Patrick Adonizio kissed me on the top of my head and called me “Howard.”
He does that often.
As a kid, Patrick, now a dentist, spent many days playing with my younger brother, Bobby at our house, across the street from his, and that’s how he got to know Howard Ackerman, my dad. Every time Patrick looks at me he sees my dad’s face. I know what he means. It’s a face I also see, whenever I look in a mirror.
Patrick says he was always “a little bit afraid” of Howard, but mostly in awe of him. My dad had that effect on all our friends. His powerful forearms, always visible with the sleeves of his flannel shirt rolled up to his elbows, and giant, calloused hands, belied his gentle nature. My dad had a particular soft spot for children, which along with his face, I’ve also inherited.
Had he lived, my dad would have celebrated his 99th birthday on Monday, Oct. 12. When we were little, he’d tell us he was born at the same time Columbus was discovering America and we believed him.
Lately I’ve been thinking if my dad had been with Columbus in 1492, he would have defended the Native Americans. He not only had a tremendous love of justice, but he also tended to side with the underdog. My dad was about as far removed from a racist as a person could be. Fighting for four straight years in the Pacific, island to island, alongside soldiers of all sorts of backgrounds, will do that to a guy.
In a way, I always thought of my dad as sort of a Native American himself. He had a Native American-like connection with nature. In the woods, he’d point out where a deer had slept the night before, or where a bear had eaten all the blueberries from the side of a bush. He’d get a sense there was a snake up ahead, and sure enough, there was. My dad was not a church-goer, but I knew he was a believer. He worshiped nature and marveled at creation. The woods was his church.
My dad’s tales of growing up on a farm — shooting deer the year around, his first at 7 years old, and hunting rabbits when he was 11 or 12 with just a dog and a club — contributed to my sense of his being Native American. In grade school, they’d scare the bejeepers out of us with drills in case the Russians attacked. But I never worried. If there’s a nuclear war, I thought, my dad will take care of us. He grew up during the Depression, but when you lived on a farm, he’d say, you always had a lot to eat. Let the Russians drop a bomb, I’d think, my dad will make sure we have a lot to eat.
I like writing about my dad, especially around Father’s Day and his birthday, and while I may do it too often, I sometimes think not often enough.
My dad was a storyteller. In that, I suppose I’ve become him too. But he never told stories about the war. Instead, he’d talk about growing up on the farm.
I grew tired of those stories. But not my friends. I rolled my eyes whenever they said, “Mr. Ackerman, tell the one about …” and off he’d go.
There was the one about his big brothers throwing him in the Lehigh River when he was about 5 and cried to go swimming with them. They’d fish him out before he drowned, but throw him back again. Eventually he figured out how to doggie paddle.
There was the one about the summer his aunt, already with a bunch of kids, had a new baby. Little Howie was sent to live there and help with the chores. “The worst part,” he said, “was I had to sleep with one of my cousins, and every night he wet the bed.” But Howie kept his mouth shut and worked hard, certain a big payday was coming. And it did. He got a calf.
And then there was the one about the knife. That was by far my friends’ favorite.
Howie and his friends, all about 12 years old, longed for things in the Sears catalog no one could afford. The most coveted was a pair of leather boots with a knife inserted in a sheath on the side. Then one day, one of his friends showed up wearing a pair. His grandmother bought them.
The boys were climbing trees a few days later when they heard leaves rustling and branches breaking. Someone was falling. It turned out to be the boy with the new boots, and as he writhed on the ground in pain, they could see the handle of the knife sticking out of his forearm. The boy knew he had to pull it out, and so, taking a deep breath, grabbed the handle and yanked with all his might.
“And that’s when he realized,” Dad said, “that it wasn’t the handle of his knife at all. It was a bone.”
I love telling that one myself.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.