My Visit with Divorced Dad: “Can I return to earth now?”

My Visit with Divorced Dad: “Can I return to earth now?”

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Dad (biplane in hand circa 1930) during his Lucky Lindy airplane phase.

My father’s peculiarities were prodigious. Of course when you’re young and in thrall of your father, you see no peculiarities – it’s just Saturday with dad. So I never really noticed them till I got older. I knew he was a smart guy, but in many ways he was also a functioning non sequitur. And I attribute most of his eccentricities to his mother Helen’s benign malfeasance (I think she dropped him on his ego – a lot). Inside the bosom of this bleak and scolding woman beat a stingy heart pumping out precious little affection. Consequently, my forsaken father looked askance at all he surveyed and fought mightily to compartmentalize his wounded emotions. The poor guy. It turns out that choosing the right parents is a very important thing. Why so little is done about this is beyond me.

 

 

My dad was a depressed person, but he never visited his dysfunction on others. No “woe is me” from that guy. He just withstood the incongruities of life, waiting for someone, or some entity, to respond to his bedrock assertion, “I never asked to be born.” My dad’s philosophy was a slightly darker version of Disney’s. Whereas Disney might be the happiest place on earth, to my dad, life was “the inconvenient-est place on earth.” In his eyes life was such a bother, for something so inconclusive. For better or worse, some of his nuanced take and skewed analysis didn’t fall too far from the tree.

 

 

My dad was not a hater. He was a withstander. He was the Chuck Norris of enduring things he’d rather not contend with. And I loved him because, because…oh, I don’t know why. It’s just what you do in this universe of God’s trickle-down Lovenomics. I mean the Almighty is rollin’ in the stuff and we (his adoring children), residing far down stream, get the briny runoff – just enough to hydrate us and motivate us to search for its source in hopes of further slaking our cosmic thirst. Enough I say! I rise up and proclaim “Occupy God,” but that’s perhaps another story I’ll write at another time. For now, this quaint and foible-filled feature is what I want to share with you.   

 

 

I’ve chosen to highlight only one of Dad’s oddities because if I listed them all, this chronicle would need to be retitled The Never Ending Story. The following goofily aberrant father-son playdate was indicative of his refracted perspective. In 1970, in the midst of their divorce, my caring, warm-hearted mother arranged a Saturday night sleepover for me with my father. She had to arrange it because he sure as hell wasn’t capable of organizing it himself. Though he may have desired some quality time with his adolescent son, he was genetically incapable of doing anything that wasn’t statutorily required or absolutely necessary for survival. Bowing to convention would be anathema to this man of apathetic appetites – plus it would be way, way too inconvenient.

 

 

Most people appreciated my dad and his sense of humor. There wasn’t a mean bone in his body – oblivious bones maybe, but no mean ones. He was a minimalist who felt life was probably the most inconvenient thing ever devised – especially when it came to reconciling emotions. He was fairly mainstream in that regard. But when it came to sleepovers with his son, he was completely clueless as how to engage his kid. It was like his experience was happening to somebody else. He distanced himself from anything bordering on emotions. Then again, maybe dear old dad was limited and I’m just imposing my overweening wokeness on him. There is such a thing as being too self-aware.

 

 

Psychobabble aside and more to the point, during the divorce my father lived in a perfectly miserable apartment in Grant Village (shelter for people who had given up). I figured I’d be sleeping in this spartan post-war complex (post-Civil War). I also assumed this visit would be similar to my other visits. We might feast heartily on a Peter’s IGA rotisserie chicken accompanied by our double-secret gourmet version of Campbell’s tomato soup. OK. I’ll share the secret known to only a few so keep it on the down low. Here it is: instead of stirring in the usual can of thin flavorless water, we’d fold in a can of rich, creamy milk and boom – suddenly you’re dining at the Ritz. Our itinerary might also include playing some catch, watching TV (football, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom) or playing cards – all of these activities mind you were at my instigation. Dad required no entertaining activities to fill his time. Heck, if it was thick enough, the man was content to read the newspaper all day and all night long. I think the he’d still be alive today if he took the Sunday New York Times because he’d never finish it.  

Note to Younger Readers: A newspaper or “paper” for short, was a daily digest of news, features, and advertising printed on broad sheets and distributed on a daily basis.

