If some of the blogs, websites, and Facebook rantings I’ve seen online this week for Father’s Day are any indicator, a lot of people really don’t like their fathers. Real or perceived, I’m sure some of these people have legit reasons for their feelings. While horror movies are top heavy with psycho moms, real life seems to be rampant with psycho dads who aren’t nearly as cool as Al Bundy’s favorite television character. I consider myself fortunate that I had one of the good dads. Actually, I probably had one of the best dads ever. Yeah, I know a lot of people say that, but I honestly believe that my brother and I were extremely lucky to have the parents we had.
Most people live in fear of their fathers or feel that no matter what they do, they will never live up to his expectations for them. No matter what I did, I can always remember my dad telling me he was proud of me and that he was proud of my brother. Conversely, I was always proud of my father. When he would visit me in Philly, I’d have him come in to my job to meet my friends and co-workers, but mostly, I wanted them to meet my Dad. He was just the coolest, funniest, nicest guy. He always had a story or a joke to tell and was always happy to meet new people. A lot of friends and former co-workers who had never met my dad always said they felt like they knew him because of how much I talked about him. And usually, most people loved hearing stories about my dad and some of the crazy shit he did.
Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, my father was a studio and road musician. He toured 36 states, Canada, and even played military bases in Thule, Greenland, entertaining troops. One of the things I most admired about my dad was that he was someone who saw the world and shared his talents and abilities with so many and was still very humble about it. Whenever Dad talked about his music and life on the road, it was never to toot his own horn (literally, considering he was a saxophone player) or to impress how much he had accomplished. It was always with the intent to entertain or impart some sort of knowledge or perspective of the world as he got to see it. Even if you weren’t able to have gone where he had been, he would let you see it clearly through his eyes.
Dad played sax on a few studio albums of a singer by the name of Ronnie Dove whose big hit was “Right or Wrong.” He also played with a number of lesser-known bands and spent nearly a decade with Ali Baba and the Four Thieves. Dad was one of the “Four Thieves” and went by several different names during that period: Big Al DeMarco, Big Al D., Don DeMarco, Don Cupiola and a few others. My mom used to joke that if she didn’t see Dad’s real name on his Social Security card, she never would have believed him.
When I was a kid, Dad used to tell me stories about how much fun life on the road was. Some of these stories would definitely be more appropriate for Hustler than a blog, but a lot of his stories gave me a sense of what it was like to tour as a musician back then: Traveling by van every night to a new city. Some bennies to stay awake. The chicks. The penicillin. Pot. Drinking a fifth every night. The time that the plane had to land on an iceberg in Greenland. The time some douche threatened him, knocking the hot dog and root beer out of his hand at a bar and Dad’s biker friends in said bar beating the shit out of the aforementioned hot dog-hating douchebag. The time the guys in the band — years before the punk scene started doing it — bleached their hair white and would dye it blue, red, or green for shows; walking down the street together and garnering open-mouthed stares from people. The time the van crashed off the road in the winter carrying its blue-haired passengers to the next gig, the only thing saving them from the roof collapsing on their heads was a giant Hammond organ holding up the roof and preventing them from being crushed.
Outside of some of the crazier tales of life on the road, there were some really touching stories Dad told about his life in bands, too. During the 1950s when segregation was still a major issue, Dad was the only white guy in a band full of black dudes. One evening, they pulled into a local motel to stay the night before moving onto the next gig. The concierge told Dad that he could stay in the hotel, but because they were black, his bandmates had to stay somewhere else. Dad flat out told the manager “Fuck you” and he and his bandmates hauled it over to the local YMCA where they spent the night as a band of brothers.
While Dad was with Ali Baba, the band cut a full-length album on Swan Records. They also appeared as the backing band on a song called “Rats In My Room.” The song was released as a single by a pair of radio disc jockeys from Buffalo, NY, Danny & Joey. You can actually hear my dad soloing and wailing on the sax on the YouTube clip Danny & Joey’s version of “Rats In My Room”:
When I finally tracked down the song last year on iTunes, it was a bittersweet moment. Dad had been gone maybe six months at that point and for years, we had tried to find a copy of the album or the song. He used to have a copy of Ali Baba & the Four Thieves’ album but his Uncle Murray had tossed it out during a move. I was bummed because I really would have loved for my father to hear a younger version of himself playing again. Instead, I got to share the song with my brother, my sister-in-law, and my boyfriend, which was very cool — like having a piece of Dad come back to life, hearing him play again.
After Dad came off the road in the ’70s, he ended up in Kingston, PA and owned a beauty parlor, an astrology/occult shop, and painted ceramics. When that didn’t pan out, he came to Scranton where he worked in a factory that made yarn for the interiors of several American-made cars. Dad worked in that factory for 23 years, eventually retiring when I was a Senior in high school.
