The United States Census Bureau says that today nearly 18.5 million children grow up in homes without fathers, giving the United States the title of leader in fatherlessness. That 18.5 figure seems low.
The National Center for Fatherlessness, said that 57.6 percent of black children, 31.2 percent of hispanic and 20.7 percent of white children grow up living without their biological fathers.
Those that have no fathers in the home are more likely to commit crimes, have a troubled work history and have difficulty regulating their emotions.
Luckily, I grew up with a dad and in a neighborhood of dads.They were our gatekeepers, influencers and teachers. We learned from them the meaning of reciprocity, what personal boundaries meant and how to cope with the world we were to become a part of.
It was the early 1960's. Television was in its first generation. Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best, Bonanza and the Beverly Hillbillies were the top shows. Gasoline cost 31 cents. And everybody on my block went to church. We young boys roamed from house to house.
At the top of the hill Dicky lived with his dad and mom. His dad moved with an ease, spoke slowly and was a former coach. He worked at the local sporting goods store. Dicky always had a new glove and bat. In his backyard his dad had set up a hitting net. Dicky would smack a ball off a stand in front of the net, objective: hitting a bullseye.
“You try it, Mike,” Dicky said one day, handing his new bat to me.
His dad stood nearby. I swung at the ball, half connecting it flew up, and fouled out over the top of the net and down the yard. “How’d you do that?” Dicky yelled, shaking his head, chasing the ball. He brought it back.
“Try it again,” Dicky’s dad said, softly putting his hand on my shoulder. I did. This time it flew up and fouled behind me.
“Keep your eye on the ball!” Dicky yelled again. His dad calmly picked it up and placed it back on the stand and said, “You’ll get it, Mike. Keep trying.”
Dicky and I mowed lawns together through the summers. But I never practiced hitting the ball off the stand. And Dicky never invited me to do so.
In the middle of the block, between my house and Dicky’s, Donnie lived with his dad and mom. His dad was a magazine editor and had a basement office in their home. He had an Underwood typewriter snuggled in between stacks of magazines on a large desk. He seemed older and was always fixed on his work. Donnie had a drum set. But unlike Dicky’s dad, who had the patience of Job, Donnie’s dad just screamed when Donnie played his drums. Donnie didn’t yell back, but broke coke bottles in our creek bed and threw rocks at birds after his dad did his yelling.
On a small knoll, in a crimson colored frame house across the street from Donnie, Bruce lived with his dad, mom and sisters. Bruce’s dad’s name was Dean. He worked with X Ray machines and had a tool shop in the garage. They had the biggest backyard on the block. Dean laughed a lot. He taught me how to throw a spiral pass, and kick a football.
When it came time to choose a musical instrument which most kids did at our school, Dean took us to the music store. “We can’t buy anything boys, but take a look at what catches your fancy,” he said. Bruce chose the clarinet. I, the trombone.
Summer nights Bruce and I’d camp out on the back lawn in his dad’s old army tent and listened to the crickets and owls hoot.
Down the hill on the street, in a small brown frame house, Kenny lived with his dad, mom and sisters. A tall hedge in his backyard separated their home from a large private pond where geese landed. Kenny’s dad wore an Army uniform to work and was tall and thin. He didn’t talk much to visitors. But always gave a military dress- down look to whomever visited.
“Wait till he leaves then we can crawl under the hedge,” Kenny said, “like soldiers.” We spent many minutes waiting for his dad to leave.
Marta was the only girl in the neighborhood. And she lived across from Kenny. Her dad worked in the yard alot and had lost a leg in the war. He was kind of a hero. She had sisters. And always seemed lonely.
Peter lived next door to me with his dad, mom, and brother. His dad’s name was Gil. He was a college professor and had plastic dinosaurs and other extinct creatures in his office study. His dad would explain to us what each creature was. Each time I visited he’d quiz me on what I’d remembered. My mom and Peter’s mom were best friends.
I lived with my dad, mom and baby brother in the middle of the block. Our house was situated so we could see down the hill and up toward Dicky’s. My dad, whose name was Jim, built the home with a GI loan. It was called a kit house. He always smelled of Old Spice, wore three piece suits and drove a Thunderbird to work.
On Saturdays, he would don a sweatshirt and out we’d go. At the Crown Drug store in our little downtown, we’d sit at a long counter on red spindle seats. Dad would order-up donuts to go from a waitress who’d call him Mr. McGee. One day a man asked dad for money. “You’re a rich lawyer. You can spare some change, can’t you?” he said.
On another day sitting at the same counter, a man asked dad where he was living. Dad told him about our neighborhood. “Oh, you are across the street from where the young girl was murdered,” the man said. I shot a scared look at dad.
Outside, I screamed, “Dad, murder, who was murdered?” He pulled me to the corner of the building and said,”Don’t talk about Bruce’s house as a murder house. It upsets your mother.”
I never did. Although when Bruce and I played marbles on his living room floor, I wondered whether this was the place where the young girl died.
I had many more experiences with the dads in the neighborhood during those few short years. And I had many more experiences with my dad; canoe outings, train trips, ball games, and long vacations. I remember being proud of him and thinking he was a well respected man about town. He never hit or yelled and was a good listener. I always thought his years in the medical corps in Europe in the War groomed him to be that way.
In the summer of 63, a mass exodus happened in the neighborhood. Dicky, his dad and mom moved to Cape Girardeau. Kenny and his family moved to St.Louis.
Bruce and family, along with Donnie and his parents all left for Memphis. They left in a kind of caravan. Bruce sat in the back of the family station wagon and waved goodbye.
Peter and family were the last to vacate. They moved to Wisconsin. My mom cried when their old Woodie disappeared over the small hilltop leading out of our block.
Marta showed up at my house the next day with a lunch she wanted me to help her eat by the creek. For some crazy reason I was glad to do so.
All these years later, the neighborhood is still there, houses mostly unchanged. I never knew what happened to the boys I grew up with. My dad died suddenly my first year out of college. My mother died in the old home at 96 years.
More children will grow up without dads in the coming decades. For those who do, something will be amiss in their lives; many will never understand what that is.
I miss my dad more than ever, in what some would call the 4th quarter of my life. Grateful to have had him, wishing only I had told him so.