This Sunday, like many folks across this nation will do and each in their own way, I will remember my own father, Maurice G. Whale.
I cannot speak for my brothers and sisters, but I am satisfied that he and I left few things unsaid, very little in the way of unfinished business before his death on Christmas morning 2011, at the age of 81, in a rehabilitation facility in Federal Way.
So much in me, good and bad, I trace to him.
I hear a lot about fathers who are close-lipped about their lives. Well, my dad was anything but a mumbling cipher. From his upbringing in the rough-and-tumble working class city of Maspeth in the New York City borough of Queens on Oct. 25, 1930, to the last days, he shared freely.
My first memories of him are of a towering figure with bristling, black eyebrows, something of a monobrow and a deep voice. Some of the neighborhood kids told me his physical appearance scared them.
“Really,” I’d say. “My dad?”
What I knew early on was that I had the one dad on our block in northeast Auburn who’d built a fallout shelter in his backyard during the early years of the Kennedy Administration to preserve his family from nuclear war. He never finished the job, and the shelter remained until 1976, a relic of the hottest days of the Cold War.
Yeah, he talked about everything, including his tumultuous relationship with his parents, especially his father, a difficult character, whose life was made more difficult by the stringencies of the Great Depression, which saw him walking the streets sun up to sundown in search of work that wasn’t there..
“He was a better father than I am,” dad confided to me once with tears in his eyes, showing me that at a deep level one could revere even an irascible father.
I did not know it at the time, but my abiding love and appreciation of history is the direct byproduct of our far-ranging conversations. Love that’s not based on dates and such, but for the human beings who lived it. He revered Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. Thomas Jefferson, however, puzzled him.
As he said often of Jefferson: “I don’t understand how a man could enslave his own children?”
He shared with me stories about his happy years in the U.S. Coast Guard aboard the Wynona and “The mighty Klamath,” and about the day his captain fired a rifle at a free-floating mine in the South Pacific only to have the flying iron nearly take off the heads of everyone on deck.
He loved the poetry of Rudyard Kipling, Shakespeare, Robert Service, Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam, The Divine Comedy of Dante Alleghieri and Alfred Tennyson.
From his recitations came my love for words and habit of rolling great passages in the mouth like jewels.
“Come into the garden, Maude/for the black bat night has flown,” he was fond of reciting from Tennyson’s “Maude.”
He had a tidy repertoire of humorous songs, a generous sampling from W.S. Gilbert’s Bab Ballads and Jimmie Durante’s tunes, and these he’d sing to his kids as he tried to scrub them clean of the day’s grime in the bathtub.
“Go on home, your mother’s calling, your father fell in the garbage can. Go on home, your mother’s calling, they’re taking away your old man.”
He was the first in the Whale house to pick up a guitar. He gave it up, he said, when his boys quickly outstripped him.
“Where did you come from,” dad would remark in humorous wonder to me, one of his guitar-picking sons. “You can’t be my kid.”
He embraced the music not only of Creedence Clearwater Revival, but more suprisingly, late in his life, the songs of Bette Midler. All of them found a comfortable place in his soul, not feeling out of place at all cheek-by-jowl with the operettas of his beloved Gilbert and Sullivan, and the works of Mozart and Giuseppe Verde.
When my mother was absent from home on a trip, I often found him in the rec room, listening to Janis Joplin sing “Me and Bobby McGee.”
“It reminds me of your mother,” he’d say.
As life progressed, like most fathers, he tried to impart to me some choice bits of wisdom, although, and here I gotta say, some snippets proved more useful than others. Among the latter class was what he laid on me one fall night in 1984 as we were making our way to the University of Washington where I was studying classical languages. At that time, for personal reasons, my engineer father was down on the engineer personality.
“My son,” dad began as we approached the U-District on I-5, “you’re going to the big, bad University of Washington. I feel it is my duty to warn you that you may meet some aspiring engineers there. If any of them give you any grief, here’s how you handle them. Are you listening?”
“Yeah, dad, I’m listening,” I responded.
“All you have to do is take your right index finger and stick it up the guy’s left nostril.” He reflected for a moment on what he’d just said, then expressed his satisfaction. “Yeah, that oughta do it.”
“Uh, gee, thanks dad, I’ll try to remember that,” I replied.
Turned out that in the approaching year at UW, my roommate in Terry Hall, Ed, would be an aspiring engineer. One day I told Ed that my father was coming to visit soon and related to him the aforementioned sampling of parental wisdom.
Ed looked deeply concerned.
“Is your dad going to stick his finger up my nose?” Ed asked.
For the record, I never tested dad’s advice.
Neither did I heed him the sunny day I unknowingly approached a fresh-and-fragrant dog pat on a Seattle sidewalk.
“Step on that!” he blurted out, eyeing the perilous downward descent of my foot.
So skillfully did I execute my mid-step correction that he nearly doubled over in laughter. He never let me forget that moment. Indeed, he talked about it often.
My father also had a sharply defined and too often demonstrated gift for embarrassing his kids. Like the afternoon on the Seattle waterfront when he smooshed his face against a restaurant’s plate glass window, where, on the other side, mere inches away, a man and woman were enjoying their lunch.
“Wow, kids, look, strawberry shortcake,” he said, making untranslateable yummy sounds, literally inches from the mortified face of the woman on the other side.
My sister, Diane, and I wished at that moment only for the dock beneath our feet to open up and drop us into the bay.
And he wasn’t finished, because he then turned his gaze to the man, before he said, “And oh boy, lookee there, beef stew!”
Being a sort of kid sponge, I soaked up every bit of it.
Like many a dad, ours was a mixture of fun, sentiment and often ridiculously sour moods that came out of nowhere and seemed to demand a lot of yelling.
As for the kids who complained that my dad had intimidated them, however, I knew something they did not. That underneath the crust of my old man was a soft sentimentalist, often embarrassed by the tears that sprang to his eyes when he embraced a loved one.
The thing that strikes me most in the backward glance is, for good and bad, how lucky all of Maurice G. Whale’s children were to have him for a dad.
When I think of him, I remember the words of one of his favorite poems, here translated from the Greek original.
“They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead.
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.
I wept as I remembered how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.
….Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales awake.
For death he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.”
Robert Whale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.