Like most adoptees I have two dads: Charlie, my adoptive dad and Jack, my birth dad. The last time I saw Charlie alive was on Father’s Day 1976. Two months later he died in the emergency room of congestive heart failure caused by a lifetime of bad habits. I still miss him, and not surprisingly did not fully appreciate him until he was gone.
I first met Jack—in person–four years ago, just before Father’s Day 2001. Jack was never allowed to know about me. I was none of his business, at least according to my birthmother’s family who simply hustled their reckless daughter out of town, and told Jack to take a hike. I think she went to care for a sick aunt. And like Charlie, I don’t always appreciate Jack, as I should.
Charlie was 35 when I was adopted. World War 2 had just finished, and he had worked as a mechanical engineer in a defense plant designing presses and catapults. He was also an officer in the Ohio State Guard (now Ohio National Guard.) where he organized air raid drills. Although he’d attended New York Military Academy and Culver the Navy due to some mysterious jaw problem had turned him down. When I was being adopted, Jack had just turned 18 and was running around post-war China with George Marshall’s Army Advisory Group (later known as the Military Advisory Group- China) where he lived a Radar O’Reilly life (without the dweebishness) with 335 enlisted men and a whopping 700 officers many of whom had been exiled to China due to well…let’s say, actions unbecoming officers, but who the Army couldn’t boot without a scandal. He spent most of his time in Nanking (now Nanjing) and more than once rode a sedan chair to the summer capital 14 miles to the north—while the officers, including Generals, walked to show the countryside that they were neither invaders or snobs. Jack, as a Buck Sergeant did everything from run the port to furnish Colonels with cheap booze. He traveled across the Gobi Desert, where camel caravans still crossed, to help set-up a military attaché post. He spent time in Manila and Shanghai. He was handsome blue-eyed, and blond.
Jack was and is a New Deal Democrat. His father often warned him never bring home a Republican to darken the family door. His hero is FDR. Jack’s wife was a bigwig in the local Democratic Party and once took him to Washington to meet LBJ. Jack loathes the Bushes. He always votes a straight ticket. In China he met Mao, and had High Tea with Madame Chaing kai-chek. He says that if he’d been Chinese in 1948 he’d have been a “goddamned Communist.” Charlie was a generational Republican. His maternal grandfather and other relatives were members of the pre-Lincoln Republican Party. His parents and grandparents entertained US Grant’s son James, William McKinley, and Mark Hanna. No Democrat would ever darken their door. He always voted a straight ticket.
Charlie’s family on his mother’s were Boones as in Daniel. They were Quakers and Garrisonian abolitionists with a secret room in their house to hide slaves escaping into Canada on the Underground Railroad. Jack’s family (including me) reportedly are descended from William Henry Harrison—the president who died from too much liquor and food a month after his inauguration. If true, that makes us related to the original Benjamin Harrison, a Virginia planter and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, who rejected the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall may be peripheral relatives. Both families are older than dirt in the US. I’d be eligible for DAR membership if the DAR let in adoptees.
Jack’s family line was poor by the time he was born. He never went beyond the 8th grade. He worked from the time he was 12 or 13 . His first job was unloading slots for a local gambler. He moved up to driving truck, which he did his entire working life with literally millions of safe driving miles. I worked in trucking for several years. Charlie attended Purdue and belonged to SAE, but never graduated. You didn’t have to back then. He was on the Purdue swim team and summers worked as a lifeguard at the country club. . He spent his life designing presses and things I don’t understand. He’d take me to the plant on Saturday sometimes and the greasy loud machines were fun. Charlie’s family owned banks and ran businesses, but Charlie rejected that kind of life (or rather the Depression rejected it for him) and he spent his life working as a mechanical engineer for the company that his father had helped found and for which he’d served as secretary and treasurer. Both dads remained married. Charlie was married 41 years; Jack for 50. Death ended both marriages. Both dads supported their families with taste and style. And hard work.
Adoption-wise I’m an only child, which is fine with me. A friend of mine says that Jack reminds her of Hunter S. Thompson. Jack has four sons, and he’s a hard act to follow. Since neither Jack nor I are carrying any baggage both of us are perfect. Neither Jack nor I deal well with authority. I’m not sure how Charlie felt about it, but I think he just ignored it as much as one can ignore it.
Jack is a voracious reader. He knows everything except how to keep a checkbook. He once called me up to talk about robber barons. Charlie didn’t keep a checkbook either, but he invested and did his own taxes. He was not a big reader, but he was a mentor to young engineers, some of whom years later told me how important he had been to them in their professional lives.
Jack taught himself several languages, including fluent Chinese (Mandarin? I don’t know). I once saw him hustle a 30 something Chinese woman at the Buffalo airport. English was just fine for Charlie. Jack is a big shot in the Masons, the American Legion, the VFW, and the now defunct Veterans of China-Burma. Charlie’s grandfather ran the Scottish Right in Ohio, but Charlie refused to join, preferring the Elks. Neither dad had any use for church. Jack has never been baptized.
Both dads liked to drink. Charlie joined AA. Jack sits in front of his TV popping a 6-pack and watching the History Channel. I grew up in bars listening to the jukebox (Theresa Brewer was a particular favorite), reading comic books, and hanging out with bleach blond barmaids. Jack takes me to bars where he nurses numerous drinks while I sit next to him with a Bloody Mary watching ESPN. Both dads detested Lawrence Welk. I’m a Welkie.
Both dads have loved me tremendously. Charlie was a constant source of support, though I don’t think either of us would have actually called it that. A little too academic and PC. I have pictures of me as a toddler sitting on his lap while he read to me. Jack supports me, too, though I’d bet the bank he has no grasp of what Bastardette does, but then neither does she. I am more like my two dads than my two moms who were, to be honest, hung up on certain middle class behaviors that continue to elude me.
I wish Charlie and Jack could have known each other, just like I wish my two moms could have known each other. Jack would have fit right in, and he and Charlie could have spent many an hour drinking and hanging out in neighborhood bars. Maybe they would have gone out on the road together. Well, maybe not!
Adoption always seems to me to be a women’s sport. Fathers are almost always left out of the adoption equation—especially birth fathers. I never thought much about what my birthfather would be like until a few years ago, and I most certainly never thought I’d have a Bush-hating, Chinese-speaking Democrat like Jack for a dad. Charlie, unlike the stereotypical post-war distant dad that we hear about, spent a lot of time with me. I think he genuinely enjoyed being a dad. Through his example I learned generosity and fairness. He bought me Little Richard records and taught me big band music and that Republicans need not all be nutbars. I’ve been fortunate to have had not one, but two extraordinarily swell dads with kind and liberal and loving spirits. I wish they were both here today for Father’s Day so I could show them how much I love them both, how important they really are.