‘Fifties dads were a mass of contradictions.
You’d smoke two packs of unfiltered Chesterfields and drink a dozen cups of black coffee a day if you were under the kind of pressure they endured.
They were the war heroes who avenged Pearl Harbor, crushed the Fascists and the Nazis while making the world safe for democracy. But unlike today, when white adult males are often depicted as benign but bumbling idiots, the ‘50s adult male was portrayed as a near-perfect patriarch. He was Ricky and David Nelson’s dad, Ozzie, and Wally and Beaver’s pop, Ward. He was a fountain of wisdom, dispenser of sage and measured advice, ultimate provider and protector of the castle, which sheltered his adoring and obedient wife and children.
My dad was all that and more. But less, too, because nobody could really live up to that image of perfect manhood.
Born on Oct. 7, 1910, in New York City to a domineering first generation German-American mother and a quiet, sensitive English immigrant father who yearned to be an artist but who made a meager living as a NYC jeweler’s bookkeeper, Herbert began hanging out at Roosevelt Field before he graduated from Flushing High. He was 16 years old when Charles Lindbergh departed from that Mineola, Long Island airfield to begin his non-stop solo transatlantic flight to Paris.
A few months after Lindbergh’s feat, Babe Ruth hit his 60th home run, and the New York Yankees’ Murderers’ Row won 110 games and then swept the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1927 World Series.
My dad, who grew up 10 miles from the “House that Ruth Built,” never once mentioned the 1927 Yankees or, for that matter, baseball. Never once. All he ever wanted to do was fly airplanes.
With no money to pay for lessons, he became an airplane mechanic at Roosevelt Field and begged seat time from any pilot who would give it to him. By age 20, after an hour-and-a-half of logged instruction time, he soloed, a five-minute flight in an American Eaglet.
Throughout the Great Depression (1929-39), Dad continued his single-minded pursuit . By age 24, he earned his private pilot’s license; by 27, he qualified for a commercial license. On June 2, 1941, in what must have been a heady moment for a man of his less-than-modest upbringing, he was hired as a first officer (co-pilot) by Howard Hughes’ Transcontinental and Western Air.
After a little more than a month of training with TWA, he reported to the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla. and on November 5, 1941, he was designated Naval Aviator No. 9360. Two days later, my dad and mom (Virginia) were married. A month later, Pearl Harbor was attacked.
For most of World War II, he was headquartered in Seattle (where my brother Bill “The Eraser” was born in September of 1943) with numerous deployments to Alaska, which included a lot of dangerous, low-visibility, low-altitude flying in the Aleutians, which he always said was great preparation for transatlantic flying for TWA.
In October of 1945, Dad officially became a civilian, packed up his wife and son, and reported to TWA’s hub in Kansas City to restart his airline career. After five years of flying domestic routes from K.C., Dad bid to change his domicile to New York, where Hughes needed hundreds of pilots to operate his airline’s expanded routes to Europe, Asia and the Middle East. So, we (I was born in K.C. in 1946) headed to Flushing in 1950 to live with Mom’s father, while my parents looked for a house in suddenly booming Long Island.
It was in Flushing that I had my first athletic memory. Dad bought Bill and me baseball gloves, and introduced us to the manly art of hardball.
We stayed in Flushing for a year while my parents had a new house built in Huntington on the North Shore of Long Island. We moved in in 1951; my sister, Ann, was born in December of 1952.
The neighborhood kids called my dad “Check,” because as a pilot – and he was always a pilot, even when mowing his weed-infested lawn or working in his basement woodshop – he said “Check” instead of “Yes.”
“Dinner’s ready, Dear.” “Check.”
