My Father, The Tube (And Then Some)

Today is Father’s Day.  After all the fun I had honoring my mom on Mother’s Day by comparing her to assorted TV sitcom moms, I decided to do the same with my dad.  Without further ado, here is the breakdown.

5% Jack Arnold (The Wonder Years, played by Dan Lauria)

I don’t remember The Wonder Years particularly well.  I don’t remember liking what I do remember of it.  All the pretentious voice-over work got on my nerves.  And was Kevin Arnold’s life really such a struggle?  “My brother’s a bully, my best friend’s a sideshow act, and I have a crush on my bi-polar neighbor.  Waah!  Waah!”  Pull yourself together, man.

jackarnoldWhat I do remember of The Wonder Years was Dan Lauria as Jack Arnold.  He was caring and involved with his kids, but usually in a very stoic way.  He was a man of few words, and seemed to be able to communicate all that needed to be said with a well-focused stare.  That was my dad in a nutshell.

There may be further similarities between the two, but until I catch some reruns of The Wonder Years, 5% is all that Jack Arnold gets in the Dad matrix.

12.5% Homer Simpson (The Simpsons, voiced by Dan Castellaneta)

homerIn comparing my dad to Homer J. Simpson, cast aside Homer’s more dubious qualities (alcoholism, irresponsibility, and general whimpiness) and focus on the fact that the man has always had good ideas.  My father had more success with his ploys and schemes than Homer did, but the modus operandi was usually the same: assure everyone that the situation was under control and allow them no clues as to what you were really planning.

I already recalled the stories of Zippy the Chimp and the red Jaguar when I wrote about Mom’s even-keeled attitude for Mother’s Day (seen here), but there are other examples of Dad’s brilliant plotting.  He took me to Las Vegas when I was 16.  We saw two shows a night.  At that point in my life, I had never been on a plane for so long, nor had I made it a habit of staying awake until 2:00 AM.  Couple that with the life-draining heat of Vegas in August (yes, August), and I was sleeping soundly until almost noon each day…which allowed my father to get up and start gambling at 7:30 without having to worry about me.

There was also the legendary bait-and-switch he pulled on my brother with Cub Scouts.  I had done Cub Scouts, regrettably, for a year, and my brother wanted to join as well.  My father would brush it off each time my brother asked, because the only people who liked Cub Scouts less than I did were my parents.  I think my mother resented the fact that she would be noticeably out of place in Ferragamo shoes on Pack Night at the school gymnasium, and my father simply thought that grown men in khaki Eagle Scout uniforms were too ridiculous to be taken seriously or trusted with children.  In any event, they were not keen on having to go through it all again.  So the last time my brother asked about it, my father took on an apologetic tone and told  my brother that the registration deadline had passed, and that he would have to wait until next year…which was a complete and absolute lie.  Thankfully, my brother found something else to get interested in (which may or may not have been professional wrestling), and another year at the Pinewood Derby was averted.

It’s not bad parenting.  It’s creative parenting.

As a minor caveat, as Homer has his donuts, so did my father have his Drakes Cakes.  The man was perhaps the single most adamant independent consumer advocate for the entire line of Drakes products–before he got himself in shape, that is.  Nevertheless, I still remember Dad imploring me, at a tender and impressionable age, to try a Yodel.  My life was never to be the same.

12.5% Tim Taylor (Home Improvement, played by Tim Allen)

timtaylorThe humor of Tim Taylor’s exploits on Home Improvement often came from the fact that, for a home repair specialist, Tim was tremendously accident-prone.  Okay, so Oscar Wilde, it ain’t.  Less ironic but no less humorous was my own father’s utter lack of handyman skills.  So the familial legend goes that when trying to be good sons-in-law and tear up old carpeting in my grandparents’ house, my father turned to my uncle and said, “Steve, hand me the…the…pluckers.”  My uncle followed my dad’s pointing finger to the pliers and handed them to him.

Like Tim, Dad liked cars.  Unlike Tim, he knew nothing about them.  When his impulse purchase Jaguar convertible wouldn’t start one spring, my dad was comfortably resigned to selling it.  Were it not for the impassioned pleas of his various passengers (my mom, my brother and I, and some neighbors), that car would have been a footnote in family history.  Instead, it’s town legend.

Finally, like Tim, Dad liked Christmas.  He particularly enjoyed Christmas lights.  He went through a four year period of seriously investigating the cost and material necessary to properly light the sixty-foot pine tree on our front lawn.  It couldn’t be too hard, he reasoned.  Just rent a cherry-picker and buy some extra lights and extension cords.  My mother’s sense of taste prevailed, and our house avoided becoming the Rockefeller Center of Wantagh.

17.5% Tony Soprano (The Sopranos, played by James Gandolfini)

tonysopranoDad loved gangster films, and was a regular viewer of The Sopranos, so I think he’d approve of being compared with New Jersey’s most complicated mafioso.  My dad wasn’t in the mob, but he did work on Wall Street, which is a different kind of organized crime.  Dad and Tony both shared a healthy appetite, a love of horse racing, and a fondness for gambling.  Like Tony, Dad was the cherished son of a formidable woman (Grammy was far more loving than Livia, but by no means less imperious; more on her at a latter date).  Dad had more patience and self-control than Tony, but when Tony was set off in a domestic situation (i.e. his kids driving him up a wall), their reactions were strikingly similar.

