I never knew my father. He died before I was old enough to even have memories, killed in an industrial accident after surviving World War II.
For the first eight years of my life, my mother tried to fill the void by telling me about my father. Her memories and a box of black-and-white photographs are the only knowledge I have of the man who provided part of my genetic makeup and my name.
By the time my mother remarried, my eight-year-old mind could not grasp a replacement for a father. My stepfather tried but I never gave him a chance. My father lived in that box of photos and my mother’s words.
As I got older I learned more from my grandmother. She outlived all of her sons. None made it to 30. Sometimes I wondered, given family history, if I would make it past three decades. Given some of the stupid stunts of my youth and the chances I took as a young man with too much adrenaline, it’s a miracle I did.
My father was Florida born and bred, a mixture of Scot, black-Irish and Seminole Indian, a tall, lanky man with coal black hair, a quick grin and a hair-trigger temper. Out of all that, I inherited his temper and a thick head of hair. Unlike him, I lived long enough to see that black hair turn white.
He met my mother in Norfolk during the war. She worked for the Navy as a civilian. He was a Navy Electrician’s Mate. They shocked my grandparents by riding into town on his Harley. Several of the photos in that box of memories show him and her astride Harleys.
They married and moved to Florida, where I came along in 1947. He worked as an electrician with his friends and relatives at the phosphorus plant in Gibsonton. One day, while he worked on an electric motor, another employee – one of his best friends – thought he was finished and clear and turned the power back on. A faded newspaper clipping in that box of memories describes his electrocution.
We moved to Floyd, my mother’s home, a few years later. Some youngsters have imaginary friends. I had an imaginary father. I wore his Navy dog tags around my neck. We talked. He gave me advice. From the pictures, I knew what he looked like but I had to imagine the sound of his voice.
By the time I became part of another family, I was steadfastly my father’s son – the one with the last name that didn’t match the surname of my five brothers and sisters, my father or my mother. It was a badge of defiance that I wore with pride and stubbornness.
Over the years the defiance faded but my pride of carrying the name of the father I never knew did not.
So Happy Father’s Day Dad.
I may not have known you but I know about you.
And, in the ways that matter, I am you.