Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Happy Birthday to My Old Man

This is a photo of my dad from 1969 when he spent his 43rd birthday in Vietnam, which was just before he came home to us in California. He passed away in 2007. I never had the chance to say goodbye to him; and I still mourn for him every day.

My dad (aka My Old Man, Red, Rusty, Chief, Harold and Dad)

My dad was born and grew up poor on a small farm in the South during the Great Depression before later joining the U.S. Navy to see the world. He became an onboard radio operator on the ship he was assigned to, which was deployed to the Korean War. As a kid (and as a young man), he had the nickname "Red" because of the color of his hair.

After he returned home from the war, he was stationed in San Francisco, California (where he met my mom, who also called him Red). She and my dad were both stationed there while serving in the Navy. Me and my kid sister were later born at a nearby Army base in San Francisco.

After my mom left the Navy, my dad had transferred from the Navy into the Air Force. Occasionally he would be away from the family on temporary duty assignments (TDY) to places like Greenland and Guam. Sometimes he'd be gone for 3 months to a year at a time. That's how it is with military life: many painfully sad family separations, and then usually many joyful family reunions. It's an emotional roller-coaster. It's not just conscripts, enlisted personnel and officers in the military that sacrifice for this country, so do their spouses and children.

While growing up, my younger sister and I have been stationed all across the U.S. and abroad, including Hawaii and Germany. We attended almost as many schools as we attended grades — and we were almost always "the new kid" in class. We didn't have long-term friends that we can say we grew up with, because we were always moving — friends were left behind. It can be a lonely life. Sometimes, as a family, you only have each other.

But our parents eventually separated in 1966 while we were living in Germany, and then later officially divorced while my dad had volunteered to serve two tours-of-duty in the Vietnam War. Maybe my dear mother just got tired of being left alone for so long; and then afterwards, maybe my heartbroken dad had decided to join the war to deal with his own feelings of grief.

So my mom, sister and I flew back to the United States, and from an airport in New Jersey in a rented Rambler, my mom drove us across the country to California, where we (and later in 1967, a little baby brother) had all lived . . . until two years later, when in 1969, my father returned to the United States from Vietnam. He came to California to get me (the "incorrigible" teenage son who had been skipping school and drinking), and he drove me back across the country in a green 1963 Studebaker "Lark" to live with him at his new post on an Air Force base in Massachusetts (where he later taught me to drive in his brand new 1971 Chrysler when I got my very first driver's license).

My dad's 1963 Studebaker "Lark" in 1969

My dad was a strict father, but he was also a loving father too. In my last year of high school, I worked in a cardboard factory at nights and came home late . . . but my dad almost always left me a warm plate of food in the oven before going to bed at night. Then he'd wake up early the next morning to make me breakfast before I went to school. He offered to put me through college when I graduated, but instead (like an ungrateful son) I dropped out of high school and moved out on him. We had a big fight. It wasn't a pleasant departure. Regrets? I have many.

A couple of years later, after I had moved out of the house that we once shared together — and while we were both still living in Massachusetts — my dad had been stationed to Cheyenne, Wyoming. It was his very last post in the Air Force before he retired. At the time, I didn't even know he left the State, because I hadn't stayed in touch with him; but I later visited him in Cheyenne — and he took me to Frontier Days (an annual rodeo), where he had volunteered to be one of the ushers. My dad had always loved Country and Western music, so he was in his element here.

While stationed in Cheyenne, my dad also worked as a real estate agent (while also performing his duties in the Air Force). He was always an ambitious man. He'd buy fixer-upper homes, renovate them himself, and then flip them. The modest 3-bedroom house he had bought for us in California was built in the same year I was born, and it's now worth $500,000 today (even though it's still a modest 3-bedroom house).

All his life my dad was always involved with something: in Hawaii he scuba dived and road a motorcycle, and he used to give rides to all the neighborhood kids on his electric scooter. He coached little league baseball, high school basketball and pee wee football. He played on many bowling teams and had a slew on trophies. He hunted, he camped, he fished and he boated. He belonged to the Rod and Gun Club. He even did a little snow and water skiing. He really lived life to the fullest. And he was always the first to travel anywhere in the country when it came to visiting family and friends — whether they were ill, or to attend a funeral, or to celebrate a holiday. You could always count on my dad. He was a rock.

My dad had retired as a Chief Master Sergeant after about 30 years of military service and moved back to the South to live near his hometown, where he bought 5 acres of land and built himself his "house on the hill", living out his remaining years near his childhood family (siblings, nieces and nephews) before he passed away 30 years later. By then he was driving a Cadillac DeVille for long trips and an old Ford pickup for local errands.

(Below) It might have been in early 2002 when the whole family had visited dad at his 3-bedroom brick home on the hill where he used to live alone. I had only visited him here once before in 1989. Now I wish I had visited more often.

My dad's "House on the hill".

All throughout his life, most of my cousins used to call my dad "Uncle Red". But when he and I used to live together in Massachusetts, all his friends used to call him "Rusty" (because his red hair was no longer red) — or sometimes they would call him "Chief" (after his rank in the Air Force). But my friends and I always used to refer to him as "my old man" . . . although I always called him "dad".

The night my dad died in April 2007 was also the last time I spoke to my mom. She offered me no condolences because for the previous 2 years, she and I had been permanently estranged. Then she passed away 11 years later in September 2018 — and I never had a chance to say goodbye to her either. My mom was 82 when she died earlier this month. But today would have been my dad's 89th birthday, so I'm posting this song "My old Man" (by the Zac Brown Band) as a tribute to him.

(Below) I was informed that upon her request, my mom's remains will be cremated and her ashes spread in the woods somewhere (no location was given); but at least I know where my dad is. His final resting place is in his hometown, right next to his parents' grave in their local church cemetery. I hope one day I will join them there. (Because, as in my mom's case, it seems that being left alone in the woods would be very lonely.)

St. Boniface Catholic Church

These days I miss my parents very much; but I was a terrible son. I rarely ever sent them a birthday or Christmas card. And rarely did I ever call them; but most of the time, they always remembered me. And my old man, he almost always slipped me a little cash inside the cards. I could always count on my dad. Everyone could. He was a rock.

(Below) Just a tiny few of the many cards my dad had sent me over the years. I moved so many times that the vast majority were lost, but he remembered every single holiday. He never held a grudge. He never stopped loving any of us. And no one ever stopped loving him. (I didn't.)

I miss my dad's cards!

Respect and love your parents while you still can, because in the blink of an eye they could be gone forever (like tomorrow), so hug them now; because if not, then you'll have to live with that regret every day for the rest of your life — and you'll be haunted by your shame.

(Below) This photo of my dad may have been taken by me during the Christmas holiday when he visited us in Las Vegas in 2004. It would have been the very last Christmas that our entire family (me, my mom, my dad, my sister and my brother) had spent together — and this is also the last photo that I have of my dad. But the very last time I actually saw my dad was back in 2005, also during the Christmas holiday. I picked him up outside the house that my mom and I used to share together (also pictured below), because by that time she and I had a big fight and we became permanently estranged earlier that year. So I picked my dad up in front of the house and I drove him to a nearby pub for a chat and a bite to eat. Then about an hour later I dropped him off outside the house — and after that, I never saw him again.

So today, I just wanted to say:

"Happy birthday dad! --- and happy birthday for all the other birthdays I missed. I know I didn't say it very often before but, I love you dad. I should have told you more often when I had the chance. I'll always regret that I didn't. Rest in peace dad. You were the best old man that a son could ever wish for."

Harold, Red, Chief or Rusty (I called him dad) in Las Vegas 2004

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