A Father’s Gift
By David R. Altman
“When you coming home, dad?” I don’t know when
We’ll get together then, son, you know we’ll have a good time then”
–“Cats In The Cradle”, by Harry Chapin
My Dad has been gone for 16 years. And this post is really more about him than it is about fishing.
When you are a father who has raised his own kids and has been blessed by now watching them raise theirs, there comes a point in your life where you begin to think about where it all started. My daughter Katie suggested a blog about Father’s Day; thank you, Katie, I will try to honor that here.
My brother and I have been fishing just about as long as we have been walking. It started with cane poles and bobbers and farm ponds. Mostly, there was the river. The muddy Muskingum River running through Dresden, Ohio, where Dad would take us, after working all day at his furniture store, to the river bank, where we would set poles in the ground on forked sticks. We would reach into the Maxwell House coffee cans that were full of giant nightcrawlers that we had hand-picked after dark in my grandmother’s apple-tree infested back yard, threading the worms onto hooks with weights that must have been at least a half ounce; otherwise, the river current would have moved them downstream the minute they broke the surface.
We fished below a suspension bridge, behind a baseball field which was behind a football field where (unbeknownst to us at that time) Dad had played just a few years prior, until two concussions sent him in another direction. He switched from football to the band—not just the high school band—the All Ohio Boys Band, and was later said to have played a set with the famous saxophonist Stan Getz in some small venue that no one now recalls. He loved that trumpet, and loved jazz–but his trumpeting days ended sadly one night in 1960. Dad was traveling on a flight home when the cabin depressurized, collapsing both his ear drums. I remember going with my Mom to pick him up at the airport. It was the only time I ever saw my Dad cry. He was nearly deaf in one ear and was barely able to hear out of the other. The trumpet was put up forever—but he never stopped listening to Louie Armstrong and Jonah Jones and Al Hirt. He wore hearing aids with large black glasses and he could adjust the volume with a little dial on the top—a device that often came in handy when he wanted to tune out my mother (or his own mother).
Bob Altman, father of Dave & Jim, husband to Donna (1931–2000)
My father worked and worked and worked. He loved owning his own business in his twenties, was proud of getting his college degree in his thirties and forced his way through a corporate sales job for much of his forties. In his final 15 years, my Dad started his own business with two other associates—which lasted just long enough to get the house paid off.
My Dad hated working for other people and had an entrepreneurial spirit that would have impressed even Donald Trump (whom my Dad would have disliked). Frankly, he also hated Republicans and nearly every boss he ever had (most of whom, as I look back on it, were also probably Republicans). After that business had its ups and downs, Dad ultimately sort of came back full circle to where he started. He formed Altman & Associates, called on customers, kept meticulous notes (sort of a primordial CRM system), took homemade fudge to his favorite customers (and his grandchildren) and had two green telephones in his office that had blinking lights—something my brother and I thought was very cool. My brother Jim was blessed with the same entrepreneurial spirit—as is his first-born grand daughter Jennifer. The father’s gift travels seamlessly across generations.
My father was a non-conformist. President Kennedy, whom he loved, said once that “…conformity is the enemy of our thoughts and the jailer of our freedoms” and Dad was living proof of that (my daughter Ashley painted that saying for me many years ago, thinking it probably pertained more to me than it did my Dad). I look at it everyday.
My Dad led his own life—providing for the family he loved and putting his energy and faith into serving others. He was an advocate for the homeless, cooking meals at Atlanta’s Clifton Night Shelter, leading the Northwoods Presbyterian Church (now the Church of the New Covenant) into serving the homeless. He and my mother worked tirelessly on behalf of strangers who had nothing. In the New Testament, James tells us “faith without works is dead”. My father put his faith into works. He expected that from others—not by insisting they do so, but my doing what he believed. I would watch that from a distance, admire it, but not fully grasp the importance of it. Life is moving too fast for a man-on-the-go in his thirties, just as it had for my father in his thirties—which happened during the 1960’s.
The influence of wives on their husbands is as difficult to calculate as the influence the husbands have as fathers. But there was one certainty in my Dad’s chaotic life: the love that he had for his wife. He and my mother eloped from small-town Ohio in 1950 and were married in New York City. If there were ever two people in love, who put each other first in all things, it was my parents. They were born in the depression, survived The War and ‘grew up’ in the fifties—America’s dream decade. Like many women, my mother knew which buttons to push with Dad, supporting him, inspiring him, loving him and, ultimately, nursing him during his final years.
Dad was always there for us even when he wasn’t. His career kept him mostly on the move during my childhood—my mother often serving as both mother and father. But my Dad left something behind. He left the gifts of compassion and understanding. He worked hard and played hard (not enough of the latter). His mental and physical health began to deteriorate when his career slowed down. His love for his family remained constant—even in the final years of his life. He died almost six months to the day before their fiftieth wedding anniversary.
I suppose I am rambling at this point. I mean, who doesn’t think about their father on Father’s Day. Now, as a father and grandfather, I am sorting through a haystack of emotions and understanding which escaped me during his final years. Like the terribly sad Harry Chapin song “Cat’s in the Cradle”—the son was often too busy for the father, just as the father often seemed too busy for the son. Like many father-son relationships, we bonded around sports, business and politics—but mostly around family and faith. Recognizing your father as a good man instead of just a good father is a joy sometimes realized too late. It’s part of a life cycle of parental inevitability that visits us all, a dreamscape that comes in sudden flashes that fortunately brings with it the soothing, warm richness of memory.
