“Um…Mr. Miller, you might want to check out the other side,” my friend Jay reluctantly pointed out to my Dad who was already livid and screaming at the slight damage to the mirror on the left side of my car. I had avoided a collision with another car by driving my white ’85 Chrysler Le Baron convertible in and out of a ditch on the side of the road, stopping just short of a cemetery fence. It was pouring cold rain on the day before Thanksgiving as I dealt with a police officer while four of my friends were huddled on the side of the road half dressed in hockey equipment surveying my father who was surveying the damage to my car. As is pretty often the case when my Dad is involved with something, especially something unpleasant, he was huffing and puffing and yelling his head off. The problem was that the side he was screaming about was barely damaged. It was the right side of the car that took the brunt of the ditch. I knew he would have to see that side of the car eventually, but I still wasn’t too pleased with my buddy for directing him to it.
My stomach sank as I signed the warning ticket from the police officer and headed back over to my poor automobile, which was receiving the bulk of my Dad’s stream of venom. To add salt to the wounds of my wrecked first car, I had driven it without permission and without doing a satisfactory job of cleaning the house before I left for the pickup hockey game. To say I was a 16 year old in deep shit was an understatement. There’s nothing like having to watch your Dad completely lose it in front of your friends on the side of a busy Chicago street on what should have been an otherwise pleasant day off from school and then have to drive your half smashed and fully lopsided car, bumper dragging, through the cemetery. I felt like driving it right into one of the graves. It would have been better than dealing with whatever awaited me when I got back home. It was sure to be one Happy Fucking Thanksgiving in the Miller home and I was sure I wouldn’t be able to drive anywhere until at least the Fourth of July.
My friends were laughing their asses off in the backseat re-enacting my Dad’s earlier outburst outside the car, oblivious to the tears I was trying to hold back as I struggled to guide what was left of my Chrysler to the other end of the cemetery and down the street to my driveway. After all, it wasn’t the first time they heard my Dad blow his top. Yelling is pretty much his claim to fame, and when it’s not your Dad, your car, your savings, or your impending punishment, it’s hard not to laugh it up I suppose. In fact, it would go on to become one of their favorite stories to recount to this day. With distance, it’s also become one of mine.
As I sat in an Old Market patio and enjoyed a solitary beer after a surprise Father’s Day massage on a surprise Friday off from my child care duties, I thought about my father and I thought about my son. I thought about my father’s reaction to and relationship with my son. I thought about what being a Dad means and how much my own father means to me. I thought about what I loved about my Dad and what I didn’t. I thought about my changing definition of fatherhood, my changing perception of my father, and the changes I was going through now that I was a father myself. But mostly, I kept thinking about that accident, how my father reacted, and how I would react if I was in his shoes.
I loved that car ever since my Dad brought it home, proud to pass it on to his first driving-aged son. It took my entire savings account, all of my 8th grade graduation money, and wages from periodic work for Hallmark Cards with my mother to get it fixed, yet it still looked lopsided from behind and would remain a crooked Chrysler for the rest of my time with it. I drove it anyways, though it was never the same as before the accident. It’s been proven time and again that I can’t have nice things. My father, on the other hand, takes meticulous care of everything, and everything is always nice, especially his cars. I have often tried to follow his example, but I just don’t have it in me. It’s something that I now find so admirable about him. At other times in my life I found it utterly fucking annoying. That’s pretty much my relationship with my Dad in a nutshell: adoring admiration meets antagonistic annoyance.
The roadside rage incident is just one of many shining examples of my father’s legendary temper and his proclivity to raising his voice in any and every situation. There is no one who yells better than my father. The littlest thing could provoke the most intense response. Often irrational, and always emotional, yelling is how my father communicates. It’s how he shows his anger, his fear, and as odd as it sounds, his love. It’s also odd how comforting my father’s roar can be when it isn’t directed at you, how safe you feel when that emotion has got your back. If warranted, there’s no better person to have standing up for you and yelling in support of your cause.
