Looking back at my childhood, seeing my father from this fifty-years-ago perspective, I see that he only perpetrated two acts of cruelty against me.
No, he never struck me. Well, once, he said in his later years, and he said that was the one thing he regretted the most—I, in all honesty, do not remember him ever striking me, and I told him so.
Of course, I got my fair share of deserved spankings for I was a borderline kleptomaniac (if not full-blown) and would steal anything that was not well nailed or screwed down. Spankings, then, were to be expected, and, as I said, well-deserved.
And no, that was not cruel; necessary would be the word.
But he committed two, in my book, acts of cruelty against to me. Not that they left scars or anything, but they were cruel nonetheless (as I said: in my book, tongue not too far from cheek).
This first act of paternal cruelty occurred at the completion of my driver’s test for my Swedish driver’s license. This took place, as I recall, early 1967. It was winter. Icy driving conditions. I had been practice driving with my dad for some time, and I think he had taught me well. Also, I had a knack for this car-driving thing, it came natural to me. I felt pretty confident about it.
So, I and the traffic inspector took off, and I saw my dad in the rear-view mirror looking our way. No way of telling what he was thinking. Twenty or so minutes later, after some parallel parking and driving hither and yon we returned and I parked the car near the curb.
My father was waiting for us. After I stopped, he leaned against the car and the inspector rolled down the window. My father had a strange grin on his face; it was a “so, how bad was it?” grin.
“He passed,” said the inspector.
And here follows Fatherly Cruelty Number One: My father was genuinely surprised. No, this was not an I’m-happy-for-you surprise, no not at all. Shocked, would be more like it. How one earth could I possibly? It simply did not find footing in his realm of possibility. His honest reaction was the utter opposite, the 180-degrees opposite of a vote of confidence for, or happy for, his son.
And that, I think was cruel.
As for Fatherly Cruelty Number Two: This took place a few years earlier. My father was working on some business or design problem (he was an engineer by trade), and he had two slide rules out, or maybe even three. Interesting, amazing things, slide rules, magical even, to me, then.
Yes, I can still count them with my mind’s eye, three. Two more than he actually needed went my logic. So I said, “Could I have one?”
“A slide rule.”
“But you have three.”
He looks up at me and says, “Listen. Even if I had a thousand slide rules, I would never give you one.”
Really, was there a call for that?
At issue here was not his potential loss of one slide rule from a thousand, at issue was my potential gain of one from nothing. And therein lies the cruelty. He would not grant it. Would not even consider granting it.
And I still don’t understand quite where that came from.
These instances aside, he really was not a bad dad.