Last year, as Father's Day approached, I asked readers to answer the question, "What did you learn from your father?" The response was impressive. Men and women from all over, most of them baby boomers, took the opportunity to write loving tributes to their dads and to enumerate life lessons they'd passed along. Reading them made me happy, and envious. Many of the responses were posted on my blog, Random Rodricks.
This year, we asked the same question and didn't get much of a response. In fact, only two readers responded. One of those answered the question in two sentences: "Mine taught me how not to be a father. If I could do everything completely opposite, my son may be president one day."
Not sure why response was so poor this time. Of course, many people can't bring themselves to express their true feelings about their fathers. It's not easy. I tried to answer my own question and failed. I know a lot of men who had limited, and even lousy, relations with their dads. Some have nothing good to say and aren't inclined to share that publicly.
Tim Russert, on the other hand, wrote a memoir about his father that became a best-seller in 2004 and inspired others to step up and render tributes as well.
"Of all the things I have done in my professional career," Russert once said, "nothing has been more rewarding than writing that book."
As presented in Big Russ and Me, Tim Russert had a great guy for a dad and a great relationship with him - a stoic, hard-working and modest man who taught with quiet, good example.
Two years later, a second Russert book topped the charts as well. Wisdom of Our Fathers was made possible by a ton of letters from men and women, mostly baby boomers, who had read Big Russ and Me and wanted to tell Russert about their own fathers and express gratitude for what they'd given them.
Gratitude - there's been a lot of that going around for a while now.
Tom Brokaw kicked it up a notch with The Greatest Generation 10 years ago, and the tributes to the diminishing number of Americans who lived through the Great Depression and World War II keep coming.
"You know, they didn't call themselves, 'The Greatest Generation.' It was a book title," says Alex Kershaw, author of a new account of nightmare and survival aboard an American submarine in the Pacific in 1944.
Kershaw has had success telling stories of World War II, and Escape from the Deep is his fourth book. This one tells the story of the USS Tang, a sub that sank after a successful run as a destroyer of Japanese vessels, sinking 31 ships in five patrols.
Though most of its crew did not survive its sinking in 180 feet of water, six of the Tang, including a sailor from Baltimore named Pete Narowanski, managed to swim to the surface, where they were picked up by the Imperial Navy, then held in a brutal Japanese POW camp for close to a year.
The story, as Kershaw tells it, fills you with awe and gratitude.
Tim Russert wrote in Big Russ and Me about how difficult it was, from boyhood, to learn about his father's service in World War II. A survivor of the fiery crash of a B-24 Liberator in England, Big Russ didn't want to talk about it. "It was a lot tougher for the guys who died," he used to tell his son.
Eventually, Russert learned the details of his father's ordeal in the war, but mostly with the help of others, not Big Russ.
"Dad's bravery and his stoicism are in such stark contrast to the scenes we see played out every day in newspapers and on television, where people can't wait to describe their pain and their agony in front of an audience," Russert wrote. "Dad wants no part of that. Despite everything he went through, he considers himself fortunate. ... It wasn't just Dad, of course; it was a whole generation that embarked on a mission they had never even imagined, much less prepared for. When duty called, they answered immediately."
Russert's death on Friday reminds every boomer, or Gen-Xer, or Gen-Yer: If you haven't expressed love or gratitude to your father lately - or ever - and you know and believe you should, then do it today, before it's too late.
Too late for your father, or too late for you.
In his second book, Russert reflected on his own life as a father. He became one in 1985, when his son Luke was born.
"I sometimes feel as if I can remember every day of my son's life," he wrote. "Of course, there have been some painful moments along the way. Not long ago, when I took Luke to Boston to begin his freshman year of college, I knew as the door to his dorm room closed that a major chapter in his life - and mine too - had just come to an end. He would never again be totally dependent on me. Before I drove off, I gave him some simple advice: 'Study hard. Laugh often. Keep your honor.' I hope I've taught him to make good decisions and that I've given him a strong moral foundation to do the right thing. When my life is over, I know that the most important thing I'll be judged on is what kind of father I was."
Dan Rodricks can be heard on Midday, Mondays through Thursdays, noon to 2 p.m., on 88.1, WYPR-FM. His interview with Alex Kershaw airs Wednesday at noon.
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