What was your Dad like when you were a child?
My dad died when I was only 25 years old. Up until we got married and Karen and I started our own family, my father functioned as a parent. That is, he was in charge and we had a fairly routine father/son relationship. After I got married he still provided lots of parental support but he was no longer in charge. Karen and I had to make our own way in the world. When he died, I had not had a lot of occasions to interact with him in a relationship of equals. That was a shame because the more we saw each other as equals, the more I appreciated him.
As a child there were several things that impressed me about him. First, he had beautiful penmanship. I’m sure he must have learned it with the Palmer method. Every letter was beautifully shaped and proportioned. It was more like calligraphy than hand writing. His skill even extended as far as a great mastery of writing in Old English script. When I told him I had a serious interest in the Old English, he rooted around and found a copy of his old drafting textbook from college which had the whole Old English alphabet laid out and ready to be copied. I memorized each letter and could produce them at will. That was a skill that benefited me many times during the course of my life and led me into a profession that heavily involved typography.
Along those same lines, my father was artistic and very precise. Not in a pictorial or illustrative sense, but rather in a draftsmanship kind of way. He made technical illustrations that left no doubt about what he intended. A series of drawings he made, now sadly lost, were of a car he was going to alter to make it into a pickup truck. He also drew the plans for his and my mother’s new house at 3020 Southland St SW in Cedar Rapids. Interestingly enough, the plans for the house were drawn to be built on a lot at 3011 Schaeffer Drive SW, behind and a little to the north of where it finally ended up. Because of some unpleasantness we had with the neighbors on Schaeffer Dr we decided to build our house on the street behind the place it was originally going to be. The lot cost about half as much as the one we were going to build it on anyway. The only problem was on Schaeffer the lot was on the east side of the street. On Southland the lot was on the west side of the street, making the slope of the hill backwards of what the plans show. My dad just had the blueprints run out upside down.
In 1963 I expressed an interest in participating in the Soap Box Derby. Dad jumped right on that. The rules said that no one but the participant can build the racer, but I knew many competitors who had lots of help from their folks. My dad suggested lots of design tips. That was perfectly ok according to the rules. He did a couple of other things, but we made no attempt to hide them and those were ruled acceptable too. One was he machined a device that let the front axle be steered without drilling a hole in the center of it. We felt the hole seriously weakened the axle. Another was the skin we used to cover the car was made of Masonite. Dad knew some guy that could steam it and put a permanent curve in it. That was ok with the officials too, since I did all the fabrication on the car itself.
Race day came and I won my first heat, only to have the win declared invalid due to a false start. I lost the heat on the retry and was eliminated from the rest of the race. It was a big disappointment. I tried again the next year. I was in high school then. I made a mockup of the racer and took it to Alexander Lippisch, the famous German aviation engineer and the inventor of the flying wing. He happened to be working for Collins Radio at the time. He told me that it was a perfectly good design and what mattered the most was minimizing the frontal area. For all my concern about aerodynamics and the design decisions I made to maximize them, he told me they don’t really come into play until you reach about 70 miles per hour, a speed that no soap box racer comes anywhere near. Usually they can make about 35 miles per hour. As it turns out, I didn’t have time to work on it anyway. I did start the project but it got away from me and that year was the last time I could participate because I got too old after that.
