This is my father’s 120th birthday. No, he did not live to be 120 years old. He died 50 years ago. But he remains ever present in my mind and heart, a tough old soldier who never explained, never complained, who accepted life’s slings and arrows without flinching.
“Take it like a man, son,” Dada would say. “Remember, you’re a soldier’s son.”
Sadly, I wasn’t cut from the same cloth, and once in a very great while I would hear the words I dreaded most, “I am disappointed in you, son.” But the standards he set were very high, and looking back I can forgive myself for failing to meet them.
He was born while Queen Victoria was on the throne of England, went to work when he was fifteen as a fruit selector – the “tally man” in Harry Belafonte’s song. He never talked much about himself… Indeed, he didn’t talk much about anything. But I gathered that one of his mother’s cousins got him a job as a bookkeeper for the United Fruit Company in Panama. And he later became a banana plantation overseer in Costa Rica. Either before or after Costa Rica, he was a machine-gun corporal in the British Army, marching through Jordan and Egypt to Italy, coping with lice and thirst and rounding up Turkish soldiers who wanted to surrender.
He spent only a few years in the army, but he never stopped being a soldier. He viewed life as a battle to be lost or won – lost or won with honor. He often quoted Kipling and Burns, removing his ever-present pipe to recite, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you and make allowance for their doubting, too…” or, “For a’ that an’ a that, a man’s a man for a’ that.”
Kipling’s famous poem still echoes in my mind, especially the ending, “If you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run, yours is the world and everything that’s in it, and what is more you’ll be a man, my son.”
That was the important part. To be a man.
A man wasn’t a chatterbox. I remember to this day the advice he gave me when I was four years old. I was sitting beside him in his little, green Ford, chattering incessantly, and he bore it as long as he could. Then he said mildly, “Son, let me give you some advice. Before you open your mouth to say anything, ask yourself, ‘Is what I am about to say absolutely necessary?’ ”
I wish I had been able to follow his advice, but – as I said – I wasn’t cut from the same cloth. I still chatter incessantly, and what I have to say is seldom necessary.
He impressed on me the importance of keeping my word, abiding by the precepts in the Good Book, being chivalrous to women, doing a day’s work for a day’s pay and accepting what life had to offer without whining – even injustice.
Once, when he punished me for something I hadn’t done, he listened to my lament and said he was sorry but added, “Think of all the times you did something wrong but didn’t get punished because you weren’t caught.”
Today, Dada’s ideas might seem quaint and chauvinistic – even wrongheaded. But they have been a source of strength and comfort for these seventy-plus years. And his memory will remain with me until we meet again.