My father died this week, three days before Christmas. They found his overturned car at the bottom of an embankment near a quarry off Lone Mountain Road just outside of Las Vegas. Two sandwiches from Subway were in the back seat; one for him, one for my mother. He had been missing for three days after he had gone out for errands and never came back. This had happened once before when he ended up in a state park close to the Utah border. He had diabetes and the onset of Alzheimer’s. He would go out driving and get confused. He was 81.
The news report on a local Las Vegas affiliate had it right. They said that if there were one thing that characterized the life of Arthur Anthony Brancatelli, it was “wheels.” He was a retired New York City firefighter who drove fire engines and worked two jobs most of his life, the second being as a cabdriver. He owned his own medallion and spent his off duty hours driving the iconic, yellow Checker around Staten Island. Later, in retirement, he drove tour buses and motor coaches. I remember him telling me about the time he drove the Ursinus College women’s field hockey team to a game. He had driven to Ursinus College often years before when I attended it as an undergraduate.
But there is another side to wheels. Firefighting is one of the most dangerous jobs you can have, and, although he never felt as if his life were in danger, we were all well aware of the risks. Driving buses had its dark side, too, which became evident the rainy night a teenager ran a stop sign at an intersection and broadsided my father’s bus. The boy had a date with him and both had been drinking. The boy died. That incident affected my father more than any of us expected.
Dad was a Korean War veteran, having served in the Air Force. Being in the military had its advantages. He was able to get the dental work he needed, learned radio communications, and was in the best physical condition of his life. Of course, he was also part of a generation that never talked about the war. In fact, he didn’t talk much about anything. He dealt with what was in front of him, had a very practical approach to life, and wanted to be left alone just as he left others alone.
I learned two things from my father; that is, I tried to learn. It’s not his fault that I never quite got them. It’s just that I got in the way of my own learning, which is something I try to keep in mind as a teacher. He tried to teach me about boundaries and money, not by explanation but by example. The funny thing is that, if he were here right now, he would probably turn around and say, “What the hell are you talking about?”
Here’s what I’m talking about. We played catch in the yard, argued politics, and competed for my mother’s attention, but he never forgot that he was my father and I was his son. We were never friends the way young fathers are today. Dad kept a boundary between us not intentionally but because that was what fathers did. They provided and protected, not unlike a domestic police unit. You don’t process feelings with a domestic police unit. I did not appreciate it then, but I do now.
I am a father and grandfather and understand the importance of boundaries for everyone’s sake. Most people today get boundaries backward. They think they exist to keep them fenced in, but they are actually there to give them room and space to grow.
Money? I wish I could say I learned that lesson, but it’s a work in progress. I know the value of a dollar, but making them on an economy of scale is another matter entirely. I remember the time I argued with my father and stormed out of the house. I tore a ten-dollar bill into pieces and threw the pieces into the garbage. It was all very dramatic. That’s what I thought of money. I was twenty-two and contemptuous of many things.
It’s tough, this thing between fathers and sons. Being a man, especially a father, is a delicate balancing act between standing tall and bending down to pick others up, sometimes to pick yourself up. You have to get the balance just right. Too much standing tall and you end up with sons who look for love in all the wrong places, as the Johnny Lee song goes. Too much bending down and you get a bad back, eventually losing your backbone, which is even worse.
It’s not just a question of expectations or what one generation is able to offer the other. It’s about defining who and what you are as a man. That’s not something that can be done at arm’s length but up close and personal. It takes courage, which, now that I think of it, is the third lesson I learned from my father. It’s probably the most important lesson of all.