On the occasion of my hero’s 100th birthday

Today would be the 100th birthday for my father, Frank McCarter.

That’s mind-boggling in so many ways.

First, to accept the fact that someone I think of daily has not been alive since April 4, 2007.

Here’s the cover of “My First 85 Years”

Second, to realize that my mother, whose Alzheimer’s disease we believe was partly triggered by depression over my father’s death, has been gone since Jan. 4, 2012. She was 85, and there was grace in her departure; future years would have been a worsening trial of sadness, frustration and hopelessness for her, and us.

It’s mind-boggling to consider all that transpired in my father’s lifetime, from cars as transportation to space travel, from the Depression to World War II, during which he served in the Army Air Corps.

He went from parenthood to grandparenthood as he neared his 60s, the latter role unearthing a sense of humor that was seldom evident when my brother Bryan and I fought in the den, spilled model airplane paint on the living room carpet or almost set afire the house with a chemistry experiment.

We convinced him to put his life on paper, since so many stories had gone untold, symptomatic of the stoicism of the Greatest Generation.

“My First 85 Years,” he titled his autobiography, a phrase that evoked optimism of a sequel, if not another decade or so. Alas, time took its inevitable toll. Less than seventeen months after the family was gifted with copies of the book for Christmas, he peacefully passed away, family at his side.

I’ve written hundreds of words about my father through the years, and thousands upon thousands of words about fathers and sons. I suspect many of the words in those fathers-and-sons stories were inspired by my own father.

As I try to articulate what Daddy was, it dawns on me that the best way is to say he was there. Or, conversely, he wasn’t there when he didn’t need to be, if that makes sense.

He was there, any day we asked, to slap ground balls our direction on the makeshift ballfield we shared with Mrs. Murphy’s yard next door. Yet he didn’t force himself as one of our organized-ball coaches, which he knew would be uncomfortable. He was there to instruct the proper use of tools – wish I’d listened as well as Bryan did – and patient when they got misused.

He was there with a newspaper in his lap every night, creating a culture of reading. He was there to go buy a new baseball glove – but only after sufficient yards had been mown to cover the cost. He was there with driving lessons on country roads when we were 14 or so. (Our saber-sharp Uncle Jack, now 94, swears Daddy got into constant trouble for lead-footing over those same roads in his ’28 Ford; unbelievable for a man we never heard cuss or saw speed.)

He was there, respecting my side during the most tense moments I ever shared with my mother, and with whatever he could do as dumb decisions, bad behavior or quirks of fate complicated my life.

Daddy was there.

I just wish he were here now.

After Daddy died, we were cleaning out his desk. In a bottom drawer, there was a three-inch stack of computer print-outs. As I was traveling thousands of miles away to report for a newspaper 100 miles away from him, Daddy would read the stories on-line. Some of them, he’d print out for my computer-averse mother to read.

It feels a little self-absorbed to look at it this way, but to “inherit” a stack of one’s own forgettable work was one of the great gifts in his passing. I never knew how regularly he was reading.

Daddy was there — and doing what he could to make sure I was, too.

Daddy was featured in Life magazine when artist Peter Hurd was dispatched to do a series of portraits of a B-17 crew during World War II.

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