Sunday, June 17, 2012
REMEMBERING MY FATHER
The personal criticism that hurts me the most is when accused of being just like my father. Usually said when I am doing something that I recognize is not constructive. It hurts doubly because there is often an element of truth to it. I am like my father in ways that have held me back, but I would also like to think in a few commendable ways, ways that are not always appreciated by others.
When dealing with anyone outside his comfort zone he was usually very quiet, but at some point he was apt to say something blunt and offensive. There are two sides to that. He wouldn't flatter people or try to mislead them.
I worked for a few years at a newspaper circulation department and felt in line to get a promotion that opened up. In my mind I was the most logical person for that position, but the company brought in an outsider. We rubbed each other the wrong way, but the real problem at my end was resentment. Still after awhile I came to admire the outsider. He was not afraid of hard work and he tried to be fair. I learned afterwards he wanted to fire me, but decided to phone one of my references who talked him out of it. Ironically in the end he was forced out of the company while trying to make things better. When he came to say his goodbyes to our office I told him that I really appreciated his work. He politely dismissed my words, but was interrupted by our secretary who assured him I didn't say anything if I didn't mean it. This stunned me, but afterwards I realized it was something I picked up from my father. Diplomacy is not always my strong point.
My father was an only child who was born after hope had been given up. His parents, after a long courtship had married relatively late. After a miscarriage six years before, he was born when his mother was 44. I had heard from others that he was spoiled, but growing up I heard more about how rough things were (during the Depression). I think in some ways it was hard to live with older parents, but I am sure their life revolved around him. Instead of being the only one, I was the oldest of six and only about 21 years younger than either of my parents.
My father was a man of accomplishment, mostly to do with motor vehicles. The year before I was born he won a national title for motorcycle trials. He had taken my mother on a motorcycle honeymoon. I have seen trophies for boat races and flying airplanes. He picked up an interest in car rallies when I was about 10 or 11 and was persuaded to enter the biggest car rally in the country- the Canadian Winter Rally in 1960. The day he won on his first attempt was doubly memorable as my sister Rebecca was born, February 14th (oh and also Valentine's Day). I remember my dad's name being mentioned on the radio, but when he came home I remember the only topic was my mother and his new child. Our family car was featured on the back page of a glossy car magazine which was unusual, because instead of a flashy car it was only a Riley 4.64. The European champion from Sweden was also in that event, but as luck would have it he ran into storm problems which as a new entry my father avoided. To prove it wasn't a fluke he entered the event the next year with a different navigator and won first in his class. Despite offers from car manufacturers (Saab was one) he gave up car rallying to concentrate on his business.
Another accomplishment I heard plenty of was that in high school he could type 80 words a minute on a manual typewriter. I never got above about 40 words per minute.
He was a truck driver by choice. At one stage he had taken over a coal retail business from his father, but that was probably doomed by the 1950's. He enjoyed driving the big trucks the most, but for awhile delivered for a drug store in a van and later became a bus driver. Finally he put together enough to buy a truck and eventually two and three additional ones, hiring drivers he had met at the bus company. At his funeral one of them cried. He was defensive about being a trucker. He had unusual talent as he was well respected not only for the highway driving, but also for the yard work where you are asked to maneuver to get into loading or unloading position. He had been asked to be on a dump truck operator association as director. At that time I worked for a newspaper that was doing a series of critical articles about truck drivers which reached my father's attention. As my father said, "if you got it, a truck brought it." When driving I try to give truck drivers room as I do appreciate they do have a difficult job that is important.
As a youngster my father was "forced" to take piano lessons. He reported that he hated them, but apparently did it for a number of years. When I was a young boy someone persuaded him to buy a Hammond organ. He took a few lessons, but he wasn't able to continue as he was a truck driver who a lot of the year worked 14 hours a day. But he was constantly playing on it. He liked to listen to big band music, a lot of jazzy organ and surprisingly listened to church organ, although he was not religious. My mother also played. A pleasant surprise was my sister Rebecca took an interest. My father encouraged her every way he could. When she reached a level that required advanced instruction he would drive her from Haliburton to Peterborough every Saturday about an hour and half each way. She eventually got a music degree from Sir Wilfrid Laurier University. By request I inherited his vinyl record collection, but until recently I could only listen to CD and cassettes, but as I write this I am enjoying listening to some of his favourite LPs. I had asked him for them long before he died.
When I was a newspaper carrier I received a complaint from someone that I was late delivering their paper. My father took quite an interest in the problem and quickly determined that I was walking much too far. He got in his car and measured the length of different streets, took a close look at my list of customers and worked out a much shorter walk that allowed me to satisfy my customers and get home sooner.
Another interest of my father was photography to the extent that he had a dark room (a term not used very much these days). Among other things he took a lot of photos of the Oshawa Truckmen who became the Whitby Dunlops after a fire burned down the local arena. I was taken to many games. As the Dunlops they won the World Championships in Oslo, Norway. He also took a lot of photos of his children, but as with a lot of parents that started to fade about the time of his third child. He did pass on his love and some expertise to my brother Marshall who has been generous in sharing.
I learned from many others that my father was considered an exceptional driver, after all he made his living driving trucks and had won all sorts of awards. Well he was pretty much a dud teaching me to drive. I never did learn to drive with a shift and eventually got my license through a driver education program. Many years later I had to pick him up somewhere and drive a distance. He surprised me by saying I drove much better than he had thought I ever would. I should add that my father was the only driver that I felt comfortable falling asleep with on the road.
Car racing was another interest. As a youngster I had attended stock car races in Toronto and motor sports at Mosport. A little rolled over to me as I found myself following Grand Prix races.