Sure, my father’s “love” can backfire on you and keep you off an all-star team here or there, disrupt an entire Sunday afternoon at the hockey rink, or force you to watch your father and football coach get into fisticuffs on the fifty yard line. That was the only time I had ever seen my father actually hit someone, but that coach was a prick and a biter. Yes, a biter. Imagine watching your 8th grade football coach bite your dad on the practice field and then your Dad practically knock him out. It was the talk of my friends for months.
It was also the kind of stuff that felt like it meant a lot and embarrassed the hell out of me at the time. But looking back on it, it was way better than having nobody there to get your back, and I wasn’t going to be a professional athlete anyways. I only played football because he did. It took me until sophomore year in High School to get the balls to tell him I wasn’t into it. It took until senior year before I felt comfortable not participating in organized sports altogether. The funny thing is that he ended up seeming more proud of me for the newspaper stories I would eventually write and art projects I would create than any of my exploits on the baseball diamond, hockey rink, or football field anyway. It was only me that felt like I had to be good at something he was good at. Turns out, I never needed to be my father, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to. Unfortunately it took me some time before I realized that filling his shoes wasn’t necessary, what really mattered was learning from him how to fill my own.
On the April Fool’s Day after his 18th birthday, my Dad’s draft number came up. Nothing would ever be the same for him again. To this day I can’t wrap my head around what it must have been like to spend the twilight of your teenage years amidst the horror of a war in Vietnam. At an age when I was ditching out on 8AM classes, living on $1 Whoppers, and never missing a Thursday night kegger at the Rugby House, he was trying to stay alive and helping others survive on Hamburger Hill: seeing things and doing things no one should ever have to see or do. He would return home with a shrapnel ridden leg and side effects from battles and injuries that plague him to this day. By the time I was old enough to understand any of it, that part of my Dad’s life was more mythical than anything, with only the scars, medals, and faded Polaroid photos as evidence that it ever even happened.
In my ever present quest to relate to my father I’ve poured over those photos, the medals, and the letters from his time there. His Vietnam experience is just the tip of the iceberg that is the mystery of my father that I’ve been trying to solve my entire life. I’ve absorbed every rare personal insight he’s offered over the years. I’ve read his favorite books. I’ve watched his favorite movies. I’ve also spent hours with his yearbooks and football highlight videos, scavenged his junk drawers, and “borrowed” his clothes. I’ve even taken possession of his record collection and buried myself in his favorite artists and albums in attempt after attempt at trying to get inside the man that is my Dad–developing a wicked Grand Funk and Bob Seger habit in the process as well. Lately, I’ve even noticed that I see a lot of my Dad in many of my closest adult friends. The men in my life who I have been most drawn to are men that, consciously or not, remind me in some way of my father. Even my favorite radio deejays remind me of him. It seems that through the years, as I’ve worked to distance myself from my Dad and forge my own identity, I’ve also been perpetually trying to get closer to him and the man that he is at the very same time. The father-son relationship can be needlessly complex sometimes.
Through all of this simultaneous distancing and searching, what I have slowly discovered is a man with a big heart beneath the guise of a hard shell. Sure, he can be loud, crabby, stubborn, worry too much, and loves to offer unwanted advice, but he’s also the hardest worker I know, a generous family man, a loyal husband, a consistent friend, and usually the life of the party with the ability to talk to anyone about anything and close a sale with an artist’s touch. My Dad has succeeded at more things than I have even tried. But, most importantly, I’ve realized that my father is the epitome of the man you want on your side: on the job, on the field, in the fox hole, and most importantly in the home. He wants to make sure that those he cares about get a fair shake, even when he doesn’t. As it was when I was a kid in the backseat of his car or on the back of his bike, having my Dad around makes things feel safe. You know that when a problem arises he will do everything in his power to make things right. I don’t know if I can ever be that guy, but I want to try. As I’ve uncovered the man behind my Dad, I’ve uncovered the man who I am, and discovered the man I want to be.
