Family & Friends

Father’s Day: Dad—on the Run

I didn’t really get to know my dad, and consider his wartime service and early adulthood, until he was dead. For most of my life, I’m ashamed to admit, I wasn’t really that interested. I treated him the way kids often treat their parents, finding him annoying and irritatingly predictable. I knew exactly the kinds of things that pushed his buttons, and he knew which ones pushed mine, and often—remarkably often—we pushed.

But since Dad died, in 2005, I’ve become the unofficial archivist of old family photos and papers, and have started to get to know him as a person rather than entirely as my father. A photograph of him with the bandleader Sammy Kaye (Dad had won a contest to lead the band) captures him on the cusp of adulthood, just before he joined the Merchant Marines. His lively, humorous young voice crackles from letters he wrote to friends and colleagues (signed “Briny Bob,” and saved in carbon copy) just after the war. Letters he got in reply were filled with good humor and affection, and he was clearly beloved by his old shipmates. “Hardly a need to wish you good luck,” one wrote. “It naturally flows toward men of your outlook and disposition.”

Bob&SammyKaye1942 Dad and the bandleader Sammy Kaye, 1942

It’s impossible for me to think about that eager, good-humored youth without remembering the saddest day of Dad’s life, when he went from father of seven to father of six. Out of all his kids, it was Raymond, the youngest, whom Dad truly connected with. Throughout Ray’s childhood, the two were self-proclaimed “pals.” Among the family papers is a letter Dad wrote to Ray, age 19, who was living in the Grand Tetons. It’s dated February 20, 1983. “How are you doing, old pal? How do you like the Rockies? We’re thinking of making a visit there this summer.” Just above his signature Dad wrote, “Won’t be long before your twentieth birthday.”

Dad's palDad’s pal, Raymond, age 8.

Raymond made it to his twentieth birthday, but seven days later, on April 1, Dad got a phone call from a police officer in Wyoming—a call he later said that he’d been expecting for 30 years, since his first child was born. Raymond was dead, killed in a car crash on a mountain road.

It was a wrenching loss for everyone—for Mom, for the remaining six siblings, for grandparents, cousins, and friends. But for Dad, who outlived his youngest son by 22 years, it was particularly cruel. He was never really the same again. The loss extinguished something—and maybe it was the joy he felt in the urge to roam, to feel himself rushing toward something.

The more I delve into Dad’s past in the letters and records, the more I get to know the full man that he was. And the more I find the 4-year-old boy who rode his pedal car down 42nd Street, parked it on Ninth Avenue (where his sister would find it later), and climbed the stairs to take a ride on the elevated train. And maybe, after all, it was just the going, not the destination, that was the whole point.

RELATED: Father’s Day: Let Us Now Praise Steadfast Men

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  • Kathy Coleman June 26, 2016 at 3:25 pm

    Your Dad was certainly one of the good guys. Such a sweet man. So nice to hear about his life of adventure (not the least of which was raising the seven little Hughes!)

    Reply
  • Esther Rosenfeld June 20, 2016 at 8:23 am

    Loved reading about the younger Bob, I knew only the older Bob. He and Herb had such a good relationship, and I know they spoke about going to sea, your dad in the Merchant Marines, and Herb in the Coast Guard. They were good buddies. Miss them both this Father’s Day.

    Reply
  • kathryn keenan June 19, 2016 at 6:48 pm

    a wonderful article, uncle bob, was one of a kind.

    Reply
  • Michelle Hughes June 19, 2016 at 6:29 pm

    What a tribute. I loved my father-in-law, your father, and am grateful to think about him as the poet-adventurer he was, that gave rise to great stories. His is a great story too, and you tell it with such nuance and love.

    Reply
  • Marc June 19, 2016 at 12:08 pm

    You are brave to admit your disinterest in your dad. As my own son leaves for college, I’m reminded of how little I thought of my parents, too. I always loved my parents deeply, and remain close, but kids are just into their own thing. And, really, that’s the way it should be, right? I recall telling my son, “Never worry about me. It’s not your job.” It all becomes much more interesting when that kid becomes a parent, huh? Your essay really choked me up. Happy Fathers Day to dads everywhere.

    Reply
  • k. keenan June 19, 2016 at 10:25 am

    a wonderful article. your dad was one of a kind. funny i understand his need “to roam” . he was right, it wasn’t always the destination sometimes the journey is more fun. thank you amy

    Reply
  • b. elliott June 19, 2016 at 9:09 am

    What a beautiful remembrance! Thanks for sharing.

    Reply