President Dad

[Author’s note: The following is an encomium, a tribute to the living, which I had written in 1989, when dad was still with us. He is since gone, but clearly not forgotten. It appears here one day late for all you who are just a day behind in thanking your dad for all that he has done.]

Some kids imagine they’ll be president one day. I wouldn’t care for all the bother; I have my hands full enough juggling a job and girlfriends and leisure activities, and paying off a credit-card bill or six, to say nothing of tampering with trillions in deficit dollars.

But my dad could be president, and not just because he’s taller and more imposing than most dads, or could beat them up, if he were so inclined.

Presidentially speaking , my dad’s accustomed to being in high places. He’s the youngest of eleven kids born to a Norwegian immigrant painter. Because of this, my dad, Roald Borge Forseth, spent many hours staring intently into the heavens, as if he were analyzing the facial expressions of the Lord God Himself.

To make a long story short, my old man, in his spritely youth, dangled from lofty scaffoldings—in his childhood hometown of La Crosse, Wisconsin—to stencil designs onto the cathedral ceilings that his old man would paint.

Politically, I don’t know exactly which party my dad would represent. I could make a conservative guess, but he doesn’t seem to conform to any specific partisan ideology. He’s a reader, subscribing to, and reading, the local daily newspaper and such magazines as “National Geographic,” “Modern Mechanics,” “Scientific American,” and “Reader’s Digest.” So, he’s definitely informed, unlike some politicians.

As far as I know, he’s never run for a public office of any sort, or been the president of a club or corporation. But if it’s all the same to you, I’ll refer to him as President Dad anyway, because he has an intensity and grit to his philosophy, important qualities lacking in too many leaders today. Let me expound on this a little.

As a parent of four young terrorists lacking any voting rights whatsoever, President Dad has been known to impose upon his domain a sort of psychological police state that could best be described as a totalitarian democracy. For instance, when one of his little guerrillas would boldly challenge curfew policies with such unreasonable demands as, “I wanna stay up and watch TV,” President Dad would answer in a diplomatic, cultured, civilized, and sophisticated tone: “Which would you rather do: Clean your room, wash the dishes, and mow the lawn; or go to bed?”

The scrappy little terrorist soon loses track of his original rebellious campaign. He is suddenly disarmed, transformed from radical militant to patriotic voter, casting a ballot for the lesser of all evils.

President Dad doesn’t always derail others’ trains of thought. Neither does he provide lengthy, laboriously-worded answers to questions; his replies are often brief, sometimes shockingly so, or they at least promote careful reflection on the part of the inquiring party. Here’s a classic example: In earlier days, I sporadically aspired to protect humanity from itself, considering a career in police sciences.

“Hey, Dad?” I implored, prepubescent ignorance seeping from my entire epidermal layer, “did you ever think of becoming a cop?”

Notice here how President Dad both answers the question and, within the answer, explicitly sums up an implicit situational drawback to such a career choice:

“Well,” he replied, with typical philosophical elegance, “I never did see the sense in looking down the wrong end of the barrel of a gun any more often than I absolutely had to. Why do you ask?”

President Dad’s dread of guns has been obvious to me.

“Why don’t you hunt, Dad?” I once inquired, teenaged, macho foolishness gushing from my morbidly curious scowl.

“I had enough of that in the Army,” he replied.

Oh, the imagery, the reality, the horrific vision generated by that reply. Never before had I ever considered war and hunting as one and the same. But I guess they both require using guns.

I imagined cute, little, fuzzy, screaming squirrels, bleeding and moaning in tiny tree-top M.A.S.H. units. I imagined ducks and geese, having been shotgun-blasted in mid-flight, leaving trails of smoke in the autumn sky as they crashed toward the Earth. Then I imagined the worst thing a young person could imagine: I imagined groups of grown men hunting one another in a life-or-death game called war.

President Dad has admitted to having successfully hunted ducks in his youth, on sloughs of the Mississippi River, and only once after the war. As he tells it, in his last bird-hunt outing, a pheasant suddenly flew up from the underbrush, about ten feet in front of him. Some would call this point-blank range. With Viking reflexes, he drew a bead on the bird. With Viking reflexes, he fired—pulling both triggers. Yes, he was using a double-barreled shotgun, and yes, both barrels fired at the same time.

While President Dad recovered from the gun’s kick, the bird’s guts were all that remained airborne. He had torn a hole clear through the critter. “There really wasn’t anything left to eat,” he said of his prey.

He recalls the incident wearing his patented wince of sheer disgust. “Aaahww, ripping birds apart… that’s not sport.”

In keeping with his level-headed, rational demeanor, he seldom converses on issues of national defense, although he spent, in his words, “the biggest waste of five years of my life” as a lieutenant in the Army during World War II. This is not to say that he is unpatriotic. Rather, his pursuit of a college degree was rudely interrupted by an unpleasant event over which he had very little control. But in this sense, as a commissioned officer, President Dad was a Commander in Chief, of sorts, ‘though way, way down the totem pole.

