My Dad wasn’t that great.
He wasn’t. He hardly ever grilled steak. He never took me to baseball games or explained the split-finger fastball while we watched them on TV. Football? Nope. He did not teach me to throw, how to change the oil in my car, or fistfight without getting clobbered.
Dad was pretty much an isolationist. I have few memories of visitors at our home, except for visits from his brother, who would only stay a few minutes, then leave. He always parked his car where he could get away quickly. Uncle Ark would say things like, “You are no bigger than a pound of soap after a week’s washing.”
I pestered the shit out of Dad to take me someplace and teach me to swim. It always seemed he couldn’t. I could tell he was putting it off. Finally, he took me to Dawson Springs, and he gave up. He said, “I don’t think you’re going to learn to do this.” He was right; I never did.
He did not teach me to drive. I learned from a cousin on my Mom’s sister’s Opel Cadet. I drove into a ditch the first time I tried to turn and downshift at the same time.
Dad stayed in the garage a lot. He liked to fix things, and would get on kicks where he was into découpage, or making doodads out of plaster-of-paris. For a while he was into making these little miniature chairs by cutting tin cans into strips and curling them with a special tool that looked like a screwdriver with a slot cut in the end. He would stay down there for hours. I used to go hang with him and pepper him with questions. I don’t remember anything great he ever said, any pearls of wisdom that I took into adulthood. I can’t remember anything we talked about, really.
He didn’t laugh a lot. When Dad got older, he was uncomfortable with his age. I went into radio although he’d advised against it. He said I did not have the talent for it. I spent nearly three decades proving him wrong. When his radio career was winding down – it never was a business in which one could age gracefully – I thought he seemed uncomfortable with tales I would tell of my own career. That’s an awful thing to say, but I could feel it. He had regrets, it seemed to me. He seemed sad.
Dad had no business sense whatever. He was terrible with money. He would forget to pay the light bill. He did his bookkeeping from the visor of the family Ford. Every few years, we would move to another small town where he would get better pay.
He was really skinny, with big hands. He never, ever wore shorts, or had anything like a tan.
At the end, he was wiring houses, crawling in attics in 90+ heat. He became ill, and died at age 60 from pancreatic cancer. It went through him like Sherman through Georgia, as he would have said. He was dead in a month. He asked to return home for the end. A day or so later, he woke up, looked at Mom and said, “I’m not going to make it,” and died right there.
He was my Dad, and I loved him.
He bought me albums and 45’s on the radio station’s record store account. I had more music than anyone. We always had an amp and a turntable and some speaker setup he’d cobbled together. Other kids had dads that did boring things, like sell insurance or plumbing. Mine was a top 40 DJ. He liked Sly and the Family Stone and George Carlin before he had long hair. He gave three checkmarks (his high rating) to “Kashmir” and “Trampled Underfoot” on Led Zeppelin’s “Physical Graffitti.” Yes, he listened to it. He took me to my first concert, Chicago in Bowing Green, Kentucky. He thought the B-side to to “Everyday People” was as good as the A-side. It was called “Everybody is a Star.” Beat that.
He wrapped Christmas gifts like it was the most important thing in the world. He went nuts with it, all on Christmas Eve after I’d gone to bed. The next day, there would be presents halfway out into the living room floor, each one a masterpiece of ribbon and wrapping paper. I take pains wrapping gifts to this day.
The only things he never fixed were automobiles. We always had crappy cars. He once bought a ’51 Dodge hearse as a second car. It was enormous, with a giant chrome Ram’s head on the hood and fold-down seats. He ran a stop sign in a rainstorm one night, hit a Toyota and crumpled it like tin. No one was hurt. I wanted him to get the hearse restored, but he never could find the parts or anyone to fix it. He sold it for a couple hundred bucks. It used to sit behind a soldier’s dive bar outside of Fort Campbell, Kentucky. I’d see it when I drove by and think it was a shame we didn’t keep it.
Otherwise, though, Dad was handy as hell. He could drywall, build a cabinet, turn a lathe, or stick his hands in a live broadcast transmitter and fix it without getting electrocuted. He built furniture and remodeled the inside of the house on odd whims. He’d fix anything for anybody.
He kept his shoes impeccably shiny, and had shelves full of them. He liked colorful shirts.
He never yelled at me or my sister. He worshipped her. One time we were walking in the Big K department store in Madisonville, Kentucky and Bobbi saw a Coke machine and asked, “Daddy, can I have a Coke?” He replied in his voice, deep as whale shit, “Daughter, we have Cokes at home.” Not missing a beat, she asked, “Can I have a Dr. Pepper, then?” He smiled like a sunrise and caved.
He taught me to read, and basic math by kindergarten. He read books all the time, with the radio station on in a little white plastic earpiece and the TV on at the same time. He never, ever mispronounced a word, or let any of his announcers get away with it. He claimed he’d read the dictionary cover-to-cover. His vocabulary lent credence to this.
He rebuilt the control rooms in almost every station he worked. He’d make it easier for the DJ’s to start the turntables, and organize pie charts for music format clocks. He could talk a song intro without stepping on the vocal with no headphones on.
He once got into a heated argument with an owner who wanted the announcers to stop reading “bad news about the economy” because the owner thought it would discourage business. Dad was really angry about that. He thought it was unethical to edit the news over money. He later quit. He didn’t like that owner very much. Neither did I; I worked for him later.
And even though Dad said I wouldn’t ever be any good at it, he did give me my first job in radio. I played recorded church services on Sunday mornings, then later worked doing overnights six days a week for $75. I got angry and broke the station’s headphones one night, because I’d made an on-air mistake. Dad could have fired me for that, but he didn’t.
Later in life, he stopped being an agnostic, and he and Mom went to a little church down the street. He fixed stuff, and made sure the little P.A. system worked. Everyone loved him. When he went to the hospital, and the doctors gave him the bad news, he held his dignity, did not complain, and kept his spirit the best he could. I didn’t visit as much as I should have, because I did not know what to say. I remember just wanting to get away. That was very selfish. I didn’t have any tools to deal with death, so when I got the call the morning he died, I just pushed my face back into the pillow for a few minutes before my girlfriend told me to get up, you have to go join the family. That was 16 years ago.
A few months back, I took home some stuff Mom had kept in “Dad’s closet.” We were moving her to Nashville. She’d sold the home she and Dad lived in, and they were going to raze it to put up a convenience store. There were some papers, including a letter of reference from a radio station general manager in Cadiz, Kentucky, who said Dad was a hard worker who did “a great job with ‘the spots.’ ” There was also an application for unemployment compensation. That hit me like sock in the jaw. I realized then that Dad had worked a lot of jobs, worked hard his whole life, and had sometimes struggled to raise his two kids and support Mom after she stopped working. I remembered what the father of a best friend said to me at Dad’s funeral. He said, “Art, Bob was just dealt a bad hand.” I didn’t know what to make of that, and often I still don’t.
That was my Dad. He wasn’t that great. He was just a guy doing his best, like all of us. He was the Dad I had.
Rest well, Bob Wicks. I agree with you on that B-side. “I love you for who you are, not the one you feel you need to be.”