 

 

And these were my happy expectations that crisp fall Friday the 13th weekend in November of 1970. How this cheerfully anticipated visit became a ghoulish night of subsistence camping in a scary and lonely industrial park, sleeping on ratty old chaise lounge chairs in the middle workroom of our family glass shop, surrounded by enough hazardous materials and faulty machinery to fill an OSHA dossier, I’ll never understand. What began as a fun weekend with dad concluded as a fully clothed version of Naked and Afraid.

 

 

Humans and Their Damn Needs

 

My parents, Bill and Dot, during better times 10 years after their divorce. They almost remarried. Thankfully they didn’t, thereby saving us all from a 2nd divorce.

As much as I (being the youngest and sensitive child) was upset by my parents’ divorce, I knew it was an even more monumental mistake they ever married in the first place. They were always at odds – not in a screechy, rancorous way, but in temperament. My father had trained himself to have no emotional needs (or at least admit to none), while my mother had nothing but unmet emotional needs. They seemed to have nothing in common except they were alive at the same time, attending the same university and were both vertebrates. Oh yeah, and that whole “zeal of the organs” thing may have played a role in their monumental matrimonial mistake. I’m convinced this gravitational pull of the gonads may explain a lot of human suffering – and human panting. I know it helped launch my parents into each other’s orbits and then one day in 1961, just at the beginning of the Space Race, I emerged as their little satellite of love – David Sputnik.

 

 

Ten Years After (the time, and not the band)

 

The following are the events leading to the realization that earth may not have been my first choice on my reincarnation wish list. Our family glass shop (at the time, run on a shoestring by my disinterested and somewhat estranged father) was open weekdays 8:30-5:00 and Saturdays 9-12. Dad’s and my playdate was set for an early Saturday afternoon launch by Dorothy, my mother/mission coordinator. All systems were “go” for an out-of-this-world experience that somehow devolved into something way more hellishly earthbound than I ever imagined.

 

 

A Visit with PolterDad: He’s Heeere.

Dad pointing the way as angels hover above his head.

 

After dad had locked up the shop that Saturday, he picked me up in his 1970 dark green Ford Torino station wagon that also doubled as the shop truck (see what I mean – shoestring). As I entered the vehicle I understood inherently the tacit boundaries at play, i.e., what areas of discussion were off limits. Not observing the rules of engagement meant, dad might turn tail and slink back to the insulated world of his Civil War hut where inconveniences and emotional entanglements were banished.

 

 

In fact, a few months after this escapade, something was said to perturb him and he had no contact with the family for months till I reached out to him. Me – little 10 year-old Dr. David had to extend a safe olive branch to emotionally stunted Dad in order to bring him back into the fold.

 

 

It sucks when the child has to be aware of, and tiptoe around, his parent’s emotional fragility, but that was the way it had to be if I wanted a relationship with dear old dad; and at the tender age of 9 I wanted that relationship. At that time, my emotional capacity ranged between my father’s impenetrable vault of self-reliance and my mother’s gaping maw of emotional neediness (c’mon maw, you can do better). So I avoided obvious unpleasantries and not a word was mentioned about the elephant in the Torino – that my beloved dad was in the process of being cast out into a separate orbit, never to be a part of our nuclear family again. From here on in we’d be a Hardiman family isotope of the base element Hardimanium.

 

 

Our nuclear family 1961. Darkened dad off to the left already distancing himself from our orbit.

My parents’ divorce was probably a lesser evil, for if the 5 of us (brother Gary, sister Gail and parents Dorothy and Bill) tried to keep it together, we would’ve been subject to years of that most destructive of elements – Acrimony. Radioactive Acrimony would’ve rendered our nuclear Hardiman unit unstable and prone to a half-life of misery. So, in the absence of matrimony, and to restore harmony, alimony was chosen over acrimony. All this is just a periodically clever way of suggesting that families never had these problems when we were simple hunters and gatherers. Maybe we were better off as pack animals with a small and blissfully ignorant cerebral cortex. Of course if we were reduced to a simpler state we’d have to suffer the tragedy of never hearing Shelley Fabares sing “Johnny Angel.”   

