I’m making this entry from my mom’s house in Florida. Today’s the first of April 2014, my mom and dad’s 54th wedding anniversary. Except that this year, dad isn’t here for that occasion. Dad died a week ago Monday on March 24, sixteen days after his 74th birthday. We had a very nice memorial service for him yesterday (it was decided by all that having the memorial on their anniversary would not have been a good idea) and his ashes and his favorite “Merchant Marine Veteran” ball cap with the Captain’s insignia went with his brother for safe keeping until later this year when another memorial will be held for family and friends in Maine.
Last week, when I learned of my father’s passing, I penned an e-mail to several of my good friends entitled “The Complex Relationship Between Fathers and Sons”. In that note, one of the first things I said to my friends was that there were times when my father could be a real sonofabitch. And he could. Yes, he was a good father who taught me and my little brother and sister a number of things about life. He provided for his family. He enabled us all to have good educations (or as much education as we wanted at least – in my case, I was never really all that much of a “school” kind of guy in my younger years) food in our bellies and a roof over our heads. He never abused us, beat us or otherwise treated us badly. Sure, there were some occasional outbursts and that one time when I got chased up the stairs after being told to go to my room without supper and I said “NO!”. But as far as the kind of men (and women) you sometimes read about in the news who are TRULY cruel, abusive and nasty with their kids, that was never my father. Was he all huggy and touchy-feely and warm with his kids? Not even. Was he more comfortable with his peers and colleagues that with his kids? Yes, I think he was – and some of the stories I heard at his memorial and the reception afterward bore that out, actually. Did he love my mother more than life itself? Yes, absolutely. So much so that he kept from her a TON of what was going on with this health in the last few years. It turns out that he was much, much sicker than he let anyone know. But that was him – he was a very, very private and closed-off person in general, at least with family anyway. He had himself been raised by a strict and authoritarian father, a Lt. Colonel in the US Army Corps of Engineers, who had a serious drinking problem for decades and who his kids got as far away from when they came of age as they could. Knowing my Grandfather explains a lot about my father ….. and me.
Ours was an odd upbringing and family life. You see, my father was a Merchant Mariner. Have you seen Tom Hanks’ movie “Captain Phillips”? That’s my dad. In fact, toward the very end of his career, he actually even worked for the Maersk Line, the company that owns the Maersk Alabama in that movie. And while we’re talking about it, Merchant Mariners have been fending off automatic weapon armed pirates in Boston Whalers propelled by powerful engines for a long, long time. This recent situation with the Somalis is nothing new – it’s just getting better press nowadays.
So if we go back to the 1960’s, not long after dad had graduated from Maine Maritime Academy with a commission as an Ensign in the US Naval Reserve, his Coast Guard license and his Union papers as a 3rd mate, his work was most often aboard the “Santa” ships of the old Grace Line. The ships had names like the Santa Isabel, Santa Maria, Santa Inez, Santa Rosa, Santa Paula, etc. His were combination bulk cargo / passenger ships, carrying between 12 and 30 passengers. This was in the days long before the containerized cargo of today. This was the time when if you’d been at the docks in New York City you would have seen rough and tough longshoremen hoisting crates and pallets and barrels individually with ropes and chains and placing them in the holds of the ships by hand. In this world, when you “pulled a number” as they called it at the Union hall in NYC and got a berth on a ship, you kept it as long as you could. This meant that you worked aboard that ship in the same kind of way that any person working in a factory or office might work today – your regular job, all year round, was on board that ship, regardless of where in the world it happened to be. His jobs back then were most often the western South America runs. That is, coastwise from NYC south, calling on various east coast ports, then through the Caribbean to the Panama Canal then south along the west coast of South America to Valparaiso, Chile and back again. This voyage usually took just about six weeks on the dot. When the ship would get back to NYC, if he could get permission from the captain, he’d hop the Eastern Airlines Shuttle back to Logan Airport in Boston and come home for a couple of days.
Yes – a couple of days. Me and my mom basically spent the years from 1961 (when I was born) to 1971 with an occasional father / husband in the house. His routine was six weeks away, maybe 2-4 days home, six weeks away, maybe 1-2 days home and so on. It’s no wonder that there’s seven years between me and my sister and nine between me and my brother… As a little kid, I was confused by families whose dads came home every evening after work and were around on weekends and for holidays and the like. It’s not like we suffered or anything, even though in the early years, my mom made ends meet on $300 a month. Partly because we spent those years as caretakers of his parent’s house near Boston, my parents were able to save money, build a little summer place on a pond in Maine and get along pretty well.