Ultimately, Dad’s condition worsened. Watching someone slip away, like a river’s current carrying away anything in its path, forces you to recall not just those memories of your childhood, but now, having lived nearly as long as my father did, also understanding more of what his adulthood must have been like. Can we as children both understand our roles as parents as we seek to understand how we as children must have affected the lives of our own parents?
It would be impossible to think about Father’s Day and not mention my late father-in-law, George Roberts. A Georgia Tech grad, Air Force colonel and veteran of WWII, Korea and
The late Col. George A. Roberts, USAF, with daughter Lisa, my wife, in 1952. A decorated vet of three wars, he was a loving father and wonderful father-in-law. He became known as “Dan Dan” to our grandchildren–and was loved by all who knew him.
Vietnam, “Dan Dan”, as his first grandchildren called him, was remarkable. Like most vets, he didn’t talk much about his service to our country, but he was always ready to talk about his son Mike and daughter Lisa. He was so proud of them. And his smile never left his face when he was around our three kids. He helped me personally in so many ways–ways that not only helped me be a better husband but also a better father. His smile can be found in his daughter and his son, his grandchildren and now his great-grandchildren. He passed on 31 years ago–but he is never far removed from the memories of those who loved him.
Bob Dylan said “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” Dylan Thomas wrote to his dying father: “Do not go gentle into that good night, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” I understand those words now more clearly. We vacillate between living our own lives and grappling, in moments of fierce lucidity, the lives our father’s lived–lives that we could not understand as children—but, having been given the gift of longevity, now begin to see more clearly.
Through a glass that was too often seen as half full, I realize now was brimming with intangible gifts—ones that would allow me one day to understand just what sort of influence my Dad had in my life and how much, perhaps, I am my father’s son.
Now I am a father of three sons-in-law, each of them now fathers themselves. They are living the fast life and wonderful chaos that comes with raising a family. They are good fathers and good husbands. And someday they will make good grandfathers. I can only offer them the support that I got from my father and father-in-law and remind them that fatherhood comes with a beautiful price—the price of sacrifice, unselfishness and time. Those are not only the prices of fatherhood, but also its gifts.
When I was fishing this past Wednesday night in a tournament at Lake Lanier, sitting in my Skeeter bass boat with nearly a full moon and stars overhead, I thought back to the nights sitting with my Dad on the banks of the Muskingum River. There were no boats for us in those days, only nights spent along the noisy, dark river current. We were so close it seemed to nearly touch us, as we watched our rods for the slightest movement. Later, Dad would spread the heavy Kroehler blankets out in the back of Altman’s Furniture Store’s dark green truck where my brother and I would ultimately go to sleep, a virtual bed beneath the stars as my father sat on the bank and watched the river flow, having planted the seeds of fishing–and of living–in the very young souls of my brother and me.
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Dave Altman–Weighing in: In these interviews at georgiabigsticks.com, which will be reposted tomorrow after we observe Father’s Day, we’ve heard how many of Georgia’s greatest bass fisherman were influenced by their fathers. Will McMullen kept fishing with his Dad as his partner during his Dad’s final years of a terminal illness. I remember seeing them at Lake Jackson in mid-summer, his Dad wrapped in heavy winter clothing, riding beside Will in the boat, as I did not know at the time the disease he was fighting. But he was still fishing–and still with his son. And then there is Brad Stalnaker, who told us “my Dad is my hero…he taught me not only how to fish…but how to be a man.” Todd Goade, another Georgia big stick, whose Dad got him started fishing about age six in Tennessee. And these Dads are passing on their love of fishing to their own kids. Who can forget the photo Julie Carter, Kip’s wife, sent us last week of Kip, whom we saw take a break after his weigh-in at this year’s All American tournament to fish with his son Reid at the marina docks. These Dads that are ‘passing it on’ are the definition of fatherhood. As my friend O’Neill Williams often says, we’re “making memories” when we fish–and they last a lifetime. Fishing brings fathers and sons and daughters together–and sometimes it’s the lessons learned about life while you are on the water that stay with you the longest.
Our children were old enough to remember my Dad, for which I am grateful. If my brother and I gave my Dad one tenth the happiness that our girls have given my wife and me, then he was a happy, happy man. A father’s lasting gift lives through his children—and I have been blessed to watch not only the growth of our own children, but also watch them become the extraordinary parents I knew they would be. As a child and parent and now grandfather, my life has come full circle—but it is just beginning for them. I am thankful to God for these blessings.
The Altman family –circa 1956 (from left, brother Jim, Bob & Donna and me).
A Father’s Dream: three wonderful daughters (l-r, Katie, Jenn & Ashley) during a trip back to my childhood home.
Another dream: the last of three weddings (smile). Our daughter Jennifer’s wedding—with her sisters Ashley and Katie and mom Lisa.
As important as we Dads think we are, we all know the truth. The real foundation for the American family is, of course, the Mom. My wife, Lisa, who has allowed me—encouraged me—to become the Dad that I hope my Dad would be proud of. Lisa, you are the heart and spirit of our family–and I love you for it.