 

 

Pre-divorce, back when I reveled in, and drew strength from, the specialness of my family, I never believed my clan could be shattered by forces I couldn’t control. My Rock of Gibraltar family (a well-liked and hip older brother, a socially graceful sister and 2 intelligent parents) was so securitizing, so dependable, so knowledgeable that I never dreamed there was trouble in paradise (in Syracuse actually). But there was. And to stop the hurtful hemorrhaging, it became obvious my parents’ marriage needed to be placed in a medically-induced coma. Their incompatibility was nauseating, inconvenient and so very unnecessary to the sensibilities of my 9-year-old mind. Little David could’ve solved their marital woes if they’d only listen to me and modify their expectations.

 

Running behind this adolescent analysis, is the ill-conceived notion that somehow the child is responsible for all this familial  strife. That if he had behaved better or was more worthy of love, all this rancor wouldn’t have been visited upon the family. Fortunately, I never felt this way. This was Bill and Dot’s stupid business and I was just collateral damage – powerless to control the circumstances in which I was a bit player. Not to sound too detached, but as Shakespeare said, “All the worlds a stage. And all the men and women merely players.”  I just wish I was up for better parts back then.

 

 

A Father and Son’s Dark Lark

 

Dad and I were on the cusp of a fun and meaningful weekend. Well, I was anyway. Dad would never admit to enjoying something too much because any high was paired with its inevitable low, and dad simply wouldn’t be inconvenienced by experiencing either – at least that was the calculus derived from his Syracuse University Class of ’48 Psychology degree. The usual itinerary for our Saturday gatherings might include measuring a job, devouring a well-earned lunch and not referring to any of the searing unpleasantries currently gutting our family unit.

 

 

And so the 3 of us drove away to the far off hamlet of Brewerton to check on Mrs. Fofi’s (real name) cracked picture window. We’d usually check on a job some place it’d be inconvenient (due to proximity or availability of the customer) to assess during the week. And when I say the 3 of us drove away, I’m referring to me, dad and the elephant – a very peaceful yet present pachyderm.

 

 

Prior to arriving at the Fofi’s, dad provided me a thumbnail sketch of the dynamic we were about to enter: “She’s about 45. Not too bad, but she’s got a troubled look on her face. I get the feeling she works and there’s a disabled husband somewhere in the background.” His comments had nothing to do with the job and everything to do with judgment and his interest in peoples’ situations. Dad viewed life through a different lens – a curious and observational lens, but one whose sights were set rather low. And please don’t think yours truly is immune to similar folly. I’m no Dalai Lama.

 

 

Upon arriving at the job site, Mrs. Fofi came out to greet us and it was evident that dad’s analysis was spot on. Mrs. Fofi was a fine-looking woman with a slightly bothered appearance whose husband was propped up in a recliner and swaddled in flannel. He’d surmised all this and more from a brief meeting when Mrs. Fofi stopped in the glass shop during the week to discuss and set a Saturday afternoon appointment for repair of the cracked storm picture window.   

 

 

I helped dad carefully remove the aluminum frame window from its setting and attach the flimsy storm window to a 4’ X 8’ sheet of plywood, itself attached to the luggage rack of the Torino by a rope. Like I said, this was a real shoestring operation, although I didn’t realize it at the time. In fact, as we shall see, there were other things I didn’t realize at the time.

 

 

I helped dad carefully remove the aluminum frame window from its setting and attach the flimsy storm window to a 4’ X 8’ sheet of plywood, itself attached to the luggage rack of the Torino by a rope. Like I said, this was a real shoestring operation, although I didn’t realize it at the time. In fact, as we shall see, there were other things I didn’t realize at the time.

 

 

Having just earned our keep and riding high with the picture window atop the Torino, it was now time for a well-deserved lunch – something dear to both our hearts and stomachs. From dad’s years of driving around Central NY estimating jobs for the glass shop, he had acquired a portfolio of worthy watering holes and gourmet grub hubs in the region, and today we’d be visiting one of his favorite selections: Oscar’s Restaurant on Route 11 in North Syracuse. It was conveniently located (dad always appreciated convenience) on our route home from Brewerton. Route 11 was built on an old north-south Onondaga Indian trail (the Onondagas were part of the Iroquois Nation). The road roughly paralleled the more well-travelled Interstate 81 (unnecessary history lesson over).

