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LIFE WITHOUT FATHER

Blame it on the holidays, the leftover eggnog or those sappy long-distance telephone commercials on TV, but I've been thinking about calling my father.

It's not like we chat at the beginning of every new year. Or at the beginning of every new decade. I haven't seen or spoken to the fellow since 1962, when I was thirteen. On that occasion, my parents had been divorced six years, and my father made his semiannual appearance at our house to take my sister, my brother and me out to lunch. I was coming down with the flu, and as soon as our meals were served, I threw up all over the table. And all over the restaurant. And all the way out to his car.

I don't recall actually throwing up in his car, too, but maybe I did. That could explain why I never saw him again, even though he only lived fifty miles away.

I did hear from him once more, indirectly, about ten years later. A play I'd written had been produced by a local theatre company. My mother sent him copies of the reviews, and he responded by asking for free passes. Maybe it was his idea of a compliment.

I was seven when my mother packed us kids into the family station wagon and dropped my father off--permanently--at his girlfriend's house. All I can remember about him prior to that event is that he called my mother "Toots," he spent most of his free time in our garage, and he once read me a Woody Woodpecker book at bedtime. I have no recollection of ever calling my father anything but "Buck," which is what everyone else called him. (My mother's name is "Mickey." Growing up, I felt like the child of cartoon characters.) Buck didn't seem to mind this; heck, it probably made his departure less difficult. I'm sure it's easier to disappear on kids who call you "Buck" rather than "Daddy."

And it's surely less rough on the kids, too. I can't imagine myself saying, "Buck! Come home!" without giggling. It sounds like a line from The Yearling.

The strangest thing about this threadbare father-son relationship, perhaps, is that I never really minded it. The few times I've thought about Buck, I've thought how weird it was that I didn't think about him more often . . . or fly into a rage when I did. And unlike my brother and sister, I've never had the impulse to track him down, knock on his door, give him a big bear hug, and start anew wherever it was we left off.

Maybe I've passed on that opportunity because I've always felt it was Buck's responsibility to show up on my doorstep. What's more likely, however, is that I've long imagined any reunion would only confirm my suspicion that, as a father, Buck is no great prize.

No, I'm not dredging this up to treat myself to a warm, nostalgic, postholiday glow. My brother called last night to tell me he'd finally traced Buck's whereabouts, and had actually spoken to him on the telephone. Their conversation was pleasant, my brother reported with some surprise, and it ended with Buck requesting that my sister and I give him a call sometime, too.

"Well," I thought. "The nerve. Call him? Ha! Fat chance. What's the matter? He still hasn't mastered the art of long-distance dialing?"

My brother said he'd told Buck what I was doing, that I was married, had two kids, wrote for a newspaper . . . and I could feel my sudden surge of anger giving way to primal emotion: "Hey! My father's alive! He knows I exist! He knows I have a family! He knows he has grandchildren!"

At that moment, for whatever reason, my father seemed important to me. Even though I could barely remember him. Even though I continued to suspect he's a jerk. Hell, I reasoned, he's my Dad. Lots of dads are jerks. But after my brother hung up and I got past that first emotional jolt, I reasoned some more. I remembered something I heard Jesse Jackson say on TV maybe twenty years ago: "Any man can be a father, but only a special kind of man can be a dad." Buck is my father, yes. But is he my Dad? No. That title belongs to my mother, my grandmother and my stepfather--three special people who never disappeared after I threw up, who bought tickets and came to all my plays (not always a painless task), and who never waited three decades for me to call them.

If I were a member of the Corleone Clan or the Royal Family, I might feel differently. But in my world, it's love, not blood, that's thicker than water. Sorry, Buck.

I'm sure it's easier to disappear on kids who call you "Buck" rather than "Daddy.

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Michael Burkett