Monday, December 19, 2011

CR Thatcher, JR.

Haven’t stepped on a scale for a week. I will again very soon.

Clifford Richard Thatcher, Jr. passed away December 16, 2011. He was my dad and it had been a complicated relationship. I have related a few of the negative things in this blog, but let me share some of the good stuff.

Dad was a gifted pianist with an amazing ability to sight-read sheet music. At the age of 4, his signature number was “Fur Elise” by Beethoven. He could also play Chopin, the Beatles and Dave Brubeck from memory.

He was a pretty good backyard griller with one noteworthy exception: one Mother’s Day, he decided to rotisserie cook a turkey on the Weber grill for dinner. Either the fire was too hot or the bird was on too long because that thing was black to the bone. Even the dog wouldn’t touch it. I think Mother’s Day dinner that year was pizza.

Among his favorite Christmas gifts were various editions of The Baseball Encyclopedia (Red Sox fans). He would let me know it was time for a new one by discussing it with someone else, fixing me with a hard gaze and stating, “Susan needs to buy me a new one.” Hey, I can take a hint.

One year we got a bongo board for Christmas (see picture).

In the process of demonstrating it to us, Dad kind of overbalanced and scraped his knuckles on the new textured ceiling. The blood trails stayed up there for years. Alcohol may have been a factor.

On a family vacation in the Bahamas, Dad and I would snorkel together. He would bring a stick to poke the sea slugs and make them squirt ink (magenta). He got a little too bold and molested some of the other sea life as well, including green moray eels. One day, we were examining an old refrigerator someone had dropped in the bay as an artificial reef. In with the large school of fish, I saw a leopard-spotted moray eel undulating. I signaled Dad up to the surface and told him I’d seen the eel, the leopard spots were more aggressive than the greens and he should not get too close. He scoffed. On the next dive, Dad came nose to nose with the leopard moray. Backing off, he signaled me to the surface. “I believe,” he said, “that we’ve seen enough here and we should move on.”

Dad loved practical jokes and he could maintain a poker face to pull them off. As a family, we had decided to combine Secret Santa and filling Christmas stockings. Slips of paper with names were made up, drawn anonymously and distributed. As we were unveiling our stockings, Dad reached into his and pulled out a bottle of Harvey’s Bristol Cream sherry and nothing else. He accused us each in term of “Oh sure, just buy the old man a bottle and he’s happy.” It was not until everyone had opened their stockings that we figured out someone had gotten his own name in the draw. Safeguards to prevent a recurrence were hastily installed.

He was the master of the long con: over the course of 5 to 20 years, Dad had a running practical joke guerilla war going with one of his cousins. She’d said something about a ceramic horse sculpture in my grandparents’ house. While Gramp and Gram were in Florida, Dad got the horse and a Polaroid camera and made up a bunch of blackmail shots: him threatening the horse with a croquet mallet, a picture of our dog licking the sculpture (we’d smeared peanut butter on it to get him to lick it) and wrote “Max’s special little friend” on the photo. Somehow, this eventually evolved into the two of them passing a tacky gorilla-shaped bank back and forth: spray painting it gold, installing a clock in its belly, turning it into a lamp. His best, though, was the time he cleaned out a collection of postcards from around the US and Canada and sent them to his cousin, one every week. She believed he was on the trip of a lifetime until someone pointed out that all the postmarks were from Rutland, VT.

For a while, throwing a wadded-up napkin around the dinner table became a regular part of the after-dinner conversation. One time, an olive ended up replacing the napkin and after a few trips across the table, it ended up in front of him. He decided to smash it, but got a little too enthusiastic and his coffee cup sailed up in the air like something out of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. Alcohol may have been a factor.

According to him, the answer to any question was, “Hoagy Carmichael.” Or it should have been.

I could not recommend him as a driver’s ed teacher, especially teaching his kids how to drive a stick shift. Here was the rule for training on his beloved Volkswagen Rabbit (one of the first in the US): you got to stall the car 10 times. After the tenth stall, he’d reach over, pluck the keys out of the ignition, pick up his martini from between his knees (cars didn’t have cup holders) and then return to sitting on the porch and watching the sunset.  His definition of defensive driving: “Assume everybody else on the road is an asshole and is going to do the stupidest thing imaginable.” That advice has saved my neck a couple of times.

He was a great explorer. The fastest route between two points on a map was not his preferred way to go. Dad liked to hit the back roads and see the USA from his Chevrolet (or Buick or Cadillac). And sometimes Canada. He did the same on the water, taking his houseboat as far from its home on Lake Champlain as he could go and still return during a two week vacation. This included at least two trips down the Champlain Canal, the Hudson River and around the Statue of Liberty. Crewing for him could be a bit like crewing for Captain Bligh on HMS Bounty, but he did enjoy “simply messing about in boats” (Quote from “The Wind in the Willows”).

In the early 1960s, most parents were telling their kids to “turn off that damn racket” when the Beatles came on the radio. Our parents bought us the “Meet the Beatles” album. Their song (“They’re Playing Our Song” song)  was “Here, There and Everywhere.” I took my parents to two Jimmy Buffett concert and he was yelling for Jimmy to play “Brown Eyed Girl” (no, he didn’t mix up Jimmy Buffett and Van Morrison. Jimmy did a cover that was better than Van’s original).

According to Dad, America’s greatest Broadway composer was Frank Loesser (“Guys and Dolls”). He didn’t have a satisfactory comeback when I asked him to square that with “The answer to any question is Hoagy Carmichael.”

And I get a lump in my throat every time I hear "Baby, It's Cold Outside."

Bye, Dad.

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