 

 

This venerable old restaurant was operated by Oscar Baumann and his German immigrant family who early on had lived in this converted residential building as many single proprietor immigrant business owners did back in the day. It was a closely held, fastidiously run, old school hash house at its best – even at 9 I understood this. My dad certainly understood this. We didn’t need Guy Fieri to tell us how good this diner was.

 

 

We entered the low-ceilinged dining room which had obviously been converted from what was once a spacious living room and porch. The dining space looked more like something from a lovingly depicted Grant Wood Americana painting than an actual restaurant. There was no hostess, no waitress and no paper menu in sight. You ordered at the counter from a choice of a few old timey, blue plate specials. These savory homemade specials were handwritten on the chalkboard: Chicken à la King, Meatloaf with Onion Gravy and our favorite, which I’ll get to.

 

 

As befitted the restaurant’s working class values, dining at Oscar’s came with a price. There would be no free lunch, so to speak. The unwritten agreement was that Oscar’s would dutifully serve up a satisfying hot lunch in a comfortable environment, but the diner also had duties to perform to facilitate the meal. This diner-assisted dynamic was a throwback to the days when eating away from home was a rarity and restaurants were more of a nourishing necessity and less of an eating experience. Eateries weren’t so much concerned with the “customer experience” as they were with providing a hungry traveler a hot and satisfying meal they could serve up at a reasonable price. So if the diner had to do a little of the scut work, so be it.

 

 

After approaching the counter, dad and I stood and ordered our meals from a blonde Rhine maiden whose last name must’ve been Baumann (or maybe Brünhilda). We were then put to work. Our duties included collecting our drinks (root beer for me, coffee for dad), grabbing our utensils and napkins and placing the big baskets of sliced Italian bread and butter on our sturdy plastic trays. We’d then take our pre-meal bounty to our seats at a brawny 60” diameter oak table suitable for 2 large guys  (alright, I wasn’t that big yet, but “2 large guys” reads better). Only after selecting our all-important reading material (usually the newspaper we brought, a Time magazine or some corn pone local paper from Oscar’s reading rack) we’d stretch out and, with the unspoken meticulousness of a Grandmaster chess champion, strategically arrange our newspapers, drinks and bread and butter till they were impregnably positioned. Dad and I bonded over this unspoken choreography. He appreciated that I appreciated something he enjoyed so much.   

 

 

Everything now in its place, we’d each head to the latrine and wash-up one at a time in the broom closet of a bathroom. It was about as big as an airplane’s cramped toilet, but decidedly down to earth with a 3-sided sink so small you could only wash one hand at a time. This lavatory was clearly an add on as most homes built in the early 1900s didn’t have a bathroom in the middle of the living room.

 

 

Lunch drew closer. We’d return to our thrones at the feasting table where our reading material, drinks and utensils were perfectly arrayed. This was a good time to slather some soft butter on the Italian bread and chomp down on it while we hungrily awaited our call to the counter to retrieve our chow. This was food foreplay at its appetizing best.

 

 

While I was reading about the possibility of a Beatles reunion (they’d only been broken up since April), we’d hear the siren call of our Rhine maiden: “Order up!” I’d waste no time in scrambling to the counter with my tray to pick up a steaming plate of savory victuals laden with our favorite one-of-a kind dish: Creamed Cod on Toast Points, served with real mashed potatoes, all nestled against a ramekin of fresh buttered carrots. Jesus Christ this was a feast for the eyes and the tummy. This wasn’t manna from heaven – it was manna from Oscar’s.  

 

 

While lost in the words of our periodicals, we devoured heartily, and silently reveled in the good fortune of the moment. This was the good kind of elephant in the room nobody talked about. We didn’t need to talk. We just knew. I’d top off my banquet with a slice of homemade pie (usually lemon meringue) while feeling immensely gratified in both body and spirit. Life didn’t get any better than this – and to some degree it still hasn’t and it never will. I mean I’d give this restaurant an Oscar if it didn’t already have one.

