Tuesday, May 06, 2014

So Long, Dad

Got back from Minnesota and the trip for my dad's service. Didn't pay attention to the pastor's request for a four minute speech--I didn't think the soloist should have more time than the family. There was some intra-family squabbling I didn't witness, and wasn't sorry to do so. Heard some very sad news about a cousin. In any case, for posterity's sake, this is roughly what I said about my dad:

  The first thing I’d like to do is thank everybody who came out this evening. Those of you who I know, those whom I don’t. I’m sure almost every one of you knew Dick and if you didn’t–I hope you enjoy the bar.
  I first met Dick way back when I was–I don’t know, small. From that moment on, he’s always been there as a part of my life. That’s what dads are supposed to do. Losing him now is really a surreal experience–realizing this person who has been in present for my entire life is simply no longer here anymore. The world truly is an emptier place for me with him not in it somewhere.
  I waited a long time to get married, waited a long time to have kids. After Melissa and I had our two, I remember thinking, “Wow. By the time my dad was this age he’d already had four.” But the biggest thing that occurred to me at that time, the thing that has always stayed with me, is that as Sabrina and Ricky started to grow and I realized just how much I loved those two little guys, I thought this: however much I love my two children, this must be how much my dad loved all of us. And that’s a lot of love.
  There were times I didn’t get along so well with my dad. There were little rebellions, not a lot of out and out arguing. But I never felt he understood me. He’d say some things to me and I’d wonder, “What? Are you talking about me?” So I never thought we were as close as we could be, or as we ought to be, as I grew up.
  I worked for him for many years. Several times he asked me if I wanted to “do what he did.” I really didn’t. I just had this innate feeling that whatever I was going to be doing I needed to be doing it on my own. Thankfully my brother stepped in and has kept Dick’s professional legacy going in the form of his company, Data Center Systems. And this was very, very important to him.
   I was thinking about this the other day before I flew into town. When we were kids we all knew what all our friends’ fathers did for a living. Then when they’d ask us, I don’t think we ever really knew what to say. In fact, we really couldn’t. I know he tried to tell me that he was a “manufacturer’s rep” but I’m not sure how well I grasped that concept. So my friends all decided my father must work for the CIA. That rumor spread and spread… My father, the spy.
  He was always afraid for us in some very specific ways. He had a friend who had become paralyzed when he dived off a boat into shallow water. So I dived in shallow water. He didn’t want us to do flips and things on trampolines. So I did flips on trampolines, once attempting a triple in a high school gym class (I didn’t make it). My wife and I bought a boat when we lived in Florida. He bought me a paddle and a depth finder. He wouldn’t say it, but he didn’t want anything to happen to us. Lord only knows what he thought when he came out and watched me skydive a few times.
  He tended not to speak too much about his past, unless you asked him specific questions. He loved to talk about his what I guess you’d call semi-pro baseball experiences as a pitcher. He’d tell me how he’d be asked to pitch in games in return for half the gate. For years I had thought he’d told me he’d played for the old St. Louis Browns, the team that later became the Baltimore Orioles. He’d talk about how he wanted to find his old uniform and show it to me, and after years and years, he finally went over to his mom’s, Grandma Ruth’s, house to look for it but couldn’t find it. I don’t remember now what the uniform actually was but he told me a couple of years ago he’d never pitched for the Browns. We weren’t sure how I’d come up with that. Anyway, I don’t hold that against the Orioles, except when the beat the Tampa Bay Rays.
  We named our daughter after a character I’d written about in a book a long time ago. My wife actually pulled that out of the dust bin and it worked. I’d been threatening to name her “Seabiscuit” unless we came up with a good name before she was actually born. Naming my son was easy: I was named after my dad, and became a junior. Ricky was named after him, too, and became a third.
  Ricky loved grandpa and wanted him to teach him to play golf. During one visit to his house in Florida they spent some time chipping balls in the back yard. Ricky’s been in the junior golf program in New Hampshire ever since, and we’ll see what future that sport holds for him, but what’s been really neat to see is his love of baseball.
