The laughter never fades

Father’s Day. A bit pretentious of a title for a holiday, but it is what it is. ‘Dad’s Day’ just doesn’t have the panache – except to me, because I had my dad.

A bit pretentious of a title for a holiday, but it is what it is. ‘Dad’s Day’ just doesn’t have the panache – except to me, because I had my dad.

Dad died in 1986 – now more than half my life ago, which is an interesting realization to come to – I have lived more of my life without his physical presence than with.  In a way, that makes no sense to me.

It’s quite natural to wonder what he would think of the here-and-now; what his family has become, his grandchildren, great- grandchildren – life in general, the world in which we all live.

I don’t need to think too hard to reach a definite conclusion; he would see my life as it is today with a sense of pride, but also a heightened level of amusement and bemusement.

My dad wasn’t highly educated, topping out the formal end of things with a high school diploma,  but he was knowledgeable and well read, a man of continual curiosity about the world.  He would have some definite opinions the recent state of affairs of the country and it would be a blunt, probably sarcastic, enlightening and entertaining – LOL commentary. He would have appreciated his grandchildren’s fairly sophisticated interest in things social and political.

Life would still be pointedly funny, as would he

Aside from all of the typical moments I regret my dad and I  missed getting to share  – the wife and children of mine he never met, my career and creative and milestones, the man I have become – one thing I get oddly  wistful about is the fact that my dad and I never got to sit down in front of a VHS or DVD player and watch funny movies.

That many sound funny as a major regret.

Dad was an aficionado of comedy. He spent the bulk of his working years as a television station film editor in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and then Denver. This was back in the fifties, sixties and seventies, when television was still a fairly new and burgeoning entity, and most places had only four-or-five channels to choose from, and aside from their network programming, had lots of local air time to fill.  TV stations ran a lot of old movies; my father edited them to fit time frames and insert commercial breaks. He loved movies, and did some community theater work himself in his younger, pre-me days. He also made a few appearances in front of the camera at both stations he worked at; as a menswear model in Minneapolis, and for a number of years in Denver as Santa Claus.  Dad was gregarious, willing to try new things and to have fun.

Dad knew comedy.

Most of all, Dad knew comedy and loved a wide array of comedic films and performers. Comedy of all kinds, actually. A favorite stand-up comedian’s appearance on a show noted in TV Guide or the newspaper listings and the television was thus appropriated for that time frame: my first, youthful experiences with ‘appointment television’ were comedic in nature. Comedy (and humor – a distinction, to be sure) and an appreciation for things humorous, was a trait he passed on to me, though we had somewhat divergent viewpoints on what/who was funny, and who wasn’t.

Hence, my regret over his not living to see the home video age come to full bloom.

Born in 1916, Dad’s early experiences with comedy were vaudeville and silent films. He was a fan of silent stars Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd, and also the Keystone Cops. When I was a teenager, any public television salute to either of those guys was duly noted and watched by my dad, and since we only had one t.v. in the house, me too.

I easily came to share his admiration for most of it.

Dad’s true passion, the guys he found funniest of all, were Laurel and Hardy. They were his heroes – especially Stan Laurel, the skinny straight-man of the classic duo. My dad did a pretty good Stan Laurel impersonation, and even as a young kid I was aware that I was  seeing a different look in my dad’s eyes when we watched Laurel and Hardy versus other movies or shows.

Stan and Ollie

Nostalgia is funny; sometimes you look back on something fondly, and wonder why, but this is truly not one of those times. I still enjoy watching Laurel and Hardy – probably even more so now that I am older, and grasp far more of the subtle nuances of their humor – the verbal mastery of the language of humor, the pathos in the true to life friendship that their humor (even when absurdist) came from.

I always laughed along with dad when watching Laurel and Hardy; now I know why he laughed much harder at some things than I did.  I now laugh at the same things he did.

Watch a Laurel and Hardy short sometime, and you will see that even the physical, slapstick humor has a certain humanity to it, a gentleness. Chaplin is much the same, and Chaplin  I also get in a much different way now than I did as a kid.  Dad liked Charlie, and even portrayed him a couple of times for costume parties.  He had Chaplin’s waddle and cane twirl down pat.

