It’s Complicated: An Ode to My Father’s and My Relationship on the One Hundredth Anniversary of His Birth
Today would have been my father’s one hundredth birthday. My father was a complicated man, and ours was a complex relationship. He was of the service-oriented G.I. generation, and I was a privileged Baby Boomer; he was hard tack and I was Meals Ready to Eat. He sacrificed for his family because that’s all he knew to do – it was the greatest possible expression of his love for us. My father lived through the Great Depression, went to work at an early age at his father’s pharmacy, watched that business be completely lost to flooding not once but twice, worked his way through college, fought in the war in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters, started his career hoofing as a pharmaceutical salesman on the streets of Philadelphia, and ultimately wound up as Executive Vice President of U.S. operations for that company, in charge of a one billion dollar budget. If there was ever a man who had pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, it was my father, and as a result he cast a long shadow. Once, in the heyday of his executive career, my mother and he had been at a conference and were hobnobbing at a reception. My mother was asked if my father was the same at home as he was at work, to which she asked what he was like at work. Genghis Khan, came the reply. She thought for a moment and then said, “Yes, he’s the same.”
If God didn’t have a plan for your life, my father did. Growing up, I had a dream of being a career officer in the Navy. But the truth is, it was my father’s dream. He had enlisted as a pharmacist mate in 1941, then became a commissioned officer, ending his active duty service as a lieutenant. When he was released from active duty in 1946, he went into the reserves, but then his own life got very busy, and he committed the unpardonable sin (in his mind) of leaving the Navy altogether. He could never forgive himself for that error in judgment. I believe he saw in me a way to right the wrong. Thus, surreptitiously the seed was planted in my mind, at a very young age, that the Navy would be my career. To fuel the fire, my father took me to innumerable Blue Angel demonstrations at uncountable airshows up and down the east coast. We also visited every naval base we could enter on his credentials as a pharmacist, east coast and west coast. I have wonderful memories from these various shows and visits, but I also have no illusions about their purpose. I was being indoctrinated. And so it happened that, in high school, I applied for and received an NROTC scholarship, and as a result, upon graduation from college had a four year commitment to active duty. However, one fly in the ointment that my father had not counted on was me meeting the love of my life in college, with the result that my number one priority quickly became her and not a military career. Due to two six-month deployments spent apart while married, it was mutually decided by my wife and I that I would leave active service and enter the reserves. My father was heartbroken. He put on a brave face, but you could see him thinking, “No, no, no! He’s going to make the same mistake I did!” But I didn’t. I hung in there for twelve years in the reserves, grateful for the opportunity to make some extra money while teaching high school. Yet, once a professor job presented itself and I was making decent money, and I had the assurance I could retire with full benefits (the thing my father had missed out on), I grabbed that brass ring with gusto.
The Navy, however, was not the only thing we had in common. Though we were about as different as two people could be, my father and I shared an important trait that would cement our relationship later in life: our quirky sense of comedy, which I can only describe as story-based humor. Some people are gifted at telling stories, so-called raconteurs; but some are themselves the subject of such anecdotes, and these are the people, stories and situations to whom my father and I were naturally attracted. We were the best possible audience, hugely appreciative of those who gave us the opportunity just to laugh. People like Hoggie Dietrich, with whom my father played basketball, and who he remembered going after a loose ball one game, running right off the court, through the gymnasium door, and out into the snow. These characters and stories lit up our lives and made even the most mundane or disagreeable tasks not only tolerable but enjoyable. As my father once said of his early work life, “we were having fun and we didn’t even know it.” Though I did not much appreciate my time on active duty with the Navy, nonetheless, those were good days with my father. He was recently retired from his pharmaceutical firm. He not only had time to spend with me, but he had also mellowed quite a bit. We would watch a tv show or video and laugh until we were both crying and wiping our eyes with joy. This was a kind of redemption for my younger years with him.
