While I mostly write about North Country history in one form or another, I’ll digress this week, but only slightly: the history I’d like to mention is personal, and the impetus is yesterday, Father’s Day. I’ve never really had the opportunity to write about my dad, who at age 88 is still with us. He has changed, certainly, but the core man is still there, and I’m luckier than many folks who lost their dads and moms early in life. My mom is 90.
As you get older, you’ll often recognize parts of yourself or your behavior that came from one of your parents. It might be good or it might be bad, but it’s always an awakening to suddenly realize who we sound like and who we act like. It’s also an opportunity to change. One of my children once told me I yelled too much. That was so frustrating because the one thing that really got me fired-up when I was young was my dad’s yelling. I didn’t want my children to remember me that way, so I changed.
But I also recognize that my dad had reason to yell. Three of his five children could argue any point just as stubbornly as he could, and each knew they were positively right, just like he knew he was. I remember many of those as great discussions, maybe because of the rose-tinted glasses of aging.
Not funny at all to me were the tremendous battles with my dad over my hair. It was the 1960s, and if I came home from a haircut with hair still touching my ears, I was told to leave and not come back until it was cut right. I was a rebel, and the hair issue led to huge fights, creating a rift that lasted for years, but finally was healed.
Otherwise, to me, my dad was a genius. I often told people he was the smartest person I ever met. When I was young, the car engine went bad. Rather than get another car, he decided to replace the engine, even though he had no background in mechanics. Maybe it’s because I was young, but it boggled my mind. With the help of friends, he did it.
He bought an old house that needed tons of work, and for decades he rebuilt it―floors, ceilings, walls, furniture, siding, and just about anything that was needed, doing it all with his own lathe and drill press. When I was a kid, it was all a big mystery to me. He seemed to be able to do just about anything.
When he wanted a fancy television long ago, he bought a Heathkit (remember those?), with all the individual parts, thousands of them. From that gigantic pile of materials, he built our family television.
Dad also played the clarinet, but he eventually played the electric organ. What impressed me was how he went about it. Again, he bought a kit, which required the assembling of every single component of the full-sized organ, right down to applying the lettering around the myriad knobs and controls. And then he taught himself how to play. It totally befuddled me―he built it, and then learned how to play it.
While I didn’t have musical talent in common with my dad (except for a brief period with the banjo), there are some remarkable similarities that I discovered he and I shared. I’ve had such pleasure from those things, I could never repay him.
One was reading. No matter where he was―eating, sitting in a recliner, or in the “throne” room―dad was always reading. He read newspapers daily, and it’s hard to remember a time when he wasn’t engaged in a book of some kind. It was learning by example, and from the time I learned to read, I was similarly hooked. If I told you how many books I read one year, you wouldn’t believe me (let’s just say it was in the hundreds, and unless it had about 200 pages, I wouldn’t count it as a book).
Dad was and is great at doing crossword puzzles, including the tough ones like those in the New York Times. I did the same thing for decades, and regularly bought books filled with them. I loved the challenge, and in every book, I scored myself on each puzzle based on two factors: percentage of letters correct, and percentage of answers correct. It was just a game I played against myself.
About 8 years ago, I made a startling discovery by picking up a puzzle book at my dad’s house and noticing some numbers in the margins. I was stunned when he confirmed that for years, he had been using the exact same scoring system.
For nearly two decades, I had a blast playing all kinds of sports with my kids and their friends. Groups of them were constantly asking me to pitch and play ball with them. It felt like something unique, but our family films from the 1960s reveal my dad doing the very same thing. My mom always loved to tell how the neighbor kids would come over, knock on the door, and ask, “Can Mr. Gooley come out and play?” I experienced that same thing many times over the years.
In recent years, my dad began to drift into some form of dementia. He became very forgetful and confused, and finally was unable to drive or go out on his own. The loss of independence can be excruciating. He frequently became angry because, despite the forgetfulness, dad always seemed to remember that he wasn’t the man he used to be. What a cruel fate.
He complained about it to me often, getting very upset. One day about 4 years ago, he began grousing at me again, and I was sick of it for my own reasons. It’s sometimes hard to be the adult when you’re the child of the person you’re dealing with, but I finally said, “I don’t care about what you can’t remember or what you can’t do. I care about what you CAN do, and that’s what I want.”
And just like that, he gave it to me. It proved to be a defining moment, evidenced by the results when we matched up regularly on the pool table. My dad was always outstanding with a cue, just as he often bragged about how good his own dad was.
But as we played in recent years, he would frequently lose track and say, “What are we playing?” (meaning, 9-ball, 8-ball, etc.), and I would tell him. Those moments were frequent, but they passed quickly and with no complaint at all. He forgot, was reminded by me, and on we went. Remarkable―at that age, with a memory problem and brutal frustration accompanying it―he still managed to change.
And as my siblings can tell you, even at 88, when he can hardly see through dirty glasses and still rushes his shots―he routinely kicks our collective butts. It has never felt so good to lose a game, and if you beat him at pool, you know you’ve done well. He might forget what we’re playing, but he remains a master at how to play.
You may have noticed that I often spoke of my dad here in the past tense. That’s because the dad I have now is not the same dad I had years ago: not better or worse―just different. He has been so many things to so many people: World War II veteran; musician; carpenter; puzzle whiz; lover of books; pool shark; devoted husband and hard-working father; great friend to many over the years; and admired by all as a nice guy. That’s my dad. In my own personal history, that’s where much of the good comes from.
Photo: My dad, Ronald Gooley, an Air Force Navigator nearly 70 years ago.