  He’s a good infielder but he’s always wanted to pitch, and I told him about Dick and how he used to pitch at fields where people paid to see him throw. Ricky finally got his chance to pitch in a Little League game this year. He struck out the first batter he ever faced, gave up a base hit, and got the next batter to hit into a double play. Melissa and I were so proud and I couldn’t help but think of the expression that would have been on Dick’s face had I been able to tell him about it. I still think about it.
  And then, the very next game, the pitcher before him was wild, and loaded up the bases on walks. The team was sitting on a one run lead, a man on every base, and there were no outs. The coach pulled the pitcher, his own son, and put in Ricky. What a place to fail. My heart froze and jumped up into my throat as Ricky calmly struck out the side. No passed balls that would have allowed the runners to advance and score. No hits, no walks, just three straight strikeouts. Again, I can picture my dad, saying to Ricky, “Woo hooooo. Way to go, kiddo. That’s not easy to do.” I believe he would have been proud.
  My mom used to say that my dad and I butted heads when I was a kid because we were too much alike. To this day I still think that we were just that much not alike. When I started working for him these differences became more apparent to me. We’d talk about something we needed to do for the company, he’d have me gather all the facts and materials, we’d talk about the right way to go, and then–
  Well, and then he’d say, “Okay, let’s just sit on it for a while.” I grew up watching the old Star Trek on the snowy TV in the guest room in the house in Chicago. Captain Kirk would have taken decisive action, he would have moved the ship and saved those redshirts from being devoured by the unknown force on the surface of the planet. I wanted to be Captain Kirk. My dad thought that if the decision were right today, it would still be right two weeks from today. I always knew, though, he’s the successful guy–he’s built this thing up by getting involved with partnerships and always moving, always evolving, until his company was just that: his company. I might disagree with him, but I couldn’t argue with him.
  One time, I was up at his house in Eden Prairie and he was in the downstairs bar room watching some sporting event on TV, probably a golf tournament, and I really wanted to let him know something. None of us were getting any younger, and while there was no reason for concern at that point, I had something I thought I really needed to say to him, a sort of grand gesture on my part.
  “Can I talk to you for a second?” I asked him.
  He turned around, said sure, and waited for me.
  “Dad,” I told him, “I love you.” And that’s not something that I really said to anyone, it wasn’t all that commonly said in our house. I told him, “I love you and I really wish you’d stop smoking.”
  And he looked at me with this wonderful expression on his Paul Newman face, his smile showing me he was obviously touched by my concern, and he said: “You know, I’m not really sure those things are all that bad for you.”
  Okay, thank you, ladies and gentlemen, I’m here all week. What do you do with that?
In later years we lost touch for a while and it wasn’t until I was taking care of my other grandmother during her last illness in California that he walked in out of the blue and did the famous Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis reunion thing Frank Sinatra had organized so many years before. He walked up to me, this smile on his face, and he said, “You don’t write, you don’t call.”
  We shook hands as we always did–Dick was always a big hand shaker–and in short order he told me he’d found this manuscript of a novel I’d written and given to my grandmother. He didn’t say he’d read it, he made me ask him.
  He did, he said.
  Again he made me ask. “What did you think?”
  He gave me one of his expressions, a sort of wry, approving grin, and said one of his trademarked phrases, “Not too bad,” followed by, “I thought it was pretty good.”
This sort of began a new phase in our relationship, where he began to appreciate some of the things I’d been doing for years. Lately I’ve been working as an editor for a small publisher and doing a lot of freelance writing. I edited a couple of books by a dead guy, rewrote some missing pages, “fixed” the ending, that kind of thing, and wrote an introduction to the book. That was the first book with my name on the cover and I sent him a copy.
Since then there have been many others, and I remember a year or so ago we were talking on the phone and he was asking me to explain the concept of “noir” to him, the bleak and realistic style of crime movies and fiction that was in vogue from the thirties to about 1950. He’d never heard of it. My publisher began sending him the books we released and I know he had some difficulty reading in his later time but I think he enjoyed what he read.