Though we had some good moments together as I was growing up, riding in the car or attending some sporting event, life with my father was mostly rules and expectations. I could never quite live up to his lofty standards, and he was, I felt, usually disappointed with my attempts. I have a vivid memory of us buying a model airplane together (it was a Boeing 727), and my father telling me that the following day, a Saturday, we would build it together. I had never built a model before, and so my father’s guiding hand made sense, at least until early the next morning. For whatever reason, I simply could not wait for him to wake up that morning, so I decided at my very young age to glue the pieces together myself. It was, inevitably, a gluey mess. It’s difficult to describe the look on my father’s face when he saw what I had done, or the depth of despair I felt hearing him say the dreaded words, “Oh Paul,” telling me that I had disappointed him yet again. That’s not to say that he never expressed his pleasure over some accomplishment of mine, but those times were rare, and I can count them on one hand: getting an NROTC scholarship, being commissioned as an ensign in the Navy, graduating with my doctorate. Other than those times, silence was about all I had to go by in terms of whether I was on the right track with him. That’s why it was shocking when, after his funeral, my mother and my wife and I were speaking with one of his lifelong buddies, and this man told me, “Your father’s sun rose and set on you.” Why hadn’t he say that to me while he was alive? But then, if he had, I suppose he wouldn’t have been my father. One week before he died of prostate cancer, we sat talking about nothing in particular, knowing his time was short. As I was leaving, with the crushing realization that this might be the last time I ever spoke with him, I hugged him and told him I loved him. That’s when he told me, for the first time I could ever remember, that he loved me. Why had he waited so long to tell me? But if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have been my father. It might seem that I would have experienced some measure of relief when he died, but quite to the contrary, the day of his funeral was and still is the darkest day of my life. Before the service, his casket was open for the family, and I just bent over his lifeless body and sobbed. The realization of what I had lost was completely overwhelming. Once, my father and I had been sailing out on Bogue Sound near Morehead City, North Carolina. Unbeknownst to us, the tiller had worked loose, and when I went to make a course change, the whole apparatus, rudder and all, fell overboard. We both watched it float away from us, adrift, wondering what to do. That was the feeling I had the day of his funeral. I had lost both my rudder and my anchor, and though I was already 36 years old, I felt like a child left behind at the department store. Surely my father would return for me; but he never did, and I was left to fend for myself. I had lost purpose, direction and joy, and I didn’t know how to get them back.
That was a unique time in my life, a time of endings and beginnings all mashed up. The same year, right before my father died, I was branded a new PhD and got my first position as a professor. Though my father had been disappointed with my decision to leave active duty, viewing my time as a high school teacher with a mixture of bewilderment and disdain, everything changed when I became Dr. Shotsberger. This was, for my father, redemption, and he literally willed himself to live long enough to attend my graduation. He was gone just five months later. As a way of righting the ship of my life, I threw myself into work and became incredibly busy. The following year, the Navy announced a draw down, as they call it, offering retirement to those with 15 to 20 years of service as if they already had 20. I jumped at the chance, and thus ended my naval career, only a year after the passing of my primary reason for entering the service in the first place.
A year later, there was another ending, one that brought closure for me after my father passed. In August 1995, there were 50th anniversary commemorations across the United States remembering VJ Day. One of those remembrances was in my city of Wilmington, NC, onboard the battleship USS North Carolina. As with so many things I experienced in the months and years following my father’s death, I wished so much that he could have been there to witness the stirring tribute to his generation, the Greatest Generation as Tom Brokaw has named it. The moving ceremony was brought to an end with a flyover of vintage World War II airplanes. It was rare in those days to see even one in flight, let alone a squadron, and it brought me back to the days of airshows with my father where these kinds of warbirds were as common as seagulls at the beach. But by the 1990s, most World War II-era bombers and fighters were static displays in museums and not capable of flight. As a result, I was not satisfied with the brief flyover at the ceremony; I wanted to see those planes fly again. So, when I heard that they would be taking off the next day from the local airport to return to their bases, I knew I had to be there. I found a perch where I could watch each plane roll down the runway and off into the air. The fighters left first, being the faster planes, followed by the larger bombers. The last plane to leave was a beautiful old B-17 Flying Fortress, a mainstay of both the Atlantic and Pacific wars, just like my father. Until that final plane lifted off the runway, I had simply been enjoying the thrill of seeing these magnificent aircraft fly once more. But as the large bomber receded into the sky, I had the awful yet important realization that this was the end of my father’s era, not only his generation’s influence on the country as they aged out, but more personally, my father’s influence in my life. I would always miss my father, but I no longer felt adrift and directionless. I, like the country following World War II, had moved on. It was a healing moment I will never forget.
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