I did not know my parents while growing up. I knew what they looked like and where I could find them every day because we lived in the same house. They were my parents, and I never saw them as individuals. I thought their job was to take care of me; to make sure I had food to eat and clothes to wear. I think most children feel this way about their parents until they’re well into adulthood. As for me, my perspective changed the summer of 1982.
In 1982, my dad was on the board of directors for our community swim club and one summer Saturday decided he was going to fix a malfunctioning sump pump at the pool. He was up and out of the house early that day, as he usually was, with my little brother in tow. Mom was working. My sisters were sleeping. The house was still and quiet, making it the perfect morning for a 19-year-old college student on summer break to sleep a little later, too.
The phone rang about 11:00 a.m., my sister answered and then woke me to take the urgent call. When I picked up the phone, a family friend told me dad had been injured, and I should come right away. I grabbed a shirt, put on my shoes, and drove up to the pool alone, wondering what had happened and what I would need to do when I go there if I could do anything at all.
I pulled into the parking lot to see paramedics, firemen, and a crowd of concerned friends. They told me the sump pump dad had been working on was in a small well a few feet underground. He had his hands and arms down in the well when the powered-off pump released a residual spark, igniting fumes in the well, and sent a ball of fire shooting up and out of the top where dad and brother were looking in. It happened in an instant, they said, but somehow dad was able to get his face out of the way and move my brother aside.
Paramedics were treating dad for third-degree burns on his arms and hands, and second-degree burns on his face when I saw him. I talked to him briefly and he said he was okay, but I knew he was not. The skin on his arms had blistered, peeled, and rolled down around his hands. It looked as if he had been wearing arm-length latex gloves and had rolled them down around his wrists. My brother had a few singed hairs and some first degree burns—similar to a slight sunburn—on his face from the blowback.
The paramedic told me dad’s condition was serious. It was likely he would be airlifted to Pittsburgh to the regional burn center for treatment, he said. He also told me my brother wasn’t hurt, but like dad, he was in shock, and I should ride in the ambulance to the hospital with him.
Later in the day, Dad was flown to the burn center. After helping my sisters and brother settled with my grandparents, mom and I drove to Pittsburgh. We stayed for a little over a week while dad was stabilized, and then came home for a day. Mom returned the next and stayed for several weeks while dad was treated for his burns and had multiple surgeries for skin grafts. I traveled back and forth several times that summer.
On one visit, I was sitting with mom and dad in the room he then shared with a Rabbi, who had third-degree burns on his hands from a Fry-Daddy® explosion. Both dad and the Rabbi were being treated for pain with heavy doses of morphine, and while alert, they were anything but lucid.
“I used to be a Rabbi,” my dad called out to the real Rabbi in the next bed.
“You did? That is wonderful,” said the Rabbi. “Did you know, I used to kidnap little children for a hobby?”
My mother started laughing so hard—uncontrollably really—she had to leave quickly to find the ladies room. Of course, it would be in the moments after she left that dad would need the bedside urinal and I would need to help him because his hands were bandaged. It was at that moment helping my dad, when I realized my parents were people, too. They had hopes and dreams. They even had bodily functions at the most inconvenient times. Their life and their dreams were on indefinite hold now because of a freak accident.
When dad finished, and I took the urinal away, I needed to do something to take the edge of the awkward moment, so I asked him how to build an AC-to-DC converter to put on the starting buzzer I was making for pool swim meets. I wanted to lower the voltage of the power to the switch since the person tripping the switch would be closer to the water. I did not expect him to tell me. I didn’t think he was lucid. He described the circuit and told me how to diagram it. It worked flawlessly. Teaching me how to diagram a circuit while critically injured and under the influence of painkillers was not the first thing dad taught me. His first lesson was dedication and commitment to the task.
After graduating high school, dad did a short stint in the Navy where his leadership skills earned him an offer for recommendation to attend Officer Candidate School. He turned down the offer and was honorably discharged after three years of service. He moved back to Charleston, married my mother, and started a family. When I was three, he decided to get serious about his college education and began night classes, often carrying a full load each semester, while working full time and raising a family. Five years later, he had earned a B.S. in Business Administration and another in Mathematics.
For most of his life, dad has put the needs of everyone else above his own. My sharing the list of things I know he’s done would embarrass him, but I’m willing to bet the list of things he has taken care of without anyone’s knowledge would be at least twice as long. In this way, he taught me the principles of servant leadership—quiet service to others to build a more just and caring world.
Dad also taught me perseverance and the importance of perspective. When he was younger, he fell asleep while driving and was in a bad single-car accident, but walked away without serious injury. He was helping neighbors trim a tree and were knocked off the ladder by a swinging branch, and fell eight feet onto a pile of branches on the driveway and again, walked away unhurt. He was in the explosion at the pool, and he has had two heart bypass surgeries. Recently, he walked away from another auto accident without injury. My siblings and I encourage him to be more careful because he has used most of his “nine lives.” He believes there is a purpose in his survival considering how frequently he has had brushes with death.
“I think there’s still someone on this earth I’m supposed to meet,” he says.
To the contrary, I believe many people still need to meet him. Maybe, just maybe, he was is a rabbi once. of sorts.
Happy 74th Birthday, dad. I love you.