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(James Hildebrand)–My dad was born in 1943. In other words, he and Hitler were alive at the same time.
The son of a hopelessly poor Irish Catholic steel mill family, my dad spent his childhood in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania playing football, stealing donuts, and “fighting the Italians.” Seriously though, these Westside Story brawls were a weekly occurrence, apparently. My favorite’s the one where some guy whipped a brick at a young Bobby H. My dad deflected it with a trash can lid into the guy’s face. A young Captain America. Hopelessly broken nose. Blood-stained wife-beaters. It’s so hackneyed it’s seems like a joke.
We’re supposed to absorb all kinds of didactic masculinity from our dads: how to walk, how to talk, how to subtlety readjust our spandexed genitals at the gym. But when you have an old dad, it’s like getting all these lessons via telegram: “Always say thank you STOP. Don’t take shit from anyone STOP. Make sure your wiener gets really big STOP.”
And when I look at his life story, it makes sense why my dad’s approach to teaching masculinity seemed, at least at first, so old school. He escaped the steel mill through sheer hard work, naturally broad shoulders, and a football scholarship – an unambiguous narrative of strong work ethic triumphant. Not everyone was so lucky. Someone fell head first into a cauldron of liquid steel once. There wasn’t anything left to find, he explained to me on the way to soccer practice. Another example: a guy once pulled a gun on my dad, who responded by punching him in the face. “I’m sorry sir, I’m sorry, it wasn’t loaded I swear!” he confessed in defeat. These stories are short and sweet, sailing easily across the fifty-year gap separating father and son, so it makes sense that these are the ones we’d hear over and over again growing up.
More than that, though, Bob’s old dad-ness extends beyond what stories he chose to tell us. His lifestyle, his actions, his work – a no-nonsense, no-complaints directness pervades everything.
He never gets sick. He’s the poster boy of ‘takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’.” I’m pretty sure his kneecap exploded at one point, and another time a tendon on his hand permanently contracted, so he walked around for a week perpetually throwing up some cryptic gang sign. Bob Hildebrand, 69, out here grindin’.
And the man knows how to build. We’d pass apartment developments as we drove around LA, and he’d stop in a huff and explain to me everything that they were doing wrong. You can’t use that kind of stucco in this climate. All that exposed rebar needs to be capped , or they’ll get fined – it’s an accident waiting to happen. And why the hell would you start digging a three-story underground parking garage right before rainy season?
He ran marathons. He had the sickest chevron moustache. He still doesn’t get hangovers.
In other words, all signs point to my dad being some hard-ass paragon of old masculinity. A “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” type who thinks women look better in dresses and vaccinations are for pussies. But that’s not really him. I mean, yes, the night our dog got eaten by coyotes he did disappear into the hills, armed with his seven year-old son’s bow and arrow, vowing to “go kill those motherfuckers”, but I’ve never for a second felt like he’s trapped in some alpha male identity sarcophagus. Case in point: he unapologetically loves Phantom of the Opera. He knows all the words. He wants you to know he knows all the words. We know that he wants us to know that he knows all the words. At this point in my life, I would die happy if I never had to hear his one-man rendition of “Masquerade” ever again. Though I know he wouldn’t put in these terms, my dad is supremely comfortable with his gender identity and expression.
This isn’t meant to be a hagiography either. I’ve seen my dad be totally unreasonable. I’ve seen him lose his cool.
He rarely made it to school plays, science fairs, or parent teacher conferences. He’s got seven kids and three ex-wives. His idea of spending quality time with us is eerily similar to the concept of “parallel play”. He wept on my shoulder the morning he had to call in mom’s life insurance policy.
Still, amid all this chaos my dad has always been – for better or for worse – the unchanging masculine force in my life, the man always ready with a quick story that has a clear right and wrong. Every once in a while, though, he manages to surprise all of us.
Like the time he spontaneously bought us a PS3 after a successful day at the racetrack. Or the time he assured me that hating baseball was a perfectly reasonable excuse for quitting. Or the time when I came out to him on the phone, sitting alone on Memorial Hill, and my dyed-in-the-wool conservative father told me, “I could give two shits about that Jamers. I just want you to be happy. This doesn’t change a single thing, my son.”
I’ve come to appreciate that while my Biblical patriarch of a father was rarely subtle in teaching us life lessons, he never actually separated being a “man” from being a kind, hardworking person.
My dad turns 70 next month. Knowing him, we’ll probably celebrate by watching his favorite movie, Mamma Mia.