18 June 2006

To The Finest Father I Know...

[Editors Note: I may have taken the tiniest bit of creative license here and there, because sometimes you have to do that - even with the colorful subject matter that I discuss today. But the good things I write of below, required no embellishment and, if anything, I fall short of capturing the real character that is Barbe Cook and, before I get a lot of E-mails asking the same question, I wasn't even paid to write this! :-) ]

It's Father's Day. Though you'd never imagine it from the length of most of my blog entries, I never feel like I have enough available material from which to fashion a new entry. Let me just state for the record - the challenge with this particular post isn't that there's some shortage of information, history and photographic imagery from which to choose my words and pictures. The challenge is in coming close to doing justice to my topic du jour. My father. No, the word "father" feels too formal for the man I write of this day. It may be listed on the calendar as "Father's Day", but it's all about my Daddy.

As you can see, there was a time in his life when he looked fairly normal and his physical exterior belies the true character that inhabits his lithe figure. Don't let it fool you. When this photo was snapped, my Daddy wasn't yet a Dad at all. He was just starting out and though I'm not certain what year this photograph was taken, I am certain he wasn't yet married to my mother, but it couldn't have been too far removed from that magical matrimonial date of July 3rd.

In fact, these may have been the last months of what could be accurately labeled the "boring" phase of his life...i.e., pre-marriage/pre-kids/pre-ME! Oh, things were going to get really interesting in a big way for this innocent, unsuspecting, handsome guy, striking a dashing visage - and little would anyone guess that he would be right in the middle of the craziness. The sun to everyone else's planet and well, for me anyway, pretty much the center of my universe - one of two people (the other being my Mom) who I can honestly say have hearts of pure gold - the pair responsible for whatever goodness there is in me. I don't come close to making the mark, but I am intent on continuing to make the attempt toward that mark - it is, as they say, all about progress, not perfection.
Some people don't realize this, but I am not an only child - even though I digress to "only child" tendencies now and again.

My sister, Becky, beat me out of the starting gate by about ten years. She was born in 1950 and so I guess you could say she was their "practice" child and how lucky for them it was her and not me because, I have a sneaking suspicion that had I been their first, I would probably have been their last! I'm pretty certain that's why God gave them Becky, thereby lulling them into a false sense of security and allowing them to believe that raising kids really was "that" easy. Oh...were they ever duped! Ten years later, it would be a whole new ballgame with a new batter on board.

For ten glorious years, their lives were probably calm, fairly predictable and life probably clicked along in a "Leave it to Beaver" sort of way. From what I hear, Becky didn't buck bedtime, wasn't a night owl, didn't suffer from colic and as far as I know, she never threatened a nurse who approached her for a small blood sample, with cutting her eyeballs out. Now, I have no hard evidence to support the claim that I did, in fact, make that threat to a female member of the medical profession, but I don't feel that I can honestly rule it out either. I'm just saying it's possible. And, if it turns out that it really did happen, that nurse is probably out of intensive psychotherapy and may well be living a reasonably contented life in some sort of halfway house with others who have suffered PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). Hey, we all have our burdens to bear, right?

Here is another shot of my Daddy, before he was my Daddy, with my big sister, on a bucolic Sunday Morning - they were probably preparing to walk to church. Church didn't see much of me or my Mom following my birth - colic is a nasty business, I tell ya! Let's just say my Mom went on sabbatical. She probably needed a rest anyway, right? But for the ten years my sister was front and center, I'm sure they were fairly regular members - still doing the normal, happy family gig...but the clock was ticking and I was about to make my move.

Though I wasn't around when this photo was snapped, I do know that my Dad was no doubt exceptional and I'm sure Becky adored him just like I do. I think you can look at this photo and tell they were pretty comfortable in each other's company. Even though my sister was a real "girly girl", I have a feeling she probably didn't suffer fools and you can just tell when a child is with someone, if they are pleased to be there and I would say she looks pretty thrilled to have the guy to her left by her side. I'm sure the feeling was mutual.

And it looks like during the first ten years, my Dad and my sister enjoyed their own special time on the beach. To be honest, I'm glad that I waited until cars came equipped with air conditioning and that my parents finally realized that North Carolina had perfectly wonderful beaches and chose my favorite state for my first visit to the ocean. When I asked my Mom about the trip they took to Florida with my sister, she uses three words - "It Was HOT!!!!!". Then again, my mother declares that anything over 68 degrees qualifies for hot.

