Laugh Lines And Heartstrings

We painted the garage together every three years, and I held the ladder for him every time we cleaned the gutters until I grew older and he became shaky up there. Then he held the ladder for me and I went on the roof. Our house stood on a wooded acre, and every fall we raked and raked, and every summer we cut and cut, and every winter we shoveled and shoveled–father and son, taking care of the house. “Hey, Fuzz, hit that walkway one more time before your mother comes home.” He was always worrying about her. He made each anniversary special, always buying something delicate like a teacup or piece of jewelry; never anything practical like an appliance. As she opened her gift on Christmas morning or at the dinner table, he’d look away or pretended not to notice as she fawned over his good taste and thoughtfulness.

I recall a man saying something suggestive to my mother once as our family was leaving a restaurant. She hated that kind of thing. My dad pretended not to hear as the three kids scurried in the back seat and Mom sat in the front. Walking deliberately, my dad grabbed the man’s lapels and pulled him off his feet and around the corner of the restaurant, away from our line of vision. About 30 seconds later Dad walked calmly around the corner, but the other guy didn’t appear at all. I suspect it took him awhile to get up. We never did know what happened. We didn’t ask either. When Dad started the car, there was silence until Mom put the radio on. He casually drove us home like nothing had happened.

Every morning he slapped on Mennen’s aftershave after raking down a coarse beard. Years later when Jack Palance endorsed Mennen’s, my dad repeated the advertising slogan, “Smell like a man.” He recorded several patents while at Ford Motor Company, and one day I found the plaques buried in his closet. When I asked about them, he simply said, “Put those back.” I shook my head. “Let’s hang them.” He walked towards me and said, “Put them back,” and walked past me. I did as I was told.

Everybody’s Buddy

He played poker with his friends on Friday night, and would usually bet a horse or two on weekends with my mom at his side, or maybe my mom’s brother, to whom he was very close. He shot a great game of pool and liked to tell us kids that his pool winnings put food on the table many nights. Years later, he said that his biggest fear in gambling was that one day he would actually hit it big and not be able to enjoy the fun and anticipation of taking a chance. Bills were always covered, and all three of his children went to college without having to be haunted by post-graduation loans.

Sometimes my dad would see friends at a restaurant and pay their bill as he left. When they saw him months later, they said, “Ronnie, you didn’t have to do that!” He would look baffled. “What? That was months ago. Forget about it.”

He was famous for forgetting names. When people approached, he would urgently turn to me. “Fuzz, what’s this guy’s name? His name? His name? Hurry up!” I whispered, “Robert! His name is Robert!” Dad acted as if he never had a doubt. “Heyyyy, Bobby!”

Dedication By Example

He was hired by Ford right out of college and worked there his whole life. When he was offered a promotion that included his relocating, the family was sad, but we offered our support. We never heard another word about it. He told the company no, for family always came first. I am 47 and have been with my company for 26 years. His example is still a constant reminder of his responsible ways.

He coached a men’s softball team in the summer as his love of sports was always part of his makeup. Some of those young men included football players from Baldwin-Wallace College, like current Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, who back then was called “JT.” One evening during a championship game, my dad rearranged the four outfielders normally assigned in softball to a standard right-, center- and left-field layout. He took the fourth outfielder–who happened to be JT–and put him in what he called “short field,” a slot about 30 feet behind and between the shortstop and second baseman. In his scouting, he had noticed about 75 percent of the opposing team hit line drives right to that slot. JT made about two outs per inning, and the other team protested wildly. Dad pointed out in the rulebook that the outfielders were his to place anywhere he wanted. His team won big that night and, true to form, the players didn’t go to the bar to celebrate, but took their families to Dairy Queen. Leading by example again, Dad ran a clean operation–family first.

Brotherly Love

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