03 June 2013

june 3rd, 2003: a ten year memory

June 3rd 2003 is a date I’m not likely to forget. It was one of those days that marked a turning point in my life. Looking back on it a decade later, a lot of my life is a direct result of what happened in the wee morning hours of that day, and the days that followed. A lot of behaviours I practiced with reckless abandon both that Summer and in the years since were at times a direct result. And at the same time, it was an entirely new world laid out in front of me that I needed to face, for better or worse. 

But first, I want to share a story with you. 

I attended my first fandom convention in 1998, ICON out at SUNY Stonybrook. I literally discovered it in the most random way possible: the Newsday Sunday edition events calendar. I saw that this convention had been going on all weekend, and my inner nerd was excited. I needed to attend, if even for the one day. It didn’t matter if it was the last day, I just NEEDED TO GO.

Problem: I didn’t have a car. Teenagers in my neighborhood didn’t get cars. Most of us didn’t even know how to drive. 

Problem: I was still far removed from the mass transit skills I would eventually develop in college. The only places I ever went to were the mall and the comic shop, neither of which required taking a bus, let alone commuter rail.

Problem: I was about as naive and immature as one could be at 16. Seriously, I was a right mess. All I could think about was “GEEK CONVENTION ON LONG ISLAND I HAVE TO GO!” No thoughts to logistics, costs (I didn’t have a job either) or anything associated with attending cons. I just had the overwhelming urge to go. 

Enter my father. I need to explain a few things about him first. My dad was from the “old school.” I mean, seriously- he was a child of the depression. He and his 3 brothers grew up during the hard times, and it shaped him into a man who appreciated family. He was also from the “war generation:” he served in Korea, and came out of it into a new America, the same one we see on those History Channel documentaries, full of economic boom and expansion of the worldview. 

My dad’s passion was fishing. He loved to fish. He rarely ate what he caught...rarely even KEPT what he caught, but that never stopped him from tinkering with old rods, tackle, his boat- my father was, I guess you COULD say, a fishing otaku. He knew everything there was to know about the art and craft of catching fish. Hell, one of his favorite “trolls” was to pull up alongside those tourist fishing boats and bring up fish after fish, while the hapless people on board caught nothing. He could find the one fish in the sea on a day when everyone else came home without a nibble. He was THAT good. And from the moment I could walk, he took me fishing.

I hated fishing. I have no patience for it. I didn’t mind going to the boat, I didn’t mind sitting there and reading, or playing, or whatever, while my dad fished. I could occupy myself pretty well. But the one thing I could never handle was actually fishing. It just wasn’t “my thing,” right up there alongside pee-wee sports, roller coasters and all those other things young boys are “supposed to like.”  

To my dad’s credit, that never bothered him. The world’s best fisherman had a son who wouldn’t fish, but all he cared about was having a son. He didn’t care that I dropped out of baseball after one season, or that I preferred the museum to the stadium. He honestly was just happy that I was there, that I had my own ‘passions,’ and that I at least tried sometimes. 

Because he would try his hardest to do the same for his nerdy son and his obsessions with Star Trek and Dungeons and Dragons. (He even bought me my first deck of Magic cards...and PLAYED a few games with me.) He would sit through episodes of Buffy, take me to science fiction and fantasy movies (my first R-rated movie was Robocop II, which he sat through and then bought me a bunch of toys for). He was a great “normal” father to an exceedingly “geeky” child, and for the longest time I never appreciated that. 

So, back to ICON: I had been begging to go. The guest of honor that year was Kenny Baker, the actor who portrayed R2-D2 in Star Wars. As I was in the grips of massive Star Wars fandom, I just had to meet the little guy. SUNY Stonybrook was about 60 miles away, and as I mentioned before, I didn’t have a car. My mother, bless her, didn’t really see the point of driving all the way out to the East End, dropping around $40 to meet an actor, and wander around a convention for a few hours. 

My dad volunteered to take me. 