He never lost his love for music, however. He still played and sang in local bands. In fact, that was how he and Mom met. Mom sang and played piano in a three-piece band with Dad that played supper clubs. They hit it off and married in 1978. Later on, during the ’80s and ’90s, Dad would play in Oldies tribute groups throughout the Northeastern Pennsylvania area.
Growing up, I remember Dad practicing and getting ready to play his weekend gigs. As Dad got older and the emphysema started to set in, he stopped playing even though he and some of the other guys in the old band all wanted to get together and make a last run of it. Some of the guys were in worse shape than my dad with their various ailments. Dad used to joke that they should all form a group called “Life Support” and come out onto the stage with walkers, I.V. drips and oxygen tanks. I remember Dad playing in at least three different local oldies bands over the years and he stayed in touch and remained friends with all of the guys in these groups.
Dad always recognized that music is one of those things that can really bring people together and forge a strong, common bond. Music was one of the ways I bonded with my father. We liked a lot of the same things: sword, sandal, and swashbuckling movies; ancient history and mythology; world religions; animals (Dad used to feed so many animals and stray cats that Mom would call him St. Francis of Assisi); drawing; sci-fi and superhero TV shows and movies; wrestling; herbal remedies / natural healing; and of course, music.
It was Dad who got me my first guitar and it was Dad who took me to see my first concert when I was 13 — Kiss, at the Stabler Arena in Bethlehem. He enjoyed the show just as much as I did. He loved seeing live bands. While he grew up listening to Big Band music and loved old school blues, R&B, and guys like Charlie “Bird” Parker and Red Prysock, he never dismissed the stuff I listened to like Kiss, Aerosmith, and Motley Crue. He continually appreciated and listened to a lot of different music.
My father, for most of my life, was one of my best friends. Some of the earliest photos taken of me as a kid and some of my own earliest memories involve sitting at the dining room table drinking coffee with my dad. (Which probably gives credence to the saying that coffee stunts your growth, considering I was maybe two years old at the time.) In later years, whenever I would visit back home, to shrug off the insomnia, I’d head downstairs in the middle of the night to get a drink from the kitchen. Dad, my fellow insomniac, would be in the kitchen at 2 A.M., making his own unique concoction: hot dogs on a toasted roll slathered in butter with fresh garlic and onions. I imagine it was rather tasty, but that combination in the middle of the night was just begging for an entire carton of TUMS. For Dad, however, it was never too late for a hot dog. (Come to think of it, Dad got into a lot of shit over hot dogs throughout the course of his life. Hell, I almost remember one time where Dad nearly crashed his car for a hot dog. Having been in the car with him at the time, I can certainly say that was an adventure!)
Hot dog or no, I’d hang out and talk in the kitchen for at least a good half hour or hour with Dad, just shooting the breeze about random stuff or throwing back a beer or mixed drink. When I’d come home, my parents were the best drinking buddies to have.
And of course, I’d listen to Dad tell a whole bunch of jokes.
In terms of telling jokes and playing practical jokes, my father was relentless. Whenever he would make his nightly phone call to the house, no sooner than either my boyfriend or I would say “Hello,” immediately, he’d launch into a flurry of jokes — some dirty, some clean. His timing was impeccable and they would come fast and furious as he was switched into full-blown Shecky Green mode.
Dad’s practical jokes, however, were even better. One time, he had convinced a new crop of co-workers who had arrived fresh off the boat and spoke very little English that “blow job” meant “hello.” My Mom, having visited Dad at his factory job during the early days of their courtship, corroborated this fact and attested to at least five foreigners running around smiling, waving, and yelling “Blow job! Blow job!”
Dad eventually put the wrong right and taught them the correct word. Many years later, he would subject some of these co-workers to even more hijinx, keeping the day job interesting. One of my favorite stories was the time that Dad used a handful of toilet paper to scrape the chocolate frosting off the top of a doughnut. He smuggled it into the bathroom with him. When he knew he’d have an audience, he emerged victorious from the stall, piece of chocolatey toilet paper in-hand. Dipping his finger into the chocolate, he declared to his co-worker that “I never knew how delicious this was! You should try some!” His co-worker went back in the stall to vomit as Dad laughed his ass off.
He and Mom were both very funny people in different ways and I think my own twisted sense of humor is a hybrid of both of theirs. Dad was always a practical joker. Being somewhat gullible, I was the brunt of some of Dad’s practical jokes around the house.
