I never knew my father. He died before I was old enough to even have memories, killed in an industrial accident after surviving World War II.
For the first eight years of my life, my mother tried to fill the void by telling me about my father. Her memories and a box of black-and-white photographs provided the only knowledge I had of the man who provided part of my genetic makeup and all of my name.
By the time my mother remarried, my eight-year-old mind could not grasp a replacement father. My stepfather tried but I never gave him a chance. My father lived in that box of photos and my mother’s words.
As I got older I learned more from my grandmother. She outlived all of her sons. None made it to 30. Sometimes I wondered, given family history, if I would make it past three decades. Remembering some of the stupid stunts of my youth and the chances I took as a young man with too much adrenaline, it’s a miracle I did.
My father was Florida born and bred, a mixture of Scot, black-Irish and Seminole Indian, a tall, lanky man with coal black hair, a quick grin and a hair-trigger temper. Out of all that, I inherited his temper and a thick head of hair. Unlike him, I lived long enough to see that black hair turn white.
He was a Navy Electrician’s Mate who served in the Pacific. His last deployment was on the U.S.S. Missouri, the massive battleship built to avenge Pearl Harbor. He stood with his shipmates on the deck of the Missouri in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered to Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
When he returned to his home base in Norfolk after the war, he met Ethel McPeak, a young civilian Navy clerk who shared his passion for Harley-Davidsons and rode with one of the first women’s motorcycle clubs in the nation. They fell in love and he proposed.
They shocked my grandparents by riding into Meadows of Dan on their Harleys. Walter and Zella McPeak had no idea their only child had fallen into the “motorcycle culture” and the sight of their daughter clad head to toe in leather and riding a bike caught them off guard. Several of the photos in that box of memories show my dad and mother astride Harleys.
My parents married and settled in Florida, where I came along in 1947. My father worked as an electrician with his friends and relatives at the phosphorus plant in Gibsonton — Gibtown to the locals, the winter home to carnival workers who spent the off-season months honing their attractions in the sandy yards of the town south of Tampa. He and my mother continued to ride their Harleys.
One day, nine months after I came into this world, he worked on an electric motor at U.S. Phosphorus and another employee – one of his best friends – thought he was finished and clear and turned the power back on. A faded newspaper clipping in that box of memories described his electrocution.
We moved to Floyd five years later. Some youngsters have imaginary friends. I had an imaginary father. I wore his Navy dog tags around my neck. We talked. He gave me advice. From the pictures, I knew what he looked like but I had to imagine the sound of his voice.
By the time I became part of another family, I was steadfastly my father’s son – the one with the last name that didn’t match the surname of my five brothers and sisters, my stepfather or my mother. It was a badge of defiance that I wore with pride and stubbornness.
Over the years the defiance faded but my pride of carrying the name of the father I never knew did not.
So Happy Father’s Day Dad.
I may not have known you but I know all that I can about you.
And, in the ways that matter, I am you and I will always be proud that I’m your son.