One of my earliest memories of Dad was hitchhiking with him cross-country. “I don’t care how scruffy-looking you are;” he said later, “you can always get rides if you’re toting a three-year-old.” More recently he added, “I wasn’t playing with a full deck. I was aware that there were people out there who would be willing to harm a child. And I knew there were even some who would take advantage of a grown man. But I didn’t think they were the same people. And so, I believed there was some kind of magic in the two of us, that we were somehow safe, because we were together.” Then he flashed that huge grin of his and said, “Your mother would have killed me.”
Mom and Dad separated when I was very young, but they agreed on how to raise children. Both of them treated me with respect and dignity. They used the same voice when speaking to me as when speaking to other adults. And they always did their level best to answer my questions, no matter what.
I remember the time I asked Dad why the sky was blue and why the grass was green. Dad explained to me that the oxygen in the air scatters blue light, and the chlorophyll in plants (which, coincidentally, produces oxygen), is colored green. Most parents would have said something like, “Because God made them that way,” or “Stop asking silly questions.”
Some of my fondest memories were when I was four years old in Santa Monica, California. We lived in an apartment over a waterbed warehouse, with a large sundeck. At the far side of the sundeck was a door that opened out to some rickety wooden stairs and an overgrown back yard surrounded by a six-foot privacy fence.
Dad didn’t get angry with me when I learned how to open the big door that led out into the back alleyway. Instead, he set about teaching me how to be safe. So every day, we went for a walk. And every time we crossed a street, Dad would say, “See Bobby, there are no cars coming this way, and there are no cars coming that way, and the light is green, so it’s safe to cross.” And at least once he said, “See Bobby, there are no cars coming this way, and there are no cars coming that way, and so even though the light is red, it’s still safe to cross.” We always walked; we never hurried. Dad taught me that if you had to hurry, then it wasn’t safe to cross, no matter how fast you thought you could run.
We usually walked a few blocks to a small cafe’ where Dad had coffee and I had milk. He gave me the money to pay for it and taught me how to count the change. He taught me how to use a payphone and quizzed me until I could recite our home phone number. Then one day, he announced that I was to receive a weekly allowance of twenty-five cents, plus another dime for a phone call. He impressed on me that it was important to always keep that dime in my pocket in case I ever got lost or in trouble, and needed to make a phone call. And at the end of the week, if I could show him that dime, he would let me keep it and give me another one. But if I couldn’t show him the dime, then I would have to take that dime from my twenty-five cents, leaving only fifteen cents to spend.
I remember the time I decided to take a walk down Santa Monica Boulevard, and it was very dark by the time I wandered back home and found a police car parked in front of our door. At the time, Dad was living with a lady named Diane Stella, and she was excitedly describing my clothing to the two policemen standing in our living room. So I corrected her, and Dad said something like, “See, I told you he’d come home when he got hungry,” and Diane got very upset with me after the policemen left. So for our next lesson, Dad bought me a watch and taught me how to tell time.
I remember the year we took a Greyhound bus trip. Children under four could travel for free, if accompanied by an adult. So when we went to purchase tickets, and the man asked how old I was, Dad said, “He’s three.” Silly Dad, I knew how old I was. “I’m FIVE,” I announced proudly, and held all five fingers up, spread wide, so he could count them. Then we all got back in the car, and Diane was upset again, and a little while later Dad announced that I was having a birthday. Dad let me pick out a birthday cake, and we had a little party, and I turned three that day. (I knew better, but even at five I could be bribed to keep my mouth shut.) So the next time we saw another man and he asked how old I was and I said, “I’m THREE,” and held up three fingers. I remember a lot of people remarking how big and grown-up I was for a three-year-old.
Dad taught me lots of fun stuff, like how to climb a tree. Don’t put your weight on a dead limb; they’re the ones without any leaves. And don’t walk on any branch that isn’t at least as big around as your arm. He taught me how to ride a skateboard, though it didn’t take very long before I was better at it than he was. One year, we took an automotive course together. Another year, we took a chemistry course. Every summer with Dad was a new learning experience.
I don’t think anyone really knows, until it happens, how they would react to the kind of news I received on Tuesday, April 13, 2004. That’s when Sylvia called to tell me that my Dad had died the night before. But I find myself thinking of how another man took the news that his son had died. The Bible says,
- Then David arose from the earth, and washed, and anointed himself, and changed his apparel, and came into the house of the LORD, and worshipped: then he came to his own house; and when he required, they set bread before him, and he did eat.
- Then said his servants unto him, What thing is this that thou hast done? thou didst fast and weep for the child, while it was alive; but when the child was dead, thou didst rise and eat bread.
- And he said, While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept: for I said, Who can tell whether GOD will be gracious to me, that the child may live?
- But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.
Dad and I had good times together. We didn’t waste the time we spent together. And for that reason, I don’t have regrets now that he’s gone.