I remember the time when I was 5 that he hid in the bushes in our front yard, poking his head out and pretending to be Darth Vader, scaring the piss out of me and my friend (literally, in his case). On another occasion, he dressed up as Norman Bates’ mother on at a Halloween party we threw for my brother when he was 10. Decked out in a wig, a dress, and brandishing a plastic knife, Dad scared the bejeezus out of a bunch of ten-year-olds when he accidentally tripped and landed in the middle of them. He couldn’t have planned a better entrance!
Then there was the time I was 12 and had become thoroughly engrossed in reading Stephen King’s It. I had always been creeped out by clowns and had just seen the television miniseries based on the book. Naturally, I wanted to read the entire thing. I was so enraptured with the book that I was completely unaware that my dad had positioned himself at the foot of my bed and popped up, his dentures pushed out to resemble monster teeth as he exclaimed in a Pennywise-esque voice: “They allllll float down there!” I screamed and fell off my bed. Once he saw I was otherwise unharmed — mildly traumatized, but unharmed — Dad could not stop laughing. I have to admit, it was a pretty awesome prank.
When I started taking up the fine tradition of pranking, usually targeting my brother or friends and co-workers, Dad beamed with pride and would practically high-five me for a job well done.
It seems longer than a year and a half since Dad passed. When someone is larger than life, they leave a larger than life void behind when they pass away. It’s the simple things I miss about my dad, though. Stuff like chatting with him on the phone every night and discussing random episodes of cheesy television shows or just the general doings of the day. Even my boyfriend really misses Dad. He was the first member of the family to really make my boyfriend feel welcome when I brought him home. Through the years, Dad would constantly bombard him with jokes. The two of them had a chance to really bond at my brother’s wedding, hanging out together and getting hamburgers and coffee at a bar. Most people dread dealing with their in-laws, but fortunately, my boyfriend lucked out.
A lot of people have regrets about their relationships with their parents. One thing that I never regret is that I always told my Dad how much I loved him and how proud I was of him. Lots of kids get embarrassed by their parents just being themselves. They don’t mean anything by it and still love their folks, but maybe it’s the generation divide that makes them cringe ever-so-slightly when their parents are around. My father was always young at heart, but not in the way of someone desperately clinging to youth. He just was who he was and I was so proud of him for it. I always wanted to be like my Dad when I “grew up.”
Dad was a colorful character – in wardrobe and in spirit. He loved bright colors. Growing up in Baltimore, during the era of pegged pants and zoot suit jackets, Dad’s nickname was “Christmas Tree” because he always wore brightly colored suits in turquoise, purple, and orange. He always wore brightly colored Hawaiian or printed shirts and pinstriped gangster suits. That was his style.
I remember the morning I got the surprising phone call from home that Dad was gone. I needed to get out of my apartment, clear my head and process how my world had just changed in an instant. I asked for a sign that everything was okay and that he was happy and at peace. Walking down the street, I put my iPod on “shuffle,” so that any random song could play.
The first song that came up was “Thugs Mansion” by Tupac. I don’t know if it was a coincidence, or the sign I was asking for. I prefer to think it was a sign.
When I gave the eulogy at my father’s funeral, I actually recalled this instance and used lyrics from the song in the speech I delivered to send Dad off. It may have been the only time Tupac was quoted behind the pulpit in a Catholic church. It was fitting, considering my father’s love for old-school ganster/thug suits in bright colors and his love for music.
The song “Thugs Mansion” envisions Heaven as a big nightclub where everyone is together, where every wrong done has been made right and there is nothing but music, laughter, peace, and love…. And some Henessey and Peppermint schnapps:
Maybe in time you’ll understand only God can save us
When Miles Davis is cuttin’ loose with the band
Just think of all the people you knew in the past that passed on
They’re in Heaven, found peace at last
Picture a place that they exist
There has to be a place better than this
So right before I sleep
Dear God, what I’m askin’
Remember this face and save me a place in Thugs Mansion.
Knowing my dad, those lyrics and that song made perfect sense. I knew everything was alright.
The ultimate irony of how great a dad that Dad was, was that he never knew his father. His father abandoned him and his mother when he was two. As a testament to the kind of person Dad was, he never hated his father or resented him for that. He just wished he could have known him. I remember Dad telling me how much the Mike and the Mechanics song “The Living Years” meant to him and made him think about the father he never knew. I never met my grandfather, either, but I think it’s safe to say that he missed out on raising an awesome son.
The truth is, words don’t even begin to cover how great a person my father was. I believe in an afterlife and as much as I miss both of my parents, I hope Dad and his father are getting to know one another on the other side. When someone you love leaves this world, it’s only natural to be sad. You know it will be a long time before you get to see them again and laugh with them. But you WILL see them again.
I love you, Dad and I miss you and Mom every day. I hope I still make you proud so that when i see you guys again — hopefully, a long time off — I’ll have some good stories to share.