A companion blog to my memoir, "Sting of the Heat Bug"
In honor of Father’s Day (upcoming) and of the anniversary of my father’s death (today, June 18), I am reprising a chapter from my book of interviews with Dad, It Bears Repeating:
“YOU’RE TOO MUCH like me,” Dad says.
It is at a low point in my young adult life. I have just returned from Superior, Wisconsin, where I have flunked out of college. Of course, I never admit that I have flunked out, because I can always petition to get back in on probation if I agree to take biology for the third time. But Dad doesn’t allow this because he knows that a responsible man doesn’t throw good tuition money after bad. I have had my chance—correction, I have had at least four chances, two at a community college and two at Wisconsin State University—and my GPA has been dropping like the Dow Jones average in October 1929.
Except that this is June 1970, and I am having to face unpleasant realities. I have no degree, no job, no place of my own, and, most important, no self-esteem.
“You’re too much like me,” he says again.
“I’m not enough,” I say. After all, look what he’s overcome. He has been hearing impaired most of his life, a disability that kept him from achieving outstanding academic grades, and yet he is an alumnus of the 1935 class of Boston College. He took that impairment and turned it into a career, selling hearing aids to others with similar difficulties.
“No, I floundered, same as you are doing,” he says. “I didn’t know who I was, and I suspect you don’t yet know who you are. Some people are blessed to know early in life who they are and where they are going. I did not, and you are struggling as I struggled.”
“I messed up,” I say. “At least you figured it out. You’re doing something.”
“And so will you. It took me a long time, even though I had a degree. I sold insurance, and I failed at that. I worked in a factory, and I didn’t feel it was the right place for me. I was thirty-five years old before I started Radioear of Hartford [his hearing aid business]. So try to look forward, and let go of self-blame. That never helps.”
I pound the pavement. There are no reporting openings at the local newspaper for a man without a degree. I am not aggressive—or desperate—enough to sell vacuum cleaners door to door. I take a job gluing upholstery, but I get laid off. I get a job at a car wash, but I walk off because the owner forces me to work without a break for seven hours. I get a job mopping floors in a nursing home, but they eventually lay off non-medical personnel. I get a factory job as a material handler, supplying parts to assembly line workers. Four years have gone by since I flunked out of college, and I am still floundering.
Gradually, despite the menial jobs, I stop disliking myself. I get an apartment of my own, get involved in community theater, and meet a woman who actually agrees to marry me. The world is not as unfriendly as it once was. I compare my life events to Dad’s moving from Danvers to Torrington (1941), working at the Torrington Company (until 1948), meeting Mom (1943); I’m getting there.
Dad offers me an opportunity. He is opening a satellite office in Torrington, the Hearing Aid Corner, and he wants me to manage it. He pays for my hearing aid dealer’s correspondence course and licensing, teaches me simple bookkeeping, props me up in an office chair behind a desk. It is my first suit-and-tie job, and I am twenty-nine years old. But I am not aggressive—or empathetic—enough to sell hearing aids. I quit the business three years later and find myself pounding the pavement again, just like eight years earlier—looking again for newspaper jobs and being turned down for lack of a degree.
I plunge backwards, take a job in a print shop, learn to operate machinery that is outdated, unreliable, and dangerous. Five more years drift by, then two more years at two more print shops, and by now my grown stepson is farther along in his career quest than I am—“because I’m gonna try!” he says, pointedly.
Fifteen years after I flunk out of college, Dad says, “I’m proud of what you’re doing.”
“But it’s just a job. It’s not what I want to be doing.”
“Ah, I know. You’re so much like your father.”
“I’m not enough like my father.”
Dad’s career in hearing aid sales and service will eventually last thirty-nine years. He has never jumped to something else. He had wanted to be a radio broadcaster. He had dreamed of becoming a doctor. He wanted to be a writer, even sold a handful of articles, edited the church bulletin, wrote his own promotional copy for the business.
In many ways, he never overcame the scolding his teacher gave him when his ball bounced into someone’s yard. He never forgot his humiliation at being denied an extra paper bag at a retail shop in London. He never recovered from a perceived put-down by a hearing aid customer when Dad “came in like gangbusters.” [NOTE: These are episodes Dad recounts in the interviews recorded in the book.]
“You can do whatever you want to do in life,” he always said. But if he wouldn’t follow his own advice, why should I? It took the strong personality of my second wife, Jean, to break the cycle. “You say you want to be a writer,” she would say; “so why aren’t you writing?”
So I do. I freelance for the same newspaper that wouldn’t hire me, and on one of my assignments I take Dad along—yes, like he used to take his little boy to his hearing aid office in Hartford. He sits in the body shop of a man who services race cars at Lime Rock Park and smiles as I conduct the interview. I am forty-five years old; Dad is seventy-eight. “I’m proud of you,” he says as I drive him home. “You’ve become what I haven’t. You’re a writer.”
I don’t answer right away. Finally, I say, “Remember about twenty years ago, when I was still living at home and mopping floors at the nursing home? Remember the car that ran over my bicycle as I was coming home from work there?”
“Oh yes,” he says. “You could have been killed.”
“The car made a right turn in front of me, into Burger King. I jumped off the bike just in time, but they ran over my tire. Tommy’s Bicycle Shop needed fourteen dollars to fix it. I tracked down the driver of the car, knocked on his door, and demanded that he pay half.”
“Yes, I was proud of you for standing up to him.”
“But you were also critical that I didn’t get the whole amount. I had told the driver that maybe I was going too fast, and maybe he should have been more careful, so let’s split the bill. And when I told you, you said, ‘Well, Ralph Wheaton would have gotten all of it, and then he would have sued for more.’” [NOTE: Ralph Wheaton was his brother-in-law and his idol.]
“Yes, I vaguely recall,” he says. “But when I was younger, I might have done the same. You and I settle for too little. You’re too much like me.”
Am I? I think about his perseverance in business, his infinite patience with his customers, his constant striving to learn new hearing aid technologies, his devotion to Mom and my siblings, his reputation as an honest man.
I would settle for half of that.