"Thanks For Being My Father"
By George Eyre Masters
Condensed from "A Call To My Old Man"
As Printed in Readers Digest June 1994
It was a typical June day in San Francisco, cool and overcast. Reading the newspaper, I noticed how hot it was on the East Coast. I also noticed
Father's Day was approaching. Father’s Day, like Mother’s Day, never meant much to me. I’ve generally regarded those days as good for merchants, convenient for children.
Putting down the paper, I looked at a photograph on my desk taken several summers ago in Maine. My father and I stood together, our arms around each other’s shoulders.
I examined the photograph closely. With his top teeth out, my old man grinned like a grizzled ex-hockey player. It was a younger man who used to chase along the beach and take me into the water, a stronger man who taught me how to row, skate and split firewood. Now, over 70 years old, his eyes were set deep in a sun-creased face tilted at a cocky angle. I could smell his Lucky Strikes, Scotch and bay rum. I decided to give the old man a call.
"Good afternoon," he shouted. Mother, picking up the other phone, told him to put in his hearing aid.
"Got it here in my pocket," he said, and I could hear him fumbling for it.
In the meantime, my mother said their new dog was driving her nuts.
"Actually," she said, "it’s not the dog. It’s your father. Shep jumps over the fence whenever the mood strikes him and takes off. Then your father worries and waits up until he comes back. Sometimes he’s out there at two in the morning, calling the dog and making an awful racket. Then Shep comes back and he scolds him in Spanish, as if the dog understands."
"He’s learning," said Father. "Your mother thinks I’m a damn food, and she’s probably right."
"You’re still shouting," said Mother.
He ignored her and asked how I was doing. I told him.
"Freelancing is fine," he said loudly, "but you need security. You shouldn’t be tending bar and working construction. You’ve got a college education - why don’t you use it? What are you going to do if you get sick? You know how much it costs to say in a hospital?"
"I can’t figure you out," I said changing the subject. "You smoke too much, drink too much, don’t exercise, eat all the wrong foods, and you’re still going."
"You’re right, I’m outliving my classmates." He said it without bragging.
"Listen," I told him, "I understand Father’s Day is coming up."
"Oh?" he said. He never kept track.
There was something I wanted to tell him, and I was having difficulty getting it out. I wanted to thank him for the hockey games, chess games, books and lobster dinners.
I wasn’t forgetting that he and I had our differences over the 44 years, and we had angered, disappointed and cursed each other. But those times seemed long ago. I wanted to apologize for punching him in the eye when I was 18.
"I’m sorry I jumped through the top of your convertible," was what I actually said.
"You were only six," he said, chuckling.
I hurried on. "Do you remember when I wanted to feed sugar to the donkey at the Cricket Club and you patted him on the rump and he kicked you?"
“Yes,” he laughed. “Damn beast smashed my knee. You always thought that was funny.”
“And all those ships you took me aboard,” I added.
“There were a few of those,” he conceded. “Boy, you’re really taking me back.”
"I loved the ships," I told him.
"But I still couldn’t convince you to go in the Navy. You had to be a Marine."
I didn’t say anything.
“And we flew out to California.” he went on, “to say good-by before you left for Vietnam.”
“We stayed at the The Newporter Inn,” said Mother.
“I remember I had to leave that Sunday night by helicopter to catch a flight out of Los Angeles,” he continued. “You walked me to the helipad and we shook hands. You were in uniform . . .” My father’s voice trailed off. “I didn’t know if I’d ever see you again. I cried on the helicopter. It tore me up, your leaving.”
“I know,” I said, and felt a lump in my throat.
“We prayed for you,” he said, his voice trembling. “We lived for your letters.”
“And I for yours,” I told him. My eyes were damp, and I swallowed to clear the lump. This is getting crazy, I thought. “I called to wish you a happy Father’s Day,” I finally managed. “Thanks for being my father.”
He was quiet on his end. My mother was too. The static of the long-distance line filled the void.
“I wish I’d been better,” he said, his voice subdued.
“You were just fine,” I said. “A guy couldn’t have had a better father.”
“Good of you to say, but not true. I wish it were,” he said with regret in his voice. “I’ll hang up now. Don’t want to run up your bill.” His voice was shaking.
“Don’t worry about the bill,” I said. “I love you.”
“I love you too,” he said hurriedly and hung up.
“You know how he gets,” said Mother quietly on the other phone.
“I know,” I replied, and we said good-by.
After I hung up, I looked a the photograph of Father and me together in Maine. I wiped my eyes and smiled at the picture and blew my nose loudly. Yes, I thought, I know just how he gets.