A Son Seeks a Father's Approval

The bright sun of southern California that November morning belied the coolness of the air as I left my friend's house, climbed into my rented car, and began the journey to see my father.

As I entered the Los Angeles freeway for the long trip to San Diego, I could see the thick smog hanging over the land like a heavy wet blanket. The traffic flowed unevenly. At times it would carry me along with gracefulness and ease, and at other times I would be snarled in a jam, wondering if I would ever get out.

As I went farther south, the air became clearer and warmer, the traffic thinned out, and I discarded my jacket and turned on the airconditioning. I was anxious about seeing my father again. I had always wanted him to tell me he was proud of me, but the words never came.

My father, who had been ill, was a person of few words. In conversations he was like a sponge, soaking up the messages shared by others. When we talked on the phone he only wanted to know how I was. That seemed to satisfy him. Once he was assured that all was ''okay,'' the conversation quickly came to an end. His calls often left me feeling empty.

There were several times I succeeded in getting him to stay on the phone longer. Those extended talks made me feel whole and important, especially when I realized that he liked them.

My father's silence was always a problem for me. I never knew if he was happy or angry or if I caused his feelings. Even today, I am uncomfortable around people who are silent, even though I'm a quiet person myself. More than that, however, his lack of words gave me the feeling that I didn't have his approval.

The closer I got to his apartment, the more anxious I became. I didn't know what to expect. I could envision our time together passing in awkward silence that would leave both of us with a void in life.

Dad looked older than when I last saw him a few years ago. When I gave him a hug, his still strong whiskers brushed across my cheek, bringing back childhood memories of when he would tickle me with those needle-like protrusions from his face.

''I'm no good anymore, Walter. I can't do a thing for myself,'' he said as we walked to his apartment. I put my arm around him and held him tight as tears welled up in my eyes. We had lunch, and unexpectedly he began to talk.

''That tape you sent me really meant a lot. It was a very mature thing to do,'' he said. I had sent him a tape three months earlier in which I shared with him the good things about our lives and how proud I was that he was my father.

''Everyone needs a boost in life, and that really gave me a boost. I've listened to it over and over again.''

I could tell by the way this quiet, reserved man was speaking that my words on that tape released emotions in him that had been bottled for many years. He felt loved and important.

As we spoke there were a few moments of silence every now and then, but they were soon filled.

''Dad, didn't you play with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in the late 1930s?''

''Yeah, I played with the radio orchestra, not the one under Toscanini, but the one that did the radio shows.''

''That must have been quite an experience,'' I replied.

''I remember one time when there was a trumpet solo to be played. There were three trumpeters in the orchestra. When the other two saw how difficult the piece was they walked off the stage. It was left to me to play it.''

''What happened?''

''Oh, I played the solo.'' Then tears came to his eyes. ''When I got through, all of the string players rose and tapped their bows on their music stands. That was the highest compliment they could give another musician, especially a brass man.''

''You've got a lot to be proud of, Dad.''

We were silent for awhile, basking in the glory of a moment that happened more than 50 years ago, but one that still had the power to affirm the goodness of life.

He went on to tell me how it had been his idea to straighten out the bell of his mellophone when he played for Guy Lombardo. A mellophone is a brass instrument that is shaped like a French horn. There was a song that was written for a mellophone solo entitled, ''The Music Goes Round and Round.''

When Mr. Lombardo started his TV shows in the 1950s, my father would have to turn his side to the microphone and the TV cameras when he played the solo. Microphones were not as sensitive in picking up sounds as they are today.

Lombardo, a master of appearance, did not like the aesthetics of this situation. They pondered it for a while, and then my father suggested that they drop hot lead into the bell and straighten it out. It was done, and my father never had to stand to his side again. Now in marching bands throughout the country young people play a mellophone with a straightened bell.

''Dad, remember the time you took me to New York? You had to get some work done on your horns, and I think Guy was getting new uniforms for the band.''

''Sure do. We ate at the Empire State Building.''

''Yeah, and I had a cream cheese and jelly sandwich that was so thick with cheese I could hardly eat it.''

''We had to cut most of it off, didn't we,'' he said with a slight chuckle.

''I was so proud of you that day. Every music store we went to people knew you. They liked you and had your picture up on the walls with other famous people.''

''I was a big man in those days, Walter.''

''You're still a big man in my eyes, Dad.''

He nodded, and a smile appeared on his face as our hands joined and we held each other tightly.

I began to see a tenderness in my father that I'd never seen before. I tried to get my father to say he was proud of me too, without asking him. But all attempts failed. I was disappointed until I realized that he had blessed me. The blessing came from an unexpected source: me.

As I had to be the one to bless him, to open the gates of his heart by expressing how important he was to my life and affirming the goodness of his life, I received a blessing.

In affirming my father's life, I affirmed my own. In telling my father how proud I was of him, I told myself how proud my father was of me.

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