Fathers Day is coming up this week, and so is my dad’s 85th birthday. I sure wish he were going to be here to celebrate both occasions, but he’s been gone for 20 years.
Digging through a bunch of old photos of him the other day, I came across one from Fathers Day 1964. I was startled. It was a photo of our entire family – me, my four brothers and mom dutifully facing the camera, posing the way conventional people do. Except for dad. He is facing backwards. Why was he facing backwards? Simply because it looked funny, I guess. Or maybe he was showing off a new haircut. There was no other reason.
The photo startled me because I hadn’t ever remembered seeing it before – and because for all these years, I thought that I had been the one in our family who invented posing in weird ways for photos.
But as I looked through other old photos, I realized that shticky poses were a regular part of my dad’s style. I found a picture of him from a charity golf tournament standing with three other guys in his foursome. As is the custom, the other three players are holding golf clubs. But my dad? He’s holding a rake.
In another, he’s clutching one of those gadgets for retrieving golf balls from water hazards. In yet another, he’s positioned himself in such a way that his face is blocked by an overhanging tree limb.
The more I looked at the old snapshots, the more I got a real glimpse of the man who was my father. He was a big guy – 6 foot 6 in his stocking feet, unless he was wearing stocking lifts and I didn’t know it. So he often encouraged photo takers to purposely frame their shots of him so his head was partially cropped out. As a result, I have lots of pictures of him from the neck down.
Leafing through dad’s old school yearbooks, I discovered his penchant for photographic mischief started long ago. Since he was so tall, he’s always seen in the back row of group scenes, sometimes showing his side profile while everyone else is facing the camera. Or occasionally, he can be seen purposely closing one eye or looking skyward. In one, he is leaning to one side, as if gravity affected him differently than for others.
An older cousin of mine reminded me that my dad didn’t just restrict his whimsy to photo ops. One time, some schoolboys were walking by dad’s clothing store. Suddenly, he came bolting out the door and handed them a toaster. “The bank closes in five minutes,” he said to them. “Get this down there as fast as you can! Tell them they can keep it if they’ll open an account for you.” The boys, never asking a question, grabbed the toaster and ran off to the bank in a sprint.
It would be incorrect to say that my dad was never serious, because he was. He was a smart and respected businessman, and active in community organizations and charities. But he also seemed to have an instinct for whimsy – and making people happy.
I remember strolling around our small town with him and watching the smiles spread across the faces of people as he’d approach. He always had a ready grin, a new joke or a funny observation: “Maybe I’m seeing things, but wasn’t that traffic light red just a moment ago?”
I noticed that he mostly focused on people who were elderly or infirm or just lonely. They needed a laugh, and he would give them one. As I think about it, that’s not a bad example for a father to set.
On vacation a couple of years ago, my wife and I saw a small sign along a hiking trail that read, “Area closed behind this sign.” So naturally I had her take a photo of me carefully trying to get a look at the backside of the sign.
I thought that was pretty good until I found I was trumped yet again by another snapshot of my dad. This one was labeled on the back, “County fair, 1967.” It shows dad from the waist up, standing alongside one of those measurement signs at the entrance of an amusement ride: “You must be at least this (4’ 8”) tall to ride.” He, of course, must have carefully squatted from the waist down so he could appear to be just a half-inch too short to qualify. His face showed a look of crushing disappointment.
It was the master at work.