Monday, June 17, 2019

Father's Day considerations.

On Father’s Day, in this the age of social media, it seems that everybody who’s ever had a father dutifully posts some sepia-tinged photo of their old man, smiling wistfully at the camera. If you’re around my age, those old daguerreotypes (they seem that ancient to me) are usually accompanied by a line or two of writing. Something like, “I miss you, Pop.” Or “I think of you every day.”

I grew up essentially without a father. My old man was away more than he was home, and when he was home, and sentient, that is, not drunk, or hiding from his termagant of a wife, he was seldom present.

Naturally, I tried to be a better father to my daughters, believing that your job as an elder is essentially to do two things. 1. Give your charges roots. 2. Give your children  wings. They should know where they came from, they should understand values, and they should have the confidence to soar.

Of course, being human, I probably fucked up four times for every one time I succeeded. That’s about as human a ratio as any of us get. And while I wish I had had more Ward Cleaver in me and less of myself, all I can say in terms of being a father is that I did the best with what I had.

As I grew up without a father, so did my father. My grandfather, Morris, whom I never met, died when my old man was just 8, and too, was absent more than he was present.

It’s probably bred in the bone for a lot men. In the binary world we grew up in, we were trained first to make a living. Everything else, including important aspects of fathering like having a catch or taking your kid to the ballet have, for many of us, come in a distant second.

Many men, myself included, were raised to believe that you take care of your family by giving them a nice place to live, nice clothing, toys, educational opportunities & c. Because of our own liabilities, peccadilloes, genetic-damages and other shortcomings, we might have miscalculated. Yes, we should have been there more.

My old man’s father, Morris, one of two grand-fathers I never met, came over from the old country, Russia, in 1913. He just beat the immigration shut-down that happened around the time of the first World War.

Morris was 25 or thereabouts when he arrived in Philadelphia. He had no skills, no education, spoke no English, had no money and no family in the New World.

He had escaped mandatory terms of the Tsar's Army: 25-years or death, whichever comes second. And he did it by volunteering, or being volunteered, at the age of ten or so, to work on the greatest infrastructure project of the 19th Century, the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. 
Life was cheap as the Trans-Siberian Rail-Way was being built. Thousands died, many more wish they had.

With baggy pants down around their ankles, the cry of "Hem boy!" would ring out.

Temperatures dropped to -200 (Celsius.) Colder in the shade.

It was a railroad three-times as long as the transnational route across our continent. Through terrain that made the American west look like Frontierland at a Disney theme park by comparison. It was nearly 6,000 miles long and was built through some of the most desolate and forbidding land in the world. What's more, in the summer, temperatures could drop to 200-below (Celsius) and it got even colder in the winter.

Morris was too young to swing a pick, or to do much else but be sodomized. So he quickly became what was known on the Trans-Siberian as a “hem-boy.”

The workers who laid the tracks were given by the Trans-Siberian one pair of work pants. By the time they had reached Krasnoyarsk, they had generally lost so much weight from eating their meager rations, that their pants were down around their ankles. Of course, when you're pounding in spikes all day, having your pants fall down isn't just embarrassing, it's downright dangerous.

So the railroad hired scores of "hem boys" who would run along the rail way waiting for a worker to sing out "Hem boy!" Then they hustled over to pin up and hem the workers' pants.

There's no telling how many hems my grand-father shortened this way. Or how he managed to last the years he did. But somehow he lasted long-enough to save what he needed to land in America and start a new life on our teeming shores.

It’s easy to hate your parents, your father especially. Because like all people, one’s parents are especially flawed. It’s part of being a parent, I think, that you’re usually missing when you’re needed most and you don’t usually find out until years later when you were needed and what for.

There’s not much any of us old people can do about any of that. Maybe there’s some parenting parallel to Newton’s third law of motion. For every action there was an equal and horrible error or inaction. 

It doesn't matter if you're making a billion dollars running a hedge fund, or flipping burgers up at 7 Brothers Deli on 44th and 10th. All of us fathers want the same basic things for our kids. A chance for them to be themselves and find their path.

That’s probably as good an encapsulation of fatherhood as you’ll find anywhere.

And it pretty much sums up this old man's trials and errors of a dad. Like my grandfather, whom I never met, we're all just hem boys, working on a long railroad.

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