My father used to take me to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra children’s concerts in McFarlin Auditorium at SMU when I was young.
Conductor Walter Hendl would stride on stage with balloons tied to the back of his tailcoat and pretend not to know they were there. When he started to conduct, the children would laugh and he would whip around as if to say This is serious music; be quiet! Of course, when he faced the children, he couldn’t see the balloons, which made them laugh even harder.
As we left one of these concerts and approached the fountain in front of the building, my father jumped over a concrete bench. I was impressed that he could do that. It reminded me of his trick dive at the Highland Park swimming pool.
In this dive, he would walk to the end of the board, turn around, balance on the balls of his feet, jump backwards off the board, flip halfway forward, and dive in nose first. Making this dive was as daring as leaping over a bench because if you missed the dive, you would bang your head on the way down and break your neck. Likewise, if your foot caught the lip of the bench, you would land on your face.
Flash forward to October 1980 and the last days I saw my father alive. I was visiting my parents in Dallas before shipping out to Germany for an assignment in the Navy. Two days before I left, my father drove me downtown to get my passport and do some legal work of his own at the courthouse.
After leaving the courthouse, my dad had to sit down on a bench and rest because of his heart condition, of which I was only vaguely aware. I felt annoyed. It was only 10:00 in the morning, and I was raring to go. What was the matter with him? Eventually he felt better, and we walked to the car.
He drove us to lunch at a restaurant on McKinney Ave., the sort of place that springs up in Oak Lawn and goes out of business just as quickly. We both ate hamburgers, after which my dad ordered a double-chocolate fudge sundae “with a maraschino cherry on top,” as he used to say. He ate the whole thing himself.
We stopped at his office on the way home. Before we got out of the car, my dad doubled over and said, “Oh God, not now!” I didn’t know what to do. I sat frozen until he felt well enough to walk inside and retrieve some papers.
On my last night in Dallas, my father took me to hear pianist Alicia de Larrocha give a concert in McFarlin Auditorium. My dad wanted me to wear my dress uniform, the double-breasted navy blue jacket with gold lieutenant commander stripes on the sleeves.
I complied; but as I was dressing, I discovered that one of the brass buttons was missing from the front of the jacket. I told my dad I couldn’t wear the uniform with a missing button. I let protocol overrule my dad’s desire to show me off at the concert. No one would have noticed the missing button.
We parked by the Sinclair gas station in Snider Plaza and started walking. We were running late, so I took a shortcut up through the trees, expecting my dad to follow. “I can’t go that fast!” he said behind me. I waited impatiently for him to catch up. We attended the concert and went home.
The next morning, my mom took a photo of me and my dad standing in the driveway. In the photo, I’m looking self-conscious in my dress blues—I must have found the button—and he is beaming. Before I got in the car for my mother to drive me to the airport, he hugged me and said “The embrasso.” He always cloaked his hugs in that fractured Spanish word.
I decided not to fly home from Germany that Christmas because I expected my parents to visit me in April. I regret that decision because my dad died of a heart attack on January 1 at age 72, the same age I am now.
Taking me to concerts and jumping over benches, driving me downtown for my passport and buying me lunch on McKinney—my dad loved me and I loved him although we never said so explicitly.
As usual, he expressed his feelings in a quote. When I was in high school, he would poke his head into my room at bedtime and say “Goodnight, sweet prince,” a line from Hamlet which, unfortunately, has become a meme.