Growing Up in a Town Without Dads

Snapshots of life at home.
June 13 2013 12:53 PM

A Town Without Dads

Our fathers were American heroes, but they were never around.

The author and his father, Christmas, 1975.
The author and his father, Christmas, 1975

Courtesy of Stephen Rodrick

I grew up in a town without fathers.

That didn’t seem to matter at first. More importantly to a kid, I grew up in a town without a McDonald’s.

“Welcome to Oak Harbor, Washington, population 10,445” read the sign at the city limits on the day in August of 1974 when we arrived in town. There was a five-and-dime, a lone cinema, some ball fields, and a burger joint called the Arctic Circle. We pulled our Chevy station wagon into a dirt parking lot and ordered dinner. Dad gave it his best shot.

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“Arctic Circle is as good as McDonald’s.”

Of course my sister and I didn’t believe him. But the burgers were good.

In many ways, Oak Harbor in the 1970s was still 1950s Rockwellian America. Nestled in the northwest corner of the Northwest, Oak Harbor was the hub, such as it was, of Whidbey Island, the second-largest island in the continental United States as our teachers liked to remind us. Buying candy cigarettes was tough, much less the real thing. We went bowling, we went roller-skating, and we rode our bikes down dirt roads far into the evergreens. If it sounds idyllic, it was. Well, except for the planes screaming through the overcast skies day and night. And the fact that in our 40- to 50-house subdivision there were maybe 10 fathers.

My dad was gone, too, just a few months after selling us on the Arctic Circle. Peter Rodrick didn’t leave us exactly—he was a Navy pilot doing carrier qualifications off the Pacific coast in his EA-6B Prowler, a radar-jamming plane.

It would have seemed weirder if he was actually home. I eyed the few grown men in our neighborhood as I delivered the Seattle Times with suspicion; they were mostly retirees, stray civilians, or worse—a naval guy whose career was permanently screwed. Still, life went on. There might be five kids to one dad at father-son campouts, but that was just the way it went.

Another way it went was that some dads didn’t come home at all. When I was 8, my best friend Timmy came to school late one morning. At recess, he told me his father’s Prowler had received a weak catapult launch off the USS Constellation. He survived, but a crew member drowned. I wanted to talk to my father about it, but he was gone.

I couldn’t tell you many details about the dads in our neighborhood, but the mothers are etched in my memory. Mrs. Hardin blowing her whistle, calling her kids home. Mrs. Gardner, the exotic one, with a master’s in something. And Mrs. Hickey, a sweetheart who let us watch R-rated movies on sleepovers and brought us sandwiches while we played marathon games of Risk.

From the outside, my home was the same. Mom drove carpools and made my pals grilled-cheese sandwiches for lunch in the summertime. But when we were alone, our fights grew longer and louder. I was a classic attention deficit disorder kid, always bored and mouthing off at school. Mom was frazzled and alone. She signed up for the Navy life, the kids, and the moves, but she didn’t sign up for me. I was a problem she couldn’t solve. What did Dad say? Not much—he was a ghost even when he was home, staying up late planning flight schedules and solving maintenance issues with his planes. He urged her to be patient with me. Mom just rolled her eyes.

“You don’t have to be here 24 hours a day with him.”

She was right. Dad was a math whiz at the Naval Academy—legend has it he tutored Roger Staubach through calculus—and I was blessed with his brains, but not much else. I tested in the top percentile for IQ, but I couldn’t tie my shoes or really ride a bike without training wheels until I was almost 7. So Mom took me to a Navy psychologist when I was in first or second grade who told her, “I never met a kid so young trying to live up to his father.”

But what was I trying to live up to? He flew jets off a carrier and drove a white MG. He never missed Mass and said “son of a biscuit eater” instead of swearing. Me? I could screw up with the best of them. Once, I smuggled 100 firecrackers back to Oak Harbor in my suitcase from a family vacation while Dad was on cruise. Mom found out. She screamed through tears. “I don’t think your father has any idea what kind of son he has.”

That was definitely true. From my seventh through 13th birthdays, he was gone more than 1,000 days. He’d come home and we’d toss the ball around a little bit, Dad still in his flight suit, but I would catch him glancing at his gold Timex, and I’d cut it short.

The only two things I really knew about Dad’s own childhood were that he was an ace altar boy and paperboy. So I tried both. One Sunday, I staggered backward from the Bible’s weight during the final blessing. The congregation tittered—is he going to drop the thing?—until the priest announced, “I’m going to let the lad sit down before he hurts himself.” The paper route went a tad better, but Dad bought his mother a dishwasher with his profits, and I squandered it all on the five ice-cream sandwich lunch.

I tried to learn things as I went. Birds and the bees? Explained from some Swedish porn magazines I found while staying with another Navy family. In Webelos, I’d stand with hands clenched, not able to make my fingers move the right way to tie a bowline knot or build a catapult. At the end of the meeting, someone else’s dad would whip my project into shape, give a wink, and pat me on the head.

When I was 12, Dad left on another cruise. But this one was going to be different. He was about to be promoted to skipper of his own squadron­—the Navy’s glamour job—and in six months I was going to meet him in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and we’d come back across the Pacific together, six whole days just him and me. I don’t know if it was because I was getting older or because another kid’s father had been killed six months earlier—my dad made me invite him to my birthday and made sure he scored lots of touchdowns—but I was afraid this time. I told him that the afternoon he left. He tousled my hair.

“It’ll be fine. Now try and get along with your mom, and don’t fight her on everything.”

That was the last time I saw him. In November 1979, a few weeks before my flight to Hawaii, hostages were taken in Tehran, and Dad’s carrier was turned around. On a training mission southeast of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, his plane just didn’t return. All that remained was black oil and a white helmet floating on a blue sea.

***

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