After arriving at the campus and registering, I practically disappeared into the dealer’s room, found the tabletop RPG’s, played a lot of Chivalry and Sorcery, and waited for the autograph session to start. One thing I didn’t do, was take notice of where my father had gone. I had literally ditched the man who had indulged my nerdiness, in favor of exploring a con for the first time.

I was busy playing C&S when my father appeared in the game room. He had found me because he knew my hobbies, had bought an “Artoo” SWCCG card from a vendor, and was reminding me it was time to get Kenny Baker’s autograph. I hadn’t seen him in maybe 3 hours by this point, I was so lost in my own little world. He could have just vanished from the convention and not told me I was going to miss the main reason I was going. By all rights, he should have. But he didn’t- he just waited for the right time, and found me. 

Later, as we were heading home, it started to dawn on me that I had ditched him. I felt guilty. Here was a man who gave up his Sunday for his child, and that child repaid him by ignoring him the entire day. Too embarrassed to outright apologize, I asked him how he has spent the time at ICON. 

Apparently, he had spent the entire time in the cabaret stage, watching performances and listening to interviews. He hadn’t moved from his seat for the entire time. I asked if he had been bored, and he replied something I had never expected to hear come from his mouth.

“I was watching that R2-D2 guy, and holy Christ, he is f**king funny! I stayed for both his shows.” 

As I sat there, listening to my father recap his time spent at the cabaret, I finally found an appreciation for the man. He wasn’t a nerd, but he still found things about the culture he could enjoy. He didn’t really get why I was the way I was, but at the same time I didn’t get why he liked fishing, and he understood that. He understood what it was about the “lifestyle” that I liked, and much like I would go fishing with him even though I never fished, he would put up with my incessant ramblings because they mattered to me. 

Sometimes he would develop a genuine appreciation for some of my interests: he really did enjoy watching “Angel,”  and we had a standing “event” for every Jackie Chan movie that was domestically released in the 90s. He would play NES with me all the time (he loved Super Mario Brothers more than I did), and the occasional board game. And if I ever wanted to hit a museum, he would be in the car before the words came out of my mouth. 

My mother is often fond of reminding me to this day that since I was “my own person with my own interests,” it opened avenues for him that he never would have discovered otherwise. He was a child of hard times, and had a truly restricted youth. Because I was different, he found the things I said and the places I went to be stimulating. In many ways, being the nerdy kid made life more interesting for him, rather than “typical and boring” existence he had grown up during. His life was stuck in a mold, but his son’s life was “free for exploration.” 

(He was also a total explorer, in that he would frequently get lost while driving and wouldn’t stop because he “wanted to see where the road let out.” I got that from him, too.)

I can see now what I was blind to then: my dad was a father, and being a father was the single most important thing in his life, geeky child or not. If I was a “normal” kid, he would have treated me exactly the same.

My father died on June 3rd, 2003. It was sudden, very unexpected, an aggressive form of lung cancer that appeared and took his life in less than 3 weeks. I had been in his room earlier that day, playing Golden Sun 2 on my GBA and talking about the Yankees with him. He was asking me about class, and about my last year of undergraduate studies. I was explaining to him about the RPG I was playtesting with some friends. We shared some jokes (mostly at Roger Clemens’ expense- my father thought he was “all washed up,” much like the rest of the Yankees roster), and I went home. 

He called back at 11 PM, saying that he was dying. My mother and I rushed to the hospital. His last words to me were “I’m proud of you.” 

That was ten years ago. Were he alive to see what I’ve become, I know he would have had more fun with me. My interests in military history and hating the Yankees would have given us more common ground (he was a Mets fan, as I am now). He would have loved hearing about all the travels to conventions, and the people I’ve met. (He would probably have tried to come with me to a few, just to get out of NY.) He would have definitely sat there while I watched anime, as he did when I first saw Dragonball Z, and he remarked about how crazy their hair looked, but still watched the entire Dead Zone movie with me twice. 

I’m a different person than I was then. In many ways, I’ve become more like him since he passed. But he was still my father, and I can only imagine what he would be saying to me right now. I appreciate the times we shared, and what he did for me in the long run. I might never have been able to manage who I am without a healthy dose of him in my life. 

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