O MY PAPA
Just so you know, the title, O My Papa, came from a 1950’s song that was on The Hit Parade and was sung by Eddie Fisher. I write this on Father’s Day as a tribute to my father and to all fathers.
Most people grow up with an admiration for their father. Before I go any farther, there are a good many single mothers that take on a task every day of their lives that seems almost insurmountable. So while this is about my father, we can never forget our mothers. Our culture favors men when it comes to respect. While our mothers are loved, our fathers are heroes.
When my father was a youngster he was afflicted with a disease that was considered a forerunner of polio. The disease crippled him. To forestall the degeneration process, he was given a medication that had the unfortunate side effect of making him blind. He was struck with this disease when he was in the seventh grade and was disabled until approximately the age of twenty.
During his years of disability, his older sister, Gladys, sat by his bedside and cared for him. She read to him constantly. Till the day she died, he made an effort to return the love she demonstrated. When he regained the ability to walk and discontinued the use of the medication that blinded him, his sight returned. He decided to go back to school at the age of twenty-one and complete the eighth grade.
He became an avid reader and read every Louis L’Amour book ever written. Many of these books he read a number of times. If he was still alive, it would not be surprising to find him zipping through a Zane Grey paperback with phenomenal speed. He also read the Bible and studied every chapter and verse. He knew what words were capitalized and could identify the location of any quote from the text.
He joined the Salvation Army when he was a young man. He was an active church member throughout his life and taught Sunday school for young married people for over fifty years. His classes always had record attendance.
Visiting the hospital to pray with patients he knew became a daily activity. Even in his eighties, it would not be uncommon to find him with my mother sitting up all night in the hospital with someone recovering from surgery or at death’s door. He would pray with the patient and console the family.
Home visitations became a specialty as well. Many young couples sought his counsel to help them through rough periods in their marriage. He also substituted for ministers when they, for one reason are another, had to be absent from the pulpit for a period of time. His sermons were captivating.
An employee of the Granite City Steel Corporation for over forty years, he managed the brick storage shed. This was a large warehouse where bricks were stored and used to repair the furnaces for the mill. He earned high regard from the company and they relied on his uncanny knowledge of which bricks were needed and where they were located. He worked tirelessly with poor conditions. He often worked double shifts spending sixteen hours on the job at a time.
In addition to his day job, he worked at a service station. The Star Service took advantage of his considerable mechanical knowledge. He could listen to an engine and know exactly what was needed to make it run better. And his buoyant personality served him well with the patrons of Star Service.
He was often mistaken for Danny Thomas. He always had a joke to tell or a story to relate. He loved to laugh. He was a good listener as well. He also had a command of baseball statistics that echoed his capacity for an astonishing memory. Even though we lived near St. Louis, he was a Yankee’s fan.
The epitome of Christianity, Biblical knowledge of an intellect and an unequaled compassion, he charmed everyone he met. He was a remarkable man.
To continue to flesh out this character sketch I will share a story about a time I needed my father.
One morning when the second grade classroom beckoned me, represented by my dear mother, I tried to respond to the call, but simply couldn’t. “Richard, Richard, it’s time to get up.” My mind went through all the motions but my body didn’t respond. I couldn’t move. “I can’t move, mother.”
“Quit messing around and get on down here or you’ll be late for school.” But my endeavor proved for naught. I couldn’t move. It only took a short while for my mother and father to discern a serious situation needing professional attention. My father carried me to the car and everywhere else we needed to go that day. The hospital became our final destination.
Diagnosed with glandular fever, the paralysis a result of a swollen gland pressing against the spinal cord, the major symptoms were soon alleviated. But hospitalization was required for at least a few days. From the window in the corridor, I could see my school. I liked school and felt sad to be missing. The days dragged on and subdued my usually light spirit.
But every evening, when my father got off from work, he came to visit me. He always brought a chocolate malt from the Park & Eat, located just across the street from the hospital. Location of the eatery paled in importance to the fact that they made the best chocolate malts in the city. I looked forward to my evening treat from the beginning of each day.
One day my dinner tray contained a large portion of spinach. I politely explained that I didn’t care for spinach. I made no mention of the issue of its dreadful appearance on my tray. The nurse, however, assured me that if I didn’t consume the spinach, I would not be allowed to eat my ice cream that night when my father came. I stood my grounds and refused to eat the spinach, a decision I would stand by as an adult if a mound of limp canned spinach were put before me.
When my father came that night with his usual jovial spirit and the chocolate malt, I informed him that I wasn’t allowed to have the malt. I described the dinner scene and the command issued by the not so charming nurse.
My father turned on his heel and was out the door of my hospital room immediately. I didn’t witness what ensued, but I had my chocolate malt that night. And the nurse brought me ice cream every day. She acquired a charm I had never noticed before. I have never felt more protected than I did that evening.
Sadly, not every one of us has great stories about our father. I was lucky. My father passed just after his 87th birthday with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
I think of my father often, and since Father’s Day has just passed, I thought I’d take a moment tell a bit about him. If I have any good characteristics, I owe them to my father. My shortcomings are all my own.