My parents were the most effective tag team of disciplinarians I’ve ever known of.  Back in the old days, if my brother or I did something out of line, Mom would carry on about it.  She was the more showy half.  Hand gestures, raised voice, maybe a pointed finger of accusation.  Eventually she would cool down, and you knew she was finished when she’d say, “Wait ’til your father gets home.”  In the interim between pissing her off and my father coming home, my brother and I would become wracked with such guilt and fear that by the time my father was informed of our indiscretions, all he had to do was fix us with a stare from across the dinner table, and we were quickly reduced to tears.

This is the exact same look my brother and I got when we fucked things up.  Oh, like you wouldn't run away and cry.
This is the exact same look my brother and I got when we fucked up. Oh, like you wouldn't run away and cry.

We would have until he finished eating to sit in our rooms and compose ourselves, and then he would come in and say about twenty-five well-chosen words to us, never failing to get his point across.  You knew you were going to live when you heard, “Don’t do it again.”

It sounds horrifying, but it worked.  My brother and I turned out to be two pretty good eggs.  My parents had this down to a science.  So much so that other people’s children thought twice about screwing around on their watch.  Hell, even other adults held themselves in check.

This was not something you wanted to see waiting for you in the kitchen.
This was not something you wanted to see waiting for you when you got home.

32.5% Cliff Huxtable (The Cosby Show, played by Bill Cosby)

The famous Dr. Huxtable always makes me think of my father because Billy Cosby’s comedy album Himself was the first piece of stand-up that my father exposed me to.  From there, he’d introduce me to others (Rodney Dangerfield, George Carlin, Sam Kinison, Robert Klein, Steve Martin, etc), but Himself remained the cornerstone of my comic education.  We’d listen to it on road trips.  We’d watch the original HBO special any time it aired.  I have almost the entirety of it committed to memory, from repeat listenings going back to when I was probably no more than ten years old.

drhuxtableBecause so much of The Cosby Show is based on Himself and Cosby’s other performances, I always see some of Dad in Dr. Huxtable.  Not just because of the memories, but because of the behaviors.  They both secretly snacked on forbidden foods behind their wives’ backs.  They could both see-saw from stern and authoritative to child-like and purposefully absurd.  They both operated under the assumption that power in the household rested with them, and they were right about half the time.  They both had very unique ways of explaining some of the finer or more delicate things in life.

Dr. Huxtable was, on the surface, your upper middle class every-dad; beneath that exterior, though, he was an extremely quirky, unusual, but completely understanding and lovable guy.  That’s why he earns such a big piece of the pie.

20% Unknown

The sitcom has not yet been written that has included a character who represents the perfect parallel to my father, and perhaps that is the best compliment I can bestow upon him: he was incomparable.

Jack, Homer, Tim, Tony, and Cliff are a great framework to start with.  But show me the TV dad who tried to pursue a second career as a minor league baseball stadium announcer.  Show me the TV dad who adamantly believed that there was a portion of the human population descended from pigs, not apes, and would point out said individuals while on vacation in Disney World.  Show me the TV dad who tried to make his dog watch Wishbone, because he thought the dog would like seeing another dog in costumes.  Show me the TV dad whose superstitions were so strong that he all but called for the arrest of his traveling companions when they mistakenly put their shoes on a table.  Show me the TV dad who, when driving, would honk the horn and wave to imaginary people, just to see what kind of dumb-founded reaction he’d get from his children.  Show me the TV dad who spent the better part of the courtship of his future wife at a second-rate race track with his best friend purposefully invited along.

No such character exists.  My dad was one of a kind.

Beyond these silly quirks and amusing stories, my dad was a remarkable man.  He was the big man on campus at East Rockaway High, making waves on both the football field and the stage of the school auditorium.  He was even Prom King (an honor that, if it existed at Wantagh, would have been hereditary, I’m sure)!  He went to college, and left it after a year and a half.  He got a job at a major Wall Street firm, working his way up from what was quite literally the bottom rung until he was quite well-established within the company.  He walked away from all of it as soon as he could, in order to spend more time at home.  I’m always grateful he did so, because it meant that he was around for that much more.

My dad passed away seven and a half years ago.  I don’t miss him any more today than I do any other day; however, at this point in my life, I do wish I could get some of his succinct advice.  Whenever I feel overwhelmed as a self-sufficient independent young person, I think back to the fall of my sophomore year of high school, when I stood in the kitchen having a certifiable conniption because I was in danger of failing chemistry that quarter.  I’d been an A student since the finger paints were unleashed in nursery school.  I was coming unglued.  My dad let me go all “Rose’s Turn” on him (long before I think I even knew what “going all ‘Rose’s Turn'” even meant) and when I had finally run out of breath, he looked at me and said, “Are you finished?”  He then took the test, covered in red ink, out of my hand, dismissively tossed it onto the kitchen table and said, “You can’t be smart at everything.”

A light bulb went off as he left the kitchen.  That’s it, I thought.  Proportion.  Moderation.  Dealing with things rationally.  I also took it to mean that if I wasn’t good at or didn’t enjoy something upon first contact, I didn’t have to bother trying–but that wasn’t the real point.  His point was (and this was well before the book of the same name) to not sweat the small stuff.  Dad never let bothersome, trivial issues ruin his day, and real problems were dealt with carefully and effectively.  Conducting yourself that way, and recognizing the difference between the two, may be the most valuable lesson he ever taught me.  Life is too short for bullshit.

So, here’s to you, Dad.  I love you, I miss you, and it is my delight to say that you remain completely un-cast.

~ T

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