After I went to college he did another nice thing for me. He hand made me a Bowie knife. He started with a piece of tool steel and machined the spine and cutting edge out of it. Then he shaped the tip to give it its final profile. However cool that was, it didn’t even compare to the skill that went making the handle. A tang extended out from the blade. I was about 5/8” wide and about ¼” thick. Along the length of the tang he cut a slot that was a little less than ¼”. He tapped threads down the slot. He cut about 30 or 40 pieces of phenolic resin to the cross sectional shape of the handle and milled a rectangular slot in each one. Then piece by piece had slid each section down the tang until he had built up the complete handle. At the end he machined an aluminum end cap that had a screw hole in it to attach the whole assembly to the tang. Once he had a nice solid handle he finished shaping it, then polished the blade with diamond polish so it shined like chrome. I was very proud of it. I cobbled up a sheath for it since it was razor sharp. The sheath was nowhere in the league of the knife. Quite the family heirloom. I showed it to my friends who were quite impressed. One of them, Mike Shahan, asked if he could borrow it one time. I said sure. That was the last time I ever saw it. He had become increasingly sinister about that time, I realize now. I suppose he sold it or threatened someone with it who took it away from him. At any rate he would never tell me what happened.
When I was young, the family would occasionally go camping but it was more of a way to avoid paying for a motel than it was as an activity in and of itself. Dad was never interested in playing catch or going fishing or any of the kinds of things other boys and their dads did together. I didn’t really notice. It was just the way our family did things. Later in life I realized that I felt a little left out about this. I wish I had had more one-on-one experiences with him.
Dad had the reputation for always saying no to a request before we even had a chance ask it. I made the following illustration to clarify just how I saw the situation. It was all done jokingly. Dad had a bit of a beer belly but he was not fat. You can get a sense of this by how I drew his arms and legs.
My dad, Lester Harold Spicer, was born in 1906 so he was 43 years old when I was born. That made him somewhat older than the fathers of most of my friends. He was a great dad and I loved him very much.
My dad was a very modest man, not at all showy in his manner and not very demonstrative in his affections. He was quiet. In a house full of 5 women he probably had a hard time getting a word in edgewise. He showed his love in lots of ways. Whenever he went on an errand, he always asked if someone wanted to go with him. I almost always said yes so I got to go to lots of hardware stores, lumber yards and other such places happily riding beside him in the front seat rather than squished into the middle in the back like when the whole family went somewhere. He also happily joined in on game nights when the family played Life or card games. He always knew my friends and talked to them when they came to the house. After he got to know them he joked with them too. Hugs were not frequent but were the more appreciated when they were given.
He was a hard worker and was very careful with money. He had lived a lot of his life without much money and had lived through the hard times of the depression. He told me that times were so hard for his young family that he had to chop wood to earn money to take care of them. That being said, when I was a kid, he always had money in the bank and in his wallet. Once, when we were first married, Butch and I found a car we wanted to buy. We looked at it on a Sunday and several people were interested in it. The guy said that the first one to give him a $100 in cash, a large sum in those days, would be the lucky buyer. We had the money in the bank but not in our pocket. I knew my dad would have the cash for us to borrow until we could get to the bank. We went to him and sure enough the car was ours!
My dad had a great sense of humor and loved to tell funny stories. In fact most of the stories he told ended up having a funny element that would often get him laughing so hard he could barely finish. Often his stories would be about the antics of guys he used to work with. The subject of the stories would always be called, “Old Gerhardt” or “Old Stepanick” or some such…always “Old.” He would also tell the stories with the appropriate German or Czech accent. He sense of humor extended to times the joke was on him. He was always willing to be teased and laugh along with us. Once, during an evening with aunts and uncles, he was teasing my Aunt Doty about something and to shut him up she picked up a paper bag from the counter and put it over his head. Unbeknownst to her, someone had recently emptied all of the ash trays into the bag. The cigarette butts and ashes trickled down onto his head and shoulders. After a horrified split second of silence everyone roared with laughter including my dad.
My dad had a saying for everything. Things leaned “toward Fisher’s Hill. My jeans were said to be so tight “you could crack a louse on them.” If you fell down you went “ass over teakettle.” Ice or other things were “slicker than snot.” A guy’s aim was so bad he “couldn’t hit a bushel of shit with a handful of blackberries.” I wish my memory was better so I could come up with more of his gems!
This post is part of the StoryWorth project that I am participating in.
At the ButchieBoy main page click the Storyworth catagory to see all the entries