On Father’s Day

Like many others, on Father’s Day I am inclined to write a positive epistle about my father. I feel fortunate in that for the last fifteen years of his life I was able to spend a lot of time with him through annual, if not more frequent, trips to his home in Colorado from my home in Georgia.

And that means I got to know him as a man, as the person he grew into being, not just as the person I knew growing up. And they were different people.

I read somewhere that one of the negative aspects of modern life is that children do not get to spend the time with parents that they did two hundred and more years ago, absorbing by osmosis the character of their parents. First the “Industrial Revolution” took the father out of the home for most of the day, and then in America after World War II it took the mother out of the home for most of the day.

That article was about how much of our culture and personality are derived from the time as children that we spend in direct contact with our parents, and how that time has been reduced or eliminated in so many families over the last couple of hundred years.
So I feel fortunate to be able to recall the time I spent with my Dad, doing the things he liked to do and learning from him in the process.

Before age nine I don’t remember spending that much time with him. Of course, as a child, I was guided by my parents, whether directly or by way of example, but I don’t have specific memories until after age nine.

I was nine when my family moved from France back to the USA, when Dad was transferred to Maxwell AFB in Montgomery, Alabama. I think the house in Montgomery was the first house my parents ever bought instead of renting. That house had a carport, and on the side of the carport away from the house there was a small room that became Dad’s workshop.

Let me tell you about my father’s interests. He enlisted in the US Air Force as a mechanic on jet airplanes. His father and uncle were farmers or horticulturalists, and Dad was a pretty good gardener, but his real talent and love lay in mechanical things.

He bought his first vehicle at age 15, a Ford A-Model pickup truck that smoked because it needed a ring job, which Dad knew how to handle. At age 14 he rode his bicycle out to the airport in Athens, Georgia to a job sweeping out the hangars and doing odd jobs like painting the “No Smoking” signs that hung in the hangars.

There was an old junked BT-13 sitting at the airport, and he got the engine off of it (a Pratt & Whitney R-985) and brought it home to his shop behind the house and disassembled and reassembled it countless times (well, until his little brother, my Uncle Jerry, decided all those nuts and bolts would make great ammunition for his slingshot), learning how those engines were put together.

My Dad was a big guy, 6’2” and between 180 and 240 pounds as an adult. My introduction to mechanics (after holding the “trouble light” or a flashlight for him as he worked on cars late into the night) was entirely due to the fact that I had tiny hands (compared to Dad) and I could reach spots up under the dash that he couldn’t in whatever car he was working on at the time.

I can recall seeing diagrams in fifth grade text books about how reciprocating piston engines worked, but my real education on recip engines came when helping my Dad work on them in our carport in Montgomery.

I can recall hours upon hours in that little shop off the carport learning how to reload ammunition, helping build guns, being amazed by my Dad’s ability to sit there with a cigarette in his mouth with an ash an inch long, as he focused on whatever he was working on.

In modern parlance my Dad was a Maker. He made guns (custom rifles). He made buildings (I helped him with a storage shed / dog kennel in Montgomery), starting with a cottage in his parent’s backyard in the 1940s that his mother was still renting to college students in 1973). He could do damn near anything that he decided to do.

Now that I think about it, that five years in Montgomery were the best years of my young life, in terms of “Dad time”. When he retired from the USAF in 1968 and we moved to Atlanta, he never really got his shop set up again. And he was busy, I was busy in high school, and then in 1973 he and mom divorced.

So I didn’t really get to spend that quality time with him that I did earlier. That first summer in Atlanta he got me a job where he worked (Epps Air Service), sweeping out the maintenance hangar, emptying oil buckets for the mechanics, helping out the mechanics in general. I recall a particular event that summer that perfectly illustrates the kind of person my Dad was, or what he was perceived to be.

Before I tell that story, let me digress, to set the stage. My Dad enlisted in the Air Force in 1948 at age 18. He wanted to fly, but only officers could be pilots, so at the first opportunity he applied for OCS (Officer Candidate School). He applied and was accepted three times, but because of deployments was not able to go until the third time.

He told me that one of his COs told him, “You’ll never make it, Hill, you talk back too much.”

But he did go to OCS, in 1954, soon after I was born. He told me one time that in OCS a guy came up to him and said, “I guess this is pretty tame after the Corps.” Dad asked what he was talking about and discovered that everyone in his class thought he was an enlisted Marine going to Air Force OCS. They thought that because of his demeanor, his bearing.

In the terminology of my day in the 1st Ranger Battalion, he was “strack.”

He was a nice guy, he cared about people, but when it came to doing your job the right way he did not cut you any slack. And if you were on his wrong side, you knew it.

So back to 1968 and my summer emptying oil buckets. I remember an early morning at Epps. Dad was organizing the day, figuring which planes needed to be brought in from the ramp to the hangar, and there was a plane that some numb-nuts had pulled up next to the hangar right in the way.

Dad had someone move it back into the tie-down space where it belonged.

Ten or fifteen minutes later as he goes out to talk to a mechanic about bringing in a customer’s plane, he found the same plane pulled up next to the hangar again, blocking anyone from getting in or out of the hangar. And the radio shack (radio repair shop) guys were in the plane.

Dad lit into them. It was an awesome thing for me to witness as a fourteen-year-old. If you have ever been in the military and been on the receiving end of such a chewing out by a CO or CSM you know exactly what I’m talking about.

This was my Dad.

You did not cross him. You did things the right way. If you did not, there would be no mistake whatsoever on your part that you had screwed up and that you never ever ever wanted to do so again.

This is the model I was given as a child for what an adult male in our family should be.

So a few years later, after mom and Dad had divorced and Dad married my step-mother Carolyn, when my Dad appeared meek and mild and only wanted to please Carolyn, some members of my family were rather unkind in their assessment of my Dad. I recall someone saying, “This isn’t the real Bob Hill.”

Personally, I stayed neutral. I figured Dad had chosen his life, and if I wanted my Dad to be part of my life, I had to accept him as he was.

And here is what I learned in the long run.

Dad used to say, “I’m a lover, not a fighter.” It was his way of stating his preference for dealing with the world. But you would be committing a grievous error if you ever thought that meant you could take advantage of him.

Yes, my Dad acted very differently with my step-mother than he did with my mother. But what I saw was a man being the person he wanted to be instead of the man he was forced to be by circumstance. Without getting into the nasty details I will just say, as an adult who had my mother living with me and my wife for ten years, the man I grew up with who had the towering anger was created in response to how my mother treated him. Yes, Dad had a huge temper, and as a child I saw it a lot, but as an adult, after he met and married Carolyn, he was much more prone to be a loving, sweet person deferring to his wife’s wishes.

In short, while he was capable of being a very difficult, even scary, person to deal with when provoked, the real Dad, the person he was when not pressured to be elsewise, was a sweet man who just wanted to make his loved ones happy.

I have said it many times, but I will repeat it once again, I feel so fortunate to have been able to spend as much time as I did with my father the last fifteen years of his life.

I loved that man, and I told him, and he knew it. And he loved me, and he told me, and I knew it.

And that is what I am remembering this Father’s Day.