 

 

Back to the Shop

 

Our bellies full, our glass mission accomplished (and dare I say, our souls satisfied) we drove back to the shop in the late afternoon and unloaded the storm window. For reasons unknown to me (I think my father was being stalked by the ex-ish-husband of the woman he was screwing dating), dad announced with zero fanfare, “Tonight we’ll be billeted right here in the glass shop.” To which this vocabulary-challenged 9-year-old responded, “Great! That sounds like fun. <pause> Ummm, what does billeted mean?” When he told me it meant we’d be sleeping there, I was kind of relieved, but as it turned out, that would be an error.   

 

 

Eerie Eastwood Glass Shop. On that spooky night in November of 1970, dad and I were billeted near the 3rd window from the left. The Munsters and the Addams Family were sleeping near the other windows.   

From years of visiting my dear grandfather at the glass shop (he built and founded it in 1948 and had died in 1969), I vaguely understood that in the back of the dusty little cinder block building constructed by Gramp (my mom’s father) and his Italian immigrant paisano masons, there was a kitchen and some kind of “sleeping quarters” where my hard-working elderly grandfather might take a brief siesta. In my mind I’m a little giddy thinking dad and I would spend a rustic night bivouacked in our cool little hideout in the back of the shop. This was shaping up as an Indiana Jones escapade – years before  George Lucas had even created him. I believed I was on the cusp of a great swashbuckling adventure – little did I realize just how buckled my swash would become. 

 

 

Interior view of the glass shop. Behind my father was the darkened crypt in which we slept. Note the cinder blocks and glass racks. 

Dad had nothing against me, but he did have plenty against himself. Never doubting for a moment there were substantial and comfy beds nearby in the adjacent room where I was sure we’d be sleeping, dad escorted me from the employee TV lounge/kitchen area out into the dismally dark work room amongst A-frame glass racks and well-worn work benches. He said he was going to fetch our “beds” from a nearby storage bay. I started to develop a sinking feeling. When dad returned with 2 rickety chaise lounge chairs from the Flintstone Era, I eyed them anxiously as he set them down on the cement floor between the table saw and the 5 gallon tubs of glazing compound. Why would he be setting up beach chairs I wondered? Were we expecting company. Was there a magical hidden beach nearby he would reveal. Call me crazy, but I just assumed there’d be beds and carpeting and hot chocolate in this 9-year-old’s future.

 

 

Now these chaise lounge chairs were not the modern comfortable cushioned kind with forgiving rubberized bands you see poolside today. Nope. These were the old ripped ones whose frayed straps were made of prison-grade nylon – chaises that may have washed ashore after the sinking of the Andrea Doria (talk about rearranging the deck chairs).

 

 

When dad said, “Well, David (he rarely called me David or son thereby stiff-arming any emotional entanglements), you’ve got your choice. You can sleep on whichever one you want,” I knew trouble was brewing. Key word there was “on” because you don’t sleep “on” a bed, you sleep “in” a bed. This Hobson’s Choice of lounge chair beds was a non sequitur from the human non sequitur. I thought to myself, “I’ve got a choice? Hmmm, well in that case I choose death.” But I said out loud, “I guess I’ll take the lawn chair that’s not missing half its straps.”

 

 

So This is What He Meant By Billeted

 

This whole idea of sleeping like Robinson Crusoe (but without the creature comforts) offended what little sense of propriety a young boy can amass in 9 years. Really dad? Had it come to this – unannounced bivouacking in the middle of a Glass Hazmat Zone because Mr. Badman doesn’t want you diddling his ex-ish wife? These deck chairs didn’t qualify as billets. For Christ’s sake, I was 9 and I was homeless.

 

 

This primitive turn of events was as bad as the Mets winning the ’69 World Series was good. How was it that I was staring 8+ hours of hard time on a tattered chaise where one more rip of the straps and I’d be doing hard time on the cement floor? Me, a kid who, on a warm summer night, had difficulty sleeping in a tent on a foam pad with a sleeping bag and pillow. But at least if my backyard tent was uncomfortable, I could walk 20 yards to the familiar comfort of my bedroom. My exit strategy currently was to roll over and look at my funhouse convex reflection in the shop vac. This must be a mistake.

