A personal memorial to a life not long enough, by Ken Tkacs, June 2007
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My father entered the world in Bridgeport Connecticut, a son of Nicholas Tkacs and Mary Hluska, Czechoslovakian immigrants. With the exception of his time spent in the Army, he never lived more than a few miles from where he was born. His parents never taught him the language of the “old country,” preferring that the family learn and use English. He had a younger brother, Raymond, and two sisters, Mae and Ruth.
Young Bob Tkacs enjoyed fishing, and would often come home with his catch and hand them to his mother to clean for dinner. One day she told him that if he was going to bring them home, he had to clean them himself, so he tried it. As soon as he saw a headless fish swimming around in the sink, that was it for him. Fish were never seen on our dinner table.
He was an alter boy in church. He once admitted to my brother that he used to cut small chunks from his shoe heels with a pocket knife and put them into the thurible with the incense. During the service, the priest would walk around swinging it and black, foul-smelling smoke would start billowing out. The priest once actually said to him, "Knock it off or I'm going to hit you over the head with this cross!"
He was mischievous, but not 'bad.' Once in high school, he and his friends waited for the second-hand of the classroom clock to reach a predetermined time, at which point they all stood up in unison, marched to the head of the room, picked up the flag, and marched all around the perimeter of the room in single file. Then they replaced the flag and sat back down as if nothing had happened. It was part of a lengthy campaign to drive one particular teacher out of her mind, and it nearly worked.
Dad met my mother while they both worked in a First National store on Boston Avenue. Mom was a 16-year-old cashier, and Dad, 18, was a grocery clerk stocking shelves. He would ‘bag’ for her—in fact, he would get jealous if anyone else bagged groceries at my mother’s register, scaring others away, so she often had to do her own bagging.
On one of the first occasions that my mother ate a meal over Dad’s family’s house, a holiday as she remembers it, the main course was kielbasa. Young Doris had never seen or heard of it before, and my father told her it was snake. Through the entire meal, she forced herself to eat it, chewing slowly. “It just wouldn’t go down,” she recalls.
Dad attended college at the University of Bridgeport, working for his Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration. He was the first person in the family to go to college. While most of the girls at my mother’s Senior Prom had dates their own age, my Mom had the prestige of being escorted by a ‘college boy.’ And my mother remembers that on dates they used to go to drive-in movies, bringing along their brothers and sisters because none of them had cars and it was such a treat.
My father entered the Army in the years when the war in Viet Nam was just beginning, and with his strengths in Business and Accounting, he was made a medic. He joined the Army’s 5th Field Hospital as a Dentist’s Assistant. I remember him telling me, “Here were all these big, tough soldiers who could take a bullet and keep on coming… and yet there they would be in the dental chair and you could hear the screams from the next room. The screams…” He would tell the story while holding a palm up to his cheek as if the memory of those cries still haunted him. I think those were the worst of Dad’s recollections of the 'horrors of war,' thankfully.
Up until this point, I have been recounting events that were
before my time, stories told to me by my parents. But one day, in a
terrible snowstorm in December of 1960, I came into the world, and now I can
begin to tell you about my father from my own heart and memory.
But before we had even finished unpacking, my Godparents sold their house in neighboring Trumbull to us in the fall of 1965 to move to a larger one. This was what my parents had scrimped and saved for, a chance to get their children out of the city and into better, safer schools. We moved in just as I started Kindergarten.
Everything my parents did they did for my brother and me, often to the detriment of their own interests and social life. When we were old enough to join the Cub Scouts, my parents both joined as leaders. As I progressed on into Boy Scouts, my father became a scout leader there. Everything was for us and to be with us.
When Dave & I were kids, Dad did teach us to fish, by the way, but we never took to it like he did. I was particularly squeamish about the whole short-lived practice. We always threw the fish we caught back into the water alive.
One day, we got our first color TV, a big wooden console monster. The first movie Dad put on to watch was "Jason and the Argonauts," which happened to be showing that afternoon.
Dad snored. Loudly. He also liked to sing in the shower. I first heard songs like “The Impossible Dream,” “Que Sera, Sera,” and “Dance with the Dolly with a Hole in her Stocking” from the reverberations coming down the hall from the bathroom.
