My dad would have been seventy today. He was actually born about 34 miles from here, and he was amused by the fact that I ended up back in this area. “It’s kind of nice that some of the old family stuff will wind up back in South Carolina,” he said. But not this soon, of course.
I guess it’s normal for a son to admire his dad; I’m certainly no exception. But he was easier to admire than a lot of people, and as I grew older, I realized that (with the strange exception of basic arithmetic) he was the closest person I’ve ever known to one of Heinlein’s omnicompetent heroes. Even the arithmetic thing was odd. He spent his career in electronic data processing, eventually moving into information security, but he was a pretty serious code monkey when I was a kid. High-order stuff — symbolic logic, algorithmic thought, that kind of thing — he could and did handle as a matter of course. He was a go-to troubleshooter in his coding days; I have numerous childhood memories of dinnertime and odd-hour phone calls because something had blown up at work, and he’d rattle off strings of COBOL instructions to the people on the other end of the phone (along with a liberal admixture of Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, another portion of my inheritance) seemingly without interrupting his bites of minute steak, mashed potatoes and gravy. But for doing long division, or even adding up a column of figures, he’d either resort to his trusty old RPN calculator or (if the calculator wasn’t handy), calling out the numbers to me and having me do the calculations for him.
He smoked almost constantly — two or more packs a day. A few years back, after he retired, we figured out that when he wasn’t sleeping or in his office, he averaged a cigarette about every twelve minutes. He went from old-school Camels to off-brands as the years went along, but he was smoking the Camels when I was about 5 and asked if I could try them. He said, “Sure,” and showed me how to take a drag. After I finished hacking and my eyes had stopped watering, I never asked again — which pleased him.
A combination of necessity and low budgets turned him into a solid amateur/shadetree mechanic over the years — sometimes to comedic effect. But he didn’t just do for us. I remember spending a Saturday at the home of one of my friends as he put a new tranny in the kid’s car. He was a guy’s guy in that way, able to fix things large and small that I have no doubt would (and sometimes do) leave me utterly bumfuzzled.
And sometimes he’d just do goofy things. After he completed his first full course of chemotherapy in the mid-80s, he decided to take my brother’s dirt bike for a spin. In the Cincinnati burbs. In winter. He promptly laid the bike down, breaking an elbow in the process. When he went to the ER, they saw he had been in earlier that day, and asked if this was related to the chemo dose he had received. “Nope,” he said. “Just stupidity.”
He loved jokes, from puns (he introduced me to the work of Spider Robinson) to bawdy stuff to the surrealism of Jonathan Winters. When I worked at the magazine in Cincinnati and he worked at the other end of downtown, I’d ring him every morning at about 7:55 with the joke of the day from a local radio station. In many cases, I knew it was one he already knew — I don’t think he ever forgot a joke — and in those cases, I’d just pass along the punch line. Generally, the darker the joke, the more he liked it, and nothing was off limits, but he could laugh just as hard at clean stuff.
He was enjoying his retirement, having found the online archives of a couple of publishers of his beloved SF and fantasy. He’d spend as much of the day as Mom would let him get away with in front of the computer, reading the books he hadn’t been able to snag in earlier years (despite the book-a-day jones that he had through his working life). He had beaten cancer a third time, and seemed to have quite a bit ahead when he was cheated out of it.
I miss you, Dad. And I love you.