Neither of my parents were big beach fans but they instinctively knew my sister and later, I would be, and they took us to the ocean many times. Way back in the 1960's a trip to the beach from West Virginia (pre-Interstate), was a rather long, arduous journey indeed. All I know was that when I felt I was free and clear of the shadow cast by towering mountains, I felt like going toward the ocean was akin to going home. Mountains were never home to me. I don't care too much for anything that blocks the sky and infringes on the horizon. Besides, a life spent taking Dramamine to counter car sickness is no fun proposition.

But soon enough, my family's "salad days" were about to come to an abrupt end. On February 6th, 1960, life as they knew it was about to take a hairpin turn - you know, when Bette Davis says, "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night...". Understatement. Fortunately, I was warmly welcomed into the clan of Cook, and what a warm clan it proved to be. The photo at right is of my sister, my Daddy, my sister's friend who I believe is the daughter of the physician who brought me into this world, and the small one with the big mouth - that would be me. I think my Dad looks a bit shell-shocked, sort of a "deer in the headlights - oh gosh what do we do with this??"

I kind of wonder if they were having some sort of healing ceremony or practicing for my expected exorcism - as everyone seems to have a hand placed on my person. Maybe they were sticking me with pins which would account for the expression on my face? I don't know - to be honest, I can't remember a thing about that photo and I'm not even sure I granted permission for it to be taken. I wonder what the statute of limitations are on such a personal invasion of my privacy? Even at the tender age of 3 or so months, I was having to deal with the Paparazzi. Get over yourself, Britney. Grow up already.
And here is just another reason that I have the best Daddy in the world. The photo at left is so typical of my father and it captures the spirit of our relationship and offers a clue as to why I think the world of him. Even at the age of three, there was my Dad - trying to help me figure out a puzzle and working diligently along with me to see what the best solution is.

Interestingly enough, that's been the tone for my growing up years. When I am totally confused, which isn't a rare occurrence, and I wonder what the best course of action or perhaps, inaction, would be - I go to my Dad (and my Mom). It's not that I'm naive enough to believe that my Dad has all of the answers to every question I have posed, or will pose in the future, but the one thing I know for certain, is that he has never, in the 46 years of our association, been too busy to listen to me when I am completely befuddled.

Most of the time, I require nothing more than a sounding board because most of the hardest decisions we are asked to make, don't elude us in terms of answers. We (humans), usually know the answers because they're so readily apparent. The real kicker is trying to decide if we're willing to do what most of the time we know to be "the next right thing...". That's the part that becomes problematic. Right from wrong isn't really all that complicated - it's determining if we are up to the challenge set before us to make the right decision and act appropriately - and most times we are. It just makes life so much easier if there's someone there to validate the choices we are asked to make, to offer support and to remind us that we are equipped for the curve balls that life seems to hurl in our direction from time to time.

It is during these periods that having a Dad like I have, is an invaluable asset. I have gone to my Dad feeling so confused about something terrifying looming in my future, whether it's a chemistry test, a work decision, wondering if I am capable of writing on a topic that feels foreign and unfamiliar, wondering if the plane I'm getting ready to board for Paris will really arrive safe, or that scary morning I asked him if he thought I could successfully deal with a formidable addiction (and I'm not talking about Sudoku which I have no plans on giving up and entering a twelve-step program to address).

I went to my Dad with all of those things and though I walked in addled and so incredibly scared, after just a few minutes in his company, I came out knowing that I had the right stuff, and that I could face even the really hard steps ahead of me with stamina, determination and fortitude. It's hard to fail with that kind of support and I have learned that not everyone has such a familial situation. I also know that I did nothing to merit the parents I landed, but I am just beyond grateful that I did. As a nice bonus, my Dad seems to have the magic ability of lacing just about everything with gentle humor - because you really do have to learn to laugh, especially at yourself. It doesn't make things any less serious, it simply makes it all so much more palatable.

