The All-Time Star of Her Home Movies

Times Staff Writer

Dads, it seems, always get the short end of the parental holiday stick.

Maybe it's because mothers are so deucedly easy to buy for. A few roses, a lump of prettily wrapped chocolate on Mother's Day and their eyes fill with grateful tears, and your conscience is assuaged for another year--even if the tears are from her chocolate allergy.

But fathers. You can't buy them orchid corsages. You'd feel silly, giving them boxes of candy gussied up in pink ribbon. You don't want to tell them to get all dolled up for dinner when you know they'd rather be playing poker in their skivvies. Even those manly greeting cards with briar pipes and sturdy sailing ships on the front are mushy, and the poetry stinks.

So what to do?

On a recent Saturday, I was fretting over what to get my dad for Father's Day, when I switched on the television and there, on "High Adventure Theatre," was Johnny Weissmuller in a 1936 all-swimming, all-flexing Tarzan movie.

I hadn't watched a Tarzan movie since I was a kid, stretched out in front of a black-and-white set in Ohio (not unlike the black-and-white set I have now). On inclement Sunday afternoons, after church and a lunch of waffles, which came out of a waffle iron that looked like a chromed flying saucer, we settled in for the Action Movie, or whatever they called it then.

As it rained or snowed outside, we sat rapt, week to week, through Tarzan movie after Tarzan movie--it could have been the same one every week, for all I knew. There was the Lord of the Apes, rippling through the steamy tropics, masterfully commanding the beasts with the single, mystifying word "Ungawa!" but never harming them, except in self-defense, unlike the bloodthirsty safari wimps in pith helmets, whose collective butts Tarzan invariably had to save each week. A noble being, a saint in a loincloth.

Just why a Tarzan movie should remind me of my impending Father's Day duties threw me for a loop, until I realized with a start just why I had loved those old movies so much: Because to me, my father was--is--just like that.

Maybe I had thought it was my father up there on the screen, somehow, they had so much in common. Like Tarzan, he is big and strong--physically and morally--and uncomplicated, a man of few words and simple tastes, utterly honest and utterly trustworthy. Nothing seemed beyond his wondrous abilities.

As a little girl, in one of our games, I jumped off the roof of our house--the house he built with his own hands. He always caught me; I never for a moment believed he wouldn't.

He set the lightning rod on the steeple of our new church, and to me, he was Prometheus. I never knew until last year that he had slipped on the slates and nearly fell. I wouldn't have believed it then if God had sworn it to me.

Uniform Still Fits

Tarzan-like, he still climbs modern trees--electric poles--for a living, as a lineman. His energy, at age 60-plus, is unflagging, and after a hard day's work, he unwinds by walking a few miles. If he wants to get my mother's goat, he dons the white Navy gob's uniform he wore when he was a 20-year-old gunner's mate. It still fits.

He climbs those electric poles with more agility and skill than men half his age. I always marveled at the way he dug his hooks into the dark, creosoted wood and leaped up those dizzying poles, to work among the dangerous wires. He saved many men's lives, my father did, flying down his own pole and racing up another one as some other lineman lay sagging in his safety belt, unconscious from a careless flick of a hand or a tool against thousands of volts. On nights when he was not home on time and the hour grew later, my mother worried; we kids did not. Nothing could happen to our dad.

My mother's brother, many years my father's junior, once remarked how easy it all looked and strapped on the hooks. On his fifth step up the pole, my uncle's legs flew out and he hugged the pole all the way down. They were picking out splinters for a week. My father thought it was hugely funny, and so did I.

Anonymous Santa

In the winter, he would carry us shoulder-high through the snowdrifts, like a giant in seven-league boots. He tramped through snowdrifts on the job, too, working in freezing weather to repair electric lines broken under the weight of ice so other people could stay warm inside their bright houses. Sometimes, around the holidays, on shifts no one wanted to work, he was told to drive out to some remote farmhouse or another and cut off the power to a family that hadn't paid its bill for months--maybe $8 or $10 all told. When he got out there, stomping through waist-high snow to reach the battered old place, there would often be some woman with several young children, abandoned by a shiftless husband or drunk into poverty by an abusive one. My father would exchange a few holiday pleasantries and tromp back through the snow to his office plant, then anonymously pay the electric bill for them. When I think of his meager pay stubs from those years, I don't know how he did it.

