I suppose some people would find my father’s behavior embarrassing.
I’m sure some frightened people were probably tempted, at first, to call the cops when they discovered him on their front lawn early in the morning playing happy birthday to them on his trombone. By his own admission, his old battered instrument from college could never deliver that pure sound he hoped it would. But if he was on your front lawn, it was played with such reckless abandon that it was easy to see it represented 75 more trombones gathered together in a parade in your honor.
Despite his unorthodox approach to life, my father has four grown children who see such acts of off-tune love quite remarkable. To say we are proud of Dad is an understatement. No one else had a dad who wore an umbrella hat in public.
He was a trendsetter for us. It was during a family home evening that my dad taught us the sweetness of the “slow roll.” My mom, who was always a grown up, was giving the lesson when my dad started to rock back and forth slowly on the floor on his back as if in a giant infant rock-a-roo.
We sensed something important was afoot and we each quietly slipped to the floor and began rocking back and forth until my mother looked up and discovered us. She initially took offense, but eventually was able to see the great compliment it was to her to having her family “rocking out” to her teachings. It was like dancing in the rain at Woodstock.
Dropping and rolling in public as a way of greeting each other became a family tradition. We did it at airports. We proudly did it on my grandpa’s front lawn. He never really understood completely what my mother saw in Dad and he was confused by the powerful influence he had over his children. That made the act even more sweet.
We all knew Dad would back us at all times — sometimes in the strangest ways. When I took over a paper route in Seattle and discovered the “paper shack” where we collected our newspapers before delivering was run by a bully, my dad came up with a solution. I would go there on the first day and my dad would park around the corner. I would be pleasant until the bully crossed me or even accidentally bumped into me. At that point I would go crazy beating the living daylights out of the bully until my father drove up, jumped out of the car and forcefully threw me in the back seat. He would then apologize profusely.
“I’m so sorry,” he would said with an exhausted tone. “My son has such a temper. We’ve had to move three times this year. The last time this happened he nearly killed some poor kid at school who cut in front on in in line at the lunch room. Please accept my apologies. It won’t happen again.”
It was a cool plan that would have worked but we couldn’t figure out a way for me to successfully prevail against an accomplished bully for 10 to 20 seconds until my father arrived. We had fun playing out the scenario in our heads, however.
He never would have really done that anyway. He, who was a journalist, taught us that there was great virtue in trying to deeply understand a viewpoint that was foreign to your own. He saw no virtue in a political debate process that celebrated a leader’s ability to be disagreeable.
It was my father that taught us that if someone was sitting alone, looking uncomfortable and out-of-place in blue jeans, that it was our duty to help him or her feel welcomed and valued. He is a champion of the underdog and if everyone had lived life like he did, there would be no big-box stores, just little ma and pa stores, filled with penny candy and long licorice whips.
Now, my father is feeling the effects of aging but he doesn’t have to beg us to go see him. We love to laugh with him. He still models, however, what it means to have integrity at all costs and takes pride in our own off-the-wall accomplishments. When I engage strangers on the bus to brag about how I made the natural transition from rodeo to synchronized swimming, I know he would be proud.
It’s his fault we are the way we are, and he’s the reason we are proud to be that way. When all the honest trombone players who reverence neighborhood grocery stores are gone, someone has to be left to carry on the torch, root for the little guy and buy the umbrella hats. None of us can play the trombone, but truth be known, neither could my father. But he could sure make sweet music in our lives and, for us, that’s something worth a proud tribute roll or two in public.
I wonder where my umbrella hat is.
Steve Eaton can be reached at Eatonnews@gmail.com