I was five years old at the time, and our family lived in Michigan where my father and I shared an early-morning routine. At six o’clock or so, the quiet clink of breakfast spoon on cereal bowl would travel from the kitchen and down the hall to my bedroom. I would crawl out of bed and walk quietly down the hallway, while my three brothers slept.
“Morning, Jay-bug,” my father would say softly, sitting at the kitchen table with his hair already combed and parted on the side. Then he would pour me a bowl of Grape Nuts or Cheerios, and slice a banana, half on my cereal and half on his own. He always ate faster than I did and, after giving me a hug, would walk out the door in his shiny dress shoes and business clothes, decorated with a tie-clip and a laminated ID badge with his picture on it.
While he was gone during the day, the hours were a blur of Sesame Street, pre-school, and playing in the neighborhood with my brothers. What I remember clearly is that most of the day I thought about the hour when my father would return from work. It was often dark outside before he came home, and the outdoors became a murky dreamland where only grown-ups had the power to make their way. I do not remember looking out at the trees, or the sky, or the street after night fell. The world was just sort of gone, except for the cars that carried the grownups through the darkness.
While my mother prepared dinner each night, my brothers and I would pester her.
“When’s daddy getting home?”
“Pretty soon,” she would say.
“How soon?” we would continue.
“Soon!” she would say, or sometimes, “six-thirty,” which meant nothing to me since I did not altogether understand clocks.
I loathe our questions now, for how must she have felt? She was alone in the house, doing all the cooking, cleaning, laundry, a whole heap of grocery shopping, and dealing with four little boys who constantly stabbed at her with, “when’s daddy getting home,” instead of showering her with, “thank you, mommy.”
But then we would hear the garage door open, and the four of us boys looked outside as a car pulled in the driveway. He’d walk in through the mudroom carrying his briefcase, still wearing the ID badge, his tie not loosened a centimeter, and looking so damned important. And somehow, after a long day at the office, he still smelled like aftershave.
He hugged us in turns or all together, and greeted each by the nicknames he preferred for us: Big Ben, Jay-Bug, Randy-Pandy, and Bradley Bumblebee. He even had one for my mother, Chief, because she was the boss. Mom would get a kiss out of him and get right back to cooking, but Dad was not done with us boys. No, we had important business before dinner.
First, there was what Dad called the ‘log roll’ in which he would roll back and forth on the living room carpet while we kids had to jump over him without getting nabbed. He’d reach an arm out while he rolled, and grab one of us to tickle, laughing while he did it. After a few minutes of this, we boys were wound up and chuckling our little heads off, so pleased to be fearful of this torture.
Then there was the ‘Daddy-push’, which consisted of us boys pushing against our dad’s shoulders with our own shoulders, though we were on our feet while our dad was on hands and knees. Not until my oldest brother approached his teenage years did we collectively possess the strength to push him backward. Back then he was stronger than we could imagine ever being, but I guess that hasn’t really changed.
Though these activities were terribly fun, they served more than one purpose. First, my dad was spending quality time with his sons. Second, he was wearing us out so that we’d more readily go to bed at the end of the night. Third, as I found out later, he had arthritis since he was a teenager, and after sitting at a desk all day he needed to rough-house with us to get the stiffness out of his joints.
My parents and I became enemies during adolescence. But, when I grew out of the parent-loathing years, and learned to respect them again, my middle name became a matter of quiet pride. I sometimes imagined that my parents had some special plan for me, something secret and important, and that my middle name was a tag, a sort of reminder of that plan.
As teenage timidity gave way to the self-confidence of young-adulthood, my walk began to resemble my father’s, and I took on his speaking style as well as his talent for building rapport with strangers. It seemed for a time that I would have my old wish, to be just like him, but certain differences were too large to be ignored.
My grades in high school were very poor compared to my father’s. He received a scholarship to attend the University of Michigan’s engineering school, while I failed out of my first semester of college and changed majors twice before settling on a Liberal Arts degree.
When my dad graduated, he went to work in a corporation and worked his way up from salesman, to sales manager, to export control manager. In contrast, I spent more than five years in college and graduated with an unremarkable education into a local economy that had room for little more than retail clerks and telemarketers. I sold furniture then appliances, and made very little money.
While our few big differences were difficult to swallow, I grew more concerned with making a living than with emulating my father. A few years after college, an old family friend offered me an office job in Virginia with a salary and benefits, so I moved hundreds of miles away from my family to work for a shipyard.
The company paid me while they trained me, and eventually I became a drafter of engineering drawings for the Aircraft Carrier Propulsion Overhaul Department. The work was interesting and the shipyard was huge. There were fifteen-hundred cranes, and often two or three nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines drydocked at a time.
My career suddenly seemed important and I got caught up in it. I was a whole time-zone away from my family earning a living and starting a life of my own. The desire to be like my father seemed as distant then as I physically was from him.
On one particular Friday, I left the office after a week full of overtime and complete immersion in the work. I shared the yellow-painted safety path with hundreds of other first-shifters walking toward the security gate to leave. The hour was late and the many cranes and buildings of the shipyard cast long shadows in the orange light.
I turned the corner of a warehouse, and my own shadow stretched out in front of me. It was the shape of a businessman with dressy shoes, slacks, and the rolled sleeves of a collared shirt. I wore a tie that day, and it was leaping this way and that in the wind.
Beyond the security gate was a plastic case that displayed safety reminders and shipyard news. I stopped on the sidewalk to look in the case at my reflection. My hair was parted on the side like my father’s, and a plastic ID badge hung from my pocket. I unclipped the badge from my shirt and looked at the picture of myself. And somehow, after that long day at the office, I still smelled like aftershave.