We did diverge, at times.

In a very different vein, Dad loved The Bowery Boys; I got quickly bored with their antics. Abbot and Costello did nothing for dad, I found them mildly amusing – though they don’t wear as well as the years move on, so maybe my sense of humor is aging like good wine – or my dad’s.

Larry, Moe, Curly. Soitenly.

Dad loved the Three Stooges – about as far removed comedically from Laurel and Hardy as you can get, in some regards. There is little subtlety in the Stooges and their eye poking-head smacking mayhem, but my dad enjoyed them tremendously,  as do I, as do both my sons – his grandsons. There is something timeless in a pie in the face or a poke in the eye.  Don’t believe me?  As an adult, I have, by way of actual demonstration, won a couple of bets on whether or not a pie-in-the-face would get a laugh in most any public setting.

Dad would be proud.

But while I grew up sharing dad’s appreciation for Laurel & Hardy and the Stooges (among others) we parted ways over the Marx Brothers.  I was, and still am, a big fan; dad didn’t really find them funny, which is one thing that has always puzzled me.  All he could say in response to my not-concealed disappointment was that he just didn’t find them all that funny.

Funny how serious a guy can get about a disagreement sbout what is funny with his dad.

Nairobi Trio
Ernie Kovacs Nairobi Trio

As well read and cerebral as my dad was in terms of comedy and satire (both on-screen and in real life) the Marx Brothers would seem to be a natural for him. Oh, he watched some Brothers stuff with me a few times, but it just wasn’t really his thing. When I was in high school, PBS resurrected Groucho Marx’s  ‘You Bet Your Life’ quiz show from the fifties and ran them on Saturday nights. I became hooked, and dad actually found Groucho Marx to be a funny guy, much to my relief and vindication of sorts. He still never really cared for their movies, though. Conversely, when PBS resurrected  Ernie Kovacs old shows, I was puzzled as what Kovacs bits he liked and which ones he really didn’t. The Nairobi Trio did nothing for him, had me in stitches. Subjectivity reigns.

When asked on his deathbed if he was finding it difficult to leave this life, acclaimed actor John

dad jewelry
Dad’s favorite cuff links; comedy and tragedy masks – along with his Laurel & Hardy cuff links, and his comedy/tragedy ring.

Barrymore was quoted as saying, “No. Death is easy; comedy is hard.”

I get that.

Even though we didn’t get to plunk down in front of a t.v. with a handful of classics in black-and-white on DVD, my dad and I shared numerous moments of comedic television brilliance through the 60’s and 70′, and had quite lengthy and spirited debates about who and what was and wasn’t funny.

Comedians were prevalent on television when I was growing up, and not just late night with Johnny Carson; The Ed Sullivan Show, the Carol Burnet Show, Flip Wilson – there was always somebody funny on. He loved (and I came to appreciate) Myron Cohen and Morey Amsterdam; he couldn’t stand Buddy Hacket or Shecky Greene, puzzled over my love for the insult humor of Don Rickles or the confetti-throwing antics of Rip Taylor. We both liked Jonathan Winters, and I could stay up late with him on non-school nights to catch Carson when a comedic favorite was scheduled.

Dad was not so old school that he couldn’t enjoy contemporary stuff: he would sit with me on Monday nights and watch The Monkees. He enjoyed the antics, tolerated the music.  Looking back, this makes more sense to me; while I used to equate The Monkees humor with the Stooges, viewing them now, I see much more of the love and affection of friends evident in Laurel and Hardy.

TV of the time of my youth was something my dad and I got to share.

Here’s Dan and Dick

Sitcoms we mostly agreed upon and enjoyed watching as a family: The Bob Newhart Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in The Family and M*A*S*H* were favorites.

Dad also loved Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In, and my daughter Lindsay, now in her thirties, became a fan watching Laugh In reruns in her teens. She now owns some DVD’s compilations of Laugh In and uses a number of the shows memorable lines regularly in her personal repertoire, which would please my father to no end – probably even more than it amuses me.

SwedishChef
“Eeety beety chunkerdere bork bork bork…”

But the quirkiest bit of humor/comedy that my father and I shared was The Muppet Show.