But, about the time I was really fully aware of how the family situation worked, around the time I was ten years old, various factors, including the failure of Congress and the Nixon Administration to pass a meaningful Maritime Act that would preserve the vitality of the US Flagged fleet, conspired to create a great contraction in the US shipping industry. The local effect in our house? My dad couldn’t get work. Well, that’s not completely accurate – he COULD have gotten work. He could have grabbed an occasional 10 day gig to help run a Danish ship back home (then be financially responsible for getting himself back to the states), or the occasional 4-8 day assignment to man a ship being placed in drydock (then have to put himself up at his expense while the work on the ship was taking place) – in other words, the kind of work that costs almost as much in travel time and such as he would make in wages. So, he took the opportunity to go back to school in Boston, got his MBA and worked in land-based businesses for several years. These were the miserable years.
For a guy who had gone to the academy right out of high school and worked full time on the sea for ten years, making the adjustment to school, the 9-to-5 grind, commuting, dealing with a home life every day was impossible for him to deal with well. During these years he was angry, grumpy, mean, cold, distant and obviously stressed. He got a little better when we moved to Maryland in 1975 and he took up teaching at a maritime school just south of Baltimore, but he wasn’t truly happy again until he was able to secure a berth on board ship again in 1978. From that point until he retired in 2006, he never looked back. His “second” career on the oceans was almost exclusively a run from NYC across the Atlantic to ports throughout the Mediterranean.
By the time his “career 2.0” happened, I was almost ready to graduate high school. After I did, the whole family moved back up to New England again, this time settling just north of Portland, Maine. This new version of the US flag shipping business came with more time off for dad. The new routine was to work for 3-6 months straight, then get roughly 1/2 that time off. So in my 20’s my dad was around a lot more, but was, essentially, “unemployed” for those stretches at home. So my little brother and sister had a different experience in their tween and teen years. By then, I was off on my own and building my own career.
Over the years as I moved through my own life, and dad through his, we drifted apart as sons and fathers sometimes do. I became interested in technology and went in to broadcasting. While I find what he did for a living fascinating, I find it fascinating from a “Discovery Channel Special” standpoint – I had no interest in actually working in that business at all. The closest thing we have in our family to someone who followed in dad’s footsteps is my brother, who is a world-class sailing instructor and coach. Dad was so private and closed off that it was difficult to divine what he was thinking or what he wanted most of the time. He was the kind of father that’s impossible to buy Christmas and birthday gifts for – he’d never talk about anything that would give any clue. 99% of the intel we three kids ever gathered about our father came from mom. Gifts? Just get him a Lowe’s gift card and he’ll be happy. And he was.
I’ve been thinking over the past week about why it is that I’ve not shed a tear since learning of my father’s death. Sure, we weren’t the closest of men, but I loved my father. He could be distant and very hard to read, but if you actually could get him engaged in a conversation about something that interested him he was a great conversationalist and had terrific information to impart and stories to tell. It was just that getting him to actually DO any of that was like pulling teeth. He was much more content to sit in front of the TV and watch Fox News Channel all day long (except for the two hours that Rush Limbaugh was on the radio – Rush was his hero, I think…) After decades of not being able to connect with him, I basically gave up. He was never going to be the father that I wanted him to be and there’s probably a reason why all three of us kids moved to Oregon and Alaska while mom and dad continued to do the Maine-Florida snowbird thing.
I think that I came to terms with his death long before he died. He had been in poor health for a while (we heard this all from mom, of course, never from him directly) with Diabetes, heart disease, and a number of issues brought on by the vast quantity of meds he was taking. You couldn’t get him to go for a walk, you could barely get him to get out of his chair, and when he did go out (at least up until about a year ago) by himself, he could pretty much be guaranteed to come home with an empty McDonald’s bag and drink cup in his hands. I think I gave up on him when he made a McDonald’s stop for a Big Mac, fries and a Diet Coke on his way back from his cardiologist’s office a few months after his triple bypass. Sheesh, pop.
I’m no medical expert, but when I saw him last summer while on a short vacation trip back to Maine, it was pretty obvious to me that he didn’t have much time left. Maybe the realization of his situation sank in to my mind slowly and allowed me to come to terms with it. Maybe it was just that he was so disengaged from all of us that it made it easier to let him go. Maybe, in the end, in his own way, that was his final act of loving fatherhood to us.
The complex relationships of fathers and sons … indeed.