smiled upon. "Nothing much" was an invitation for parental intervention.

One June morning when my older brother and I were teen-agers reveling in our fresh freedom from school, we got to the breakfast table to find the "help wanted" section of the newspaper waiting for us. Earlier that morning my dad had circled likely summer-job opportunities. By 10 o'clock, he had called us to make sure we had pursued the leads. Last summer I found myself writing a classified ad for a neighborhood newsletter, advertising my teen-age son's eagerness to do odd jobs.

The fine points of food and drink matter much to me, little to my dad. Food couldn't cook fast enough for him. He once fried hamburgers in two minutes. He created what became known in family lore as "the night of the bleeding burgers."

He drank the local beer, but not because it was fresher or had superior hops. He drank it out of loyalty to the nearby brewery, Goetz, and because it was cheap.

He liked bourbon, but didn't care about its pedigree. Once, when I lived in Kentucky, I presented Dad with a bottle of Makers Mark, a boutique bourbon I had just discovered. I watched him combine my prized whiskey with a bottle of standard-issue Old Crow. It was all brown water to him.

Dad plotted family car trips with precision and always knew which direction the car was headed. Last summer, when I drove him to the Atlantic Ocean for a family vacation, I found myself telling him we would head "east on Route 50, then south on 13," even though he couldn't grasp what I was saying.

Late in my dad's career there were more trips to Baltimore, and to Omaha, Neb., and Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Dad had become a supervisor of Social Security offices in several states. By then, the novelty of a flight from Baltimore on a Connie had given way to the deadening routine of rising before dawn to catch a 7 a.m. jet to Omaha that Braniff, an airline with quixotic ideas of scheduling, might or might not be operating that day.

One Friday night when I had been driving for a few years, I was tapped to pick Dad up at the Kansas City airport. This time there was no dramatic waving from the observation deck, just a gentle greeting at the gate. Dad was a tired traveler.

At home he was our editor, marking up drafts of school term papers that my brothers and I had written in what we thought was golden prose. Dad routinely chopped 10 lines of our typing into three comprehensible thoughts.

"Keep those sentences short, those verbs strong," he would tell us. A few weeks before Father's Day, while editing one of my son's school papers, I heard myself passing along exactly the same advice.

Pub Date: 6/16/96

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