This Father's Day marks the eighth since the "Old Man" passed away. Despite knowing him for nearly 53 years, it has taken this long for me to put into words what an incredible paradox of a human being he was, and how even with all that could be characterized as faults and weaknesses, I still have a deep respect for him, and miss the good parts of him every day.
I don't remember exactly when I started referring to him as the Old Man, except that he wasn't old then. In the village of Wynantskill, New York, about 10 miles east of Albany, where I spent my teen years back in the 60s, most of the kids I grew up with called their fathers the "old man," as in "My old man really belted me last night." I do know that I never thought of calling him Old Man to his face.
Which brings me to the late Wilson Winter Jr., born in Dundee, Scotland in June, 1916. Died in August, 1999, in Albany, NY.
One of the most impressive things I remember about him, not the most flattering, is his temper. The best example I can give you of how it flared comes from the huge coal furnace that heated our home in Wynantskill for several years, which my older brother and I stoked with long pokers to get it burning hot.
Sometimes we'd keep the end of a poker buried in the hot coals until it took on a white-hot intensity. The Old Man's mood could change from ice cold to that white heat in an instant and you didn't want to be within arm's reach when it did. He was just shy of 6 feet tall, lean and had a powerful punch.
I never knew where his temper came from or why it flared. Maybe it was from being uprooted from his native land twice in his youth. His family came to American in 1923, went back to Scotland in 1924 and returned again the following year for good. The Old Man had crossed the Atlantic Ocean four times by his ninth birthday.
Maybe it was the way the New York City school system of that time tried to homogenize the immigrant population, making him repeat Americanized versions of the English language until all trace of his Scottish brogue was gone. (Why saying "wateh" for water was preferable to rolling his r's I'll never understand, but that was the result.)
It could have been a form of Post Traumatic Stress from being blown off the USS Princeton during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in WWII, spending three hours treading shark-infested waters and worrying about Japanese planes strafing him before he was rescued. Whatever the cause, that temper was a sight to see, and fear.
The Old Man didn't believe in "spare the rod and spoil the child," or so he said, but it was practiced by just about everyone back then so he did too. He actually told me once, after a particularly hard spanking with his leather belt, that "this hurts me more than it does you." Right.
After his temper the Old Man's powerful lungs left an indelible impression. Before moving to Wynantskill my family lived on my grandparents' farm in Center Brunswick, between Troy and Bennington, on a side road off Rt. 7. When I was about 8 years old the town built a Little League baseball field about 150 yards down the road from our house.
Even with the stands packed with screaming fans he could stand in our front yard and yell my name loud enough to be heard down at the field. His voice not only had to carry over distance and the immediate din, it also had to wend through a solid line of huge willow tress along the 'crick' between our house and the ball field.
That voice had a frightening aspect as well, as was evidenced during an incident in Troy somewhere around 1953. He was making a right turn in front of the Rensselear Polytechnic Institute dorms, when a student, waiting to cross the street, elbowed the Old Man's DeSoto with a loud 'thump' as we passed, figuring we'd keep going. No way. The Old man locked up the brakes, jumped out and launched into a blistering tirade.
I mean he verbally filleted that future engineer. My Mom was in the passenger's seat going "Wilson, Wilson, Wilson, stop, stop, stop, Wilson, Wilson" all to no avail. My brother and I must have looked like a couple of Kilroy characters, with just fingers, noses and two sets of wide eyes peering over the back seat. Mom wasn't talking to him by the time he got back in the driver's seat, but in his world he had scored big against a wise guy, and that story was retold for years.
The 60s were tough years for the Old Man. I think he ran right into a mid-life crisis at the same time his oldest sons were running into early manhood. He wasn't ready to hand over the mantle, and there was no way that was going to be an easy time in that house.
He had been an athlete, playing semi-pro baseball and basketball, and that man could run! I remember my brother lipping off to him from across the yard one evening and then running for his life, as though he actually could find a refuge somewhere. Big mistake. You didn't lip off to the Old Man, and outrunning him was not an option.
I certainly didn't help things either. One Monday night after I turned 18 I intercepted him as he was leaving to go bowling, telling him I had quit college and joined the Marines. The Old Man bowled every Monday night as long as I can remember, right up to the year he died, and that night was no exception. But much later, well after midnight, he came home to wake me and tear into me over my decision. His first words had nothing to do with the Marines though. He let me know I had screwed up his game.
Against his wishes I left to be a Marine and serve in Vietnam. He drove me from Wynantskill to the Albany recruiting station in January 1966, dropping me off at 7 a.m. About three hours later as the sergeant marched a line of us to the train station to start the journey to Parris Island, I saw the Old Man's car pass slowly by, even though he was hours late for work. I realized only then, that despite all the faults and the hard shell, he must have cared so deeply, and couldn't leave until he saw me head to the train.
