Sunday, June 20, 2010

Men Like Our Fathers

Father’s Day

I love Father’s Day. It’s a time set aside for us dads to just sit back, enjoy a good meal with the family  and reap the rewards for all our hard work. Makes me feel special. I’m lucky too because I have great kids. No, they’re not perfect and I don’t expect them to be but they’re good kids and they wake up everyday giving it their best shot. They work and take care of their own business.  They make it easy for me to be a good father. My wife and I are proud of all of them, and of our grandkids too.

For some fathers it can be a bittersweet day. When I read the cards from a father’s perspective I can get emotional. As I read the words of the cards, or more importantly, the words that my kids write, I can’t help but think of my own father. We are both sons and fathers. We love our kids and we miss our dads. I might not always say anything but they know me well enough. So today I will celebrate Father’s Day with my kids and I will remember my father, Andrew De La O.

My father (second from the right) with some friends and coworkers at Baumann Bros. in Los Angeles, in the late 1950's

Men Like our Fathers

Tom Brokaw called the people of my father’s generation the “Greatest Generation”. I agree with him. The men and woman that grew up during the depression and then went on to fight WWII were a hardy and tough bunch. I didn’t know anything about that when I was growing up but looking back I can see how growing up during the depression and WWII era affected my father’s life and in turn, mine.

The men of his generation were old school and while it wasn’t their generation that birthed America, it was their generation that rebuilt it. They did it with hard work. Politicians and big business get the lion’s share of glory but it was men like my father, and yours, that put this country back on track. Getting up everyday, going to work, paying their bills, buying a home and car and creating more jobs in the process and raising their kids. They weren’t afraid to dispense out punishment if you screwed up.

I understand now why my father would keep me at the table till bedtime and make me finish what was on my plate. Or why when I left a room he would say “Turn off the light”. It wasn’t negotiable. My father was frugal and always had several $100.00 bills in his wallet. Just in case. They knew how to save. When something was wrong or broken at home he would find a way to fix it. It wasn’t always pretty but  he always gave it his best shot. When there  was something that he wanted to buy, he saved for it. He didn’t pile up the debt by using a credit card. That was for emergencies. The whole generation was that way.

With the exception of a few weeks in December of 1963, when he was hospitalized with pneumonia and was near death, my father never missed a day at work. It wouldn’t have occurred to him or men like him to wake up and say “Nice day today, I think I’ll call in sick and go to the beach”.  You never heard one of them say “I’m stressing out” or “I have to find myself” They wouldn’t understand it. It would be a foreign concept to them.

My father could be hard  man at times, it was his way, and he wasn’t perfect either but he was a man. He lived like a man. He had his rules and principles that he lived by and when he was right, and as far as he was concerned he was always right, he would stand his ground.  He had his gentle side too. He wasn’t afraid to show his love to all of us; my mother, my sister and brother or to me.

My father’s word was his bond. He taught my brother and I how to shake  a man’s hand. A firm grip and look’em straight in the eye. Let them know you mean business.  These men were heroes to me and I’m not ashamed to say it. These are men worth emulating. Who is worthier of imitation than our own fathers?

My father in law, Henry Huizar, was cut from the same cloth. He was older than my father but like my father he was a man’s man. Right or wrong neither one of them took any crap from anyone. When a man make’s his own way in life, why should he? Cross them and you were likely to find a hand on your throat or a fist in your face or worse.

I read this once though I can’t remember where. It has stayed with me and always will. The words describe how I feel.

“If I could be half the man my father was, I would be twice the man that I am.”

My father in the Maravilla Projects in East Los Angeles during the 1940's

Lessons learned From a Father

My father spent his life teaching his kids how to live and  how to survive. Sometimes we learned by listening to what he had to say, sometimes just by watching him. Often times it was the smallest things.

Some time around the mid 1960’s I went with my father to a friend of his, a mechanic,  somewhere in Los Angeles to have some work done on his car. They were going to work on it together. Presumably, to save my father a few bucks. It was going to be an all day job so I decided to take a walk around the neighborhood. I found this house that had a huge pigeon coop, a large tower really, you couldn’t miss it. The owner of the house had just brought his lawnmower out to his front yard.  I walked up to him and said “Hey, mister, would it be alright if I looked at your pigeons?”  He took me to the back and I went inside the coop. It was huge. It was filled with Fantails, Tumblers and other show birds.

Suddenly I had an idea. “Hey, mister, I’ll cut your lawn for a pigeon.” “One pigeon?” he asked. “Sure”. So I cut his front lawn, emptied all the grass and cleaned and swept the sidewalk. “I’m done” I said “Can I have my pigeon?” Done? You’re not done yet you still have to cut the backyard. The backyard?” I said, almost choking on the words. “I was only going to cut the front lawn!” “well, you didn’t say, so if you want the pigeon you’ll have to cut the backyard too or forget about the pigeon”.

I went to the back and for the first time I realized just how big a yard it was. I was sorry I had said anything but a deal was a deal. To this day I don’t think I have ever mowed a lawn that big. I hope I never have to. When I was done he walked up to me and handed me a pigeon. “Here you go” he said. The bird was what we called a “commie”, short for common. It’s the pigeon you see under a freeway or an over pass. A rat with wings. “This isn’t the one I wanted”  I said “I thought I could pick one myself”.  He wasn’t going to budge. “You never said anything about that, take it and get out of here!”

