At 75, my dad is as rough and tough as they get, but also one of those “good ole boys” who’s built like a Cadbury crème egg — a hard, dark exterior, with a soft and sweet filling. The old man is “old school,” and for good reason, for it has taught me everything I ever needed in how to not only deal, but overcome, any obstacle life may toss in your way.
Born in 1942, amid the cold and unforgiving North Country winters, my father was the son of an iron ore miner in the tiny outpost town of Lyon Mountain, New York (population: 423), in the heart of the desolate and picturesque Adirondack Mountains. My grandmother worked an array of odd jobs, from cooking in a restaurant to owning a bar, to also raising eight kids (my father the second oldest). They were blue-collar America, for good or ill, and made ends meets somehow, just like countless families around the country did during the Great Depression and World War II.
My father was 30 when he got married, and was 43 when he had me (I’m the oldest of two kids). So, some could say he lived a pretty full life before I was even a twinkle in his eye. In high school and after graduation, my father worked all kinds of gigs. Repo man. Banker. Construction worker. Counselor. Car hop. He was also a prison guard for a while in the early 1970s, with stints at Sing Sing, Dannemora and Attica (his first week on the job was during the infamous riots in 1971).
After a couple failed attempts at getting a college degree — due to work, bills and family obligations — he finally got his bachelor’s in 1974 in history. In the 1990s, he went back to college and got another degree in criminology. And throughout all that time he found his true calling with an almost 30-year career as an Immigration Officer for the U.S. Government on the Canadian border, mere miles from my childhood home.
As a kid, I didn’t see my father that much during the week. He worked crazy hours on the border, 12-hour shifts and haphazard schedules. When he went to bed, I got up for school. When I went to bed, he got up to go to work. But, when he was around, especially during vacations and when I had a sporting event, he was there, either showing me “the ropes” with basketball and baseball or cheering me on from the sidelines.
But, as with any parent-child relationship, the “honeymoon phase” does come to an end at some point around middle school. It wasn’t so much that I was a “bad kid,” I just didn’t like to be told what to do and was more interested in hanging out with my friends and going to rock concerts than I was doing yardwork or practicing whatever sport I was involved in.
There were a lot of difficult years back then. Luckily, the good years always outnumbered the bad. I’ve always equated my dad and his attitude on life to the character of Red Forman on “That ‘70s Show” — tough love and tough to read. And yet, two things came into my life that solidified our bond — running and writing.
A lifelong runner (one who ran the Boston Marathon 14 times, with over 80 marathons under his belt atop thousands of road races), my father pushed me into signing up for cross-country in middle school. My unrelenting love for running, something that continues to this very day, became a common interest between a Baby Boomer (my dad) and a millennial (me). By the time college rolled around, I hadn’t really figured out what I wanted to do with my life. But, when the “lightning bolt epiphany” struck me that I wanted to be a writer, my father was first in line to support that notion.
A man who has had The New York Times in hand every morning for decades, he’s also a “bookworm” in every sense of the word, devouring biographies and military history. He’s the kind of guy that goes to the local library Monday morning and checks out a half-dozen thick books, and come the following Monday is returning all the books, every single page read.
It’s been a rollercoaster of a ride between my father and I, but, all-in-all, we’re stronger now than ever before. It’s surreal to see this whole new — soft — side of him emerge as I watch him interact with my niece, his granddaughter. It’s like a whole new lease on life for the old man. And I look forward to our conversations over the phone, when we chat about nothing and everything, when he asks about some article I wrote that he read that day. “How’d you come up with that line?” he says, a smile emerging on my face on the receiving end of the call.
Happy Father’s Day, Frank.
Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.