Friday, December 07, 2012

Ernie

I think my first memory of my father is me sitting up in my bunk bed and watching him pull out of the driveway early in the morning to go to work. I desperately wanted him to stay home, and remember crying because he had to leave.

 Today, I feel the same way.

 Another early memory is of Dad playing Christmas songs on his old acoustic guitar while the family sang along. Many of my memories of Dad involve music - not surprising to anyone here, I’m sure. For some time I thought that everyone went out on summer weekends to see their Dad play music, or had a babysitter on Saturday nights while their parents went to a gig. I could never pick up the guitar myself, in spite of lessons and some practice. I realized it was going to be hard work, and Dad could not read music to help me learn. All of that pickin’ over the years, and couldn't read music a lick.

Making music for him was not about perfection, it was about performing, and having fun. It was his joy. I remember finally being able to go to a bar and hear dad play. His was playing in a little quartet with Randy Draper and a couple of other musicians in front of a crowd of mostly indifferent folks. They lit into one song and something just didn’t sound quite right to me. After several bars, Dad turned to Randy (or Randy turned to Dad, I forget which) and said “We’re in A!”
 “What?”
 “We’re in the key of A!”
 “Ok!” and they switched up and kept right on going, never missing a beat.

 Dad was never what you’d call a ‘stern disciplinarian’. I remember being spanked exactly once, when I decided to disappear after grade school one afternoon to my friend Shayne’s house, and didn’t tell him or mom where I was going. When he finally tracked me down at around 7pm he was pretty angry, but even then in the filter of my memory he was reluctant to deliver the whoopin that I surely had coming to me. When my buddy John and I decided to pull a stupid stunt and made the news with it, and nearly got arrested for it, he laughed longer and harder than I did about it. When we would stay at until 3am laying on the hood of his car, or in the street, stargazing and talking about vital, important, 13-year-old things, Dad would just mosey over and suggest that it might, in fact, be time to come home to bed.

 Dad let me learn from my mistakes. I don’t know if it was a conscious decision on his part or if it was just the way he’d been brought up. But he would often talk through a situation or problem or question with me and ultimately let me decide. From what instrument I was going to play in grade school to whether or not to finish up college in Indianapolis. He was not a person of absolutes - everything was to be studied and discussed before jumping in. There were many times I made decisions I know he didn’t approve of. Most of them worked out OK, but he lived with all of them and never ever called me out for making a bad one.

There was an extended period when Dad wasn’t in my life by his choice, and then a period where he wasn’t in my life by my choice. I regret them both. But during that time he never missed a band concert or chorus concert or band competition that he could get to. When I decided in my junior year of high school to go march with an independent Winter Guard, Dad never discouraged me. I made it to every practice in Champaign and Rantoul, through snow and flat tires, and I’ll never know what a hardship that might have been on him (as I’m sure it was). He just did it. Even though he did once ride away on the bus he was chaperoning and leave me stranded at a high school in suburban Chicago -- but that was only until they got to the McDonald’s down the road and noticed me missing.

 My proudest moment with my father, though, may have been the time we sat down at Steak -n- Shake over a bowl of chili and got over the past and put it to rest. It was a critical juncture in my life, leaving all of that garbage behind, and I’m thankful he was willing to do it.

 I’ll cherish every moment that I was able to finally get together with Dad and make music. We did a few things here at church where we sang and he played for Father’s day, and we played in a band that consisted of some fellow church members. We also got to sing in the Danville Barbershop Chorus together, a time we both loved. I’m not sure he knows what it meant to me to be able to do that - but then, I probably didn’t know how much it meant to him either.
 I’m also especially thrilled that he got to see his grandchildren perform on stage by themselves in the summer children’s musical and in the fall with me. I don’t think he talked about anything else for weeks after seeing us perform in that musical. I wish he could be around for the next.

 I was very proud of Dad in the endeavors he pursued in his retirement - helping the Community Action group and serving as an Auxiliary Police Officer. I took to calling him “Officer Ernie”. I think he thought it was a joke, but I really wanted everyone to ask me why I called him that, so I could tell them he was an auxiliary officer. I was very proud the day he took the oath and shook the Mayor’s hand and began his service.

 My Dad taught me many things - never by saying “Here, let me teach you this,” but by example. Some of it was good examples, much of it was bad. For instance, Dad was pretty much hopeless with money. Financial advice is not something I sought from him. But he did teach me the value of hard work, and the value of education. I spent a summer working with Dad at Danville Metal Stamping. It was an education in life, in work, and in the world. Watching my Dad, day after day, doing the same thing - grab a widget, grind a little bit, measure a little bit, grand a little bit, feel it’s dimensions, grind a little bit, measure it in a jig, put it aside and grab the next widget - mind numbingly boring stuff to me. I could not fathom how he did it, day after day. God Bless those who do, because we need those precision parts. But it was something he took great pride in, and to hear him talk about the jets and rockets that could fly because of the little widgets he helped make was breathtaking. At the same time, it made me more determined to finish my education at whatever cost so I didn’t have to sit on a little metal stool, grinding widget after widget. When I think of all of the inconsequential crap that I wanted him to buy for me with his labor, it makes me sad and a little embarrassed. Fruits of labor like that should have been saved for grand endeavors, mighty works, not baseball caps and Big Jim dolls and saxophone reeds. But since then I’ve learned that to a father those little things ARE the grand endeavors, they are the mighty works.

 Dad loved his cars. When it was time for a new car we’d have two weeks of conversations about which cars he was looking at, what the various pluses and minuses were for each one. And we’d talk about the cars he would love to have but were just out of his reach. Then after he’d made the purchase would come dozens of pictures of his new ride. Dad was an avid photographer. He’s probably lost more pictures than I’ve ever taken. We’re still finding boxes full of pictures tucked away in his house. We found pictures I had no idea he even had, that I thought were lost or didn’t exist: Stephen and I and my old Mustang, me singing at a church event with him and Richard and Darrel. In nearly every envelope of pictures, though, there was almost always a picture or two of the sky, or a particular cloud that caught Dad’s eye. He wasn’t just documenting a day, or his trip. He was willing to look up and search out the beauty in the day.
 In looking back on Dad’s life I find a lot to be proud of. He was a simple man, straightforward and uncomplicated. He left a legacy of hard work and music and service to his community. And in spite of his flaws he loved, truly loved his kids, and his step-kids, and his grandkids.

 I know that Ernie would want to be missed, for a while. He would want us to grieve for a bit, but to quickly move on. He wouldn’t want us to be sad at his memory, and eventually we won’t. I’ll think of him all of the time, I’m sure, because his image is all over this town - at every bus stop, in every bar, in every old honkey-tonk song, at every karaoke event, in every airplane and jet that flies overhead. There are many places in town where I’ll always be “Ernie’s boy”, and I am fine with that.

 I tell people that if I ever want to see my Mom, all I have to do is put on a wig and find a mirror. If I ever want to see my Dad, I can look at my sons. And if I ever want to hear him, I just have to sing. So I’m going to leave you with this little thing, this little bit of my father. This little bit his grandfather sang to me, and Dad sang to me and most of his grandchildren.


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