© 2023 Robert Sickles
For Father’s Day, I give you some thoughts about mine, Paul Sickles.
He always let me know he was proud of me, and was so willing to be helpful. I wanted to do the same for him, especially in his final months after the return of his cancer. Telephone calls were not so easy, he seemed edgy. I think he was of an old-fashioned mind that you shouldn't talk too much on a long-distance call. Yet he seemed fine with me taking a thousand mile flight to Southern California, which I did as often as possible. Mom was also in declining health, so I found lots to do around their home—cleaning, cooking, shopping, fixing things. During his last weeks, I sent Dad a letter telling him how much I appreciated him, and thanking him for a particularly warm memory from our trip to Italy. I am certain he was deeply moved, as I found that letter opened and squarely set on top of his desk after he passed, as though positioned there to show his smile back at me.
Since my brother and sister were much older and had moved on to their adult lives, I had Dad’s attention when I needed it. When I was little, I believed he could fix anything and answer any question. I watched and helped him finish our upstairs, adding a dormer for two bedrooms and a bath. While it might have been nice to have him teach me how to throw a football or drive a stick-shift, he was still very much my teacher and my listener. When I said I wanted a tree fort in the back yard, Dad handed me the toolbox, nails and boards and showed me which tree to desecrate. When I said the piano guy on TV sounded pretty good, Dad went out and bought a piano and got me signed up for lessons. He called me over to his shortwave radio receiver. “Listen to this, Bobby. Here are two guys talking to each other like they’re next door, but they are halfway around the world from each other! Imagine that! What would you talk about with a faraway guy, say in Argentina or India?”
When I was older, he willingly showed me his vulnerable side, and I began to see him also as a human man, not just a super hero. We took long walks and talked frankly about everything from stars and planets to birds and bees. He could have kept up appearances for my sake, but Dad instead spoke of how difficult his life, work and marriage could be. At first, I was unsure about being included in his personal matters like that. But as I figured things out, I realized he was showing me an open door—I always knew I could go to him and talk about the stuff I was going through.
We learned from each other. When he returned from his business trips, Dad always brought something interesting for me—a pair of First Nation moccasins from Canada, a Pennsylvania Dutch coin bank, pralines from Georgia. “Who do you think made this, and how?” he'd ask. And I would give him a thoughtful response, maybe insightful or silly enough to surprise him. I might hear him say to me, "Hmm, I never thought of it that way!"
The positive values Dad lived by that I either adopted, aspire to, or wish I had: listen to what people say and remember their words and their names; pick your battles and face them with calm assurance; be focused on your work and give careful attention to detail; measure twice, cut once; admit not knowing all the answers; every day go to work, come home for dinner and relax with the family; know how to appreciate food, travel, music, art and humor; and stick with something once started, no matter what. That last one was what kept my parents married for 60 years, for better or worse.
Esther and Paul on their 50th Anniversary
When we travelled, it was he who reminded me to look up, look around and listen. He pointed out the natural wonders of caverns, giant trees and wild seacoasts. Despite Mom's fear of heights, he always stopped for the panoramic views, camera at the ready. Following Dad's enthusiasm, we explored the old part of towns, tried exotic cuisine, listened to local music, dabbled in foreign languages. His greatest examples to me were his curious mind and a sense of humor—I grew up knowing that I didn’t have to choose whether to be smart or funny.
Paul Sickles was really a study in contrasts.
- He was a no-nonsense vice president of sales for a company that manufactured controls and gauges for airplanes and helicopters. He had an ability to communicate very technical information about the company’s products, and he traveled around America to all the big aircraft corporations. He also loved goofy Rube-Goldbergian gadgetry and toys. I played with his little contraption made of gears, flywheel and pulleys that someone at work built. It looked like an impressive invention, but click the switch and it did nothing but go whirring around and around and up and down until a lever moved to shut itself off. He was delighted with a creepy battery-operated coin bank that had a skeleton hand which would drag the coin into the box. I still have his battery-powered, cymbal-clashing monkey.
- Dad was raised to be a very straight and honest boy by church-going parents, but he made money during the Depression selling food he stole from his Pennington, NJ school cafeteria.