The Tooth Fairy left my brother and me the most unique notes. They were on blue-lined paper with the “Warnaco” logo in the corner (the place my father worked). The notes were always funny and dotted with my Dad’s unique style of cartoon characters and word balloons, and my father’s handwriting was meticulous and unmistakable. Kilroy sometimes figured into his cartoons, and the Tooth Fairly was often represented by this funny little stick figure with horns and a pitchfork. (In retrospect, I have no idea what Dad was trying to say with that…(?))
One of my fondest memories of childhood was watching movies with my family. We would go to drive-in movies at the “Pix/Candlelight” on River Street in Bridgeport to see Walt Disney and Japanese monster pictures, my brother and I in our pajamas and the car filled up to the windows with snacks so that there was nowhere to move. We always missed the last five minutes of the second feature, though—Dad insisted on 'beating the crowds,' and as soon as he sensed a movie was wrapping up, we had to put the speaker back on the hook, start the car, and make a dash for the exit.
And most Saturday nights, after playing a few family board games and taking a thorough bath (and in the winter, drying off in front of the fireplace), Dad let us watch all the 50’s horror films that played on TV on “Creature Features” (Channel 11) and “Chiller Theater” (Channel 5) with him. My mother wasn’t so interested in those kinds of movies, so it was usually kind of a boys’ night. But it was my father putting on those crazy films that cultivated my lifelong love of science fiction and horror. Forbidden Planet seemed to be showing quite often then, and it still is one of my all-time favorite movies. (It wasn’t until 2001: A Space Odyssey that Dad & I parted ways on this topic… Dad just couldn’t believe someone had made a film about “monkeys singing.” He really enjoyed Logan's Run and Rollerball though.)
Dave and I didn't have G.I. Joes or Major Matt Mason toys or anything like that. Dad considered them dolls, and his boys weren't getting dolls. When we got older, we secretly went out and bought our own with our allowances, especially when the Star Trek and Planet of the Apes 'dolls' were released. (Nowadays, the term "action figures" has been coined to solve this semantic dilemma, but back then, they were dolls.)
My father traded in the trusty family Ford Falcon to buy a brand new 1968 Volkswagen Beetle. I remember being traumatized that we were getting rid of the car we'd had my whole life, and missing that Falcon immediately, so I brought paper and pencil with me to the lot to take rubbings of the car’s details, half in tears. But the VW was fun, too, and Dad hung onto it for a long time. That was a car that anyone could examine, understand, and repair, and Dad and I spent quite a few hours under it replacing and adjusting brake shoes with that crazy little Z-shaped tool, replacing or patching mufflers (annually), timing the engine, and a whole list of things that we wouldn’t have dared do on any other vehicle. He was holding it together with twisted up clothes-hangers toward the end of its run. When the family dog hopped up onto the running board to get into the car, and it snapped right off from the dog's weight, that was the signal to finally retire the VW. Dave remembers that he sold it for $50. That Beetle, more than any other vehicle, was “him.”
Dad used to turn his nose up to automatic transmissions in those days. I remember him saying, "There's just more to go wrong" with an automatic. And also, "That's not driving—it's just steering." He taught my mother how to drive a standard transmission in that VW Beetle, which was notorious for rolling backward down hills in neutral quite freely. My Dad would be hollering and swearing as she tried to steady the car and get it into gear. “It’s not good having your husband teach you how to drive,” my mother warns.
Later I, too, learned to drive in the bug under my father’s tutelage. I can remember trying to steer straight but over-correcting with the wheel, and Dad would say, “Keep it still! You’re not driving a boat!” If you could drive that Beetle with my Dad in the car, you could drive anything.
One of the things I most remember about Dad teaching me how to drive was his advice about predicting and preparing for the unexpected. He told me to be aware of everything around me at all times, especially other drivers, "Then, imagine that one of those other drivers will do the absolute damned dumbest thing you can imagine, and be ready for it." It sounds paranoid, but his advice has kept me safe for years. "It's amazing how often these idiots will do the most stupid thing you can think of." My father always assured me that he trusted me, and my driving, but that "It's all the imbeciles out there on the road that I'm worried about." When I was younger, I'd hear my dad constantly predicting the worst, and often it would happen! I used to speculate that, unknown to him, he actually had some kind of proactive psychic power and was inadvertently causing bad things to happen, and then taking them as proof that he was justified in worrying. Now, of course, I realize that he was right, and that other drivers just really are that stupid.
