My wife always said her dad was like Superman to her.
A couple of Christmases ago, I gave him a Superman animated bust that I scored at a Nerdist secret Santa party (knowing that my then-editor Brian Walton would have shopped well, I deliberately picked out his gift). It’s still here, in-package, in his former office (his wife, like mine – her daughter – is a doll collector who taught him to keep toys in-box. I alone in the family ignore this). He naturally denied that he was Superman, but he did see himself sometimes as the hero who could save people, and should whenever it was possible. Unlike most people who look at themselves that way, his was a perception extremely well-earned.
I’ll never have his skill-set. But my skills, such as they are, come with the written word. And it’s the least I can do to apply them to the man I had the pleasure of knowing for too few years.
Julia likes to sometimes chide me with the South Park-ish moniker of “liberal hippie douche.” I fit that bill in many respects; so much so that most people who found out I was going to have a career military father-in-law imagined some R. Lee Ermey-like horror story…or Meet the Parents. My father’s family hails from Virginia, where the military often seems like an extension of virulent killjoy conservatism of the social variety; my dad himself was a conscientious objector to the draft, honorably discharged. John, Julia’s father, lied about his age to go to Vietnam early; he became a Green Beret and was later recruited for more covert activities at higher levels, serving under multiple presidents until Carter downsized intelligence operations, and later rehired by Reagan, for whom he had worked security as California governor (and accidentally pulled a gun on when he caught the future president getting up suspiciously early to make coffee for everyone).
I was a twice-Nader voter with tattooed arms and back. You can see how, on paper, this might seem like a flammable match-up.
And then you’d be amazed by how it never was. I have friends all across the spectrum of beliefs and practices; despite what the media likes to tell you, I firmly believe that people of integrity can recognize each other even when they may come from vastly different places. John liked to tell people that I was Julia’s first boyfriend that he didn’t have to run a background check on; I learned from him that the military I had once seen as a homogenized war-making conspiracy was, like everything else, an organization of fallible human beings who sometimes made mistakes but had the highest aspirations. Just as my mind changed on many things knowing him, his changed visibly as I knew him, with his stance on gay marriage particularly evolving as the ban on out service members was lifted. Of course, being a dad, he would say that in fact he hadn’t changed, but we just misunderstood him the first time.
In keeping with his wishes, I will not post his picture online; here, instead, is the closest pop-culture facsimile.
Imagine Pops Muppet as a human and you’re pretty close.
John was what I would call an Eisenhower Republican – convinced people could take better care of themselves with less constricting governmental regulation, yet believing that government had no place in social issues like abortion, and did in fact have a mandate to help the less-fortunate. He was certainly no tie-wearing sociocon – he rarely took off his cowboy boots for anybody, and had no qualms about offending people who he felt deserved it. He met his wife Martha while she, a uniformed LAPD officer, was busting a drunk on skid row; as the suspect reached for what could have been a weapon, he stomped on the guys hand. She stomped harder and broke his foot, later finding out that he was her superior officer and now wanted to ask her out.
The day the towers fell on 9-11, he was reactivated by the government, to be frequently sent overseas into countries that may or may not have names that end in “stan.” He should have been way past retirement age, but remembering the veterans who taught him the guerilla tactics to survive in Vietnam, he felt obliged to pass that on to a newer generation less familiar. He was one of the men who trained Seal Team 6 before they got Osama, and he owned a flask given to him from one of the guys who was later killed in a helicopter ambush. Though career army, he trained Marines, taking no small pleasure in the notion that this partly proved in his mind that army was better. Framed on the wall in this office is a death-threat letter from the Taliban, telling him – who had a fake passport at the time from a fictional country – that they would kill him if he were seen associating with Americans again.
Disdaining most of society’s conventional rules that he was nonetheless sworn to uphold and defend, he disavowed most organized religion in favor of Native American sweat lodges, and counted among his friends many outlaw bikers, federal agents and small-time crooks. He enjoyed watching Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, the latter because one of his hobbies – hobbies! – was quantum physics and he enjoyed the references. He taught me and my brothers how to shoot guns, and had purchased exploding targets that he was planning to let them take out the next time they visited from Europe. (We thought their mother might freak out, but in fact she wanted a lesson also.) His talents extended into areas beyond the battlefield, as he was also expert at concert lighting, and running the Joshua Tree Playhouse Theater, despite being the furthest thing from a drama geek.
John always half-threatened to take me on camping trips where we’d sleep on rocks, if we were lucky, and planned to teach me the manual tasks I’d never learned, like mixing concrete by hand. I always looked forward to showing him some of my DVDs attained by my participation in the Los Angeles Film Critics Association – there are generally one or two war documentaries, and he’s usually a fount of useful information the movies don’t provide. I was particularly hoping this year to get his take on the new Donald Rumsfeld documentary, knowing that he hates the ex-SecDef almost as much as Jane Fonda. I was hoping to recruit him to make viral videos; his reading aloud of the Iron Sheik’s Twitter feed would, I feel sure, have been as hilarious to the casual viewer as it was to us. He even suggested some insults to fire back at Sheikie, most of them involving sex with animals. I wish I could have taken him to more advance press screenings than Ender’s Game, which he found “boring and predictable,” but later suggested I should be kind to anyway so as not to burn any bridges. He worried about that stuff.
America lost a hero this week; the world lost a man determined to make it better (unlike so many, he liked and understood Muslim culture and worked to bridge the understanding gap); but more directly, my wife and I lost a man who was at the center of our world. Feeling a tingling in his arm , he went to the hospital; his last words were, “Take my damn phone, I feel dizzy.” And then he was gone in an instant, like he would have wanted.
Julia worried about never having said goodbye, but John never said goodbye. Every phone conversation I ever had with him, he would sign off with, “Have fun, you guys.” I think if he could have chosen his last words knowing they were it, that’s exactly how he would have signed off the mortal coil.
I never told him I loved him; I thought that would develop in the next decade or so, as this seemingly indestructible, mid-sixties man (he tended to fudge his age a bit so I ‘m not sure what it really was) would be around a while. My own father, who has a degenerative brain disease, was the one we were bracing for.
One of the last things we all did together was see Will Forte give a live comedy performance on the Santa Monica pier; I had met Forte earlier at a Nebraska screening and he offered us the tickets, generously allowing us to bring John too. John hated crowds, and had since Vietnam, but he went, and we left directly afterward; John claimed indigestion, but I now think he was concealing something worse, putting on a brave face as he always had. We had helped produce an elementary school play earlier in the day with actress Ariel Winter, and enjoyed that; he just didn’t have the energy to last a whole day any more.
Julia’s birthday is this weekend, and Christmas is within two weeks. There has been very little time to emotionally prepare for his not being there. We’ve canceled the birthday plans, and have to come to terms now with the fact that whatever number our anniversaries are in the future, that will also be the number of years without a dad.
I saw him lying there in the ER, nobody home in that body any longer, and could only think of the numerous corpse dummies I’ve seen on the sets of horror movies. Like his cinematic hero John Wayne, he died with his boots on…but we kept them afterward.
I don’t think they’ll ever be filled.
(We should return to our regularly scheduled programming tomorrow)