When he was flying props (propeller planes like the DC-4) to Europe, he would be gone for as much as two weeks at a time, then home for two weeks. Bill and I, and to a lesser extent, Ann, who was born when Dad was 42 and Mom was 36, couldn’t wait for Dad to head for Europe. He was great to have around, but his non-stop involvement in our development grew a little thin after a week of lectures (sex, economics, navigation, weather, astronomy) and activities (knot tying; how to sweep the garage like Booker T. Washington; daily trips to Sears and Roebuck to “shoot the breeze” for an hour with the hardware man; home haircuts in the basement shop, which explained why I was never invited to any parties in junior high; constant etiquette lessons at meals; Morse Code and all manner of tasks which were expected to be performed flawlessly.
An early prototype of the “Helicopter Mom” in pants, he seldom spanked us, but he threatened to talk us to death.
But he didn’t care a whit about sports. He said that he played tennis and high jumped in high school, but since none of us had ever seen him so much as jog, much less run, we were skeptical of that claim. Of course, it’s hard to run with a cigarette in one hand, a cup of coffee in the other and your head in the clouds.
Bill wasn’t all that interested in sports, either. He assembled perfect model airplanes, came home with flawless shop projects that received a permanent place in the dining room (as opposed to, “That’s a wonderful birdhouse, Pencils”… “Mooom, it’s an end table.”) and understood economics (a paper route and a coin collection now worth six figures). Hell, for all I know, Bill might have bought Haloid Xerox stock in 1958 with his paper route dough.
And Ann came along so late (but too early for Title IX) that Dad wasn’t going to push her into joining the local Norton A.C. softball team or playing field hockey with the prep school kids. Not that she would have wanted to. She was prissy – and Dad was thrilled to have a girly girl after two boyly boors – and right from the start an artist. When we were talking about what to say about Dad at his funeral service, which was held in a hangar at Bayport Aerodrome, she said he taught her a lot about color, and his knowledge had helped her as artist.
Bayport was where Dad hangared the 1946 Piper J-3 Cub that he and another retired TWA pilot had flown cross country – Bayport, N.Y. to Oceanside, Calif. with a stop on the way back in Lock Haven, Penn., where the Cub had been built – across seven days and 86 flight hours in late September and early October, a few days before his 70th birthday.
The 65-horsepower, two-seater Cub provided quite a contrast to the 400-seat Boeing 747 Dad piloted on his last flight from London to New York in October of 1970. TWA offered him a big chunk of cash to not train on the jumbo jet which he would fly for only six months leading up to his retirement, but Dad, backed by a union contract, said he wanted to go out flying the best equipment available.
I must have driven Dad up a wall, indifferent to airplanes and mechanical things, and constantly bouncing a ball off every surface from the bedroom to the basement to the garage to the driveway. I was no doubt ADHD, but since Ritalin hadn’t yet been invented, Dad built a ping-pong table. And Dad being Dad the Perfectionist, it wasn’t one of those fold-up jobs that you couldn’t lean on while coming in to field a drop shot. This structure, which lasted more than 50 years, wouldn’t have budged if a 747 had crashed into the house.
I don’t know how many games Dad and I played on that table, but we had a running game through my college years. He played in some hotels in Europe and got pretty good, and he delighted in running me from side to side until I was too tired to bounce off the walls. When you’re seven years old, you can’t reach anything and have to run around the corners. He offered me $20 ($175 in today’s money) if I could beat him. As a third grader, I did; and he paid up. Sixty years later, I still remember how sweet that victory was.
One of the coolest things Dad ever built was a trap door cut into the floor of the closet of the bedroom Bill and I shared. He carefully engineered it so that it would just barely fit the shoulders of an adult. He painted a skull-and-crossbones on it and attached a rope ladder with metal pipe steps leading down to his basement shop. He never tired of putting new visitors – the younger, the better – through the trap door. The trap door, which served no practical purpose, seemed entirely incompatible with my Dad’s whole serious, military personality. But it tickled him and still tickles me when I think about him showing it to my friends.