It’s a shame that his desire to give his children a better life than himself often forced him to be apart from those very lives he was trying to improve for large amounts of time. Whether emotionally or physically, he felt the distance was a necessary evil on the road he had taken. It was hard on all of us, but now that I’m a father I know that it had to be most heartbreaking for him. It’s an even greater shame that I was ever embarrassed by him, didn’t heed his advice, or brushed him off as a temperamental blowhard. But, at least I’m learning. I’m learning to appreciate the little things. I’m learning from his triumphs and I’m learning from his mistakes. I’m learning from his shortcomings and I’m learning from his strengths. I’m even learning to look beyond the yelling. I want him to know how grateful I am for his sacrifices, the example he set, and most of all for his love, which is becoming ever clearer with hindsight and distance.
Looking back at that November car accident in the rain almost two decades ago, I now know that most of his screaming on the side of the road was because he was afraid for my safety and the safety of my friends. Seeing that we were in fact unharmed and completely okay, he unleashed his temper onto my stupidity, my disobedience, and the damage to the convertible I was lucky enough to be able to drive before that day. He was screaming at me out of love, and boy did he love me that day. But there’s more to my father than the volume of his voice. It betrays the man who he really is.
Throughout my life I’ve always wished my Dad would have yelled less and talked more, reacted less and thought more. I’ve come to realize that those wishes were not so much to change who my Dad is, but just make it easier for me as his son to relate to the man that for so much of my life was bigger than life itself. He was the football star, the ladies man, the war hero, the provider. He was a Dad in the most mythical sense of the word; becoming him was an impossibility. I really had no choice but to follow my own path, but I can’t discount the trail he blazed ahead of me despite our divergence.
“What I think is great, is that Jack reacts to men a lot better than most babies I have been in contact with,” my Dad said while we were at a mutual favorite South Side Chicago spot, Wonderburger. It was my Dad’s second favorite burger joint, the only one still standing, and my absolute favorite place to go with my Dad. It was one of our special traditions. I have many dear memories of my Dad taking me out for burgers to places he frequented many years before, sometimes with his Dad. He was sharing more than his favorite foods, he was sharing a part of who he was,what he liked, and giving me more intimate insight into the man behind the Dad with a chocolate malt on the side. It always felt like I was being welcomed into a special club when I got to go somewhere alone with my father. They were some of my favorite times, and still are.
This time, we were at Wonderburger and it was my idea and my treat. A way to say thanks for being not just a great Dad but an even better Grandfather. He had just spent a day and a night taking care of my nine month-old son on his own while my wife and I were enjoying a weekend in the city. Never really having to handle that role as a Dad, he now had his chance with his first grandson. Suddenly, my Dad was in my shoes for a day, in some odd role-reversal of the father-son circle. It may have taken him awhile to come to terms with my radio career, but his respect for my current role as father and caretaker happened almost immediately.
“I’m sure that has a lot to do with you and the amazing job that you are doing with him. I mean it when I say I’m proud of you,” he continued in a rare voice, soft and slightly guarded. I never enjoyed a bite of a hamburger like I did the one I took after he said that. It made up for the shockingly sub-par order of curly fries. It made my day, week, month, and year. It made my life.
My Dad and I, for better or worse, have more in common than either of us would probably like to admit. Yet, we’re also different enough that we’ve been forced to deal with those differences and accept the other for who we are. What’s important now is getting past seeing each other as father or son and start to see each other as men and, more importantly, friends. I now know how I am different from my father, and I also now know that that’s perfectly okay. I don’t need to be my father to follow his example. My son won’t need to be me to follow mine. All that matters is that I give him an example to go by. I need to be the man that defines what being a man is to my son, even if it differs from the man my father is or the man I am at the moment. My gratitude for this chance with my own son is beyond words.
As a father, it’s hard to not have expectations. It’s hard to not want to create a mini-me. But as a son, I’ve learned that to be the best father possible I have to go into this with no expectations and no ego. Sometimes I’ll want to yell at him. Sometimes I’ll need to yell for him. But in the end, it’s his life. I just have to make sure that I show him the way when warranted and that no matter what, I’m always on his side. That’s what I’ve learned from my Dad.