This is a snapshot of my Dad doing one of the many things that bring him complete and utter joy, which would make many of us snap pencils and accidentally slam that adding machine to the floor. My Dad LOVES numbers, so I guess you could say he's calculating! I don't know if this is a photo from when he worked in Madison or Welch, but I do know one thing, he was probably loving life because he had a pencil, a spreadsheet and an adding machine. That's my Dad's idea of Nirvana and hey, we all have our little quirks, right?

To this day, for reasons unknown to the rest of us, he records the high and low temperature of each day. Now, what he does with this data, I have no idea and I'd be willing to bet he probably doesn't do much with it but enter it in some super-secret, password protected weather charting Excel sheet on his beloved Dell Computer. But who cares? He just doesn't feel complete unless he has a pencil at the ready when goofy George Elliot reports the high and the low temps. Hey, there are worse habits, right? And from what I've read, we're all mildly OCD. I think it's kind of endearing. And weird. But mostly endearing.

Now, simply looking at this photograph of my Dad at a desk, or intently working on a wooden puzzle, or posing before going to church with my sister, might give you the idea that he's a very serious, thoughtful, introspective kind of guy, and to a degree, that's accurate - but there is another side to Barbe Cook that few outside his inner circle are privy to. One little known fact about my Dad is that he could have had a wildly successful modeling career. Even when he was in his late 50's, long before Madonna invited folks to "Strike a pose", my cutting-edge Dad was far ahead of his time. Every now and then, he will humor the family and slip into a few of his favorite patented GQ or Esquire worthy poses and allow us a few minutes of camera time but always before 6:00 PM - because things get a little serious the closer it gets to the weather report - he has to have that pencil poised to record that useless temperature statistic. :-) Go on Dad - Vogue...

And because we never know when the next unannounced photo-op might present itself, we never miss out on a chance to record living history and take (pot) shots of a man who has more fashion sense in his pinky than Austin "Danger" Powers has in his whole bloated body. So why not enjoy another view of the kind of entertainment we are exposed to on a frequent (but unpredictable!) basis.

Only the cutting edge figure that is my father, would brilliantly consider the avant garde possibility of wearing shorts on the outside of his pants. And remember, this was probably 25 years ago. The man is nothing short of a legend (and a few cards shy of a full deck with an elevator that doesn't go to the top floor!).

My Dad's progressive nature isn't merely limited to the world of fashion. When I was 19 years old, my family hosted my Sunday School Class for a weekend retreat up at our cabin near Summersville Lake.

Not the type to be stifled by a label, though technically we were American Baptists at the time, my father and my former Sunday School teacher, after the traditional bonfire, ghost-story telling, marshmallow melting, scripture reading portion of the evening, went on to expose our little group to different forms of religion. In this photo, I believe they are trying to make contact with circus freaks who have passed onto the other world.

A couple of my close friends quietly mentioned that even though it was 1979, psychotherapy had made great strides in the treatment for seriously unbalanced individuals of all ages. I'm not sure what their point was, but obviously my father felt that young people should feel free to explore things like Casper the Friendly, and maybe not-so-friendly, ghost. It was a demonstration that I don't think any of us could ever forget, though shortly after that weekend outing, most of those friends disappeared and were no longer permitted to associate with me - something about the occult and bad influences...some people are so sensitive when it comes to trying new things. I think one among our group was spotted at the airport in Charleston selling plastic flowers and sporting a shaved head and two of the males converted to Mormonism and went on a two year mission trip to parts unknown. It was really quite baffling. We kind of thought of it as just another rich, cultural experience and, given that we were residing in West Virginia at the time, those aren't too easy to come by.

Life wasn't all smooth at the Cook abode, and every now and then, particularly when we went to the cabin which was not equipped with Cable TV (this was in the dark ages when we sometimes reverted to using what was called "rabbit ears" which weren't really appendages formerly belonging to rabbits, but short antennas that never worked the way they were supposed to).
Everything would be going fine - Dad would take a walk out into the nearby woods, which bordered Carnifax Ferry State Park, and he'd come back, relaxed, telling us what kinds of tracks he saw and how many copperheads he nearly stepped on, and Mom would be busy in the kitchen preparing supper, just like home, and Dad would get this faraway look in his eyes and BAM!! He'd suddenly remember it was 6:00 and then he would run and turn the television on and grab his favorite pencil, only to realize that the reception on the TV wasn't such that it would lend to clearly hearing the high and low temperatures of the day. Fear would completely cast its long shadow across his normally sunny countenance, and after slapping, kicking and busting the TV with whatever blunt object happened to be available, he would gather up his belongings, toss a few things in a garbage sac, and in a small, sad voice ask my Mom if she could spare a couple of peanut butter sandwiches - announcing that he was running away until he found a home with a dependable antenna system or, better still, a house with cable.

