Recently I turned 40 years old and have been reflecting on my life. Contrary to what you might think, I haven’t been depressed or regretful — rather grateful and excited about the future. When I was young boy, I had aspirations of being rich and powerful with alter egos to include a musician, a genius, and a poet-warrior… sort of a Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man in the World” with Napoleon Dynamite’s prescribed skills.
“Nunchaku skills… bowhunting skills… computer hacking skills… Girls only want boyfriends who have great skills!” —Napoleon Dynamite
If I had any regrets, it might be not having children and allowing my mother to dress me up like Spanky from the Little Rascals. The picture above is my father and I in 1970. He didn’t care that mom dressed me up like Spanky as long she didn’t dress me in anything pink — after all, he was a man’s man and as such he would not permit his son to wear anything remotely feminine.
Before I describe my father any further, I want to introduce his father — the picture on the left is him on his Harley Davidson. He was a Pennsylvania Scotch-Irishman who started working in the coal mine as a teenager and married a beautiful, fiery Irish girl. He served in the U.S. Army to fight the Nazis and returned to the coal mines after the war. He had a tough reputation but a loving father and one of the best friends a man could have. A man of his word.
He is the father of five and has many grandchildren but I was his first grandson. According to my father, he bought my first pair of shoes. Dad said it was a tradition and it was very, very important to Grandpap. Whether the gesture was rooted in a tradition to create good luck or it was simply a matter of pride, it was critical that he didn’t appear as a “softy.”
My grandfather worked hard — no, very hard — all his life and always made time for his kids. After retiring as a coal miner, his health deteriorated quickly due to the unhealthy work environment he and his union fought hard to change. Many men became rich off the back’s of men like my grandfather. My grandfather was a bit cantankerous or even downright ornery in his last few years. It is difficult for a proud man to accept the fact that his children are taking care of him.
His oldest son, my father, left home at 17 to join the Navy. He was trained in Meridian, Mississippi as part of a crash and rescue team attached to a helicopter squadron. He was then assigned to the USS Keasarge (LHD 5) in San Diego, California. After his tour of active duty, he transferred to the Naval Reserves and became a steel worker in the Seabees. As a civilian, he worked as a steel worker, fabricator, and specialized in heavy equipment to include earth movers and mining equipment.
While in San Diego, he met and married my mother — a sweet southern California girl who is the daughter of a beautiful Irishwoman and a fine Swedish gentleman. My parents divorced before I was two years old and both my mother and father eventually remarried. My father’s second marriage only lasted for a few years but I gained a baby sister. Eventually, my father was granted full custody of my baby sister.
Now my father was a single parent, dedicated to raising this little girl the best way he knew how. My father was a strict disciplinarian who set high standards for my sister. Today, my sister is an intelligent, independent, successful young woman.
Recently, one of my nieces was having some “teenage” problems resulting in a strained relationship with her mother — my oldest sister. There is no doubt in my mind that my father’s parenting techniques were effective when my little sister said, “...that girl needs to spend a summer with her grandfather to get her priorities straight.”
Years earlier in San Diego, my grandfather Elmer Nils Hall passed away before I was even born. Eventually, my grandmother remarried a wonderful man who raised my mother and her two siblings. Grandpa Frank or as we affectionately called him: Pop Pop — was a Polish immigrant raised in an orphanage in upstate New York. He even played baseball in a farm league until he joined the Army to fight the Nazis. Ultimately, he ended up working for and retiring from NASCO shipbuilding company in San Diego as a carpenter.
I grew up near my Grandpa Frank, Pop Pop. Time with my grandparents was… well in a word… awesome. Some of my fondest memories involve just he and I running errands before my grandmother returned home from work.
A Saturday morning would include arduous tasks such as going to the Brown Derby to get some beer, White Owl cigars, a racing form, and then if I was lucky, off to Del Mar Race Track. We’d rush home so I could run the lawn mower for him while he supervised with a tall Coors in his hand. Finally, we would end up in his recliner watching the Chicago Cubs and I would fetch him fresh beers until my grandmother came home.
My grandfather loved horse racing but he used to say to me, “Gambling is bad. I love horses and reading about them. The races are exciting but before you do anything like this — make sure your family doesn’t need anything because the money is theirs first.” Years later, I learned that he never spent much money on that stuff and he ALWAYS took care of the family first.
Besides horse racing and baseball, he loved taking us to the zoo, Seaworld, and my grandmother to Las Vegas. I remember an unbelievable record collection to include Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane. In retrospect, he had style and what we call today “swagger.”
The thing I remember the most about Pop Pop was that he was a consummate gentlemen. He was the kind of guy who always held the door for the ladies, held my grandmother’s arm to escort her, and sometimes when he and I would clean up around the house, he would say “Come on… let’s clean up for your grandmother. A real gentleman always helps his lady.”
Once, my grandfather sat me down to have a heart-to-heart with me after he learned I disrespected my mother. I was so scared that I disappointed him when he said, “NO ONE will EVER love you like your mother. No one. She would do anything for you. Will you be a man and show her that you appreciate that?” The fact that he was an orphan probably had a lot to do with why he would not tolerate me disrespecting my mother. To this day, when I don’t call my mother often enough I recall those words.
Now that I am 40, I think about those influential men in my life. I think about their contrasting personalities and realize that none of them were perfect. I wonder what they were like before they had children or grandchildren. How was the transition? I wonder if I am capable of such a transition.
I was discussing this “transition” with a friend of mine, who we’ll call “Lawrence” to avoid any embarrassment. He admitted the transition was tough but he has a strong wife and today, being a father hasn’t changed his identity, only enriched it. His two little girls are his life. He said recently he went to Marrakesh, a Moroccan themed restaurant where there was a stunning, young belly dancer — except, his first thought was “I bet my little girls would love this!!”
The answer to this post’s title is “A man is a man because he is man” which is, of course, circular reasoning. What it really boils down to is your definition of a “man.” In my opinion, it isn’t the materialistic things in life nor physical abilities but rather owning your responsibilities. And in my opinion, a father doesn’t think of his responsibilities as obligations but as natural an act as breathing.