The Swedish Chef in particular always sent him convulsing with laughter, and he really enjoyed Rolf the piano playing dog. And Fozzie Bear and Kermit, of course.  But the Swedish Chef was a whole different level of gut-buster for my dad.  No, he wasn’t Swedish himself, but marrying into an extended family of Norwegian immigrants and their Swedish cohorts,  he could somewhat identify.  I think.   The Muppet Show aired five nights a week at six-thirty, and if there was a particularly intriguing guest star that night, we had dinner on t.v. trays in the family room – a treat generally reserved for Apollo blastoffs or something equally noteworthy. Or to watch The Muppet Show.

Movies is why I really regret my dad missing out on the home video era.

One of the few ‘grown-up’ movies I ever saw with my dad in a theater was The Pink Panther Strikes Again, starring Peter Sellers as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau. My father loved the earlier Pink Panther movies, and thought Peter Sellers was brilliantly funny. I had only seen bits and pieces of the earlier films on t.v. and was unsure what to expect from a whole movie of Seller’s antics.

It was a memorable experience on a whole lot of levels, as I never saw my dad laugh as hard or as frequently as he did that evening in a Denver movie theater.

Two things vividly stand out in my mind from going to sse that film with my father. One is a scene in which Clouseau is chasing a villain, and exits a hotel as the bad guy drives off. Clouseau summons a waiting taxi, jumps in the back seat, and in his French drawl yells at the rotund cab driver to “Fullow that caaaaar.”  The overweight cabbie responds by looking at Clouseau blankly, shrugging his shoulders, then jumping out of the cab and running down the road – following the bad guy’s car. The camera then cuts back to a close up of Seller’s face, mostly his eyes and eyebrows, as Clouseau realizes the result of his order.

It was the late 1970’s, dad had recently had heart surgery, and was laughing so hard I thought he was going to have a heart attack. Seriously, I did.

I could watch that scene a hundred times and laugh just as hard as he did then.

The other thing of note from that film has less to do with my dad, and more with my relationship with my sons. A few years ago I rented the original Pink Panther movie and my sons and I  watched it together. My dad loved one particular scene, and my boys do now too, and they have been able to watch that particular bit over and over via YouTube.

Assassins are trying to kill Inspector Clouseau. One assassin disguised as Clouseau enters his hotel room, while another assassin follows and kills the first assassin, hiding in the bathtub, thinking it is the real Clouseau. When the lovely Russian assassin, Olga, enters, she declares her love for Clouseau and seduces the second assassin in a dimly lit room. He leaves and then the real  Clouseau arrives, moving throughout several rooms turning on lights and turning off others while Olga is doing the same in his wake. He’s befuddled as to what is happening with the lighting and even more surprised when he gets into bed with some “cold hands.” Olga thinks she is with the same man, and a confused Clouseau then escapes to the bathroom, where he now finds the body of the first assassin in the bathtub.

To this point in the scene, there has been no dialogue. Clouseau goes to the phone and calls the front desk, matter-of-factly informing them of what he has discovered.

“Hello?… Yezzz. There eez a beautiful woman in my bed, and a dead man in my bath. Thank you.” Again, a close-up shot of Clouseau’s face – a pause, then his wide-eyed look when he realizes what he has said – the subtle, played straight absurdity of it all, makes the whole scene.

“Heeelo? Izs dis zee front desk?”

That line has become a piece of family folklore.

Whenever we check into a hotel room, one of the Lucker males is sure to pick up the phone and intone, in suave French accent, “Hello?… Yes. There eeze a dead man in my bathtub, and a naked woman in my bed. Thank you.”

With any luck at all, we remember to hold down the button on the phone so the call doesn’t actually go through.

Treasured keepsake hand-me-downs from my dad. Or at least, of my dad.

He would find that wonderfully amusing.

My village elders

It takes a village, and mine was well populated.