Off he would trek, thumb poised in the air, looking like a really over-grown Opie Taylor, never realizing, direction-challenged guy that he was, that he was hitch-hiking toward Carnifax Ferry State Park which had no houses and, along with it, no cable-ready TV's. Around 9 or 10 o'clock (earlier if it was in late fall or winter), he'd stumble home and Mom would have his dinner warm and his diary open and one of us would burst into the room and announce that we just heard on the radio that it had been 74 and 52 or something like that, totally spouting off bogus numbers which Dad would quickly jot down in his diary. The look of peace that would cross his face let us know that all was right with our world. Sure it was useless and fabricated information, but it did the trick and our cozy cabin was happy once again. Little does my father know that many of the temperature stats so diligently and faithfully recorded in his little diary were pulled out of thin air and, should he have pressed us for just how thin the air was, we would make some elaborate calculation and tell him after punching in the elevation and barometric pressure, the air was X amount O2 saturated. Worked every time.

On a more serious note, and in the spirit that this day truly is about, I have to say that I could never have asked for, designed or imagined a better Dad and there's a good reason for that: There is no better Dad. We didn't even enter the guy in an official contest because it would have been completely unfair to the rest of the non-contenders. My Dad is exactly what God had in mind when he came up with the brilliant idea that the world would be a lot better with a truly wonderful, loving, understanding, compassionate, silly, kid-friendly, nonsensical, wise, adoring male known, in our language, as "Dad". I have met a lot of really fine men in my life who are exemplary Dads in their own right, but to be perfectly honest, no one has come close to the one I have been privileged to be in close proximity of for over 46 wonderful years, and I have the examples, the experiences, the countless events that had to try his patience, make him scratch his head, and maybe even once or twice wonder if my Mom had a really weird boyfriend around May of 1959. Thank goodness I resemble my Dad or she would have some serious explaining to do.

I think one reason I have gone head-to-head with a few people I've dated over the years, is due to the fact that, though teetotaler guy that he is - never having seen him "belly up to the bar", he has raised the bar in terms of the expectations I have of men and, having seen one just as close to perfect as they come, a lot of the people I've dated over the years have fallen woefully short of what I know is possible - needle in a haystack stuff for sure. Sometimes, I'm pretty sure they did break the mold when they created my Dad because it's not been my experience to run into a lot of people that I respect anywhere close to the level that I respect my Dad.

In terms of ethics, morals, selflessness, devotion to family and just sheer goodness, mild OCD notwithstanding, one Waitman Barbe Cook is a rare breed. I would place Fred Rogers in that category, from everything I have read and heard of him and maybe one or two other people come relatively close - I most certainly know one such gentleman in Nantes, France who bears an uncanny resemblance to my Dad in both appearance and sweet, gentle nature and is a fine and adored father of four beautiful children in his own right but, to be honest, such examples are rare.

I don't run into too many people of his stature. I wish that wasn't true, but I do know this much - he has given my son an incredible example in terms of what comprises a truly good person and any attempt at emulating my father - is a wise exercise, indeed.

When you can go 46 years and not witness any behavior that has remotely given you cause to step back and wonder just who a person is, or question his character, motives or wonder if that person is treating you fairly and truly does have your best interests at heart, that's pretty much a miracle and you just have to know, that when it comes time to go over the balance sheet of your life with St. Peter, that person you are blessed enough to call your Dad, won't have to spend much time explaining questionable actions.

Dad, thanks for being the real deal and the best father in the world. Mom, thanks for saying yes on the third date. You both are the living embodiment of what good parents are all about and I am certain that I speak for Becky when I say, we are two exceptionally blessed daughters.

Justin - pretty huge footsteps to follow - but you come from fine stock and I do believe you are equal to the task and if blogs still exist by the time you have kids old enough to type and a few years out to consider everything you did as a parent, I wouldn't be surprised if you heard the same accolades that are contained in this appreciation blog.

Happy Father's Day,