Yet somehow, I managed to do it, and I am ashamed and angry with myself. It’s the first time ever.
July 18 this year was another frantic day. I’d just had minor surgery the day before, missed a rehearsal the night before but spent that night editing video. The 18th itself was a madhouse at my day job, then I drove like a maniac to get to Morehead City and rehearse RENT. I was up until an ungodly hour, and then I drove home like a zombie and went to bed. Not once remembering that July 18 was my dad’s birthday.
Father’s day has always been hard on me since my dad passed away, but I’ve always tried to keep his birthday a day of celebration, a day to honor his life and his memory. He was the greatest man I ever knew or ever will know. He was my guide, my mentor, my friend, at once my harshest critic and my biggest fan. He never had a father; his died before he was born, so he had to figure the role out for himself. I have to say he nailed it.
Rarely does a day go by that I’m not trying to emulate him. He’s the reason I chose my career. He was an electronics technician, so he taught me electronics at an early age. He was a radio announcer in his teens, so I sought and got the same job while I was in high school. Dad was fascinated with computers; I learned to program, worked at a store that sold computers, and later spent a few years as a programmer/analyst with a government contractor. While I was in radio my electronics knowledge made me useful as a station engineer, so I spent a number of years in that end of the business. Dad had loved recording, and radio gave rise in both of us to a curiosity about how music was recorded; I learned at the knee of some incredible recording engineers and started a career in that field, eventually branching out into live concert sound, sound for motion pictures and television, and sound for live theatre. Audio has been my life for more than 35 years, and that’s all because of my father. He gave me the first push.
Chet Atkins, of whom my dad was a huge fan, was the original C.G.P. (Certified Guitar Player), an honor bestowed on very few devotees of that instrument. As awe-inspiring as his guitar music was, though, Chet could hardly sing. But on one of his songs, a song that was extremely special to him, Chet actually did sing. It’s called “I Still Can’t Say Goodbye,” and it’s about his own dad. I can’t listen to it without crying. It came up on my music rotation from my iPhone on the way to work this morning, and I had to pull over as I realized what I’d forgotten. His birthday was over a week ago. The song played out, and I completely lost it, melted down right there as cars whizzed by and the world spun. It was a while before I could see the road again.
“Wind blows through the trees, streetlights they still shine bright. Moon still looks the same, but I miss my dad tonight.
I walked by a Salvation Army store, saw a hat like my daddy wore. Tried it on when I walked in. Still trying to be like him.”
And I still am. He taught me everything I know that’s of any basic, intrinsic value — real, common sense, down-home, life-lesson knowledge. Camping trips, both with the Boy Scouts and with just our family, form some of my most vivid memories. He taught me about trees and how to identify some of them. He taught me to build a campfire. He taught me how to properly set up a tent, catch a fish, live out of a backpack, and use a map, a compass, and if necessary, the sun and stars to always know where I was. GPS? Pfft. He never saw one. But he could put a dot on a map and hike to it, never missing by more than a hundred feet or so, using just a compass. And by the time he was done with me, so could I. I still take pride in my skills as a navigator, and I’ve put them to good use many times, both recreationally and as part of search and rescue teams.
I know he’s somewhere watching. I know there’s a place where there’s more than a memory alive. I don’t know where heaven is, but I like to think it’s out there, among the stars, those same stars he taught me about. I can still remember us standing on a mountaintop on a clear night, looking up, and how I’d make him proud by properly identifying every constellation he pointed out: Orion, Cassiopeia, Aquila, Canis Major, Ursa Minor, Ursa Major (the big dipper). If you draw a line from Merak to Dubhe, the two stars at the far rim of the dipper, and extend it out from the top, along that line you find Polaris, the north star and every navigator’s best friend in the night sky.
Maybe that’s where he is. Maybe when I’m feeling lost, all I need to do is step outside on a clear night and look toward Polaris. The stars don’t change. Polaris will, for the rest of my life and long after, stay right there, showing me where north is, giving me a reference, a direction, one small clue toward finding my way home again. It’s a sign that Dad’s still with me, shining out from the same stars he helped me find, stars that were always there, even before anyone thought to name them.
My heart aches because even when the insane life I lead causes me to let important days fly by unheeded, I still love my father, the man who not only gave me life but made sure I had a life ahead of me. Because as Chet says,
“No matter how hard I try, no matter how many tears I cry, no matter how many years go by, I still can’t say goodbye.”
So, better late than never. Happy 85th birthday, Clarence Kennith Johnson. I’m still here. I’m still trying. I still remember you. I’m still trying to make you proud.