  Anyway, after that first book I got hurt and sick and my own writing career was put on hold. Finally this September two of my books are being released in a single volume, one of them dedicated to my father. If things had broken a little differently, they could have come out last year and Dick would have been able to hold them in his hands and see a dedication made out to him. Heck, I probably would even have autographed it for him.
  But it didn’t work out and that’s one of the regrets that I have when I think about him now, and that I couldn’t tell him about Ricky’s pitching exploits on the Little League field. And that he never was able to make it up to our house in New Hampshire. We get moose and deer and bears and fisher cats and foxes and porcupines–the dogs get the skunks–and it’s a beautiful place to observe some wildlife.
  That was one of the things my dad surprised me with in his semi-retirement and retirement years: his love of animals. My dogs are part of my family–can’t quite say the same thing about the guinea pigs, but I’m working on it–and I think a lot of that came from Dick. We had several dogs growing up but when he brought home our first Irish Setter, he said, in another of Dick’s favorite expressions: “Now that’s the way a dog ought to look.” He once caught a walleye at Lake Mille Lacs and he said to me then: “Now that’s the way a fish ought to look.” Which was both funny and apt at the same time.
  He stopped at some show by the flea market near his home in Florida once and came back with pictures of him holding lion cubs. I was amazed at this man, the workaholic I remembered as a kid growing up in his house, the guy that didn’t want to retire because he had a newspaper clipping showed the large percentage of people that passed away within five years of stopping work. Here he was, taking time to, if not smell the roses, snuggle up to a lion cub. And he was excited as my daughter would have been. What a great moment. There are pictures of this somewhere.
  My wife once told me that everybody liked me. She also told me that I was perfect. She was clearly wrong on both counts. I told her I’m not cold-blooded enough to make everybody like me. I’m not going to tell them what they need to hear, I’m not going to blow with the wind, and most differently from Dick, I’ve been told I call spade a spade. I don’t seem to be shy about what I think about most things.
  What I’ve learned from Dick, and he may very well be unique, is that you don’t have to be cold-blooded to be liked by everyone. You don’t have to do or say things you don’t mean to cajole a certain opinion out of them. He always said, “Live by the Golden Rule,” and I try to, but he did better.
  Here was a man who never said anything bad about anyone. Well, I’m not counting politicians here, just us ordinary people. And people liked the man. In all my life, all those years working for him, I never heard anyone say anything bad or against my father. When I think about it, I really can’t imagine it. When he spoke of people, he never mentioned their faults, only their positives. And I’ve never met anyone else like that, ever, and I don’t think it’s likely I ever will.
  I regret that Dick never got to see my kids ski race in person–that would have been a new experience for him I think he would have enjoyed. I regret he never got to see Ricky pitch, and take him out into the yard and show him how he used to do it back in his day.
Our taste in jokes was never the same but man, was he funny. And he loved to laugh, too, and those two things don’t always go together. I think truly, he is a man who will be missed.
And for me, the surreal feeling still surrounds, and the world, this place where I have lived for fifty years, has been changed forever because no matter where I go or what I do, I’m acutely aware that he is no longer in it.
  I may not have become the man that either one of us thought I would be, but all that I am, one way or another, comes from him.

  I have an acquaintance with a very famous writer named Harlan Ellison. When I told him of my dad’s passing, he sent me this:

  “If you pause a moment when you’re standing there with everyone else, [[looking down,]] and you scan the outer edges of the people gathered across from you…
  “You will see me and others here smiling wanly back at you. For an instant. Then the sun will obliterate the image.”

  Thank you all for being here. Thank you for smiling back at me, wanly or otherwise. Dick will live as long as he is remembered, and he will be remembered a very, very long time.
Thanks for listening.


Anonymous Brian Phillips said...

Thanks very much for posting this. When my Dad passed, I didn't speak at his funeral, but had I, I wished that I could have been half as eloquent and loving as you were.

3:24 PM  
Blogger Rick Ollerman said...

Thank you, Brian. I appreciate your taking the time to offer your kind wishes.

7:56 PM  

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