- By the metronome and hickory stick, he was taught at the piano by his mother, but he yearned to play a jazzy banjo so he could march with the New Year’s Day Mummers Parade in Philadelphia. (it’s a quirky sort of Anglo-Nordic-Afro-Gaelic brouhaha on the city streets. Marching bands play for teams from various organizations and clubs who compete in elaborate costumes. It’s as close as you get to something like Mardi Gras in the city of Philly!)
- Dad loved to browse sidewalk book and art stalls, looking for artsy souvenirs but rarely purchasing anything. Instead he saved things like the stub from a New Orleans trolley ticket, a bar of soap from a Delaware beach resort, and a matchbook that reminded him of a restaurant in London.
I worked a couple of summers at Dad’s company, a manufacturing plant not very far from home. I met all the machinists, engineers, draftsmen, executives and office workers whom he’d told me about every day. A few of those guys were Dad’s favorites because they were colorful characters.
Karl in the drafting department was from Austria, smoked a funny-looking pipe he’d carved from a chunk of tree root, wore a feather on his Tyrolean hat, played a concertina and drove a Volkswagen beetle at a time when small European cars were rare to be seen.
Jim was facilities manager, my supervisor at one summer job. Dad thought he was so amazing because he knew how to do anything from fix a vent system on the roof to move a one-ton machine tool, and seat it precisely level. But Jim’s higher calling, in Dad’s opinion, was his performance on the spoons and washboard in a hillbilly jug band.
The best machinist was named Walt, deaf since childhood. He told jokes and carried on conversations that were really hard to follow because of his difficulty with speech. Walt knew we couldn’t always understand him but it didn’t matter, everyone laughed along with him. Walt’s wife or child must have had a disability or some kind of setback, because every Christmas, Dad collected money from the office to help them out.
Roy, the company president, the epitome of a well-dressed professional man, spent his spare time in coveralls building a gyroplane, kind of helicopter, and piloting it around the field near his factory. Dad loved all these guys! I always knew when Dad liked a new fellow at work—he would rate him in terms of his eccentricity. I therefore learned that it was OK to accept all sorts of people, and even to cultivate eccentricity in myself.
Two other officers in the corporation, Charlie and Sig, were Dad’s best friends. Both could sing and play the piano at holiday parties. All the fun people from the office gathered with their spouses around the piano to sing along, laugh at jokes and poke fun at each other. Dad would have loved to be so entertaining and clever like his pals. But there were a couple of stumbling blocks.
Dad on the left, with his work buddies—brothers Roy & Charlie at our piano, and Sig. There's that little banjo on the wall!
First, Dad could not finish a joke. He either botched punchlines or laughed and coughed himself so beet red and tearful that he couldn’t speak. Sometimes a laughing man is in itself contagious humor, but Dad carried it to the extreme—as Mom rolled her eyes, people worried he might be having a medical emergency.
Then there’s Dad’s piano music. An ability to bring together a room full of smiling people and hold their attention is every musician’s dream. If a person is encouraged to sit and play it’s good to have at least one entire song down pat. Dad’s piece was a base-pounding bluesy-jazzy number about some St. Louis woman or something. When I say this was Dad’s piece, I really mean he knew only a few bars of it, and only some of the lyrics. Due to Grandma’s strict approach to piano teaching, Dad's stumble on the keyboard resulted in embarrassed and stammered apologies, and having to start over. That was followed by red-faced cussing while his audience drifted away. If I could have granted one blessing to my father, I would see him dazzle that honky-tonk song off his fingers to the delight of everyone; they’d be singing and swaying to the beat!
Well, you know, I am truly the old oak’s acorn. As for Dad’s so-called shortcomings… naturally, I acquired versions of them. Even though I didn’t have a piano teacher who whacked my knuckles for missing an F# in the D major scale, I got the performance anxiety. I never wanted to march in a parade, but I did enjoy playing the banjo for a time. And I can ruin a joke and turn red in the face as well as my old man.
I hope I have some of his admirable virtues. I think there were very few nights I wasn’t home with the family by dinnertime. Some of my favorite conversations are on long walks. I certainly appreciate offbeat humor. I’m proud to say I don’t know everything (but I do play a mean game of Balderdash). And if I can’t be eccentric enough, I find others who are. Thanks for all of it, Dad!
Happy Father’s Day to all of you and yours, and to me and mine!