What person, living or dead, would I like to have a dinner with?
I have probably seen this question a hundred times in various contexts, but I have never really been able to come up with a good answer.
There’s always trope #1: dinner with Hitler and I beat him to death with a pork chop.
But I’m not violent, I don’t speak German and I would be terrified of skewing history so badly that Donald Trump would some day be elected president, or something equally far fetched.
I’ve also found that my admiration for many historical figures is rooted in how different they are from me. I admire great talent, laser focus, brilliant insight, incisive commentary, clever (and vicious) wit and the natural ability to dominate a room, a nation, or an historical era.
This doesn’t make for easy conversation, even if they do speak English. I would feel pressured to prepare thoughtful questions that would elicit insightful answers worthy of such a rare opportunity. I would be nervous. I would be afraid of wasting his or her time. I would have to wear a jacket and a tie, probably.
It would not be much fun. Mostly, because I’m me.
So, if I had to choose, I would go with my heart, and my choice is dinner with my Dad.
Dad died when I was seventeen and a junior at English High School. He was stricken, hospitalized, and gone within a week.
Totally absorbed in my own teenage drama, I was peripherally aware that he was sick in the hospital, that my Mom was distraught, and that aunts and uncles were trooping in and out of our apartment on I Street.
But he’d be OK, right? He’d be in the hospital, and come home, and go to work, and then everything would be back to normal. Right?
We kids were finally let in to see him a day or so before he died.
The tubes, the monitors, the somber nurses, the circle of sobbing relatives, all made me suddenly realize that things probably weren’t ever going back to the old normal.
He could barely speak, and I was in total shock, hardly able to choke out any responses at all. In a raspy voice, he said “Hi, Joe” when he saw me. That was a nickname he called me when I was a child. That was the last time I ever spoke to him, and I don’t even remember what else we said.
The next day, my Aunt Gert came to the house while my Mom was at the hospital, and told Ellen and I, “Your Daddy’s gone. If you’re going to cry, do it now before your Mother gets home.” I pretty much just sat in my room until the wake.
I don’t really remember the wake or the funeral. Uncles and cousins I barely knew were hugging me and holding my hands and telling me what a fine man my Dad was. I had a roaring sound in my ears as I zombied through the ceremonies. I remember seeing the gravesite.
Then it was all over, and everyone got in their cars and went back to their regular lives. Except us, of course.
My Dad was a good father. We had been really close when I was little. He loved walking and would walk all over South Boston and Dorchester with me, explaining what everything was, and what used to be there when he was a kid.
He took me to his work, on the Northern Avenue bridge, on many summer days, and we would walk around Boston, looking at the ships and ferries and watching the work at construction sites.
He had studied for two years to be a civil engineer, until his family needed him to go to work. He knew a lot about construction, and heavy equipment, and ships, and docks, and anything else a ten year old could point at.
These were the old days, when things could be repaired, and he was able to fix most anything. We had fans, and radios, and things at our apartment that he was always repairing for relatives. We used to visit the tube testing machine at some electronic shop in Southie when the black and white TV was acting up.
He taught me to ride a bike. He built me a scooter out of a milk case, a 2×4, and an old roller skate. My friends liked it, so he built a couple more for them. And we raced them around the project all that summer.
I remember him sitting at our kitchen table in the projects, tutoring my older cousins in algebra, geometry and trig. He intuitively understood math and engineering and seemed honestly perplexed when mortals somehow couldn’t see what was as plain as day to him. But he would not give up. “Let’s look at it another way,” he would say.
He even taught me how to drive a stick shift in our 53 Chevy Belair when I was 16, riding up and down the beach road in Southie.
It was quite the ordeal.
I swear, I was never told to increase the gas as you let the clutch out. So, I stalled about 20 times per hour. I finally got it, and then mentioned that it would have be nice to be let in on the secret. He replied something like, “Of course you have to give it gas. Couldn’t you tell that the RPMs were dropping off from the sound of the motor?”
Actually, no Dad, I couldn’t.
He rarely yelled, but one big taboo was talking back to my Mother. That would get an instant, loud response from Dad. He also didn’t want us to ever refer to Mom as “she”. It was disrespectful.
Eventually, I became a teenager, and my life began to revolve around the street corner in Dorchester. Dad and I spent less time together, as I think is the natural order of things. He was not a pushy guy, never nosing into my life unasked, and I didn’t seek out his advice quite as much anymore. He was now old, and we were young.
Dad was a product of his times. He hung out on a street corner with his brothers in the twenties. He lived through WWI, the Great Depression, and was drafted (at 37 years old) into WWII. The Greatest Generation, they call his cohort.
So much time has passed. My memory is full of a hundred little vignettes, fragments of scenes and snippets of dialog, from my times with my Dad.
There’s Dad leaping the fence on Gates Street to rescue Timber, my sister Nancy’s tiny, fearless Boston Terrier. Tim had dug under the chain link fence just to get at the enormous dog next door.
Dad taught me to ride an enormous Columbia bicycle we got from my aunt. I was about eleven and he ran back and forth alongside me for what seemed like hours until I got the hang of it.
I remember he got sick after that from running, yelling encouragement, and saving me from veering off into traffic. He was coughing and wheezing for a few days, but he got up and he went to work every day, like he always did.
And many summer days, he would carry the giant bike up and down the stairs from our second floor apartment, so I could ride with my friends.
That’s how I learned the kind of thing Dads do.
So, I would choose him, John F. Rogers Sr., as my dinner guest.
Then, I would finally be able to tell him that I think he was a great father.
I’d tell him about how grateful I am for all the life lessons I learned, not from any pedantic lectures, but just from watching how a man takes care of his family.
And I’d be able to tell Dad how much I loved him. That wasn’t a term that we tossed around a lot then. I guess it was just assumed. That might be why I try to use it so much now.
I would tell him how much I regret never getting the chance to sit and have a beer with my old man. Just to shoot the breeze as two adults.
I’d tell him about how his “G. D. Red Sox” finally won in 2004. And beat the Yankees to do it. He probably wouldn’t believe me, though.
And I’d tell him how well his children turned out, and how that was such a credit to him. We married good people, bought houses in the suburbs, got good jobs, and sent his grandchildren to college. He never got to finish his own degree, so he would really like that, I think.
Mostly, I would just want to say thanks for all he did. He was the best.
I am sorry that none of you ever had the good fortune to meet him.