Father’s Day weekend is my ‘take stock’ time; gratefulness for healthy, happy, successful-in-their-own-unique-ways children, a self-check on how I’m doing as a father and grandfather.  It is also a time of reflection and a reminder of the men who played the codified  dad and grandpa roles in my life: my dad, Gramps, my pseudo-grandfather Ivar, my uncle Don and stepfather Gary.  The value of what I received from all of them is incalculable  – the sum only as great as it’s multiple, generous parts.

I am simply thankful that I was blessed by having them all.

Along with dad, Gramps, Ivar, Don, and Gary, there are other men that I think about on Father’s Day – gentlemen whose lives intersected with mine in a wide, ongoing array of ways for many years each; they all brought something special to the smorgasbord that is me.

There were Elving, Albert, Art, Cleo, and Harold, helping ride herd on me every Horseshoe Lake summer of my youth. Len, Henry, Win were family by choice, not blood.  Hjalmer and Palmer, father and uncle of boyhood friends and our up-the-street neighbors; master mechanics, guardians of our block.

It’s an impressive roll call, and humbling when I stop to think of all the time and wisdom they invested in me. Each of them played very significant roles in making me into the man – the husband, father, grandfather, teacher, and leader that I am.

The list of tactile, hard skills that I learned from these guys would fill a flash-drive: plumbing, house painting, carpentry, roofing, lumberjacking.  Ivar and would be proud that I still know my way around underneath a sink and can still handle a pipe wrench with aplomb. With satisfaction, Elving would see that with house paint and brushes, I’m pretty damn good at cutting a doorway or window.

The lines of memory blur when I try to place a specific skill to the individual in learned it from. Even so, I learned things then learned that everyone has their own way of doing things. So much the better for me.

Truth be told, it was a village effort.  No matter who may have shown me how to do something, each person added their own take on how to handle, for example, chainsaws, splitting mauls and axes, logging chains and cross-cut saws – among other tools of the wood cutting game, and when and where (and why not) to use each of them.  Knowing the difference between a framing hammer and ball peen hammer is good; skill with each of them, better.  A number of these guys took a hand in teaching me the nuances (and their own peccadilloes and quirks) about how to drive a stick shift, change spark plugs or oil in Detroit’s finest, bait a fish-hook, hoe the weeds from a potato patch, scale and filet a sunfish.

Len showed me how to use a lathe, Albert how to properly seine for minnows, Harold showed me how to whittle. I handsremember each of those initial lessons vividly, and later looks of accomplishment and satisfaction when I showed some mastery at them.  Those were just some of the unique slices of expertise I was served that stand out.  Those guys were all present (and responsible) for so much more.

I also remember others who played lesser, but powerfully remembered roles as additional father figures; Mr. Keuken across the alley, Vic the taxidermist, Joe the bartender, and Birkland the electrician.  That’s how I knew them, anyway, and what everyone else called them. Vic and Joe did have last names, Mr. Keuken and Mr. Birkland had given names.  There was also Ray, the anthropology professor-cum-writing-coach/encourager, and Super Joe the grocer: laughing boisterously is a learned skill

As I peruse this list, I know I am forgetting somebody.

To this day, I tend to get more than a bit peeved with someone when they marvel at some skill I have displayed, or expertise I have shared. “Wow, where’d you learn how to do THAT?”   Their ignorance, my bliss, I suppose. In my days as an employment counselor, I helped develop and then taught a class on skills identification – an easy and fun assignment, as I have significant expertise – and the thrill of acquiring it.

Writing that curriculum came rather easily to me. I saw it as a tribute to all of the men on this list, and quite a few others.

There is a popular meme that makes its rounds on Facebook pretty regularly stating  ‘Well, another day has passed and I still haven’t used algebra.’ I used to  share that attitude, but I now know better. Algebra? Maybe not; but the skills that go into solving equations, the critical thought involved…oh yeah, I use all of that. But I am still lousy at algebra itself. As an English teacher, I constantly have students complaining that (fill-in-the-blank) skill I am trying to impart on any given day will never be of use to them.

Their ‘aha’ moments will come for them. In time.

One more aspect to the men listed above that I have always been aware and in awe of: I wasn’t their sole focus. For the most part, there was no palpable obligation to include me in much of anything; these guys were volunteers in the purest sense of the word.  They had their own children and grandchildren, other things to occupy their time.

