When a father gives to his son, both laugh; when a son gives to his father, both cry.” — William Shakespeare
Ask people about heroes, and you will hear a small number of names again and again. Martin Luther King, Jr. comes up a lot. So does Mother Theresa. And so do mom and dad, often for reasons that aren't clear to anyone other than their progeny.
The psychology behind that phenomenon is pretty obvious. Parents are more than our first role models. They are our first superpowers, our first gods.
Towering above us, these exalted beings hold our fate in their hands. They reward us, punish us, protect us, mystify us, and sacrifice for us. When we are small, they are heroes of the first rank. But as the years go by, they fall from grace in our eyes. To establish our own identities, we are forced to rebel and to look elsewhere for heroes.
But for many people, the deep-down longing for heroic parents persists. Even if our parents are almost entirely lacking heroic qualities, we honor their quieter virtues and cherish the few stories that cast them in a noble light.
It's no wonder that many people, given the chance to name their heroes, pick their parents first.
Of course, some parents really are heroes. Take, for example, my dad.
His name was Fred and he was born in Hamilton, Ontario Canada in 1911. At the age of 14 he along with his father and siblings emigrated to the United States where they settled in Cleveland, Ohio. In Cleveland he attended parochial school until he graduated from the eighth grade. This was the highest level of formal education he achieved.
In 1935 he married my mother and shortly after I was born. 12 years later my brother entered the world.
My dad worked as a typewriter repairman his entire life supporting his family with one brief exception. During World War Two he took a job considered critical to our defense at a plant making turret lathes that would be used to assist in the manufacture of tools needed to make our guns, tanks and planes.
During his time working in the defense plant he worked the second shift so I did not see too much of dad. He would leave for work at two in the afternoon before I got home from school and was in bed sleeping when I left in morning.
It was during this period that dad became a real hero.
At 2:30 p.m. on the afternoon on Friday, October 20, 1944, the above ground storage tank number 4, holding liquefied natural gas in the East Ohio Gas Company's tank farm, began to emit a vapor that poured from a seam on the side of the tank. The tank was located near Lake Erie on East 61st Street, and winds from the lake pushed the vapor into a mixed use section of Cleveland, where it dropped into the sewer lines via the catch basins located in the street gutters. As the gas mixture flowed and mixed with air and sewer gas, the mix ignited. In the ensuing explosion, manhole covers launched skyward as jets of fire erupted from depths of the sewer lines. One manhole cover was found several miles east in the Cleveland neighborhood of Glenville.
The first explosion was visible from our home and my school. I was evacuated from the school and when I got home I found that my Dad was missing. My mother told me that when he saw and heard the explosion he thought it was on the next street and rushed to see if he could help the neighbors. The explosion was not on the next block but about one mile northeast of our house. Evidently my Dad joined a group of onlookers and kept going north until they reached the site of the explosion. Fires were raging, homes were burning, people were screaming and manhole covers were flying a hundred of feet into the air. When Dad saw a man trying to get some of his belonging out of his house he decided to pitch in and help. That’s when the second tank blew.
By 8:00 p.m. that evening when Dad had not returned home we were getting very concerned. Radio reports were calling this the worst disaster in the history of the city and with the war still going on there were rumors of sabotage. Around 9:00 p.m. we received a call from Mt. Sinai Hospital that Dad was there in the burn ward. When he was acting as a Good Samaritan and the tank exploded he put his right arm up to shield his face and his neck and his arm suffered third degree flash burns. My uncle Archie, the only one in the family to own a car, drove my mother to the hospital to see how he was doing. As an eight year old I was very frightened that something very bad had happened to my Dad. As it turned out he was in hospital for about a month and needed several skin grafts from his leg onto his arm and neck. These days there would have been TV reporters swarming all over the hospital calling folks like my Dad heroes. In those days he was just another guy trying to help a neighbor. He was certainly a hero to me.
Soon after the war ended Dad left the defense plant and went back to his profession as an office machine repairman. He fixed typewriters and adding machines in the downtown office buildings. He was the fastest two finger typist you would ever see. The neighborhood where we lived on Cleveland’s east side . was becoming run down and my parents wanted to get out. So in 1948, using his savings from his war work, they purchased a new home in Parma, a southern suburb of Cleveland. You may have heard of Parma. It was made famous by detractors saying that there were pink flamingos on every lawn. We didn’t have any pink flamingos and I thought it was the greatest place in the world to grow up.
My dad never owned an automobile until they relocated to Southern California to join me, my wife, and new-born son in 1967. All the time he worked in Cleveland he took the bus to work every day. He would walk the half mile to the bus stop each morning, rain, shine, or snow, to catch the bus that would take him to downtown Cleveland where his place of employment was located.
Once there he would take his 15 pound tool box loaded with the tools he needed to service the office machines of his clients. He would walk from office building to office building each day serving his clients. At the end of the work day he would take the bus home and trudge the half mile home each night.
During the weekends he would work around the house doing yard work and fixing things that had broken. He tiled the basement floor and treated the concrete block walls with colored cement-based paint so we could have a nice recreation room to enjoy. This was his life — his family, his home, and his work. For this he was a hero.
When dad moved to California in 1967 he, my mother, and my brother lived in an apartment complex close to my family. He found another job repairing office machines, but it was located about 20 miles away from his home and there were no buses. This forced him to learn to drive and purchase a car, which he did. It took him a while to learn to drive and he avoided the freeways with their high speeds as this made him very nervous. In this sense he was a very responsible driver.
For the next 20 years he worked at his profession every day until the owner of the business that employed him closed his shop. This caused dad to finally retire. Soon after his retirement he lost his right leg due to diabetes with an above the knee amputation. This did not stop dad. He was able to, through modern prosthetics, physical therapy, and hard work to make due. He and my mom even traveled to Europe with us to take a Christmas Rhine Cruise. Once again dad proved to be a hero.
Dad was a self-educated man. He loved history, geography, and politics. He was an avid reader and loved his map books where he would trace out the boundaries of newly formed nations. This love of history and education influenced his two sons who went on to successful careers in engineering and law.
His one son (me) became a surveyor and civil engineering and an owner of a mid-sized civil engineering, surveying, and environmental planning firm employing 800 persons at the time of my retirement. His younger son (my brother) became a successful attorney owning a law firm employing 25 persons.
Both my brother and I had children who attended college and became successful in their chosen profession. These children had children who are now the third generation of my mom and dad.
It was the values imparted on my brother and I that gave us the moral foundation to build our lives on. They taught us love of family, responsibility, and appreciation of hard work. They did not do this so much by lecturing, but by example. For this they were both heroes.
Dad passed away in 1991 and the older I get and look back on the accomplishments of my dad I realize how strong his character was and the steadfastness he had to his family.
Sometimes we look for great men and women doing great things as heroes. But we should not overlook the quiet and steady daily efforts of our parents who are our most immediate heroes.
Today according the Heather MacDonald of The Manhattan Institute 23% of white babies are born out of wedlock, 53% of Hispanics, and 72% of Blacks. Who will these children celebrate Father’s Day with? Who will their heroes be?