He loved dogs and we always had a dog that I can remember. In many ways he related to his dogs much better than with people. He once said if you wanted a dog to love you, you had to let it sleep in your bed. My mother got used to it (after all she had six children). I also had the family dog sleep in my bed as did most of my siblings. I once had the idea that he didn't like cats, but my sister Susan, proved me wrong by picking up two strays. From time to time some person bent on religious conversion would talk to my father (who later worked with Jehovah's Witnesses) and he would always ask if he would meet his dogs in heaven. He wasn't impressed with anyone who said no.
One of the things I did with my parents was watch movies. They used to take the first three of us to drive in movies. At some stage I was allowed to stay up for the late show on tv and I remember a lot of films we enjoyed together with stars like Alan Ladd, James Cagney, Bing Crosby, Errol Flynn. My father said he didn't enjoy movies where there weren't enough women to go around as he didn't like anyone to lose out. I watched some of the old favorites with my son, Michael.
As a youngster in some ways I was the envy of the neighborhood kids because my father would make and maintain an outdoor ice rink on our lawn and encourage me and neighbouhood friends to play hockey. I was never encouraged to play organized hockey, but Hockey Night in Canada was avidly watched.
When I was just finishing grade 11 in Oshawa and feeling life was going my way he decided he had had enough of city life and wanted to move to a rural area. I was very resentful and confess at this time I thought Oshawa was the centre of the world. There was an adjustment for sure, but I got a much different perspective on life living in Haliburton. Since then I have felt more comfortable in dealing with people in small towns and rural areas who have been a big part of my sales career. When my daughter, Heather wanted to attend school in Halifax I thought it good that she expand her mind beyond her Hamilton base.
I was not very mechanical, but I was relatively athletic. Although I never received the type of coaching that my son later would I embarked on my own training program including buying some weights. My father never commented on my efforts or results (I was able to do very well on a local level), but I overheard him telling my younger siblings they should be more like me. That was his style, unfortunately. He would criticize you to your face telling you it was for your own good, but very seldom gave any praise. Once when I won an essay contest (covering three counties) he said that was good, but he probably wouldn't agree with what I had written.
After graduating from university and thinking I was pretty hot stuff it took me 6 months to get a job, most of which time I was at home. Finally I got a job and it required a car. My father offered to arrange it, but preferred I get a pickup truck as it would be more useful if the job didn't work out. I had been told that I would need a back seat from time to time so that idea was stopped in its tracks. He took me to a trusted dealer (Bill Drew in Ajax), test drove the car (he could have made a living doing that) and told me what was wrong with it (all minor faults), and got me started on the paper work and took care of the downpayment. He had also arranged for me to have car insurance. As it turned out, the job lasted only 6 months whereupon I got a good lesson in economics. The car was not worth what I owed on it despite 6 months of payments. It took another six months before I got another job and my father helped with the payments as he explained I could lose my credit standing.
I remember visiting home after university and a common routine would be not much conversation until it was near time to leave. My father was actually a very intelligent, open minded person who just found it hard to warm up.
After settling down and getting myself engaged I learned I would be expected to make a speech in front of over 200 people. Enough to make one change their mind, but really I was committed. Many years before my father had taken a Dale Carnegie course and had been very impressed by it. I secretly thought that it had not taken hold very well. He had made an offer if any of us kids were willing to take the course he would pay for it. I figured it couldn't be something I would want, but my new challenge made me think again. I took him up on the offer which he honoured without any hesitation. I am glad I took the course, because like my dad it didn't make me a perfect person, but it certainly made me a better person.
When my sister Rebecca married Ali and moved to Montreal while Ali was outside the country (getting paperwork to come back to Canada from Morocco) it was my father who tried to organize the rest of us to visit. He made it easy by offering to do the driving. Rebecca was pretty much by herself, not even at first speaking much French. I was one that never made it.
When we learned that my mother was dying I heard of a conversation she had with my father. They had planned to travel a lot, I think specifically with an RV or truck and trailer. She said she wasn't going to be part of that. Combined with her need to be hooked up to an oxygen tank my father bought an RV and took her to visit old friends and relatives. He accepted that she was dying and tried to make her life as comfortable as he could. All of his children were kept informed..
I should mention that after my mother died he married three more wives within a decade. My mother had spoiled him by helping with his business, raising his children and taking a lot of verbal abuse. Others weren't so tolerant. My father moved a few more times in his life including Kitchener and Elliot Lake. His last home was Trenton.
All his life my father struggled with weight trying all sorts of diets and bought an exercycle machine. The real problem I saw was he was a very frustrated man (who worked very hard and was smart) but couldn't find enough satisfaction with life and so ate a lot of comfort food. I picked up that as well, although my weight was not quite as bad. When he died part of the problem was that because of his obesity (which had gotten worse as he aged) doctors couldn't diagnose the problem until it was too late. For the last 48 hours or so of his life he was hooked up so he couldn't speak.
At my father's funeral I learned a lot. Rebecca gave a very long eulogy. She was not blind to his faults, but tried to help us understand him better. Despite his accomplishments he had an inferiority complex--as my sister pointed out he felt uncomfortable unless he was the best in the room. She gave an example of how proud he was to have me as a son. She also reminded me of one characteristic we shared and that was we both liked to move around--he as a truck driver, me as a traveling salesman. I was also caught off guard with what he had done for an old friend, Max. Max had lung problems, similar to my mother, but was able to get a transplant. My dad drove him back and forth (from Oshawa to Toronto) for treatments after my mother had died.
I could have written more stuff, but really for good or bad I am an awful lot like my father, only I have people around me that make me a slightly better person than I would be on my own.
A post about my mother: http://www.therealjohndavidson.com/2012/05/remembering-my-mother.html
Photo is of my dad with his better half (literally), my mother. Taken by Miriam Barnes.