Gifts From My Father

When one of my oldest friends asked me to write this ode to my father I hesitated, if only for the fact that I felt any poetry or lyricism I could conjure up would not nearly do this task justice. My friend Ana Caskin’s father was not dissimilar to mine nor were our feelings for our fathers much different. Bishop John T Walker was a remarkable man, an activist for human rights, and also someone I had the pleasure of knowing well. He passed away far too early. The things he did were amazing. Oh, the he could — and would — have done had he lived.

Each man, my father and Bishop Walker, had a dignity and wisdom that you do not often encounter. Each was in the public eye, although for very different reasons and each was revered by their six collective children. So, since Ana and I are so simpatico on this kind of thing, I somehow felt obliged to stretch and find the proper words to honor my old man.

My father was simply the best man I have ever known. It is hardly distinctive for a son to say this of a father and yet he still somehow felt…sui generis… Now, that’s a ten-dollar word and appropriate given that my father was someone who loved and studied words and was a practiced and gifted orator prone to ‘purple prose’. His children — my two sisters and me — often made fun of his particular turns of phrase, one of favorites being “…a senseless act of mindless malice..” (used in conjunction with the Kennedy assignation) or some of his embellished Texan twang in the form of “…well, ya jus’ gonna hafta hunker down like a jack-ass in a hailstorm and wait fer-it to pass.” This saying typically followed one of my complaints about almost anything. I soon learned not to complain in front of him.

My father was one of the most courageous men I have ever known and one of his great gifts to me was understanding what courage really is. He flew 51 combat missions in World War II and was awarded the distinguished flying cross, something he did not speak of often, yet something I know he was proud of. He was proud of it, not because of any vanity — rather the pride stemmed from the satisfaction of knowing that he did his job in the face of abject terror. He taught me many times that courage was not the lack of fear, rather the ability to do what you need to do when you are scared to death.

My father had a love of words and language and writing and thankfully passed that on to me. He was proud of his Italian heritage; however, he was an Anglophile through and through. He loved reading the great British authors, historians, and fiction writers as well as biographies of British political leaders. I’m probably the only kid on my block who knew who Disraeli was before the age of eight. And to this hour I can recite a few of Winston Churchill’s legendary speeches or retorts, “…he is a modest man,” Churchill remarked, “and he has much to be modest about.” Or, “…we shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall in the landing areas, we shall never surrender” etc. etc.

For as long as I can remember, my father was always reading or writing or giving (or practicing) a speech. When I was a little boy, it troubled me that I didn’t like reading. I tried, sure, but it just didn’t seem to take with me. But I kept at it because, well, I was prepared to do anything to be like my old man and then, finally, I got the bug and read everything I could get my hands on.

Then, my practice became working to become a good writer. “Poppa, how do I become a good writer,” I asked. “Start writing, John,” came the reply. Ok, that’s exactly what I started to do. (I leave it up the reader to discern whether I succeeded at all.).

I like to think I have character. I do not mean that I AM a character, although surely some would agree with that. William Faulkner wrote of the old verities: love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Faulkner wrote about them during his Nobel Prize speech for literature in 1950 (one guess who introduced me to that speech) and it always stuck with me — not so much because of the writing, although it was beautifully conceived, but because my father so revered it. It is a great gift passed down to me that I can enjoy something so raw and human and life-affirming as that speech. And whichever of the old verities I have, it must be attributed to my father taking the time and energy to teach me.

Of course, while Faulkner and others that my father loved helped me be a better writer and thinker, no one helped me more in this regard than my father. From the time I was a teenager until well into my thirties, I would go up to his study when I was home, sit at his desk, and read his email/mail. I wanted to understand how he did business and how he was able to persuade people to his worldview. After years of doing this, I came away thinking, “..yeah, I can do this, too”…On occasion perhaps, but the falcon still cannot teach the falconer in this regard.

The greatest gift given to me, however, is one that I am sad to report took one helluva long time to figure out, but I think I finally have found a modicum of it: the gift of remaining calm and clear thinking and even detached when crisis hits. My old man was a genius under pressure. I cannot remember him ‘cracking’ under the strain. Stressing out simply wasn’t his thing. Of course, I asked him how he maintained his cool and calm when everyone around him was freaking out. The answer he gave was so simple — so pedestrian — but, man, it’s a sonuva bitch to put into practice, at least for me anyway. Do the best you can, and that’s all you can do. He made it look easy.