The skills were hands-on, as was the problem solving; the lessons often implied, frequently not grasped until after the fact.   Thanks, guys.

If you were to Venn diagram all of the key dads, granddad and facsimiles thereof in my life, the outlying rings – the ‘not in common’ stuff – would be filled to overflowing.   As a village, ‘eclectic’ would be a good name for this tribe. The inner circle – the ‘in common’ – would be full and diverse as well, and would make a good primer for how to live a life: treat people with kindness, respect, dignity. How to develop patience and put it into practice. Do onto others. Help somebody. Follow your gut and your heart, but don’t lose your head doing it. Don’t get frustrated – figure it out. Have faith, live it out.

Clichés?

A good instruction manual for how to live a life.

No, I do not regularly use most of the skills I mentioned here on a day-to-day or even-year-to year basis.  As an urban guy, I don’t have much need to lumberjack anymore, and adjusting a carburetor is not something I will probably ever need to do again. It is unlikely I’ll  anytime soon be needing to shingle a cabin, patch a fiberglass canoe, or lathe a wooden flower vase. Maybe I will someday get a chance to again pilot a pontoon boat. Will I have to treat a maple dance floor with dance wax again? Probably not – but there is always hope in that one.

Oh, I may someday get a chance to play cribbage, or whist again, hopefully.  Or canasta, chinese checkers, mumbly peg, the harmonica.  But I will definitely have to fix another toilet, and there will always be a room that needs a new paint job, something to be repaired or replaced, and each day brings something that needs to be brainstormed, benignly finagled or simply figured out.

I will always write, always need to think.  I will forever need to laugh, need to cry, need to empathize.

This is where the rubber meets the road; because of what I learned back then, refined and cultured through the years, I can dive in with confidence – anytime, ay place, anywhere. I am Mr. Problem-Solver, because of all of these guys

If anybody wonders how I can always say “I got this” it simply because….

I had them.

Father’s Day, 2011

Father’s Day. T-shirts that say ‘World’s Greatest Dad’ coffee mugs emblazoned with the similar (‘number 1’, ‘best’ ‘all star’ dad sentiments). Neckties given in abundance, most only worn by a dad because it came from one of his children. A Sunday in June filled with corny greeting cards – or overly sappy, sentimental ones. A dinner out at dad’s favorite cheap restaurant. Deference not usually granted in discussions. Tradition.

A big deal, to us dads.

Like for most, Father’s Day is a day that has changed dramatically in focus and thought process for me throughout the years.

When I was a kid, I eagerly awaited the day, as I always had something unique to give my dad, and that his reaction (or over reaction) would always be amusing or pleasing, and always worth the effort. This is not rose-colored glasses nostalgia; the cache of stuff given by me to my father over many years was discovered as I went through his belongings following his death when I was 27.

This included the set of reddish granite cuff links and tie bar I made for him with the rock tumbler and polisher I got from mom and dad one Christmas.Granite not a precious stone used in jewelry you say? I beg to differ. There was also a tiny bottle of ‘Hai Karate’ after-shave purchased years before at a large department store during a ‘secret shop’ for parents, chosen in secret by me and my elf escort, given with aplomb, used by dad once, never to be smelled again (I later got some Hai Karate for myself; I know why it was a one-shot, one-dab deal).

There was also more ‘mature’ gift or two; from my junior high days, the plastic egg head-on-a-stick figure stuck into a small flower pot with a small sign proclaiming something humorous and related to having a drink. (Hey, it was the 70’s) I also found some of the more yuck-inducing cards I had given him through the years, and could easily see the evolution of our relationship from kid and dad to more adult father and son. I remembered the trepidation as I once gave my father a more, umm…risqué card, and how he laughed heartily, then looked at me strangely, realizing, I am guessing, that our relationship had moved to a new and different level.

My last Father’s Day with my father came just weeks before he died of cancer. He had been Ill for a time I don’t remember much of the details, but I do remember thinking this would be the last card I would be buying him, and that I spent an inordinate amount of time choosing the funniest card I could find. My father was an aficionado of all types of humor, and it was a well-received card, much more than any maudlin sentimentality would have been at that point.