Another “illogical” thing he did was buy a new silver 1959 Porsche 356. What was a tight-fisted Ford-Plymouth family guy doing buying a $4,000 (about the price of the finned and chromed Cadillacs he detested) German sports car? He said he was sitting in café in Paris watching a race in which all these tiny cars came screaming down a hill before circling at gravity-defying speeds around a fountain. He was captivated by the Porsches, which handled the 360-degree turn seemingly without having to brake. When the racers parked near the café, Dad took a close-up look at the Porsche. It might as well have had his name on it; every detail of the hand-built car was perfect.
Although the silver Porsche, followed by a red 1960 356 and an ivory 1967 911 (which I still own and drive regularly), would plant a seed in me that would grow into a life-long love affair with sports cars, it took years to germinate. I was sports crazy and wasn’t the typical high school kid of the day who was drag racing a modified Merc on Main Street. Dad would take me down to the garage to explain how the internal combustion engine worked, specifically the jewel-like four-cylinder Porsche power plant, and all I’d want to do is run 10 steps into the driveway and shoot jumpers for three hours. I blew so many opportunities to gain my father’s knowledge that I still wish I hadn’t been so hyper, so nuts about games.
But Dad must have recognized that I needed to be playing something all the time. After the ping-pong table, he painted a shuffleboard court on the basement floor. Then, he hung my canball basket (a coffee can with a net from an orange sack, screwed to a backboard) from the basement rafters. I’d get the Street & Smith college basketball issue and play games – Ohio State vs. Cincinnati – by myself, being Oscar on one possession, Jerry Lucas on the next. For hours. Well into the night. Well into high school.
But the most significant structure Dad ever built was our driveway basketball hoop. It was also the most frustrating. I kept pestering Dad to put a hoop up in our driveway. When he finally said okay, I figured I’d be popping two-handed set shots through the cords the next afternoon. But that’s not how Dad operated.
First, there were multiple trips to discuss the project with the Sears and Roebuck hardware man. We had to have the perfect piece of lumber, the right fasteners to go into the brick wall over the garage, the right waterproof primer, the right oil-based paint that would last 100 years or more, and a hoop worthy of gracing the world’s most perfect backboard. Hundreds of pieces of sandpaper, countless coats of primer and paint, and three months later, I had my own hoop. Forever.
For a hyperactive kid with a bad haircut, that basket was often the best friend I had.
Dad’s other notable – but uncharacteristically short-lived – sporting project was the construction of a shooting range in our basement. There were about 30 feet of open space between the furnace and the concrete wall to the side of the ping pong table that wasn’t being put to any use, so Dad, forever wanting to share manly pursuits with his sons – and to get them thinking along the lines of military service – decided we needed to learn to fire a .22. He bought a single shot rifle, some .22 short shells and a bunch of paper bulls-eye targets at, where else, Sears, and then affixed a couple of pieces of thick plywood to the wall and covered it with something like lead.
It was one of the few times that Dad – ever logical and assiduously safety conscious (we had to ride in the car with our outstretched hands on the dashboard of the Plymouth station wagon and pretty much evacuated the house when he turned on his Sears table saw) – seemed to throw caution to the wind. A real rifle range for seven- and 10-year-old boys? Bill and I both already loved guns – after all, it was the time of the Lone Ranger and Davy Crockett – but real ones? It wasn’t long before I misfired (my arms were as skinny as the barrel) and sent a bullet ricocheting around the cellar; Mom quickly put an end to this particular form of male bonding.
Interestingly, the board and target remained on the wall, and if Dad hit a ping-pong shot just right, he could run me into the edge of it. In retrospect, the seldom fired upon target served as a reminder that Dad wasn’t always right. But I had to get well beyond the ‘50s to grasp a concept that inconceivable.
The other male bonding sport that Dad unsuccessfully tried with me was fishing. He bought a J.C. Higgins fiberglass 12-foot rowboat with a five-horse Evinrude outboard motor. Dad offered us a new rod and reel if we caught a fish bigger than his foot. Bill pulled in an eel on his first trip out in Cold Spring Harbor. I couldn’t handle fishing.