Back when Super-8 film was the only way to make home movies, we bought a GAF camera and a Kodak deck projector. One of the things we did with these was to make a short series of films called "Strange and Silly Happenings." These were collections of impromptu skits usually revolving around camera tricks: one of us jumping up and down in place and snapping a frame only at the peak of the jump, Dad picking up a prop and acting surprised as it disappeared from his hands, that sort of thing.
My father used to grab old busted up wooden shipping pallets from behind his building at work, bring them home in or on top of the Beetle, and take all the nails out and save the wood. When he had enough, he built my brother and me this nice 8’x 8’ "clubhouse" in the middle of our back yard, with a lapped tar-paper roof & five windows and shutters that hinged along the top edges. Then, because he was terrified that someone from “the Town” would see it from the road and either make him tear it down or tax him for it, he painted it green and buried it on two sides with sticks and branches as camouflage.
In my youth, our annual family vacations usually consisted of four or five days driving around in a neighboring state, seeing the sites. A lot of those vacations were weeks spent in that VW Beetle—we’d put the back seat down and my brother and I would read dozens of ancient comic books that we’d rescued from my grandparents’ basement, hour after hour on the long drives. If we went to a carnival or anywhere that involved rides, my father almost never went on them—he would pressure my mother to go on the rides with us, but he would stay behind and watch all of our stuff. I can’t tell you how many rides I’ve been on where I’ve looked down and waved to my Dad, and there he would be with his shorts & sun-hat, his clip-on/flip-up sunglasses, 35mm slide camera around his neck, holding my mother’s purse and waving back.
Years later when my brother and I had our lives firmly established, my parents splurged a little bit and took several cruise vacations together, usually to the Caribbean, which my father very much enjoyed. I think they helped take him farther away from the worries of the house and job and really have fun. He would even eagerly join in on things like costume parties and was excited about being able to sit at the Captain’s Table for dinner. He threw up over the railing of one or two ships, but the only negative thing I ever heard him mention about the cruises is the depressing fact that one couldn’t ignore the true poverty of these countries if one but looked beyond the cordoned-off boundaries of the resort areas.
My father didn’t like being fully dressed. He’d suit up if he had to leave the house, or if it was bitterly cold outside, but more often than not he’d be tooling around the yard with no shirt or shoes on. It’s amazing to me that he wasn’t perpetually sunburned to a crisp. Dad did a lot of ambitious projects around the house, usually either shirtless or else wearing his old army shirt, unbuttoned. With our assistance, and very often with the help of our Uncle Ray on weekends, Dad re-shingled the roof of the house, made stone walls, built an amazingly solid screened-in back porch, and even jack-hammered up the basement floor to put in drainage, and then made a finished room down there.
We put paneling up in the living room, dining room, and hall. But before we did, my parents gave my brother and me the one & only opportunity to write all over the walls. It’s funny to think that right now, under the paneling in my parents’ house, the walls are completely covered with every crazy thing we could think of to write on them. Too bad, I think we did it in pencil and it’s probably all faded away under there. That was our crazy time capsule. With some of the scrap paneling, my father cut me out a life-size outline of an electric guitar, based on a Partridge Family photograph, so that I could pretend to play.
As high school drew to a close for me, and I still wasn't exactly sure what I was going to do next, Dad found in the newspaper an article about a week-long course at the University of Bridgeport intended to introduce potential students to their Industrial Design program. He encouraged me to try it out. I ended up applying to only that college, that same school that my father had attended for his Bachelor and Masters degrees. Dad strongly discouraged me from considering schools outside of commuting distance. I was accepted, and for the first few years, I rode in with him—the parking lot of his workplace bordered the parking lot of the University of Bridgeport’s Student Center, and so we both rode in each morning in his VW, which was still going strong at that point. We would often eat our bag lunches together in the front seats of that cramped little car, in the Warner/Rexham parking lot. In between classes I would wander around the school library’s fifth floor, reading books almost at random to pass the time, and waiting for him to get out of work so we could ride home together. I read a lot of texts on music theory in those first years, a subject I’d previously known little about. (In my last year commuting to school, I inherited the family’s second car, a dark blue Datsun HB-210, and so could come and go more easily to fit the crazy hours of the UBID curriculum.)
At some point, I ended up usurping most of our finished basement
(and my brother after me). It became my drafting/music studio and a
general hangout for my friends and me. I could easily imagine my
My father was a white-collar man who thought of himself as being blue-collar. He empathized with Archie Bunker. I remember once arguing with him about something, and he said to me, “You think you know everything, ‘college boy,’” as if he were an uneducated day laborer or something. He had an MBA! But it played out like a weird Monty Python skit. He really was a smart guy but he never acted superior or pretended to know something he didn’t. He was even philosophical, but usually not when most people were looking.
I was not what you would call a rebellious teenager. My interests ran perpendicular to the kinds of things that most others my age felt that they needed to do to experiment or explore their boundaries. So if there was one point of major contention between my father and I, it was simply that he wanted the house clean and orderly and I was absolutely incapable of complying with that wish. I wasn't being rebellious; I just didn't have the gene. I still don't. I was constantly 'making things,' models, magazines, cardboard machines, comic books, movie props & sets, musical instruments, paintings, blueprints... you name it. And I never wanted to part with any of my creations.
This drove Dad bananas for many long years, and my mother was constantly interdicting in defense of my developing creativity. Dad sometimes referred dismissively to my creations as "cutting out paper dolls" (although years later he would express genuine respect for the kinds of things I could make or repair with my hands... I think he was just worried at the time that I would let my artistic activities get in the way of more 'grounded' pursuits). I took to keeping my bedroom door closed so that he wouldn't see the piles of my stuff, and he would generally kind of look the other way. But once in a while he would catch a glimpse of something despite himself, perhaps a stack of papers under my bed that had toppled over and spilled out from under the bedspread, and he'd hit the roof. Once, he was so angry that he actually took my bedroom door right off the hinges for a few days as punishment. When things came to a head like this, I did the only thing that I could do: I started stashing my stuff in dark corners of the attic where he rarely went. (It's amazing what's still up there, even to this very day...)
For Dad, the phrase "Everybody's doing it" not only didn't hold any water, but would be all the reason that he would need to go in the opposite direction. If there's anything that most people were doing or believing, then that pretty much guaranteed that it was wrong.
Dad didn’t smoke tobacco or drink alcohol in any important measure. Back in the 60’s when smoking was pretty much the norm, he tried a cigar here or there on holidays, and dabbled with a pipe for a short while—we had a couple of White Owl Cherry Tobacco metal tins in the basement full of screws and nails on the workbench leftover from this brief trial. Once in a great while on vacation or a holiday, he would split a beer with my Mom and it seemed to make him light-headed pretty easily. I remember when I was quite young he gave me a short sip of beer to satisfy my curiosity, and after that I had no desire to touch the stuff until I was well past the minimum legal drinking age. But Dad decided long ago that those vices were not for him.
When the time came for me to leave home and take an apartment less than half an hour away, something unexpected happened. The night I was to drive away with my last boxes, my father walked me out to the car to wish me luck… and cried. The only other time I can remember my father openly weeping was upon his getting the news that his own father had passed away, years earlier.
It was only then that I began to understand why my father didn't want me to go away to college, but rather to live at home and commute. His excuse at the time was that I could save some money that way, but I know now that was not the real reason.
My father enjoyed non-fiction, watching the History and Travel Channels, reading real-life books about gangsters, and the like. He seemed much less interested in fiction, although I do remember him years ago reading “Jaws,” “Carrie,” and “The Omen” shortly before they each became movies, and enjoying those books a lot and passing them on for me to read. He also had a special place in his heart for the TV series “The Love Boat,” especially after going on a few cruises himself.
At various times, my mother & father enjoyed bowling in a league, and throughout the 80’s a regular pinochle game with my parents, grandmother, and some of my aunts and uncles was held at our house. When my parents retired, they began playing cards and cribbage together each day.
Dad enjoyed music, especially soothing music, though he had a special love for the rousing soundtrack to “Victory at Sea.” I think that was one of the first long-playing records that my parents had ever bought (along with an Arthur Fiedler 'Boston Pops' album that I played to death in my youth). He would sometimes conduct the music as it boomed out of our giant wooden console record player in our dining room. He also liked some Western-themed tunes like “Bowie Knife,” “Rawhide,” and the musical “Paint your Wagon.” I’ll never forget the cassette tape that he had of ‘Wagon,’ bought through the Columbia House tape club. One day our tape player “ate,” crinkled, and snapped it early on side-two when he wasn’t around. Worried that Dad would get upset, I quickly pulled out my trusty Radio Shack tape splicing kit and re-sectioned the tape. After that, whenever he played it, we would all start biting our nails, making noise to cover “the spot,” and shooting nervous glances around the room as “The Gospel of No Name City” began to play. Each time the splice went by, taking five or six words of the song with it, my father would have a genuinely puzzled look on his face, but he never said anything about it out loud.
We hid quite a few things from him. One day, a hose on the washing machine broke, with water gushing all over the basement. Rather than upset my father, my Mom started an argument with him to keep him busy until my brother and I could run out, get the replacement part, and fix the thing. “He never knew the HALF of what went wrong around that house,” my mother remembers.
But we did get 'revenge' for many of the things we had to hide from him. A few years later, something went wrong with the shower plumbing; the seats in the faucets were shot. My father didn’t know what to do about it; my brother and I decided we would look the job over and try to determine the problem. So Dave pulled out an electric jigsaw and started cutting an access panel in the back of the linen closet to get behind the works to inspect them. Dad said to my Mom, “Now, I’m not that stupid; somebody’s cutting something in there.” We shut the water supply off and Dave removed a section of copper pipe. We walked it past my father and out into the backyard, making sure my father saw it. What he didn’t know is that one of us was outside, handing that length of pipe back in the bathroom window, so that we could walk the same pipe past him, over and over again, the panic on his face growing with each successive trip.
Dad didn’t mind the pop tunes that played on AM radio, especially while he was painting or working on a house project. He didn’t have any special love for any particular song, he just liked background sound. I remember him one day actually listening to the lyrics of the song “MacArthur Park” (probably the Donna Summer version) and being dumbfounded. “Are you hearing this?” he asked us, laughing and pointing at the radio. “They’re singing about a cake in the rain! Can you believe this?”
He didn’t care at all for Rock music, often referring to it as “Chinese music” (one wonders what he was actually hearing…?). Yet one day, when I asked him to photocopy them, he read the lyrics inside the album cover of Rush’s “2112,” and I remember him excitedly explaining the story to my mother, although in his version of the story the stringed instrument discovered was a violin, rather than a guitar. Of rock musicians, he once said, “They know how to play their instruments, I’ll give them that, but why do they have to look like that, and sing like ‘bah-bah-blah-bah blah!’?”
Dad never really lost his mischievous streak from boyhood. He had a strange little thing that he did with junk mail. Somewhere, he got this picture… it was probably a full-page magazine advertisement that he’d encountered and saved, I don’t know… but it was a page-sized close-up photo of a pig’s face, and emblazoned across the top were the words “It’s a Real Pig.” For years as he sorted through his mail each day; if there was any junk mail that included a postage-paid return envelope, Dad slipped in a photocopy of that ‘Real Pig’ photo and dropped it back in the mail. He always kept a stack of those copies on hand, copies of a copy of a copy of some original image that really made him laugh. And he shared it with anyone who would send him unsolicited return postage. He had always hoped that his little prank was giving someone, somewhere, with a boring job opening envelopes, a pause to laugh for a moment. Also, he took a fiendish delight in making solicitors pay the postage in return for a copy of The Pig.
As a funny coda to this story, years ago my brother Dave went to the Robert Half placement agency for an interview. He sat down across from the representative who pulled out his file, opened it up, and there on top was a copy of “It’s a Real Pig.” Apparently my father had stuffed a copy into a return envelope of what he thought was junk mail to my brother, but the envelopes weren’t anonymous—they were coded somehow—so the Pig that was returned got slipped into Dave’s file. Dad was pretty humbled and apologetic about that.
As recently as 2005, my father's response to an invitation to a reunion was: "Dear Rudy; Sorry for the long delay in responding to your reunion-notice. I had a few issues to work out. Now that my divorce is final, my bankruptcy is resolved, and my son's murder trial is over (he was innocent), I would be most happy to attend our reunion. Best regards, Bob."
For many years, my father enjoyed watching Yankees baseball, right up until the time that Hillary Clinton was elected Senator of New York. After that devastating loss of respect for the people of that state, my father hardly watched anymore, or if he did, only to cheer against New York.
Anything that my father could paint, he painted with gloss battleship-gray enamel—any concrete surface, refrigerator, old furniture, broken tree limb, you name it. Anything that needed attention in our house either got treated with “Neosporin or gray paint” (before Neosporin, it was Mercurochrome).
Dad didn’t like to waste food. He’d eat things that were really
starting to get near the edge just to keep from wasting them. And as
kids, we had to eat everything on our plates. There were a few
nights where my father wouldn't let me leave the dinner table until
everything on my plate was gone, and I really did sit there by myself until long
after the sun went down, staring at something I absolutely did
not want to eat. I was saved when we got a dog; I developed ways of
transferring food from my plate to under the table in ways
that would have made a professional magician do a double-take. The
trick was to do it in such a way that the dog came over slowly, not
bolting to my lowered hand and alerting Dad.
My Mom would make these gigantic pots of chicken soup, like five gallons at a time. Dad loved it. There'd be a huge container of it in the refrigerator for weeks after Mom made some, and Dad would constantly go in there to siphon some off. In the winter, he'd throw the entire pot on the back porch and let it freeze solid; whenever he wanted some soup, he'd go out there and chip off a big chunk of soup-ice, throw it in a bowl, and microwave it back to liquid.
My father wasn’t ‘stingy,’ but he was very careful with money, being an accountant after all. He was never risky with it. He rarely used credit cards and never carried a balance on one, ever. He would save for something before he bought it, not borrow and pay back a loan afterward, and he would pay cash for things wherever possible. He prepared for the things he bought well in advance; he would “accrue funds” in anticipation of a purchase. As soon as he bought a new car, he immediately began saving up for the next one, even if that was fifteen or twenty years in the future. He actually had problems buying cars because he never needed a loan—he had been saving for years and always wanted to pay in full, which either angered the finance managers or made the salespeople suspicious. If he couldn’t pay for it outright, he couldn’t afford it. The idea of living on credit, for him, was pretty much the work of the Devil (not his words).
But Dad understood money, and didn’t want to waste it, especially on interest, which he considered throwing it away. The only real loan he ever had was the mortgage for the house. I remember him paying bills many years ago and announcing, “Boy the bank would really love to see me drop dead [so they can refinance this house].” When I asked him why he'd said that, he explained that my parents had locked in a mortgage rate years ago that was two points lower than what the bank was currently paying out in interest on savings accounts. So the bank kept asking him, "Don't you want to just pay off this loan and get it over with?" but Dad took a delight in letting it go right to the end of the term to get every last cent.
At Christmas time, my brother and I always found plenty of toys and games under the tree, but Santa wrapped them all in newspaper—why spend tens of dollars on rolls of colored paper when that money could net two more toys? As we got older, and when his grandchildren came along, he would be much happier putting money toward their futures than to buy a cheap plastic toy that would be soon forgotten.
(By the way, our Christmas gifts were never tagged 'from: Santa.’ The tags said things like “Ponce de Leon,” “George S. Patton,” “Al Capone,” or names even more way-out. Sometimes the names were riddles that would only be understood after the packages were unwrapped. Those ‘from’ names were all indexed on a list that he’d make each year so that he could keep track of what was in each wrapped package, in case he needed to make a substitution or something, all part of one of Dad's systems.) And none of our toys or games ever arrived under the tree broken or missing pieces (or wrapped in cellophane), because my parents opened and tested every single one before we ever saw them.
My brother reminds me that one of our best Christmases was the year we got a Sears-branded version of the Atari 2600 console. We got a lot of use out of that, many hilarious hours, and even years later, my father would play the Checkers cartridge in his bedroom on the highest difficulty level (he was a good checkers player, chess too).
My father himself really did not want gifts. It was impossible to buy him a birthday, Christmas, or Father’s Day present—what do you buy a man that not only wants nothing, but would get genuinely angry with you for spending your money on him? “Here I am putting money away for your futures and you’re wasting [the equivalent of] it by buying me this junk!” Of course, we had to turn that against him. A few years ago at Christmas, when it came time for my father’s gift, my brother went down the hall and came rolling back with a huge box on a hand-truck, appearing to struggle with its weight. Dad immediately had a deeply worried look on his face, saying, “Oh, no; aw, what did you people DO!?!” But it was just a joke to panic him (and panic is the correct word). I don’t even remember what the gift was—probably his annual Dilbert desk calendar—but it was just a small thing inside that huge package.
