The Saratoga Sun -

Appreciating my two dads

 


I was blessed to have two fathers raise me.

Given that Father’s Day just happened, it feels right to do a column on them.

They were different in many ways, but in other manners, they shared common traits.

My biological father William Oliver Armstrong was a southern boy dairy farmer from a tiny town in Virginia. He was the youngest member in his congregation at age 10 to find his Christian beliefs that were always a part of him. My father never talked about his salary or financial assets to my sister or me, but we knew he gave one third of his income to the church. As a teenager, he ran the family 200-acre farm at age 13 when his father died. He was an only child and his mother was approaching 60 when he took over the farm, so his self-reliance was developed at an early age. He went to University of Alabama at age 16, graduated first in his class in the new field of Aero Engineering and was a captain in the Air Force before he was 30. After the Air Force, he went to work for NASA when it was first formed and by the time he retired, he was Director of Payloads and Experiments for the Space Shuttle. His last job found him as vice president (they actually have a few of them) of General Electric. He was 32 when I was born as his first child and only son. My sister was his only other child.

My stepfather, whom I have called Stuart all my life, was raised in a small town in Westchester County, New York. He was 10 years younger than my father. His family was firmly middle class, with strong Yankee values of thrift, common decency towards others and not suffering fools well. Stuart was one of two children. He had a sister. His mother was fairly doting as I remember and like my father, his father died young. Stuart was raised Quaker and he didn’t believe in going to a building for an organized service to pray. I don’t remember ever going to any church service with him other than weddings. Stuart went to college at Columbia University. After his stint in military service, he worked for Continental Can, NASA (where he met my mother) and IBM. Stuart was the man who went over contracts for any IBM plant he worked for. He was the first person to alert me to what computers were going to do to our culture. Stuart has been in my life since I was five years old. He never had any biological children.

I call him Stuart, because my mother felt I had one father and it would be less confusing for my sister and I to use the name rather than “Dad,” even though I was certainly his son.

No other way to say it, my fathers set a high bar for me and expectations were high for me as an athlete, academic and spiritual person. I would love to say I excelled in all, but truth be told, I was very much a late bloomer in all three so as a kid and teenager, I didn’t hear the words “I am proud of you Mike” all that often.

My father was especially tough.

I heard the words on enough occasions to know he could say them, but it was not with a lot of frequency. I knew he was like this so the words would mean something when he said them.

Stuart had an exacting nature too. He was a monster about follow through and cleanliness. A funny example (now) was one time I used a glass, rinsed and put it into the sink but not the dishwasher before going to bed. I found myself woken up by this 6’2” figure in the dark, telling me to get out of bed. He then marched me to the sink to put the glass in the dishwasher.

When I graduated college, all parents were happy, partly because I did it in four years with respectable grades, partly because I had a job straight out of school.

I know the words, “I am proud of you” were used that day by both fathers, but I did sort of expect them, if there was going to be any time they were to be spoken.

I went through a few jobs, continued my post graduate education and got married. I am hard pressed to remember my father saying he was proud of me during those years although I wasn’t waiting for the words or anything, because it was just his way.

I did hear Stuart say he was proud of me on several occasions during my 20s.

My life blew up in my early 30s due to divorce. Both father and step-father certainly gave me encouraging words during this tough time, but when I decided to move to Hawaii to just get away from my life on the East Coast, my father was dubious of the move. Since I had no job before I went there, he was worried I was committing career suicide. In his world, that meant life suicide.

It probably didn’t assure him when I started working for a youth hostel as an assistant manager and bartended part time versus my jobs I had given up in Washington D.C.

I lived in Honolulu for about a year and half when he came to visit me on a business trip. He came with one of his colleagues and best friend who worked with him at G.E.

They were there about a week and saw my life.

My father went back to Houston and we talked on the phone often, but it was when I visited him about six months later, he started a conversation that blew me away.

We were having some beers on the patio, eating some gulf shrimp when he said, “You know my buddy Gary (his friend) said he wished he was you.”

My father then started to explain Gary’s reasoning.

Gary had seen me living two blocks from a world class beach with a job exposing me to people traveling from all parts of the world (part of my job was to take these travelers on nature hikes twice a week), working in a cool outdoor tropical bar and dating beautiful, tan women. He was also envious I had a body fit from water sports, running and was going to school at the University of Hawaii’s spectacular campus to finish my masters.

“What man wouldn’t want to be your son?’ he had asked my father.

Then my father told me, he was proud of me and he was sorry he had judged me on his life, not mine.

The words meant more than I can express by simply writing them.

Especially because he passed away a year later.

Stuart also visited me in Hawaii and expressed his admiration for the life I was leading. Unlike my father, Stuart didn’t have a problem telling me he was proud of me. Over the years, he has said it often. I never get tired of hearing them. They nourish me in a way, again I can’t express other than writing them here.

My father has been gone for several years and I miss him like hell, especially on Father’s Day, but Stuart has been a champion in filling the void.

So on this Father’s Day as I remember how both have been important to my life, I think it is time for me to stop calling Stuart “Stuart”, but rather call him “Dad.”

It has been a long time coming, but that is why Father’s Day is important.

To tell our fathers their heartwarming words of praise make a difference and we are overjoyed to be their kids.

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