I gave him another shock a little more than two years later when I called him from the docks in San Diego to tell him that I was shipping out to Vietnam on the Princeton, a helicopter carrier built to replace the ship he had served on until it was sunk. There was a long silence on the phone after I relayed the news.
Many years later he finally told me that despite all the bravado he had shown when he talked about the war, he actually was terrified when he spent those three hours in Leyte Gulf. It wasn't heroics then, he finally said, it was pure fear - fear of sharks, fear of Japanese planes, fear of drowning, fear of being left behind. I often wondered if I would have been so anxious to charge off to war myself if he had told me the truth about his combat experiences when I was growing up.
He was still a tough guy when I got home from the Marines, and from time to time we'd go out together, still as father and son, but also as adults on a more even footing. I realized then that he had a sense of humor that matched his temper, that he was very, very smart, despite limiting his formal education to some advanced trade courses on the college level, and he had an incredibly detailed memory that among other things could pull sports trivia spanning decades out of a hidden vault to be reused at will.
But for all of his toughness, the wind went out of his sails, and the edge dulled on his anger and temper in May 1973, just a little over 34 years ago. On a Sunday afternoon my younger brother Larry became the kid from his high school class who died in that year's car wreck. It happened in mid-afternoon and before dinnertime my father had to make the decision to pull the plug on the life support equipment that was keeping Larry's vital functions working. The Old Man was never the same after that.
Somewhere in there he stopped being the Old Man and became Dad. In short order he retired from his federal job, even though he was only in his mid-50s, sold the house in Wynantskill and moved to Florida. He stayed there for a few years, made a little money and ultimately moved back to the Albany area. He and my mother traveled extensively over the years, but never owned a house again.
When he was in his early 70s he suffered an aneurysm in his brain, and despite recovering, it was the beginning of the end. He still drove, bowled, and showed an occasional flash of that old tiger, but never like the original. Against my wife's counseling he still smoked, eventually limiting it to a daily half-dozen cigarettes.
In July 1999, only a week after completing a doctor's checkup and being told he was in great condition, he was diagnosed with liver cancer. The doctor had said he didn't need another appointment until September. He died in August. One of his last remarks to my wife was "I told you cigarettes wouldn't get me." Gallows humor to the last.
On a sunny summer day the Old Man was laid to rest in the family plot in Oakwood Cemetery, Troy, New York, not far from the gravesite of national icon Uncle Sam, and right next to Larry, together at last after nearly 30 years.
I've thought a lot about him in the years since, about all the things I just mentioned, but also about his steadiness, how he hardly ever took a day off from work, preferring to treat a head cold with a shot of whisky and a stomach virus with a shot of vodka, then heading back to the shop. He wasn't a big drinker when we were kids, but he did like clams and beer, and corn on the cob in the summer.
When I was 9 or so he took the family to the foremen's picnic at the Scaghticoke Fairgrounds. He got a snootful of beer that day and my mother had to drive home, her outrage heightened by the indignity of a cop following her and my old man baiting him from the back seat. It was another of those "Wilson, Wilson, Wilson," days.
He provided for his wife and children, he did his best to help us understand that America was a place for each generation to do better than the last. He acknowledged his mistakes from time to time, but also preached "don't do as I do, do as I say."
I believe the mark we make in the world isn't always immediately apparent, as in the case of artists who become famous only after they die. In time I'm sure I'll understand the Old Man and his contribution better, and perhaps after I'm gone my descendents will be able to see a pattern that ultimately led to a significant contribution from our family.
There are many "like father, like son" possibilities that could have become part of my adult makeup - but didn't. I don't believe in spanking my children. After some of the beatings I took, by fists as well as leather straps or other implements that were handy, I consider hitting kids to be a form of abuse not instruction.
I don't glorify war, rather telling my children as many stories as I can remember, good and bad, encouraging them to question authority, not blindly accept its dictates. We descended from a bloodline that fought for king and country without interruption for more than 1000 years, and while I still believe we should contribute to the general defense, I also insist that we know all the reasons behind our decisions.
Despite these apparent differences, as the years pass and I grow older I occasionally look in the mirror and catch a glimpse of the Old Man looking back at me. I know there are still many similarities, many parts of him that have been passed on. I believe it is up to me to use these talents and capabilities wisely and improve on what I was given. The final judgment on whether I was successful will be made far, far in the future.
For the moment all I can say is that he didn't go this way unnoticed, and he still is missed. And if you don't mind me borrowing a movie line, with the passing of Wilson Winter Jr., as with The Great Santini, the world may have become quieter, but it also is a much less colorful place.
Sunday, June 17, 2007