Listen: as a four-year-old, you can’t deduct and reason your way out of the mystery of Who Is Santa Claus.
What my sister and I did was sneak out after bedtime to hide beneath the couch in the living room. This was base housing in Tacoma, row after row of identical ranchers. A simple couch in the simple house of an enlisted man.
We waited until a tall man, a giant to us, came into the room and put present after present under the tree.
And as a kid who didn’t talk except to Pam—my sister, interpreter and guardian—this was a brave and grand adventure. I used to stand in front of the fridge until Pam came along, opened it and took out the food I pointed at, with petrified carrots under my pillow as a long-term food supply in case something happened to her.
Hiding under that couch, waiting to learn the identity of Santa Claus, was one of my first memories.
Because hiding under that couch was how the huge mystery got solved: Santa Claus was our father.
This only added to his mythical status to me. He wore an Air Force uniform and disappeared at work for long shifts. All we knew was he worked on F-15’s and other military jets, like the bombers his father flew during World War II and the Cold War.
That he rode motorcycles, could pick us up like we weighed nothing, ate Daddy Go to Work Sandwiches and seemed to know everything.
When the military transferred us to Germany, and then the Netherlands, he drove us on weekends in a white VW van with a kitchen sink and room to sleep. We visited castles all over and saw a lot of Europe, with my sister taking the wrong train once and heading to east Berlin before the Wall fell.
We had a dog that was already trained, so you had to speak Dutch to it to have it sit, and base housing in the Netherlands was unlike any military housing on the planet, with nice brick houses that weren’t boring boxes thrown up by the lowest bidder.
It was an adventure, and I can still recognize F-15’s and F/B-111’s by their profile in the sky or the sound they make roaring overhead. I remember watching second-run movies for a dollar at base theaters, mowing lawns to make money and going to see Star Wars or Indiana Jones once a day all summer. Why not? It was a buck.
I remember my father telling me crazy GI stories, like the one where enlisted men would always drive across Lake Champlain during winter when you could go from base to Burlington, Vermont, except people always had to push it, every year, and drive when the ice was too thin. There’s a fair number of pickup trucks that fell through the ice.
This is the father I knew growing up. The one my wife and son never got to see.
By the time my wife met him when we were in college, he was a disabled vet, long retired, and already sick–diagnosed with cancer when I was in high school.
Our son didn’t see him until ten years after we got married.
So this isn’t an obituary, which I find dry and boring. I wrote plenty of those as a journalist. Obituaries are usually a series of dates and places, recitations of facts that really don’t tell you anything about the real person.
And I’ve seen enough people die by now to have some thoughts about it beyond the raw emotion of grief.
I went through all of my grandparents dying. Some fast, some slow. Losing my grandfather was especially hard, and I’m bothered by the fact that I can’t remember if he flew B-24’s or B-17’s in the Pacific, though I know he flew B-52’s for decades after the war and once had a heart attack mid-flight, with a load of nuclear bombs, and landed on a dry salt lake in Utah.
Robin Boyes, my mentor on speechwriting and rhetoric, found alone in his home, every room filled with books. My boss, Jim Richards, dying unexpectedly last year, right before his son’s wedding.
And I believe two things: that everybody has a list like that, a list that keeps growing year by year, and that your list never gets lighter or easier.
You don’t just mourn the inability to see them again, to talk or laugh or go on a trip. It’s the loss of everything they could ever do, or should have done, with or without you.
I miss the stories my father told about growing up on the farm, like the cow named Stupid that his brother rode, pulling its tail to go left or right and straight up to stop, which worked fine until the cow ran too fast and pulling up made it stop too fast and my uncle flew into a pile of manure.
When he needed my labor after he retired from the service, he’d yell for me and say he required my strong back and weak mind. We re-roofed a barn that’s now falling down and fixed the carburetor on the Plymouth Fury I drove in high school, a beast of a car older than me, one he bought new and put into storage when we moved to Europe.
That car never ran right after we fixed the carb. Tended to stall and die all the time. But I’ll always remember doing that with him.
He was terrible on the phone but great at stories and jokes, and incredibly social when I was growing up.
My wife and son never really got to see him at full strength like that.
So this isn’t for my father, who’ll never read it.
This is for Pam.
This is for my brother Nate, for my wife and son.
And it’s for me, to remember that he was a soldier, a father and will always be Santa Claus.