As a young kid growing up in Highland Park, Illinois, my mother wore the pants of the family but my father as sole breadwinner and figurehead ran a pretty tight ship. God willing he will be 90 years old on August 11th of this year. That’s a pretty long voyage to take in a human body/physical vessel that has seen so many ports and played so many sports. For example, I know my father grew up in Milwaukee and was in the Navy during World War II but I’m not sure if he really logged much time on an actual boat. Family legend and local folklore suggest he may have spent more time playing baseball and football in the service than shipping out on naval warships or swabbing decks in stormy seas. My guess is that he was a valuable third baseman (and maybe back-up quarterback) for the Navy intramural team, but not much of a competitive swimmer. Or perhaps like me, CaptCliff, he could have been prone to seasickness, only made worse by the smell of diesel fuel and dead fish not already grilled in olive oil and lightly sauteed with garlic at a good seafood restaurant in Chicago. However, one old photo of my father in his Navy uniform at Great Lakes Naval Station does confirm that he looked pretty damn sharp in his seaman duds ala Frank Sinatra or Gene Kelly in the movies Anchors Aweigh (1945) and On the Town (1949). Even without singing or dancing like Sinatra or Kelly my dad looked amazingly young, thin, and handsome back then and even wore his starched white Navy cap in the same cool-cocksure way they did.
Most similarities to my father end there, however. In fact, some of the contrasts in our respective personalities are rather striking. If I was a rambunctious hyperactive kid and wannabe pirate, he was the highly disciplined and steady sea captain. While I couldn’t sit still for any length of the time, aka constant “shpilkas”, he could sit for untold hours at his desk in the upstairs study paying bills and carefully mapping out his plans for a productive and highly successful life. I was a creative but consistently procrastinating student of life with a TV/movie/book-fed fascination with irascible pirates, tropical islands and buried treasure (minus any associated seasickness). Frankly, in my case, the term “highly impulsive” comes to mind much more easily than does highly disciplined or well-organized. Indeed, my father was and still is a tried and true “Captain of Industry”, a man who patiently went over the “numbers”, balanced every checkbook and took calculated risks to grow both his bank accounts and his chemical business (Mazer Chemicals). He did so while also advancing his personal knowledge and involvement in various conservative causes and political organizations. At the same time that my father steered the family ship through various economic storms and squalls of stress, I was often more interested in blowing up plastic army men in the backyard, imagining myself as the Lone Ranger or Superman and intermittently starting small fires in the basement.
As a single father myself, I now ask myself, “how did he do it?” To my ever observant young CaptCliff eyes, my father kept his private quarters exceedingly ship-shape and spit-polished. His bedroom closet was a mariner’s wet dream of efficiency and organization. His pants, shoes, and shirts were always lined up and standing at attention. He used only high quality wood hangers, like the ones you would see hanging in the expensive menswear stores but could only acquire if you bought a suit or sports jacket. In contrast, due to an undiagnosed attention deficit disorder (ADHD) and a pretty obvious case of absentminded professor-itis, my possessions disappeared on a regular basis, only to reappear immediately after my mother finished yelling at me for losing “everything” and keeping my room like a “shit house rat” (whatever pitiful species of rodent that was). I really thought that God or my “stuff” did that to me on purpose just to get me in trouble, like the Beaver in the TV show “Leave it to Beaver” or “Dennis the Menace”. Today both of those kids would be diagnosed as having ADHD and in desperate need of stimulant medication and a possible spanking. They just didn’t know about such things back then, except maybe for the spankings part.
Oddly, the most conspicuous example of my father’s shipboard sense of order were his “shoe trees” which looked nothing like any trees I was familiar with in nature. While I was out looking for buried treasure, my dad was making sure his shoes were polished and stowed properly with their shoe trees in place. I never completely understood the darn things but even way back then, more then 50 years ago , I sensed that they were potent symbols of my father’s core qualities of strength, order, consistency, and structure. Being born in August, my father is a true son of Leo the Lion, both astrologically and psychologically speaking. In fact, his shoe trees could have served as his personal insignia on his Crusader coat of arms. Those clog-like wooden devices with articulating plastic handles spoke volumes about his conscientiousness, his stubborn yet strong sense of purpose-direction, and his uber-masculine identity. Of course as a child of Libra myself, and a very distractible one at that, the transcendent meaning and florid symbolism of my father’s shoe trees were utterly lost on me. To the curious , always exploring cabin boy Cliff they spoke to me only through their cedarwood scent mixed with a hint of Old Spice aftershave, a smell I still associate with my father today. Visually, the shoe trees lined up perfectly on their shelf reminded me of Pinnochio’s puppet feet and Gepetto’s skillful handiwork. Well engineered yet functional, those shoe-tree gizmos seemed like they could have been studio props from a Disney movie or something from a Grimms fairy tale. Such were the subconscious musings of a young boy who loved his father dearly but no doubt saw him or spoke with him not enough growing up for his own good.
In the end, those sculpted shoe trees that describe my Dad so well just represented five extra steps to skip in my rebellious adolescence before throwing my shoes in a haphazard pile at the foot of my bed, even as my custom closet in the suburbs beckoned me to use her for her designated purposes (which of course included a shoe rack). Either way, I know my father, both as a man and as an unusually well organized sea captain in my metaphor-laden life story will leave very large shoes to fill when he is gone. Of course I still prefer to fill them with my own two feet with unusually high arches, my ADHD-infused creative nature and my chosen career path as an “out of the (shoe) box” Clinical Psychologist and part-time Pirate.