The quiet. The being still. The water beckoning me to jump in. The fact that there was no ball involved. Bill and Dad were happy to see me abandon the sport early on.
Baseball, of course, dominated the sports world and much of the popular culture of 1950s Long Island. New York – with the Giants, the Dodgers and the imperial Yankees – was the center of the baseball universe. From 1949 to 1958, one of the three Big Apple teams was always in the World Series, and in all but four years two New York teams played for the title. But Dad, who had ignored Ruth in favor of Lindbergh, could have cared less about the game. To him, aviation was the national pastime.
But despite his indifference and lack of knowledge about baseball, he took us to the Polo Grounds, Yankee Stadium and Ebbets Field. He was a lot happier to have my surrogate athletic father, Art Berger, dad of my best friend, Dudley, up the street, take me to games. But for some reason – maybe to tire me out – he loved to play catch.
He bought himself a big, orange, five-fingered (mine had four fingers) J.C. Higgins glove at his favorite hardware store and as soon as the snow melted, he’d have me out in the yard playing catch. Nowadays, a father would be investigated by social services for tossing a hard object at his kid, but it wasn’t then an unfamiliar sight on a summer evening in the neighborhood for kids and dads to be tossing the ball around. He taught me to catch two-handed, always bringing the right hand over the ball after it had nestled in the glove. His favorite part, though, was when I said, “Throw me a fly, Daddy.” He’d go way down and, underhand, throw it as high as he could, sometimes over into the Vetog’s yard – there were no fences in the neighborhood – and I’d run like a madman and make the two-handed catch. I think he got as big a kick out of that as running me into the corner of the .22 target during ping-pong games.
The offshoot of baseball, of course, was whiffleball, the game two kids could play when the other guys were inside watching television. You didn’t need as much real estate, the balls didn’t break any windows, and you could hit towering home runs that you never could hit in real baseball. Dad didn’t play whiffleball, but he never complained when I mowed baselines into the yard or wore out spots for the pitcher’s mound and the batter’s box.
His attitude towards his lawn was one of his more interesting inconsistencies. He was meticulous about his house, his cars and his pilot’s uniforms, but he always said the purpose of a lawn was to keep the dirt from blowing away. He’d sharpen his lawnmower blade on his emery wheel and carefully cut the lawn following a pre-ordained pattern. But after a few years, he was just cutting weeds and whiffleball dead spots.
When I think about all the athletic things my un-athletic father gave to me (I was never without a glove or a basketball) and made for me, it makes me really happy. Really grateful. Dad was a serious guy who had little time for games growing up and little time for fun when trying to make his way as a young man in a tumultuous world. He went out of his way and his comfort zone to accommodate a kid who had barely a serious bone in his frail body. He probably never realized, though, that the best thing he ever gave to me was what he didn’t give. He didn’t give advice – beyond “catch it with two hands” – about any basketball or baseball technique. He didn’t provide any criticism about a particular athletic performance.
By the nature of his job, he didn’t come to all my games, even when I made the varsity high school teams in basketball and baseball. I loved it when I’d look over my shoulder and see him at a game, but I never felt bad when he didn’t show. When he came, though, I always knew what he’d say after a game and I never, like some kids, dreaded the postgame meeting with my dad. His standard line – win or lose, 4-for-4 or 0-fer – was, “You looked good out there, son. You looked good.”
And I always wanted to go back out there. Not to please him, but just to funnel my inexhaustible energy into something that was fun. And because of what he didn’t give me – fear of failure, fear of letting my father down – I kept going out there long after the cheering stopped, long after the scores appeared in the newspaper, long after anyone cared who won or lost. Maybe Dad knew more about sports than I gave him credit for.
A guy who understood things as complicated and diverse as 747s and trap doors, probably knew a lot about something as simple as sports.