My old man and Ralphie’s old man shared a common language

This is a column from deep in the archives. It was published on Father’s Day –June 19, 1994 — by the Jacksonville Daily News. At the time my dad was almost two years past a heart transplant and he would live another 14 years before passing away in June of 2008. I doubt he ever saw this column, I seldom sent them home but sometimes people he knew would see something I wrote and clip it and make it available. I think he would have enjoyed this. He was a character who liked to tell stories, laugh, take a drink or two and watch sports on TV. The current pandemic would be major source of frustration. The current president would, too. 

This is available thanks to my wife Roselee who collected my columns in a booklet I thought was lost. I discovered it organizing my office at home during the pandemic. The silver lining. Here goes and happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there.

The old man

Almost everyone on the planet has seen that movie “A Christmas Story.” It’s the one based on Gene Shepherd stories looking back on his life as a kid growing up in the Midwest. Not enough of a clue? OK, it’s the movie where every time this kid Ralphie says he wants a BB gun for Christmas someone yells “You’ll shoot your eye out!!!!!”

That’s what everyone remembers but there are a lot of other cool parts, too. Like when Ralphie gets his mouth washed out with soap, or when Ralphie’s friend Flick takes a foolish double-dog dare to lick  an icy flag pole, with rather sticky results.

But Shepherd, the narrator, tops it all when he speaks about Ralphie’s father — the “old man” — and his fondness for, uh, colorful language. The narration goes, and I’m quoting from memory, “My old man worked in profanity the way an artist works in oils. He was a master.”

Now every time WTBS runs “A Christmas Story” I tune in for that sequence. That’s a lot of tuning since it airs the movie a couple hundred times between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve.

Anyway, a journeyman actor named Darren McGavin is the guy who plays Ralphie’s dad. He had brief fame portraying “Kolchak the Nighstalker” in a 1970s TV series about a newspaper reporter who fights vampires, werewolves, zombies and columnists who give advice to the lovelorn.

But I will always remember him best in “A Christmas Story” because in the world of fathers and sons he’s the man. Ralphie’s dad always grumbled and bitched about a balky furnace, household chores, the neighbor’s hounds and the state of the Chicago Bears. And he was apt to do peculiar things like putting a crude lamp in the living room window for all to see.

Yes, this guy’s no Ward Cleaver.

But in the end you could bank on the old man to do all the right things — provide for his family, take up for them, protect them … love them.

He could, in fact, easily be my own dad. The part about the profanity certainly fits. Dad was the Rembrandt of the form. He, of course, passed this talent down to his sons — both budding Picassos.

You can imagine how happy this all made mom.

On household chores my dad and Ralphie’s part ways. The only thing that passed for a tool in dad’s house was a corkscrew. And if, say, the furnace broke down it stayed that way until mom (never dad) called the repairman.

Lawn care? That’s why children were raised. Dad did have a passing interest in chain saws sometime in the 1970s but he got over it.. He gave up weedeaters about the time I gave up Mad magazine. This was a man who left to his own devices for breakfast whipped up a bologna sandwich and washed it down with buttermilk. He was quite proud of this culinary achievement. Once mom asked him to go downstairs and start the clothes dryer. He came back sheepishly a few minutes later and admitted  that he couldn’t figure out how to work the &%##$^#^ thing.

Only his words were much more poetic. It did make me stop and wonder how he managed to drive a car to work every day, a much more intricate operation.

But what he was truly good at was being a dad. He made it look easy.

And he did so in tough times. he cried when he had to tell me that my eyesight made it too dangerous for me to play Little League baseball. He raged when a teacher reported that my conduct needed some improvement. “Any fool can act like a monkey,” he told me at the time. He was wise when he shipped me off to college with these words: “Enjoy it now because when you get out it’s an 8 o’clock class every day.” And when he had to bail me out of jail when I was arrested for driving while impaired at age 16, he did so without complaint and said nothing — at least not then. He let the moment sink in before going into a lecture.

Sometimes a dad needs to know when to back off.

He loved us unfailingly, picked us up when we fell, told us to never quit, and instructed us to do the right things even when he himself might not. He taught us how to laugh, learn about the world and watch sports. I couldn’t have asked for a better dad.

So yeah, my dad and Ralphie’s have a lot in common. I think I’ll rent “A Christmas Story” for Father’s Day next year.
















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