My father survived World War II, returning to his hometown of Gibsonton, Florida, to marry a Floyd County, Virginia, woman he met in Norfolk while serving in the Navy. I came along in 1947 – a baby boomer child to a young family just starting out in postwar America.
But that American dream ended short of my second birthday when an accident at the U.S. Phosphorus Plant in Tampa killed my father and widowed my mother.
So my memories of my father come from photographs and stories told by my mother – still living — and paternal grandmother – who died in 1994. Those stories formed my impression of my father. He emerged from those stories bigger than life, the dad who could never be replaced. As a “junior,” I shared his name and his blood. By the time I was eight, my adolescent imagination created a Super Dad who lived in the nether regions of my fantasies.
But, at age eight, my mother remarried and Super Dad faced a challenge from Replacement Dad, a stepfather with children of his own and a persona nothing like the father of my imagination.
From the beginning, Replacement Dad faced a stacked deck. The unknown stepfather couldn’t live up the dad I never knew. He tried but I never gave him a chance. I rebelled and became such a problem child that, at one, point my parents considered shipping me off to military school.
Over time, my stepfather and I reached an uneasy truce, one borne more from necessity than love. He was a hard man and I, a stubborn child. When I was 10, I built a kite. On the first flight, it crashed and broke. I cried. He spanked me and said: “Men don’t cry.”
And I didn’t cry after that. I stood defiantly through other spankings, daring him to hit me harder but refusing to shed a tear. I became an outsider in my own family, the one with the different last name, the rebel who looked forward to the day he could leave all this behind. When I left home after high school graduation, packing everything I owned into my 1957 Ford and driving away, my mother stood on the front porch and cried but my stepfather was nowhere to be seen.
As a young man I faced death, watched friends die and endured my share of tragedy and grief, facing each with a grim-faced stoicism engrained into me by my stepfather. I was a man. Men don’t cry.
When I returned home for visits we began to find more common ground than we ever did when I lived under that roof. We talked but the unease remained. When Amy and I married she quickly became closer to my stepfather than I ever could. She came from a close-knit family where love and emotion came easy.
At his funeral I carried the casket alongside my stepbrother, half-brother and step uncles. Tears flowed easily down their cheeks. I stayed dry-eyed, remembering his stern warning that men don’t cry.
Some years ago, I went on a trip of self-exploration, visiting the many placed I’d lived as a young man, trying to answer an elusive question of “where is home?” My journey began in Gibsonton, Florida, the place I remember only vaguely. We left there not long after my fifth birthday. I visited the grave of my biological father, the man I never knew but loved because I carry his name, his legacy and – some say – his personality.
The journey ended a few days later at the cemetery of Buffalo Mountain Presbyterian Church when I stood at the grave of my stepfather, the man I thought I knew but – instead — feared, despised and later came to respect. But loved? I wasn’t sure.
“Yes,” I told the gravestone. “You were hard. I was stubborn. I never gave you a chance.”
As I stood there, my body convulsed and tears began to flow. They would not stop. I collapsed to the ground, sobbing like a child, crying like that 10-year-old boy who spent many hours building a kite only to have it destroyed in the first few seconds of a maiden flight.
Men don’t cry he, he told me then. He was wrong. Men do cry. They cry over the loss of loved ones they didn’t know and the ones they should have known.
A tribute this Father’s Day to my dads.
Both of them.