Oddly, that’s all I remember about the card of that Father’s Day.

By the time my dad died, I was a father myself; my daughter was two, and at the stage where her mother chose the card and gift. It wasn’t many years though, before I was on the receiving end of the unique, child-chosen homage trinkets and I began to amass my own collection of Father’s Day totems. It also became clear very quickly that she, too, spends more time than most in choosing a greeting card.

A few years later I was divorced, and my mother had remarried. My Father’s Day now included the ‘step father’ section at the Hallmark store (yeah, I am one of  those people – I take greeting cards seriously; my daughter comes by it honestly) and the Father’s Day cards and gifts I received were delivered during weekend visits.

Times change, Father’s Day changes.

Eventually I fell in love, remarried, and had two boys, who are now 12 and 15. Over the past nineteen years of marriage I have gone from being the non-custodial dad blending a new family to new dad again with mom-chosen gift and cards to present day, where the boys pester me about what I might like for a gift, then miss the obvious-to-me hints I drop on Facebook or stick with magnets to the refrigerator door.

Nearly two-decades ago, Father’s Day was an odd hodge-podge of emotions, with a young, transient daughter who inherited my knack for quirky, endearing gifts and off-beat, humorous cards that she has retained and refined. She will hopefully find a lot of these herself in a box someday and wonder aloud “He saved that?”

Now, the cycle will begin anew; my daughter is expecting a child of her own in November. Next June will come another, new and improved (if that’s possible) version of Father’s Day.

Ahh, as they say here in New Orleans,”It’s all good.”

Fortunately, I am still picking out those step-father cards , though I long ago just skipped the specialty section and just get something that says ‘Happy Father’s Day’ with humor. Or an e-card. (Check your email on Sunday, Gary!)

Ecards. Times do change.

In my half-century plus, I have learned that Father’s Day isn’t just about dad.

My father’s parents both died before I was born, my mother’s mother when I was four. My mom’s father (always ‘Gramps’ to me – I don’t ever remember calling him ‘grandpa’ or anything else but Gramps) was an engaging and integral part of my life until he died, just a few years before my father did. I remember fondly family vacations the four of us took; the Black Hills, Colorado, Wisconsin Dells. The year I lived with him while going to Brown Institute. Great times.

Gramps, too, held to an eclectic collection of treasures I had given him throughout the years; rock jewelry in the same vein that I had given my dad, along with a collection of handmade ashtrays and coasters from my encase-things-in-clear-acrylic phase in my early teens (less noisy but more smelly than the rock tumbler, my parents frequently used Christmas gifts to encourage my creative side) and candles from my more regrettable candle-making years, plus a couple of lopsided beer-bottle beer glasses from the year after I got a bottle-cutter kit. (keep in mind, it was the 70’s)

Some of these goodies were stashed away, but many were on prominent display in Gramps’ small apartment – including the eight-inch alligator with coins and stamps from his native Norway enclosed and visible all along the gator’s back and tail. No, there are no alligators in Norway. Yes, it is a rather ugly looking thing. But I made it, for my grandpa, and he kept it out and on prominent display for a lot of years.

There was also Ivar, at whose lake home in northern Minnesota I spent a dozen joyous childhood summers with he and his wife. Many of my friends from that era were surprised to learn years later that I wasn’t their grandchild, just a family friend. He too, left a collection of stuff from and made by me. he too, apparently, had a penchant for ugly candles he never burned. And beer glasses couldn’t drink from.

My dad, Gramps, Ivar – all are long gone from the scene, all missed on Father’s Day….at least, missed in a physical, wish-I-could-see-you-again sense.

As dads and stepdads, granddads real and ‘adopted’ go, I hit the mother (father) lode.

I was truly blessed in that regard, and their presence in my life one of the greatest of all Father’s Day gifts I have or will ever receive. They aren’t trinkets stuffed in a dresser drawer, aren’t sitting dusty on a shelf in a living room. I do have some of their physical artifacts, but the good stuff is all where it can’t be seen, but is always in use.

Best of all, I can use what they left me and partake in one of the grandest of American holiday traditions: re-gifting.

Happy Father’s Day.