Remembering Dad: the unvarnished truth
I remember Dad being proud of my brother and me. He loved us both very much — each in our own way. And although he did not have much patience with mom, he loved her too. I remember his love as a rough type of love. It was physically rough in that he was not tender or gentle in his display of affection. He’d come up to you, for example, hug you and rub his hand on your head never suspecting that he was giving you a “Dutch” rub.
When we lived in San Mateo, I can remember Dad commuting to work on the train that ran the length of the peninsula. I was 6 or 7 at the time and fascinated, as most boys are at this age, with trains. It was exciting when we drove to the train platform, dropped Dad off and watched through the car windshield as he boarded the train to The City. I thought he was wonderful.
Dad loved flowers and to putter around in the garden. I can remember the backyard at the Hayward house and how there was an entire hillside of color. He was particularly fond of fuchsia, petunias and roses. And there seemed to always be the small plot for growing fresh vegetables.
Where Dad was patient in his ministrations in the garden, he was equally impatient behind the wheel. He did not shy away from the horn or from yelling epithets at others. Some will take issue with me, but I contend that he was a good driver. He was not a safe driver, but his defensive driving skills helped to keep us from harm. He was never involved in an accident that I’m aware of. That he may have caused others to have accidents, however, I have no doubts. The trick was to either be in the car with him when he was driving or to avoid being on the road altogether. If there had been “road rage” back then, Dad would have been one of the initial instigators.
Dad very definitely had a mean streak. Corporal punishment was an option in our house that was practiced whenever he was upset. I was spanked and slapped many times. I can vividly remember a highball glass being flung at my head from Dad’s armchair less than five feet away. I was 16 at the time and had the reflexes of a cat. Ironically, mom’s cat, sitting on the chair next to me, did not react as quickly and was caught broadside. The cat’s name was Useless and was a concession to my mom in the late ’60s for her patience with the many dogs that were raised and lost by Dad and his two boys. The cat was pure white with blue eyes. He was also deaf, a disability that served him well in our house when Dad was on a rampage.
I can see Dad at the piano playing tunes by Cole Porter and Hoagie Carmichael. He had great respect for George Gershwin although I cannot remember him playing “Rhapsody in Blue” or “American in Paris.” Whatever he played, Dad was an accomplished pianist and fun to watch. I can’t really comment with accuracy on his style because I was not musically literate at the time. But in retrospect, his style seems to have favored traditional jazz. He might have even favored blues/jazz as I remember him playing a mean boogie-woogie.
Any remembrance of Dad would not be complete if I omitted his politics. One of my high school buddies, Ron, came to the house to pick me up one night in 1968. He liked Dad and always came in to say hi to “Mr. Graham”. As he came in to the family room, we were watching “Archie Bunker.” Ron’s first words were “That’s who you remind me of, Mr. Graham. Archie Bunker”.
There was a lot of truth in Ron’s observation. Dad was a conservative Republican who thought that Ronald Reagan wasn’t tough enough as a governor. He would have thought Pete Wilson to be a subversive. Dad solidly supported Richard Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower before him. I remember Dad taking Peanuts and me to the San Francisco Airport in what must have been 1956. He was taking us to see President Eisenhower and Vice President Richard Nixon who were on the stump.
Dad had parked on the side of the highway across from the airfield. We watched through a chain link fence as the president’s Constellation flew in and landed. I clearly remember seeing President Eisenhower come down the stairway, followed by Vice President Nixon. I didn’t have a clue as to who they were at the time, but I knew this was an important event.
Then in 1960 when Nixon lost to John F. Kennedy, I remember talking with Dad who was depressed because of the election results. I told him I was sorry that Nixon had lost. Dad suggested that I write to Nixon telling him my feelings. This I did. To my amazement, I received a reply from Richard Nixon about three weeks later. The reply was on Vice Presidential letterhead and signed by Nixon. He was thoughtful enough to enclose an autographed picture. He was also thoughtful enough to add my name to the mailing list for the Young Republicans newsletter. For years, thereafter, I received the Young Republicans News. Dad was proud of his young Republican son. I’m glad he did not see me become a moderate Democrat.
One of the things I remember and appreciate most about Dad was his effort to introduce my brother and me to a variety of cultural experiences in San Francisco. Dad loved The City and his enthusiasm for it rubbed off on us. The Mark Hopkins and the St. Francis were his favorite hotels. Herb Cain was his favorite columnist. “Never call it Frisco” was something Dad needed to say one time only and we got the message.
We’d visit the De Young Museum and the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park as well as Flyshaker Zoo. We’d take a picnic lunch to the zoo and then go swimming in the large salt-water pool afterwards. We also attended plays and musicals in San Francisco. His favorite part of The City was, perhaps, the Wharf. We’d have dinner at either Alioto’s or Scoma’s. We attended a few pre-season camps watching the Forty Niners work out under the leadership of Y.A. Tittle and R. C. “Alley Oop” Owens. We attended many, many Giants baseball games.
