I mentioned a few posts ago that my dad has dementia. Yeah, we should really talk about that, shouldn’t we? For this post, I just want to help you get to know him. We’ll talk more about dementia later. Let me start by saying that my dad was The. Best. Dad. Ever. No, really. You can tell me all the stories you want about how awesome your dad is, but you will never convince me that yours is even close to as great as mine. I mean it. Quit talking all that craziness. Don’t mess with me. I’ll take you down. My dad is so awesome, that when he was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia at the age of 65, he started saying to people who asked how he was doing, “Not bad for a demented guy.” Beat that. And when we moved him into a dementia care facility, he climbed the six foot iron fence that enclosed the backyard walkway just to see if he could. How awesome is that? Okay, admittedly, it wasn’t awesome at the time, but several years later and now that he can’t do it anymore, it’s freakin’ hilarious! He also learned the code on the door keypad several times and got out. He even figured out a code that the staff didn’t know worked. Granted, he couldn’t figure out how to put on matching shoes, but he turned into a damn code breaker! We should have sent him back into the military. World peace would have resulted. Sorry about not doing that, y’all. 20/20 hindsight and all that crap.
My dad grew up mostly in Cleveland and Cape Cod, and went to Wake Forest University where he was a political science major (almost as practical as majoring in art). Then he got drafted and went to Vietnam where he became a 1st lieutenant (the dementia care facility, OLOP, does a monthly newsletter and wrote in it that Dad was THE first lieutenant) in military intelligence (a term he always said was an oxymoron). When he got back, he became a stockbroker, then decided to move to Chicago and get his MDiv, where he met my mom. They decided to get married so that they wouldn’t ever have to break up the cats they’d gotten. Thoughtful, no? My mom wore a dark red dress that she’d made, and my dad wore a searsucker jacket, paisley shirt, striped tie, and bell bottoms. Mom talked him out of his combat boots for the special occasion.
Being dirty dirty hippies, they decided to move to Berkeley, where they had me and where I quickly wrapped him around my little finger. I can’t blame him, my little finger was exceptionally cute. I looked like a little Inuit baby. When I came out, I do have to wonder if my dad wasn’t a bit concerned that I was so much darker than him or my mom, but eventually as I grew up I started to look exactly like him – to the point that I dressed as him for Halloween one year. In CA, my dad worked in several alcohol and drug abuse programs while my mom got her MDiv. When I was 6, they got fed up with the earthquakes, droughts, and lack of seasons and lightning bugs (a life without lightning bugs is a life not worth living), and they moved to Charlottesville, VA and lived in and renovated a home that had been a sorority house. It was right in the delightful fraternity row part of town, which, when they visited was quiet and charming because it was in the middle of summer and the students were gone. Then the students came back, and as we drove through our neighborhood, little six-year-old me observed in awe, “The girls are having a party! The boys are having a party! Everyone’s having a party!” Yep, nothing gets past Captain Obvious over here.
At 40, my dad decided he wanted to go back to what he truly loved, which was jazz. So he started playing the sax and clarinet again, and began messing around with other musician friends, calling themselves The Windbreakers. At the end of a set, they’d turn away from the audience, bend over, and honk their horns. Classy. Eventually he started a band called The Red Hot Smoothies, and played gigs for 20 something years.
At about the time that I became interested in the fraternity boys walking through the neighborhood, we moved out to the GFW (God Forsaken Wilderness). Unknowingly, we purchased ancestral land. The main reason for purchasing it was that my dad was a train fanatic. That really doesn’t accurately describe his obsession, though. When I was little, we used to go around the country in a VW camper chasing and photographing trains and camping near the tracks. We had scanners in every room of the house so we’d know when a train was coming and could run to the porch to wave. The wall in their bedroom was built at an angle so that their bed faced out toward the tracks, and there was a light switch by the headboard that my dad (an insomniac) could turn on at night to light up the tracks when a train came through. They named the 23 acres, High Green, because that’s the term for the signal the engineers get that it’s safe to proceed. Of course, the authorities thought it was code for “the new people must be growing marijuana” and would send helicopters circling overhead to check our woods. Their architect’s last name was Train, and their house bore a striking resemblance to a train station. There were model trains and train whistles displayed in the built-in shelves. Every night after dinner, we’d walk the train tracks, practicing our balancing skills (I would have been great as a gymnast on the balance beam – feel free to call me Nadia) and talking about our days. We put coins on the track for the trains to flatten as they passed and then we’d have to hunt them down. He had records and made recordings of just train noises. Are you getting the picture? Train buff, nut, loon. You got it.
He also had a radio show called “Nick @ Nine: Monday morning jazz to make you feel good.” A consummate showman and the life of a party, his show was pretty popular. I got to guest host several times and had a blast.
All of that is great, but what set him apart from the rest of the world were two things: 1) he was HILARIOUS. He loved a dirty joke. He reveled in the absurd. Silliness was a thing of beauty. He could have been a Muppet, and 2) he made you feel special. When he was talking with you about anything even vaguely serious, he was all ears. Insightful, caring, helpful, you just knew that what you had to say was important, whether you were a peer or a kid. There aren’t a lot of people in the world who are good listeners. But my dad knew that there was something inside just about everybody worthy of love, and he looked for it and helped you see it in yourself. Such a gift.
Okay, that’s it for today. I’ll leave you with a video of the two of us when I was little by the train tracks: