My Dad died on Father’s Day, 31 years ago. I was 31 when we got the call that he had suffered an aortic aneurysm.
He was my age, 62, when Kathy and I got married on my parents’ Vermont hillside on July 17, 1971, 40 years ago next month.
These are just numbers, trivial really. But when they struck me a few days ago, they opened a flood of memories. In truth, a lot of memories get lost over three decades. But my Dad, just 5-foot-5, had a big personality.
He was a man with a generous heart, who would bring strangers home for dinner. He was a man with a Vesuvian temper (like the Italian volcano, Mount Vesuvius, we liked to say he tended to “blow”). He was a man who would laugh so hard that tears ran down his face. And he’d not so much shake hands as thrust arm and shoulder forward and squeeze.
To this day, I can’t go to a baseball game or buy a Christmas tree without thinking of him. At games, Gunther Lanson, bald but for a fringe of white hair, would use his distinguished looks to sneak, row by row, inning by inning, to the best box seats behind our team, first the Brooklyn Dodgers, later the New York Mets. (The son of a bank president in pre-Hitler Germany, Dad always rooted for the underdog.)
At Christmas, we’d share a day shopping for candy, sausage and Dad’s smelly cheeses in the long-vanished Yorkville neighborhood of New York’s East Side, the German community that Gunther loved to visit despite being forced to flee his homeland. (Dad was baptized a Lutheran though his parents both were Jews by birth.) A few days later he and I would go out again in search of the perfect Christmas tree, often visiting four and five lots before settling on the right one.
These are old memories, deeply ingrained in retelling. But as Father’s Day approaches, other memories have been cycling through my mind. I’ve been thinking that for all Dad’s colorful characteristics, his flaws and charms, his most significant lesson may have been one of courage, even if he sometimes showed it in awkward ways.
It’s a word that doesn’t immediately come to mind for a man who endured a couple of decades as sales promotion manager for a lighting company, a job he took and kept to support his family. But the stories add up.
When I was 5 or 6 in the ’50s, for example, my family took a ferry across the Chesapeake Bay to Virginia. We were hungry and the line on board was long — except for one completely empty area of tables. My Dad steered us to those seats and then prevailed in loud voice over the manager to get us served. Only later did I come to understand that he had sat us in the “Colored Only” dining area of this Jim Crow boat.
As a young teen, my brother once got roughed up by a couple of older teens. One held him, another punched. Dad tracked the boys down. And with my brother in tow (embarrassed as Hell, no doubt), he confronted them in front of their fathers for acting cowardly.
And when, years later, local teens broke into my parents Vermont home, stealing a rifle my Dad had no business owning and some bottles of liquor, Gunther tracked them down as well. With the help of the local sheriff, he gave them a lecture on being a good neighbor and set them to work cleaning his yard.
By then, Dad had long taken things into his own hands. He left Germany in 1936 by hiking over the mountains into Czechoslovakia. It took weeks of planning as he doctored racing forms to make it look as though he’d lost a bundle at the races and then lined his shoes with the then-immense sum of $10,000. (The ruse was to protect his mother who, for then, stayed behind under Nazi rule.)
Perhaps because his history demanded breaking rules to survive, he sometimes — like on that boat in the Chesapeake — did what he considered right instead of what the law required. At the end of WWII, in which he served in an American Army propaganda unit, he stowed two cousins in the back of a Jeep and snuck them through a military checkpoint to reunite the family. Some 25 years later, he helped a close friend of my brother’s desert the U.S. Army for Sweden after he was drafted and trained to become an interrogator of the Viet Cong, basic training rife with rumors of techniques so brutal that this friend began walking in his sleep.
Some may consider my Dad’s action shameful. I found it courageous because he helped this young man, a Fulbright fellow who was totally apolitical, at considerable risk to himself.
For years, one story has seemed out of place in my memories. It dates to earliest childhood and was that moment when I first realized Dad couldn’t fix everything, that sometimes the world was unjust.
I must have been 4 as Dad and I walked toward the Elmhurst, Queens apartment building that was my first home. We passed two teens — one the notorious neighborhood tough Rene — bullying a third kid, forcing him into a big box and bashing it about. I waited for Dad to intercede — two against one wasn’t fair — and he walked right past.
I never told him how disillusioning that moment was to a small child. But now I am a grandfather of a little girl, nearly 4. And I finally understand what was on Dad’s mind. He was not alone that day, and he didn’t want to take a chance on my getting hurt.
It’s funny how the numbers of life come full circle.