The Reverend Bruce Clear
My Classmate, My Friend
(This is a sermon I delivered on Father’s Day, 1998, at Michael Servetus UU Church in Vancouver, WA. Their minister at the time was Rev. Bruce Clear, a paragon of fatherliness. Now in assisted living at Hooverwood Home, Indianapolis, IN.)
(I was living in Portland when this was written.)
In the last couple of years my apartment and the one behind it have acquired renters with little kids, pre-schoolers. As soon as the one across the back alley moved in, I could hear his little voice now and then, piping “Where are you, Dad? I love you, Dad!” The apartment over there has long steps zigzagging down the back from floor to floor and I’d hear his little feet coming down one stair at a time, pat, pat, pat. Evidently his father was leaving in a car, because his big male voice would come back from out on the street, “I’m leaving now but I’ll be back. Goodbye, son.” And the little voice would answer, “Goodbye, Dad! I love you, Dad!”
The single mother downstairs also has a little boy. She moved in when she and her husband divorced. Evidently they have joint custody and she works a late shift, so the father takes the boy with him and brings him back way past midnight. She refused to give the father a key, so the little boy and his dad would wait under my bedroom window in a little service alley.
Half-waking, I’d hear them out there, talking quietly. These folks are not at the high end of the income scale. Once dad showed up drunk, judging from the sound of his voice, but the son acted just the same. “Dad, Dad, look at this bug!” “That’s a beetle, son. Beetles are good. We won’t kill it, we’ll just look at it.”
But on another night he came alone, drunk, and the mother wouldn’t let him in, so he broke a window. There were hours of shouting, which made the boy cry. The mother has a tendency to acquire boyfriends whom she leaves in charge of the little boy, men who yell at the boy and throw the furniture around. One was particularly bad. I don’t know if he ever struck the child, but I finally went to the manager and pretty soon the boyfriend left. I didn’t go directly to the woman, who was very thin with a great mass of bleached hair.
Then HER dad began to take a hand. He kept the little boy for a while over at his home on the coast. There evidently is no grandmother. When he brought the boy back to stay with his mom again, the boy cried, “No, granddad! Don’t leave me here! I want to live with you! I love you granddad!" The mother wept. The boy finally stayed. He’s older now, but when his dad comes, he still rushes out with his arms wide, yelling, “Dad, Dad! I love you, Dad!” And his dad’s voice is full of joy, too. Not often drunk.
This is thinking about Papa men on a pretty basic level, down where families make it or break it. This is about managing intimacy and making a living. Today’s dads often seem to me almost like kids — most of them are young enough to be my sons, struggling along trying to understand what it is they ought to do. I’m on several email lists, one on the environment and one for Native Americans. They openly recount their attempts to address what they can’t control.
I don’t often actually SEE “the little guy,” which is how I think of the boy downstairs, even though I know his name. As it happens, I can hear almost everything that happens in his apartment so I know a lot about him. When he gets really crabby and cries, I play my “Amazing Grace” bagpipe CD. When he sounds as though he’s in danger, I sit by the phone ready to dial 911, When he’s “up” and laughing, I smile as I work. He doesn’t know any of this.
Recently some company came, relatives who included the little guy’s cousins, also boys about the same age. These people had been in the armed forces overseas and I have learned to think of them as a type, a class of people in our society — peacetime warriors from an integrated military that is used to being an in-group on alien territory. We hire them at the city sometimes. They often speak German or Russian. They have a strong notion of what a family is and how it ought to act, but they don’t allow much room for people who get in the way of their families. The first night they had a great time talking and putting away pizza and beer. The next morning, all the little boys were up early and sent outside to play so the parents could sleep longer.
The little cousins soon organized marching sorties, then raids down the sidewalk into foreign territory. “Hup, two, three, four!” I hadn’t heard that in a neighborhood since I was a kid. And that gun noise that I never managed to make properly. “Ksccchhhhew!” When they left, I didn’t miss them but the little guy said he did.
A year or so ago, I went to a meeting after work and came home on a late bus. I got off behind a man and a child who was sleeping on what must have been his dad’s shoulder. His dad was wearing an earring and his hair was long. He looked a little bit tough, which surprised me. When I had only heard him, he didn’t sound tough. As I walked behind them, I realized that it was “the little guy downstairs” and his dad, who was also carrying a heavy gym bag. I had a heavy load, too, so I didn’t offer to help him and I don’t really know him anyway.
But when we got to the apartment entrance, I went ahead with my key to open the door. “He’s almost too heavy to carry,” said Dad. “But I can do it.” And he did. He still does as the boy grows even heavier.
The boy across the alley continues to call out, though his legs are much longer now and he can come down the stairs quickly, “Where are you, Dad? I love you, Dad!”
And Dad answers in his deep male voice, “I’m right here, Son. And I love you, too.”