About a year before my father died, when I was visiting him at his home in South Florida, I told him that I was going to the nearby Dunkin’ Donuts to use their wifi and do some work on my laptop that I couldn’t do on my phone.
“Chrissy,” he said – yes, my father often called me Chrissy – “use my computer.”
“When did you get a computer?” I asked, utterly shocked.
“It’s the one you bought me a few years ago.”
I had never bought my father a computer, but I let him lead me into his bedroom. There he pointed to the DVD player underneath his television set. “Isn’t that a computer?” Beside it were some of the DVDs I had gotten him as well, still in their unopened shrink wrap casing. My father never exactly embraced the digital age.
And yet as a young man, he built his career on emerging technologies. He was born in 1928 and so he was spared the Second World War by months. But he enlisted in the Army and served as a radio operator and engineer. After the Army, in the early 1950s, he became a television producer and ad man. When I was growing up, I saw firsthand how he embraced and loved the technology of the TV camera and the editing room, and the way he would help produce sixty-second stories to sell air travel, shampoo, and (yes) cigarettes.
Last month I went through a box with some of his papers and photos that has sat like a tree stump in a corner of my wife’s and my bedroom for nearly three years now –since he died in the summer of 2011. In it I found a letter he’d written to Al and Barbara Kracht, his best friend and his best friend’s wife. The Krachts and been married not quite a month at the time, and my father began the letter, “Dear Lovebirds.” The letter was dated November 10, 1951, which was a Saturday.
There is a lot that I loved about this two-page letter. There is the idea that he had gotten a “little note” from them that very morning, and was answering it that very day. There are the stories he shares with them about the Dionysian parties that occurred after the pair’s wedding in October. And, of course, there is this reference to my mother:
“Last weekend we (my present true love and I) saw the Army vs. USC game and then had dinner. Got real domestic at a friend of mine’s apartment. I could really marry this one if I wasn’t such a louse.”
But what I think I love best is the way the letter was typed and he wrote in by hand – with a black pen – his corrections and edits. Prior to the computer, that was what you did if you didn’t feel like retyping a document.
My father and I rarely corresponded. Usually we just talked on the phone. But there was a period in the two years after he retired to Florida when he would write me long, chatty, handwritten letters. My wife and I had only lived in Vermont a short while and were still building our lives here, so I was the one who allowed that part of our relationship to lapse. It remains one of my regrets. Yeah, I know: All very cat’s cradle. Still, in hindsight it interests me that when he had the time, he liked to write letters.
There are very likely a dozen reasons why my father never expressed much interest in computers. He may have been depressed after my mother died in 1995 and couldn’t cope. His eyes were deteriorating and he wasn’t seeing well. And, perhaps, he was simply tired of the way the world was constantly changing. He’d been part of the TV revolution. Wasn’t that enough? The only times he ever looked at the screens on my laptops were when I was showing him videos of his granddaughter performing or when I would share with him his forty-year-old commercials on Youtube.
But I wish I had been more adamant that he consider a computer. I think, if nothing else, he would have loved email. And with email – without my having to type or write letters – I might have been the correspondent he deserved.
Happy Father’s Day.
(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on June 15, 2014. Chris’s new novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” arrives in three weeks: July 8.)