April 1 is my dad’s birthday. He would have been 107 today. He used to tell the joke about how how his grandfather would have been considered a remarkable man. Why? Because he would be over a hundred years old. I can hear him telling that on himself, chuckling.
Kenneth E. Leslie, father, salesman, veteran, jokester. He was all of these things.
With infant Joan
That was pretty much Dad’s jokes – familiar, well-worn gimmicks. Repetition was his specialty. He loved the tale of “Silent Cal” Coolidge, our thirtieth President, who supposedly was asked, on leaving church, what the preacher spoke about. “Sin,” he replied. Asked what the preacher said about it, he replied, “He was against it.” We got to be reminded of this tale every Sunday, when my mom dragged the three of us kids to church (Redeemer Lutheran, if you are from Ramsey) while Dad stayed home. Afterward, when we pulled into the driveway, Dad would come up from his garden to greet us. “Well, what did the minister talk about? Did he talk about sin?” (wince) “Was he against it?” (wince) Often he played straight man to his own jokes; it was the only way he could get to tell them.
He was a terrible tease. He grew up with his brothers Wally, Burton and Ernie, who all kidded each other mercilessly. He must have made a life decision at some point always to be the guy who pokes fun at people, or looks for funny things that they do. He and I went on a camping trip together and watched a family in the adjoining campsite, where a guy was sitting in a camp chair, shouting orders to his wife and kids as they struggled to put up the tent. “Look at that guy – the big boss, shouting the orders while everyone else does all the work!” Another example is a family member who didn’t have the best of grammar, who would say stuff like “We was going…” Dad would turn to me, and in an undertone, go “we was!!” Years and years of this helped me become the irritating and satirical genius that I am today.
With Freckles, Ramsey, NJ, about 1957
This came out where his parenting was concerned, in his repeating of the same joke endlessly, or calling attention to something that bugged you. He knew I liked music, so he would say, “Why do people waste time with music? They could be trading on the Stock Market.” Despite his purported dislike of music, he could hum melodies with cornball lyrics, like this little gem, “George Washington Bridge,” He was actually a very talented guy, for someone who pretended to hate that stuff. We all heard the story of how Dad played a female part in the school play, at Lowell Textile School, because there were no women. (Today, Lowell is a full engineering school, and is coed.)
With Aunt Ruth and Uncle Norman, around 1989. That day Derek crawled off the couch and rolled onto the floor. He survived just fine.
And yet he was the tenderest soul. You couldn’t criticize or make fun of him. That was just how it was. But the plus side of this was that he almost never yelled. He just got upset. And for a dad, he had what I would call a healthy, sensible attitude toward sports, in other words, it wasn’t a religion for him. He enjoyed watching a ball game once in a while, but I never saw the “I DON’T BELIEVE IT!!!!!!” kind of screaming at the tv set. He asked that I try at least one sport in school. I tried two – wrestling and cross country, so in my mind I had met the budget, and it was OK with him. Rather than worry that his son would not be sporty enough, he worried I was going to get killed in junior football, because of my ineptitude in the game. (That’s the subject of another essay.)
To balance his satirical side, he had the softest heart of anyone I have ever met. When his kid brother, Ernie, died of a massive heart attack at age 43, he wept openly in front of the whole family. He never hid tears, and that was a powerful, positive lesson for me. It was OK to cry! Later I learned that many men grew up otherwise. He loved poetry, and would quote his favorites from time to time. (“Hardly a man is now alive…”) Some poems triggered something tender in him, such as Frost’s The Death of the Hired Hand. He frequently quoted this line, and you could hear the emotion in his voice:
Home is the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in.
He loved plants, which to my young, teenaged mind was boring, but today I’m grateful that on some level, I must have been listening. I can’t tell how often I have looked at a rhododendrons (his favorite – he belonged to the American Rhododendron Society) and been grateful that he taught me so much about plants. It’s as if the knowledge came alive when I became an adult. I don’t know how many people I have told that the name refers to the reddish colored bark (‘rhodo’ = red, ‘dendron’ = branch). I suppose I’ve picked up Dad’s habit of endlessly repeating stuff. Of course you can ask my sons, Derek and Ian, about that. They can tell you just how repetitious their dad is.
With Sue, at Derek’s christening, 1988
Dad had a wonderful talent for understanding people, and would share insights about people we both observed. He once took me on a couple of his regular sales calls, and coached me on how to shake a person’s hand: look them in the eye, and shake firmly, giving them a good smile. He would continually lecture me about the importance of enthusiasm. Again, in my youth I rolled my eyes, but today, I benefit from Dad’s talks. He talked about his work as a seller of dyestuff, how proud he was that he had loyal customers who would buy from him rather than a competitor who offered a lower price. His customers, he said, depended on him always to tell the truth, and not try and do a big sell job on them.
He had a curious habit of self-limitation. For example, he claimed that he could never hear a conversation if there was any other competing noise at all. Sometimes, when my mom would turn on a little soft music on the radio, he would stride over and snap it off. Occasionally, in the middle of a discussion in which I was trying to explain something to him, he would shake his head, say, “ I don’t follow you, I’m in a fog.” He also struggled to remember things, always reinforcing the difficulty by mentioning how difficult it was. I found his methodical, plodding style bothersome, so to spark things up a bit I would walk around the house flipping a knife in my hand, over and over. I actually got pretty good at knife-flipping.
While I was a teenager, he and I would go camping up to Lake George, and enjoy the ice-cold water, the fresh air, and the fishing. The first year we went, he rented a boat and motor. We set out from a little inlet at a placed called Hulett’s Landing. We loaded the boat to the gills with gear, got in, and he said, “I’ll steer us out of the inlet, and then you can try running the boat.” Immediately the boat roared toward the rocks along the inlet, and he panicked, turning the rudder sharply, and around in a big circle we went, barely missing the rocks. Finally, he managed to slow it down and get it under control. “Why don’t you take it over right now,” he said, a sheepish look on his face.
With Sue, at Derek’s christening
The very core of my relationship to Dad was that we could talk about stuff. He and I would go on fishing trips on the Delaware, at a placed called Pond Eddy, where the water sort of swirled lazily around in a circle, rather than rushing in a powerful current. It was the perfect spot to fish for bass, and it was the perfect time for us to talk. So often his stories dealt with some admission of weakness or insecurity. That was Dad 101: the truth is a golden ideal, to be sought out at all costs. Even to his own detriment. When offered a job in management, he took it against his better judgement, and found himself in a strange, new world. He described his frustration, shuffling papers on his desk, dealing with a new-fangled idea called Marketing that he just didn’t understand.
Dad, sweet Dad, I so loved those conversations. They were golden. Thank you for all that you did.