I was gone a long time and I was sure my father was going to be pissed. I walked up to the garage where my father was and sure enough he was mad. “Where have you been? He asked. He looked at me and I was a mess, covered with, dirt, dust and sweat, with a pigeon in my hand. “What the hell were you doing? What‘s that?” I told him what had happened.  I don’t know that I ever saw my father angrier. When he was done with the car he said to me “Show me the house!” I didn’t want to say anything but I wasn’t about to tell him no.

The man was still in the front yard when we pulled up. He was watering his lawn. He had a look of smug satisfaction on his face and I think that really ticked my father off. The man saw us and he recognized me but he continued to water his lawn. “Wait here!“ my father said to me. He got out of the car and pigeon in hand,  made a beeline to the man. My father had a certain way of walking when he was mad. There was no mistaking his anger. The man saw this, dropped the hose and started backing up. My father let him have it. He stopped short of hitting him. My father let go of the bird and I saw the man pull out his wallet and give my father something. My father got back into the car and handed me the ten dollars the man had given him. “Here’s your pay” He said. “”Next time use your head a little”. Lesson learned.

In 1973,  when gas was about 35 cents a gallon and a guy could fill up his tank with a few bucks I pulled into the 76 gas station on the corner of Rosemead and Washington Blvds, in Pico Rivera. I only had a few bucks on me. The gas station attendant, a young kid, came up to the window and asked me  ”How much?” This was before all the self service gas stations popped up.  I said” Two bucks” he put the gas in and came back and said “That’ll be three bucks”. “Three bucks“, I said “I only asked for two!”  “Oh, I thought you said three”. He seemed more embarrassed than anything else. “I’m only paying two bucks, that’s all I asked for”

When I got home I saw my father and said “Hey, I got an extra buck’s worth of gas right now” I told him what had happened. I was feeling so good about scoring some extra gas but the look on my father’s face told me that maybe it wasn’t so good. I should have kept my mouth shut. “You stiffed him?” he asked me. “They‘re going to take it out of his pay!” he said. “Well, I only asked for two bucks”.

I went to my room for a while and when I came out later I asked my mom “Hey Mom, where’s dad? “He went to the gas station to pay for the gas that you should have paid for!” She said. Her tone of voice said it all. He’s paying for my gas? I only asked for two bucks worth!” I kept insisting. I was feeling lousier by the second. She just shook her head and walked away. I felt myself shrinking away in shame. My father never said a word to me about it and I never brought it up. Lesson learned.

My  father was an upholsterer at Landmark Fine Furniture in Los Angeles. He was one of the best in the trade. When things were slow at work he would find customers and  do some upholstery work in the garage. He was always working. Once, he was doing a job for some woman in Palm Springs. It was  a big job, a sectional,  and it turned out to be a lot of work and to top it off my father had misquoted her on the price. He was going to break even and nothing more. My mother kept after him, as any wife would, to call her up and tell her he made a mistake. He wouldn’t hear of it. He had given his word and that was that. He completed the job and the woman was happy with her furniture. My father didn’t skimp on the job. He still gave her his best. Lesson learned.

Sometimes we inadvertently learn a lesson from our fathers. Case in point. It was about 1967 or so and we were on vacation. I can’t remember if we were in Palm Springs or Arizona. We were at a motel. My mother and my brother Dennis and I went to the pool. My mother didn’t swim so she was lying on a chaise lounge soaking up the sun. My brother was three, maybe four years old, so I took him to the kids pool. My father stayed in the room and as always he was either listening to the L.A. Dodgers on the radio or watching them on the TV. There was no pulling him away from a ballgame.

At some point my father came out of the room to get some ice. As he was getting the ice, some woman in a skimpy white bikini came to get some ice too. My father couldn’t take his eyes off of her. Who could blame him? My mother was watching him from the other side of the pool.  My father got his ice but never took his eyes off this woman. He walked straight ahead, all the time just watching her.

We saw it coming but it happened so fast there was no stopping it. My father fully clothed and wearing a hat walked straight into the kids pool. From the other side off the pool you could hear my mother laughing with pure joy. The whole place was laughing including the girl in the white bikini. My father shot straight up out of the water in complete shock, holding an ice bucket filled with water and then he just burst out laughing. He was a sight. He was a good sport about it. Several lessons learned here.

Nothing pleases a father more than knowing you were listening to him, paying attention  to what he was trying to teach., even the most trivial and mundane things. When I was growing up it was my job to pull the weeds and take care of the yard. My father’s pet peeve was the dirt being left on the roots of the weeds.  By the time the trash can was filled it would weigh a ton. He wanted the roots shaken so the dirt would fall off. I rarely shook them.

Years later, in 1978, when Jeri and I moved into our first home in Uptown Whittier on Newlin Avenue, I was working in the yard, pulling weeds of all things. My father stopped by for a visit. We were talking while I was working. I was pulling the weeds, shaking the dirt off and then tossing them into the trash can.  “So you were paying attention” He said. I looked up at him and he was smiling. We locked eyes for a few seconds. I smiled back and then continued to pull the weeds. The moment was not lost on me. I learned a hell of a lot more than just the proper way to pull weeds from my father over the years but that moment is locked in my mind. It was symbolic, perhaps, of a son who had learned a few things from his dad.

Happy Father’s Day to my brother, son in laws, uncles, cousins and friends and to all you guys out there taking care of business. Enjoy your day .

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