Each October, our little town had a "homecoming"--a kids' parade and a harvest fair, with carnival rides and games. With a pitching arm that won him high school honors and a lot of bets in the Navy during the Big One, my father knocked those lead-weighted milk bottles silly. We had more stuffed animals, goldfish and gimcrack prizes than our bookshelves could hold. The neighbor kids, whose dads were mere salesmen or pharmacists, once in a while slipped us nickels to "hire" our dad to win a few for them. The carnies shook their heads when they saw him coming--I'm certain they did.

Treehouse Deluxe

After my little brother and I read "Swiss Family Robinson," we pouted that there was no tree in our yard big enough for a treehouse. So my father bought four electric poles and built a deluxe treehouse with a rope ladder; it commanded a view of the neighborhood, and was as impervious to enemy snowballs as Carcassonne.

To my mother's dismay, he taught us to chew fresh tar, as he had done as a boy during the Depression. He taught us how to play poker, with a stash of silver dollars he kept in a drawer with the only tie clip he owned. He taught us how to fly-cast. Of all my accomplishments in my chosen field, I think my father was proudest of me on the day I came home with my first string of bluegills. There is a picture of me displaying my catch, smiling sans front teeth. One of these four-inch trophies, frozen in a milk carton, remained on exhibit in our freezer for months.

When I was in college, he broke a bone in his back, in a fall off the roof of our new house in Arizona--he never hurt himself on the job, only at home. Panicked, I flew home as soon as I could, maybe a week later, and walked from the bus stop to our house to surprise him. As I rehearsed my Florence Nightingale speech, a truck drove past me, then screeched to a dusty stop. It was my father, already up and around, in a body brace. The doctor was amazed. I wasn't.

Hormonal Sulks

Oh, we've had our problems. His practical jokes--the salt/sugar switch on April Fool's Day, for example--still drive me crazy. During those awful teen-age years, I was too bookish for his taste and didn't go out enough. Instead, I sulked hormonally in my room, trying to straighten my hair by setting it on orange juice cans. I was 16 when we vacationed in Southern California. Embarrassed by my gross family, I huddled in the back seat of our Chevy Impala-- not a cool car then--listening to a transistor radio. As we drove through the beach cities, the young guys honked and waved, to his honest fatherly perplexity: What was wrong with his driving? "Oh, Da -ddy"; I was exasperated at his denseness about his little girl.

As I grew up and went off to college, it puzzled me to hear the way some friends spoke of their fathers--not just with the arch superiority of the collegiate, which I admit I indulged in fully, but with real venom and pain. So many things I didn't know about then--alcoholic fathers, abusive fathers, incestuous fathers, neglectful fathers. I had figured all dads were like mine. I had felt martyred because, thanks to my dad's meat-and-potato tastes, I never even saw an artichoke until I was 17.

Always Bear Hugs

Insufferable as I was, there were always bear hugs for me when I went home on visits, and always--in spite of my scholarship--a $20 bill or two stuck somewhere in my luggage, as an admonition to enjoy myself. To this day, my father--like my husband--is always anxious that I work too hard. And even after I inched upward in the tax brackets, he always wanted to know if I needed anything.

No problem, Dad. Thanks to you, I'm fine.

But what gift, what token, could tell him that for Father's Day? This is a man who doesn't even like Four Roses, much less a dozen.

I found it in my mailbox that day. In a mail-order catalogue--with the kind of clever yuppie dustcatchers my father would find a shocking waste of money that could be spent on good fishing tackle--was a sale on real stars.

For a certain sum, you could "buy" one of the thousands of unnamed stars in the universe, and register it with the name of the person of your choice, supposedly forever. It was perfect. My father had just gotten a new telescope for Christmas and was zealously scanning the heavens. Now there could be something special for him to look at.

I hope he likes his present--the star "Gene Morrison." As I signed the check, I wondered if there's a solar system around it, and if it's included in the price. One star hardly seems adequate.

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