 

 

Maybe I’d gotten in the wrong line when they passed out parents. Or maybe my parents were just passed-out. Either way, I was supposed to be Prince David of the Empire State not GI Dave of Syracuse. And here I was, being asked to sleep on a contrivance reserved for natural disaster victims – an uneven and dilapidated chaise lounge with a paralyzing metal bar straight across the lumbar region. For warmth in this frigid industrial space, my bedclothes would be a sheet and a blanket, if you consider a slightly used paint  drop cloth and a furniture pad a sheet and a blanket.

 

 

I didn’t sign up for this. This wasn’t in the divorce decree. And I dare not tell my mother of this misadventure because she’d never let me see dad again. I didn’t want this much complication. As I lied on this unholy billet, I wanted only one thing: the feeling back in my legs.  

 

 

Not having a car, a driver’s license or the nerve to ask dad to take me home, I had little recourse but to suck it up and pretend to go to sleep. So there dad and I lied, side by side. Adam & adam in mismatched patio furniture so dilapidated that even the Salvation Army would refuse their donation. As I withstood the foreboding demonic hum of the transformer powering the red neon Eastwood Glass Shop sign I knew if I could withstand these spartan digs, I could withstand anything. I was wrong of course, but that red neon light, emanating like a vast force field from the entryway in the front room, convinced me to shut up and not to draw any more attention to myself. All the while I’m breathing in the toxic fumes of its ancient transformer which was probably dripping enough PCBs to alter the genetic coding of a herd of Water Buffalo.

 

 

The neon sign’s eerie red glow pervaded the atmosphere and reflected off the floating specs of pixie-glass dust abounding in this bizarre hall of mirrors and glass. The well-worn cement floor complimented the unpainted cinderblock walls surrounding our Andrea Doria deck chairs. From outside came the occasional Doppler whoosh of a passing cars on New Court Rd resounding through the very large industrial steel casement windows thoughtfully decorated without curtains. I think even Chuck Norris would’ve felt uneasy in this gulag. As it was, I was supremely uneasy and a little scared. Breathing in the glass dust and the PCBs circulating freely whenever the creaky old forced-air heater went on to lift the temperature above 60° only added to the ambience of a room reminiscent of the Bates Motel attic.

 

 

Feeling frightened, fidgety and frigid while laid out like a corpse on my slab of a chaise lounge, it finally dawned on me what an inept father I had. Jesus, I would never do this to my son unless he was trying to earn a merit badge in Hazmat Camping. Why did I have to be so little and so powerless? Wasn’t there some extra-dimensional governing authority I could report this miscarriage of sleepover duties to – like a whistleblower might? Not only did I not have a pot to pee in, I didn’t have a whistle to blow in.

 

 

And in the Morning I Did Return to Earth

 

And in the morning (which actually was a continuance of the night because I didn’t sleep much) things looked different. They always do when they’re not in the dark anymore. This escapade was one of many misadventures with dad. His offbeat ways became the new normal. I engaged his borderline lunacy, but I always held out for a more conventional father. So like many of us do when it comes to parents, I bided my time until I became a father and I could instill a sense of normalcy instead of lunacy in my kid.

 

 

My son and I doing normal, healthy things – if you call poll dancing at Stanford normal and healthy.

I’ll admit I imported many elements of my father’s behaviors because many of them were admirable and worthy of emulation, but I made damn sure I did plenty of normal and generative things with my son. We camped, tailgated and I attended his freezing pointless soccer matches of 12 swarming 6-year-olds all unproductively gathered within 15 feet of the soccer ball. As he grew older I helped coach his baseball teams and spoke to his school classes about the Beatles or my profession on career day. I’m no hero. I mean I should’ve been doing these things anyway, but it certainly wasn’t in my DNA and I had to consciously make an effort to do so. If a parenting situation arose, I basically said WWDD (What Would Dad Do) and then I’d do the opposite. This is no indictment of my father. I loved him because, because…oh, I don’t know why. It’s just what happens in this universe of God’s trickle-down Lovenomics.

 

 

And I’m pleased that in the entire time my son and I have spent together, not once have we ever slept on chaise lounge chairs in an industrial glass workshop whose atmosphere was shimmering with toxic dust mites. As for my dad one might say he did the best he could with the tools he was given. Did he though? Probably. I mean I’m not sure he was on earth by choice. After all, he never asked to be born.

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