And my brother did it again the following year. This time it was,
“Dad, Dave’s gone outside to start your present. It’s in the
driveway,” as if it were a new car or something, and my father’s
face took on that same genuinely terrified look, not realizing that this was
an escalation of the gag from the previous year. It's not that he
was gullible—as I said, he always expected people to do the "damned
dumbest thing" they could think of, so for him, anything was always
He washed the dishes every night in a plastic basin in the kitchen sink, and then carried the waste water out to the compost heap in the backyard so as not to put anything harmful for the pipes (and especially the septic system) down the drain. He called an automated number every day to check the stock prices relating to any of his mutual funds, and wrote the figures down in big spreadsheets. He made a universal grocery list with everything in the store he would ever buy, listed by aisle, and photocopied it, hanging the copies on the refrigerator. During the week he’d circle what was needed and then on the weekend head out with the top copy of the list, his ‘program’ for the shopping trip. He stocked up on canned foods in our cellar as if he were expecting a nuclear war, a depression, or a second ice age.
But for all of his precision, my father could wildly exaggerate, a trait that he has certainly passed on to me. Fifteen seconds was “hours.” Two of anything was a thousand. If there was a tiny scrap of paper on the floor, he would point to it and call out, “What is that log doing on the carpet!?!”
Yes, Dad was careful and meticulous, especially when taking care of us or other people. But he didn't show himself the same concern. He ate poorly and was overweight. He had a deviated septum from a baseball injury when he was younger and never had it fixed, so he suffered with sinus problems his whole life. He ate antacids like candy. He went to a dentist regularly, but never to a doctor—he didn't trust them, especially after the passing of his father. (He was suspicious of car mechanics, too, except for one at the end of our street who did eventually earn his trust.) When in my twenties, I had to have my wisdom teeth worked on, the surgeon wanted to remove all four, but my father argued him down to only the two that were causing problems. He felt strongly that you had to watch and question everything that people do, especially if there's money it it for them to misdiagnose a problem.
Different people perceived my father in widely different ways. Some saw little but the cranky side of him—he worried and complained about everything. Anything you told him or any item that appeared in the news had a potentially terrible aspect that my father would immediately identify. He didn’t want me to get my driver’s license at age 16 because I’d then be called for Jury Duty. He didn’t want to leave the house because there could be a rain storm that would flood the basement. He would even chastise me for putting money in certain bank accounts because of the tax consequences of doing it incorrectly. He would check the oil in the cars and the air pressure in the tires for a trip to the neighboring town, and not because he enjoyed doing it—he’d complain about every burden, real or imagined, that he shouldered.
But others will tell you that he was the warmest, funniest person that they’d ever met (he was voted class clown in High School). I heard my mother describe him as someone who would complain the entire drive to a get-together, and the whole way back, and yet while there he would laugh and enjoy himself and be the life of the party. But you couldn’t get him to go to the next party.
And in the third case, people would see my father as being a comedian but only because they may not have realized he wasn’t kidding. My brother told me a story of running into someone that Dad had worked with twenty or so years earlier. She said, “Oh, he was so funny! Before going on vacation, he would write out a whole list of things to know in case something ‘happened to him’ while he was away… what to do, where to find things…” Dave told her, “Uh, you know, I can just about guarantee that he was serious when he did that.” Dave mentioned it to my father, and Dad went into his files and came back with a copy of the letter!
We attended church every Sunday right up until my brother and I received our First Communions, at which point we all stopped going, cold turkey. Mom had been a church secretary and attended services at her own church regularly before meeting him, but as soon as we ‘got our paperwork and could marry Catholic girls if we wanted to,’ we stopped being churchgoers. He didn’t forbid Mom from taking us to church, but he had a way of making it difficult. (Besides, as kids, if you asked us if we’d rather go to church or stay home and play, which do you think we chose?) I had long assumed that he insisted on us sticking with Sunday school only until our Sacraments were finished to satisfy my grandmother. And yet as my mother will tell you, “He talked to God every day” (though I’m not sure how well some of those conversations might have been received up in Heaven…). He had a box of envelopes and sent money to the church every week, year after year. But he wouldn’t go himself.
