Nearly a month ago, my pal Jake posted a comment asking if a certain park was named after my dad. The park is actually a practice field for lacrosse—not even a game field—but it happens to be located in prime real estate for 35MPH, eye-wandering traffic, so the memorial sign gets noticed.
My dad started the high school lacrosse team in our hometown. It soon became a popular sport, especially for long-haired guys who didn’t quite fit in with the football team, who smoked pot but were still athletic, the ones straddling the worlds of jocks and druggies.
Poppa was a lacrosse evangelical, even bought a neon orange van with action-packed lacrosse players painted in black, which he drove to neighboring suburbs, spreading the good word of the “fastest game on two feet.” He said he played lacrosse with Jim Brown at Syracuse, and—who knows?— maybe he did. I never really knew when he was embellishing and when he wasn’t. Like when he was chased by buffaloes–was it true? Who knows.
More than being a lacrosse coach, he was a talking head. An expert on aviation safety. He was quoted in nearly every major magazine and newspaper: Time, the Washington Post, the New York Times, even People and Playboy. His likeness appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal in one of those pixilated etchings. He was on 20/20, all the network news programs, and 60 Minutes. One night in college, while drinking at the Junction, I looked up at the TV set to see him on Nightline.
He founded and ran a nonprofit agency that kept track of aviation safety hazards. If there was a plane crash, my dad was certain to be on TV or in the paper or both. Although he hated being called the Ralph Nader of aviation—I think it grated on his Republican nerves—that’s what he was.
He was larger than life and a wise-cracking curmudgeon. His conversation was punctuated with idiosyncratic catch-phrases: “Keep yer air speed up!” when saying goodbye; “Cheated death again!” when returning from a trip. When he wanted me to hurry up, he’d say, “Mushy, mushy.” When he wanted us out the door, he yelled, “Rauschmidt.” I assume he was speaking German in the latter case, though I couldn’t find a translation. And “mushy, mushy” is probably another language he hadn’t studied, like Russian or something.
He was a test pilot in the 1950s, specializing in low-level flying. He had a leather bomber jacket and aviator glasses. He had an orange flight suit that he wore on occasion. He was The Right Stuff.
He was not given to taking orders, which would explain his short but varied military career, and the multiple jobs he held before he settled on his nonprofit group: a job at IBM, another at OSU, seller of soft-serve ice cream machines and Bellanca airplanes, a science teacher, and a substitute for my kindergarten class. When he taught my class, we made mobiles out of straws. Another time, he took the entire class flying in groups of four and five. Imagine how my popularity increased after that.
He loved flying more than anything—even more than his own kids, a boyfriend of mine would later argue. Although we never had any money, he always managed to get access to a private plane. He scrunched all five of us into his doctor-friend’s Bellanca, taking us to business meetings or air shows. He had friends who performed aerobatics and flew with them during shows, spiraling out of the sky, looping upside down and around. I wouldn’t let him do this when I was in the plane, but my brothers and sister were subjected to many stomach-hurling stunts.
If he knew where you lived and was flying near your house, he would go out of his way to “buzz” you–flying low, just above the trees in your backyard so that you could hear him. One of his friends later told me that he flew upside down along the East Coast so that he could get the best view of the cities below. He was fearless.
He made me laugh. He had a signature picture that he drew on notes he left on the kitchen counter–a circle for the head and two arched eyebrows, sans the actual eyes, a pipe sticking out of the half-circle mouth, a single hair sticking up out of the head.
He demanded good manners out of all of us–waiting for everyone to be seated before eating, no elbows on tables, napkins on laps, no shouting or talking with a mouthful of food. But he could be utterly uncouth on his own. He called women “broads.” He would hack up phlegm and then yell “Goober!” and spit out the window of the car, horrifying whoever sat directly behind him. He once made a list of boys I had dated and posted it on the refrigerator without my knowledge, only to show it to the guy I had a date with that night.
[I find myself needing to take breaks as I write this. How do I talk about someone I knew for 32 years, who so complexly shaped everything I am today? Did I really know him? How does any child write about a parent? It is complicated. ]
Women found him attractive. When I was younger, I found this attraction perplexing, given that he was overweight and had a Roman nose (or, as I once mistakenly called it, much to his amusement, a Roman Catholic nose), and he had five kids. But he was never without a girlfriend or a wife. And I don’t know if he ever had both simultaneously, but I wouldn’t put it past him. He was an audacious flirt.
He had cheerily said “when our ship comes in…” so many times that by the age of 10, I realized we were, after all, land-locked and there would be no ship. He made acquaintances with minor celebrities—Robert Conrad, Ed Asner, John Denver—who supported his cause but they didn’t donate much. We were always just pennies away from losing the house. Topic one on the agenda of the dreaded semi-annual “family meeting” was bankruptcy. These meetings scared the crap out of me. What was I to do? Stop eating?
Yet he taught us to be stubbornly independent, to require little training before taking on a task, to ask few questions and learn on our own, to get out there with the rest of them guppies. “Talk is cheap.” It later came back to haunt him, as that stubborn independence drove each of us, at our own times and in our own ways, away from him. As I said, our relationship was complicated. We weren’t speaking when he died, something I will regret for the rest of my life.
On December 13, 1992, he left a message on my answering machine, wishing me a happy birthday and telling me that he loved me. I didn’t call him back. On January 3, 1993—15 years ago today, he died of a sudden heart attack while shoveling snow.
Let that be a lesson to all reading who still have parents.
Goop. He was called Goop by his lacrosse players, a nickname he picked up in college. When I was 14, I started calling him Poppa. I don’t know why. I guess it seemed quaint to my sensitive ears. Maybe I needed my own name for him to make a place in his heart, away from the Goopness that surrounded him. When he told me that he loved the sound of Poppa, because this is what he called his own father, I hardly ever called him dad again.
There are more stories to tell, like his before-the-Internet-was-the-Internet invention, the ancient modem in our house, the fundraising gimmicks he came up with (foil prints of airplanes!—boxes of them—that languished in our garage), his tobacco-chewing phase, his slightly anachronistic fondness for Genesis and Yes and Roger Whittaker, and the dreadful (really, it’s awful) book whose lead character is modeled after him.
A life well lived should be full of stories, shouldn’t it?