Today is my father’s 120th birthday. Happy birthday, Dad. I miss you! Howard Fanning Rough was born on Jan. 31, 1891, in the frontier town of St. Joseph, MO. He died in 1969, of a stroke and heart failure, the day after Eisenhower’s funeral, and shortly before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. He was 78. I was born in Washington, DC, in 1939. I’m now 71, and so far, breathing normally. He had terrible emphysema, from years of smoking that never stopped. When he was barely breathing from his oxygen tanks, you still had to hide his cigarettes. I smoked like a chimney until I was 44, when I was finally able to quit cold turkey. He suffered from dementia that today would probably be diagnosed as Alzheimer’s. And I’m trying to figure out if my current forgetfulness is genetically related to his, or just “normal” age-related absent-mindedness. It all gives me frequent pause.
During those pauses, I find myself reaching for memories of Dad that go beyond his last few months of life. I don’t want to remember him sitting in his wheelchair, drool running from the corner of his mouth and soaking his bib, with my frustrated Mom helplessly nagging him for not being everything he used to be. She and I knew him for so much more. How I wish I’d known him for who he really was, and for all he’d done with his life.
Sadly, we never talked much. He never wanted to, and I couldn’t find the right words. Or was it the other way around? It’s really hard for me to picture him as the slim, lithe high school athlete I now know he was, winning the big race in the track meet, and showering off the mud from his latest rugby match in his Canadian high school. I now know he spent his early years as a “wild boy,” smashing through fences in race cars and flying newfangled airplanes. After a demo ride with Glen Curtis in a Wright Brothers airplane, he became a pioneer aviator, who flew in both World Wars. He was married once before he fell for my Mom, who was another pioneer aviator. He was responsible for locating and laying out many of our nation’s airports. He loved to whistle, dance the hula, and sing (an off-key crooner, to Mom’s consternation). He loved his scotch. And he was a died-in-the-wool Republican, planted firmly in the anti-Roosevelt set. All that? My Dad? Most of it I learned from letters, keepsakes and internet research, long after both my parents were beyond conversation. His memories, not mine, and he rarely spoke of them — never of politics, religion, war, or sex. How I would love to chat with him today, and to gently tease him as he did me … to coax him away from his “uptight, conservative, anti-progressive notions.” The irony of it all – and he such a progressive trend-setter for his generation, one of the founders of the aviation industry. Would he listen to me now? Or I to him?
Still he keeps cropping up in my head. People keep telling me how much I look like his picture, and how much my son looks like me. And on it goes. In another 20-30 years down the road, will my kids be as haunted by their memories of me, or lack of them? Is this the norm among us all?
My memories are increasingly variations on how much Dad loved me, his only son, and I him. I still smile at the memory of his coming to my first play: At 15, I was Sample Switchel, the country bumpkin in Ten Nights in a Barroom. He was standing at a urinal during the intermission, and beamed when a gentleman at his side murmured of my performance, “Boy can that kid act!” He didn’t tell that story directly to me, of course, but my mother relayed it to me. I also disappointed him regularly: I never could learn to whistle for a cab between my teeth. I never threw or caught a ball to his satisfaction. I flunked out of a very expensive college at the end of my senior year, apparently determined on a career of beer, Bullwinkle Moose and Maverick. And worst of all, I never did turn into much of an aviator. But despite it all, he tried hard to have dinner table conversations every now and then, and he found the time to take me along to his beloved baseball and hockey games. He had an especially warm twinkle in his eye when he teased lovingly, which was not infrequent. In the neighborhood, his lessons for how to catch a squirrel by pouring salt on its tail were legendary.
It was mostly the movies we would talk about, the ones he disapproved of (Salome) and the ones we saw together. I saw one of them on TCM the other day, an obscure little British black & white social satire called I’m All Right, Jack. That one did set off a long discussion between us about whether the labour (sic) unions or the bosses were the most ridiculous. And that rainy afternoon in the car on the way home from the MacArthur Theatre in Washington, we both decided we had become rabid Peter Sellers fans. And then there was High Society, which we saw together in the old Byrd Theatre, in Arlington, with Bing Crosby (his favorite crooner … Perry Como and Andy Williams being tied for distant seconds), Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly (just before she became Princess Grace), Celeste Holm and Louis Armstrong among its celestial cast. It was eye and ear candy for him, and I, all of 16, was madly in love with Grace. For weeks afterwards, Dad whistled Cole Porter tunes, coaxing me to sing along, even for the “dirty” part. I still do: “Have you heard of Mimsy Star? She got pinched in the Asss—tor Bar! Well did you evah … ?”
I miss you, Dad. Happy Birthday!
Your son, Bill