If he believed one thing and yet appeared to others to behave
differently, it was, I believe, simply because he was disappointed
in people—not so much individuals, but rather people in general,
whom he often referred to as “sheep.” He despised hypocrisy and mob-mentality. “Too many Christians and not enough Christianity,” Dad
cited to me at an early age, and also, “Every army that ever marched
into war did so with God on their side.” He would tell you outright
that he had more love for the innocent animals, and his dogs in
particular, than for much of humanity, though I suspect that like
Thoreau his criticism of mankind and organized religion hid more
complex feelings. Yes, he would have been very much at home in
Walden Pond, and because of him, I was quite familiar with the
phrase, “Far from the madding crowds” at a very early age. I’m not
even sure Dad ever read
My father had much in common with Charleton Heston’s character in the 1968 satire “Planet of the Apes,” both at the beginning of the film, and also near the end when George Taylor’s disgust for mankind was revealed to be not at all absolute. One can’t truly be disillusioned by humanity unless there was hope and pride there as well.
A father holds a very special place in a son’s life, yet never did I so understand my Dad until, like him, I myself became the father of two young boys carrying on the Tkacs family name. My wife and I gave my first son “Robert” as a middle name in his honor, and I can’t help but feel that I walk in Dad’s shoes, in a way, as I raise my own family.
Because my father, even in my childhood, wanted to attend social events less and less, and since we weren’t even going to church anymore, we began to grow progressively distant from the families. Dad always wanted to spend time with us, doing the things that we four needed or wanted to do, rather than attending every occasion for which we received an invitation. With the exception of his close co-workers and the transient friendships he would make on a cruise ship, he didn’t really seem to feel the need for the company of other people, as time went on on. Even in my teens, I felt the distance slowly growing between us and our cousins and aunts and uncles, and it silently saddened me, but of course one’s own life has a way of quickly filling in with its own immediacy, and before you realize it, you’re off doing something else. My father’s ways had isolated us from the ‘burdens’ of so many family obligations that our idea of family took on quite a small radius.
As an adult with my own family, I’m feeling the same things my father must have felt—there are so few hours after work, so few unclaimed weekends in the year, so few opportunities to spend precious hours with your own children, and so very many invitations and obligations for every little thing, poised to consume all of one’s time with one’s children… yes, I’m different from my Dad, but I feel I have really come to understand why he did many of the things that he did, why he was frustrated by the things that did frustrate him.
The worst part of it all is that as I became an adult with my own family, I think my father assumed that he was now one of those ‘burdens’ on my time himself, and so even though we lived less than an hour away, I didn’t see my parents as often as I should have. He would come over if there was a big job to be done around the house and then leave quickly, never hanging around for dinner or coffee. “Let’s just get this done and I’ll get out of your hair.” In recent years he came up to our house only twice a year at certain holidays.
Knowing Dad as well as I did, I felt guilty even inviting him over! I know firsthand how he groaned and cursed whenever an invitation to something would arrive, anything that popped up to stake a claim on time he hadn’t planned on spending that way. If we wanted to see my parents, we had to do the visiting… and even so, he would say that we ‘didn’t have to come over,’ even if it was his birthday or Fathers’ Day. He would tell me, “I know how it is, you have a family, you have things to do, you don’t have to come over here and waste your Saturday.” But then he would mutter, “Ah, but your mother is always glad to see you, of course.”
And it must be said that my father really, truly loved my mother. He gave her such a hard time all those years, and he admitted it too, but he would always smile genuinely and tell me what a “good girl” she was, especially for putting up with ‘all his nonsense.’ It made me happy to hear stories of their cruise vacations, and of the card games that they would play together each day in their retirement.
We had a good life together. We had everything that we ever needed—time with each other. My imagination would not allow for an end to it.
While grocery shopping on the morning of Monday, June 4, 2007, just before his seventieth birthday, my father felt his left side go numb, and was immediately rushed to the hospital. He had suffered a massive, inoperable hemorrhage in his brain, and soon after being admitted to the emergency room, slipped into a comatose state.
For two days we were given little hope by the doctors, but in the long days following, he rose groggily from his coma and began to respond and talk with us a bit. My mother, brother, and I started to hope and plan for his rehabilitation.
Then in the early hours of June 12, he suffered a relapse and fell back into a coma, and around 8:00 that evening, with his sister Ruth by his side, this world relaxed its loving hold on him, and he drifted away from us for the last time.
Writing down these recollections has been bittersweet. It’s made me smile with remembrance of so many fun times together, but also fills me with an irreparable emptiness, and it saddens me deeply that to recall and write down a lifetime of memories only fills a handful of pages, an inadequate few thousand words to describe my one and only Dad. I love and miss my father and was not ready for him to leave us.
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