Ah, yes, the Army. In my romantic, omniscient, oblivious youth, I had considered enlisting in the Armed Forces. Like any wild-eyed kid fresh out of high school, I sought President Dad’s opinion regarding the incredible and deep wisdom of my plans for my future as an up-and-coming adult, so that I could carry out my plan inversely as the square of dad’s advice, as I often did—learning the hard way.

His reply to my idea of joining this American version of the French Foreign Legion was, as usual, succinct:

“You don’t have to join the Armed Forces to be told what to do. Just stick around here!” he said.

Short, simple, easy-to-process answers like these served to intensify my youthful cognitive capacities, and hold my attention. The stunning brevity of his replies left little time for his audience’s mind to wander. I was standing with him in the kitchen of his home at the time. He went on to explain that, in the Armed Forces, “they tell you when to wake up, go to bed, brush your teeth, clean the urinals, take a shower, exercise, eat, breathe, stand, sit…” He pretty much  listed everything a person does in any given day. After that reply, I didn’t even consider joining Boy Scouts.

By now you may infer that debating is no problem for President Dad. This is true, and I should know, because I’ve yet to win an argument with him. He debated in high school, then with the Japanese in the South Pacific during WWII, then later, over a period of years, with a wife and four kids. One could say he’s been debating a good part of his life.

But talk is cheap, as they say, and President Dad is a man of action as well, setting examples for other dads up and down the neighborhood block.

For instance, he was always eager to be present at the births of his four children. On one occasion, while away on a business trip in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he received word that the First Lady was in labor at a La Crosse, Wisconsin, hospital.

That night he drove his new, eight-cylinder, 1950 Oldsmobile so hard and fast that the transmission failed before reaching La Crosse. After thumbing a ride to the nearest Zephyr train station and catching a cab from the La Crosse train depot to the hospital, he became the happy father of a false alarm.

Part of President Dad’s man-of-action philosophy includes a passion for experimentation and inquiry. In a basement workshop that would be the envy of the likes of Vlad the Impaler and Rube Goldberg, President Dad becomes Aristotle, Copernicus, Einstein, and Edison.

Hanging from ceiling rafters are dozens of jars filled with myriad necessities like nuts and bolts, resistors and capacitors, nails, and screws, odd fasteners and bits of wire, and weird thingamajigs for which no name has yet been invented.

Surrounding him were saber, circular, and table saws; a standing drill press, and electric and cordless hand drills; grinding wheels; torches and burners; wrenches, hammers, clamps and vices; tweezers and benders and pullers and shapers; gears, pulleys, steel shafts and slabs; wood beams and poles and planks; metals and motors and plastics and pieces recycled from any salvageable household or motorized thing. And hand tools of every sort. These are the resources with which President Dad successfully modifies, and fights the forces of entropy upon, his cherished home.

These are also the resources of a man obsessed with curiosity, inventiveness, and a penchant for tinkering. His inventiveness once earned him a patent on a design for a portable, pocket-sized sundial for campers. President Dad almost sold the idea to Quaker Oats, who had considered putting the contraptions in their cereal boxes. Unfortunately, the sundial was considered too complex for Quaker Oats customers.

Although he was able to market it, he lost money on the thing, due in part to some problems in the manufacturing process. But he rests assured that a handful of happy campers around the country are reaping the benefits of his invention, in part due to an ad he placed in an outdoor-sports magazine.

His tinkerings were many. He built, for each of his two boys, go-carts made from bed frames, wood , fan belts, wagon wheels and lawn-mower engines. Each vehicle looked like something out of a post- nuclear-war movie, and they ran well, not too slow, not too fast.

He built a Fourth of July cannon from a foot-long piece of 1-inch-diameter pipe, a spark plug, and a coil long salvaged from a Ford Model T, the first model of car President Dad ever drove at the age of 12. This homemade cannon used gasoline fumes as a propellant, and shot a bottle-stopper cork (with a screw in the top, for ballast) clear across the street and over the neighbor’s house.

President Dad is frugal, in a strange way. He is definitely a fiscal conservative, to a fault. He eldest son reports that President Dad has been known to wash dishes in cold water. Family lore claims that, after he designed and built a 200-square-foot storage shed in the back yard, after all the sawdust settled, all that remained was a foot-long piece of two-by-four. On another occasion, he drove all over the city comparing prices until he found the cheapest drill bit of a particular diameter, at 39 cents. No one knows the monetary cost in gasoline he burned up in his search.

President Dad’s been retired now for years. He’s presiding over a home-repair business he recently started, primarily, most of us suspect, to keep him out of mom’s hair, and/or vice-versa. He’s not really a president, of course, but in displaying presidential qualities he has affected many in positive ways.

But I doubt that dad would ever run for office, and, I suspect, for much the same reason he’s not a cop; he doesn’t see any sense in looking down the wrong end of a barrel of a gun any more often than he absolutely has to.