In 1957 or 1958, I can remember Dad being excited about this baseball team called the Giants and how they were coming to San Francisco from New York. In anticipation of their arrival, we’d go see the coast league team, the San Francisco Seals, play in an old wood-framed stadium in The City. I remember Dusty Rhodes hitting a grand slam in that stadium. When the Giants came to town, I remember seeing them play at this stadium as Candlestick Park was being built. If memory serves me right, the starting line up included Willie Mays, Juan Marichal or Jack Sanford, Jose Pagan, Jack Hiatt, Jimmy Davenport, Felipe Alou, Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda. In 1962 Dad took us to the airport to see the Giants come off their plane one night after winning the pennant.
Another cultural experience that was uniquely attributable to Dad was visiting shady bars (dives) after work. I have many good memories of working with Dad at Geary Ford on 12th and Geary, in The City, where Dad was the Parts Manager. This was during the summers of my high school years: 1966 through ’69. I worked as a gopher for Dad and his crew and was the stock boy checking shipments in and putting parts away.
As I obtained my learner’s permit, Dad allowed me to drive into work. For a young man of 15, this was really something. We’d start out in the Hayward hills, merge with the other commuters on the Nimitz Freeway, fight our way across the Bay Bridge (the toll was 25 cents each way), exit at Fell Street and drive through Golden Gate Park over to Geary.
After work, Dad and I would stop at various and sundry watering holes. Dad’s excuse was that the traffic was so bad at this time of night that it made good sense to stop for a drink or two and let the traffic die down. I think many of the other commuters shared this philosophy for the bridge seemed to be just as crowded at 5 p.m. as is was at 6:30 p.m. when we generally left for home.
I would drive to the bars, at first following Dad’s instructions, and later, from memory. Dad always drove home. One of the bars we’d visit was on Clement, I think, and was called The Library. It was reported to be owned by the Mafia. Judging by its clientele I believe it was. This was one of the classier joints we frequented. Another bar, the name escapes me, was located in the civic center, somewhere, and was a true dive. The smoke was thick and the crowd lewd and crude. I remember being surprised to see a women tending bar in such a rowdy place. Men tended all other bars that we frequented (and I think we probably hit every bar there was in town at one point or another). I was soon to find out that this woman could handle anyone at any time.
Rosy was her name and she made quite an impression on me during my first visit for a couple of reasons. The first is that as soon as we sat down, she called out “Bruce… good to see you. Who’s the gorgeous young man with you?” I had not been sitting for more than 5 seconds when she reaches over the counter, takes my head in her two burly hands and places a wet sloppy kiss on my unsuspecting mouth. I was grossed out and awestruck at the same time.
As she released me I sat staring in a semi stupor at her mini skirt. It was so short that you could see her panties. This was the second reason I remember her. Rosy noticed me staring and said to Dad, “Do you think he’d like to know what day of the week it is?” to which Dad replied, “I’ll bet it’s Tuesday.” She said, “It sure is” and to prove it, lifted her skirt to reveal the word “Tuesday” written across the front of her panties. I continued to stare, dumbfounded. Then, halfway into Dad’s first drink, she grabbed a well-lubricated Longshoreman by the collar and marched him through the door and into the street. Not a pretty sight for a boy barely 16, but memorable! I was to return many times with Dad.
Dad’s penchant for booze was not something we enjoyed but it was accepted. His personality changed when he drank and he’d get mean. As he got older, he began substituting wine for vodka, and he seemed to mellow out. I can remember meeting him at a small bar on Polk Street in 1971 for lunch. I was living on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland and attending college at UC Berkeley. He had called me the night before and we arranged to meet for lunch at noontime. I arrived at the Palms just as Dad did. We embraced (to hoots and hollers from the men driving by) and walked in together.
Dad walked up to a table that had a full carafe of red wine waiting for him. As we sat down, the waitress came up, greeted Dad and asked me what I wanted to drink. I said I’d have some of the red wine assuming she’d bring me a glass and that I’d share in the carafe. To my surprise she brought a glass of red wine to me and told me that if I wanted more, it would be on the house. The carafe was not to be shared and she was protecting Dad’s right to enjoy it. Enjoy it he did, as there was not a drop left when we paid our bill a little over an hour later.
At other times, I’d meet Dad at Bruno’s restaurant on Mission Street near 20th. We’d have a bucket of steamed clams and drawn butter. I’d order a pitcher of beer and Dad ordered his carafe of wine. He’d tell me that the restaurant was built near the sight where his grandfather, John R., was born. These were good times with Dad.
My last remembrance is of Dad saying good by to me just before he died in January 1980. I was attending a seminar in The City and had stayed a couple of nights with mom and Dad in Hayward. On Saturday morning, as I was leaving, I hugged mom and kissed her goodbye. I turned to Dad and hugged him, and he held me longer than usual. It didn’t register at the time.
As I got in the car, I looked over the hood of my orange Honda Civic to wave goodbye. There were tears in Dad’s eyes and a sadness I had never seen before. I remember dwelling on it for miles after I’d driven away. I felt something was wrong but didn’t know what. In retrospect, I think Dad must have known his time had come. His abuse of food and booze had finally caught up with him. Dad died of a major heart attack three days later.
I regret not telling him, just one more time, that I loved him.