Tuesday, February 21, 2017

40 years later, thinking of my father

I guess being the youngest of five children, I’ve always considered myself young.

Life keeps conspiring to prove me wrong.

But never more so than one day last week.

My father died 40 years ago last Tuesday.

He was 63 years old. In other words, about a year and a half older than I am right now.

Talk about a cold slap in the face.

He never had a chance to retire. He spent his life trying to provide for his family, first by running two soda fountain/luncheonettes, one in North East, Md., the other in the small town where we lived, Oxford, Pa., in southern Chester County.

Later in life, he became a security guard and eventually a police officer at Lincoln University just outside town.

My father was a man of very few words. We did not call him ‘The Quiet Man’ for nothing. That attribute rubbed off on his youngest son. He had simple values, treasuring his family, his faith, and his friends.

Like so many in The Greatest Generation, he rarely ever spoke about it. He just did it.

I find it terribly unfair that a man would work his entire life, then be denied the opportunity to enjoy his retirement.

I don’t think my dad would have seen it that way, at least he never would have talked about it.

He simply went about his business.

He was a man of routine, which is what took him to the small store he still owned in Oxford, run by my mom that fateful day. Later she would always detail what happened exactly the same way.

Dad was standing at the end of the long counter in the store, and he mentioned that he did not feel well. Mom said she had just made a fresh pot of coffee. She turned to get him a cup. That’s when she heard the sound. When she turned around again, dad was on the floor. He was rushed to the hospital, but my guess is he likely was gone before he ever hit the floor.

I was half a country away, attending class at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

If you’ve ever been there, you’ll understand when I say that calling it ‘idyllic’ is an understatement.

Not that day.

I was sitting in class when a woman knocked on the door, itself somewhat unusual. What happened next was even more so.

‘Is there a Philip Heron in the class?’ the woman asked the professor. I nearly fell off the chair. She said I needed to call my brother right away. He lived outside Denver, and was the reason I was out there in the first place. I called. His wife answered and that’s how I learned dad had suffered a heart attack.

I had to meet my brother at the airport and I didn’t have much time to spare. I really don’t remember packing anything at all, but I do remember how I literally went knocking on doors to see if anyone could give me a ride to the airport. I met my brother and we basically flew to Philly in silence, not knowing the details of dad’s condition.

Remember, this was a different world, one without cell phones, texting, and social media.

Two quiet men on a plane. Just like our father. I think we both knew what awaited us once we got home.

Today I will go to work, much as I do every day.

But it will be with a reminder that time is precious. There are no guarantees.

I like to think I acquired a lot of traits from my father - his love of sports, his passion for a good, simple meal. Meat and potatoes. Is there another kind?

I also took on his mantra of being a man of few words – aside from when I’m sitting at this keyboard. Conversation is not exactly my thing, just ask my wife.

My dad also gave me perhaps the greatest gift of all, one that has served me well.

He loved newspapers.

He would devour several of them every day.

For the life of me, I could not figure out why a store in North East, Md., sold the New York papers every day. It did not take me long to find out. Working at the store, I would watch the parade of men come in and check that day’s horse racing entries, then kibbutz with my dad about who he ‘liked’ at the track that day.

Yes, my father loved the pones.

I have him to thank for my ability to read The Racing Form. He’s still the only man I’ve ever met who took a vacation from his job so he could work the parimutuel window at Delaware Park.

In many ways, it’s hard to believe it’s been 40 years.

The trips to the cemetery are few and far between these days.

Work - and life - usually gets in the way.

Today I am again shocked at some of the things I did not realize about my father. We all knew that he as born on Nov. 23. Yes, he was celebrating a birthday on that day in 1963 when our world changed with the news of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. What I didn’t realize until a few years ago was that dad was actually celebrating his 50th birthday that fateful day.

I was thinking about that again over the weekend, when I realized that this year would mark four decades since that awful day. But something about the numbers wasn’t adding up. For some reason I always thought dad was 66 or 67 when he passed.

Some quick work with the calculator - math was not one of the gifts dad bestowed on his youngest son - left me with the unavoidable conclusion that dad was only 63.

About a year and a half older than I am right now.

I wish I could sit at that table just one more time, patiently waiting for him to finish with the sports section of the newspaper, always creased neatly to that day’s horse racing entries, and inevitably marked with his signature butter and jelly stains.

The industry I work in was at its peak serving the members of this greatest generation.

Today we sadly note the passing of all too many of them every day on our obituary pages.

They are a dying breed, in more ways than one.

I get the feeling dad would not have cared much for the Internet, cell phones, or social media.

Unless you could somehow deliver the horse racing results in 140 characters.

40 years. Four decades.

For some reason, it doesn’t seem that long.

I guess it never does.

Rest well, Quiet Man.

*

The photo shows dad with my sister Kate, standing in the back yard of our home in Oxford, in the mid'60s.

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