I’m posting a column I wrote in 2005 about Father’s Day, as my uncle Vern is about to pass. I’m thankful he has been able to spend time with his family and friends the past few months. And to Pastor Mary Ann and the members of the Our Saviour’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Oxnard, thank you for all the meals and kindnesses given to my Aunt Jan and Vern.
May the long time sun shine upon you, all love surround you, and the pure light within you, guide your way on, guide your way on, guide your way on. Sat Nam. — A Kundalini song
June. A time of graduations, weddings, new patio furniture. Got mine just in time for one last rain, and then sun, glorious sun.
June is also the month to honor our fathers. Arguably, we’d all like to have nurturing, loving relationships with our fathers. But for those of us who didn’t quite get that nice little package, how do you feel about Father’s Day? Having lost most of my childhood to my parents’ alcoholism, divorce, and ultimately their deaths while I was still a teenager, Father’s Day was a bitter day for me for many years. I’ve struggled to understand my dad over the years and it’s been anything but easy. He was a stomach churning mix of the heroic and tragic, never sorting out his true self from the life he led. He was a talented student, cartoonist, and even claimed to have invented Rocky Road ice cream at Whitey’s Ice Cream in Moline, Illinois. (After contacting them about it, Whitey’s owner replied, “If he wants to claim that, it’s ok with us!”) I doubt Dad realized that an ice cream name would one day describe his life. He became a terribly young World War II, B-24 pilot, nicknamed “Smiley.” Ah, he had the angel and the devil in him for sure. With dimples to melt any female on a face like William Holden, he was a force. My poor mother didn’t know what she was getting into. An Iowa farm girl, my dad, just home from the War, spotted her while she was on strike for the local phone company. They hit the church faster than you can say, “I do.” I was fortunate to get some photos from my sister that I had never seen before. Photos of my parents taken while they were dating and first married. I am amazed by how beautiful they were and how they beamed with happiness in every shot. But moving to California and trying to live the American Dream in the heady 1950s and 60s took its toll. They got caught up in the trappings, and lost their selves.Thank God my father had a younger brother. My uncle Vern was the yin to my father’s yang. Vern is a kind, patient, loving, and smart man who stepped into my life when my father couldn’t. My father had three girls, my uncle had three boys. Dad had no spiritual beliefs; Vern lived each day by his. My uncle and aunt became my pseudo parents and our relationship has deepened over the years. My grandfather’s death brought us closer together in my grandparents’ modest Illinois duplex, digging through his childhood school and church records from Sweden, a moving and joyful experience. Vern and Jan brought my grandmother out to California, where she always wanted to live, giving us the chance to be with her in her final years. When she passed, I saw my uncle’s pain, and my aunt’s true compassion as she apologized to me for not doing more for me when I was younger. That was when I realized how much I had survived, and how important these two people were to me.
As different as my dad was from Vern, who committed himself to a life of responsibility to his family, job and church, he admired my father’s adventure spirit. So when Vern retired from Rocketdyne, he started making models of, and taking rides in planes my father had flown during the war. He also spent four years researching my dad’s service in the Air Force. He created a beautiful, meticulous notebook of information including my dad’s old cartoons, photos of him as a kid, in pilot training, and in uniform while based in England. Vern found his original typewritten flight records, several of his fellow crew members to get first-hand accounts of those 19 missions, visited the remains of the base at Pickenham, and even stopped in at a pub my father frequented.Were it not for Vern’s painstaking effort, and my ongoing desire to understand him, my father would be a distant, confusing memory and an unresolved heartache for me. Vern brought my father to life in a special way for to me, to help me come to terms with him, to smooth the “rocky road.” I took that notebook out to Van Nuys airport a few years ago when I took a flight in the only remaining flying B-24 Liberator, operated by The Collings Foundation. My uncle’s book and the flight on the Liberator created a powerful connection between the three of us, and truly was a liberating experience for me.So to my Uncle/Father I send heartfelt greetings. And to my aunt, belated Mother’s Day greetings. I hope we all can smooth out the rocky roads in our relationships this Father’s Day. This world needs happiness, and making peace is the first step.