They caught me daydreaming when I was supposed to be thinking outside the box. I told them I was thinking outside the room.
My dad would’ve turned 90 today. It’s the first birthday he’s not around to celebrate, and in the weeks leading up to this, I’ve repeatedly reminded myself to do the yearly ritual of buying his birthday and Father’s Day cards—before remembering that that’s not something I’ll do anymore.
In his eulogy, I talked about how the last time I saw him, I peppered him with terrible jokes just to get him laughing and about how if I had to live with a final moment, I can make peace with it being that one. It may not have been a real goodbye. But I’m not sure getting one of those in is anything but a matter of luck, ultimately.
The goodbye that comes back to me a lot these days happened nearly 20 years ago, in 1998. My wife, Renée, and I had eloped in April, and my parents wanted to have the chance to throw us something official. So later that year, we had a formal-esque brunch in suburban Philadelphia, near where I grew up.
It was a nice affair, with friends and relatives coming from quite a ways away to show up, and it ended the way many such things wrap up for guests of honor. It seems that people are suddenly heading off in all directions. And you thank as many of them as you can, but this thing that’s been anticipated for months is dissolving so fast as everyone goes back to their lives.
Back then, Dad had stumbled into a revived career of sorts with a company that had a Navy contract and was pulling engineers out of retirement because only the old guys had the necessary experience. And as our brunch was winding down, he was leaving in a rental car to catch a flight to where he needed to be.
Only I didn’t realize he was planning to do that. Either I’d been told and it hadn’t registered, or it just hadn’t come up. I thought he’d be sticking around, so I was surprised and a little weirded out to see him head down the restaurant driveway, clearly leaving for real.
“Wait—where’s Dad going?”
Somebody gave me an answer. Dad leaned over, smiled at us, and gave a quick wave as he passed. And then he was gone. Just like that. Just a pair of brake lights before a turn into traffic. I couldn’t help but feel like something was getting away from me, even though I didn’t know what it was. And for years afterward, every time I gave him a hug goodbye, I couldn’t shake that feeling—because at some point, it would be true.
The last time I saw him, I knew there was the very real possibility that there’d be no more partings. Yet I was surprised when that’s how it turned out to be. I guess part of me never really believed that would happen. I guess part of me still doesn’t.
Wait. Where’s Dad going?
Renée lost both her parents when she was young, and she’s often said over the years that you can’t know what it’s like until it’s happened. She was right.
All of this is probably coming off sadder than I want it to be when I thought it’d just be bittersweet. But take care with your goodbyes and your good wishes. Make them count if you can. They’re precious things.
Hello to you wherever you’ve landed, Dad. Here’s a good wish for the fifth of June. Happy Birthday, and be sure to hit ‘em with a few really awful puns for those of us back here.
Whenever I get to forgetting that life actually is better than it used to be—or is easier in many ways, at least—I remind myself that we used to live in a studio apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan where the floors were so slanted, I once opened the broiler to check on some chicken, and it all slid out onto the floor, piece by piece. I had to keep my feet hooked under my desk or I’d roll away from it and into the foot of the bed, which was just a few inches behind me because the place was so tiny.
The fuse boxes in the basement hung from their own wires, and whenever I blew a fuse and had to change it, which happened way more than I would have preferred, I had to kick the basement door in because the super kept padlocking it. The final time I did that, the old man who lived at the top of the basement stairs opened his door to yell at me.
“What the hell are you doing?” he said.
“Kicking the door in.”
“Why the hell are you kicking the door in?”
“Because they keep locking it, and I keep blowing fuses.”
“Why didn’t you ask me for the key?”
“I didn’t know you had the key.”
“What’s your name?”
The old man thought about the situation for a moment. “You’re all right, Mike,” he said, and closed his door.
The only outlet in the kitchen was in the landlord halo overhead, so the ‘fridge ran off an extension cord hanging from the ceiling, next to a Punisher action figure that served as a chain pull for the light. And the water pressure was such that if two people in the building forgot to jiggle the handle and left their toilets running when they went to work, the water was dangerously hot and you couldn’t take a shower that day.
Neighbors would routinely put things down the toilet that clogged up the drain pipe leading out of the building—one time it was an undershirt—and the water would back up and take out the boiler, so we’d have no hot water or heat for a day or two and had to go a block away to the community-center gym to shower. Until the day a steam main blew in front of the gym, coating that entire block with asbestos. The gym closed for a week, and when the hot water went out, Renée and I found ourselves, buckets and towels in hand, walking up to the kind and generous Jennifer Gniady’s place to use her shower. (Thanks again, Jenn.)
Funny thing about New York. I never considered myself anything but incredibly lucky to have that apartment because it was cheap.
I’m luckier now.
I dedicated The Journeyman to my father, whose imagination, intelligence, and talent were always an inspiration to me. We buried him on Nov. 10. Here’s how we told him goodbye.
Thank you to everyone for being here and for giving my father and my family your love and attention. I hereby warn you: this may get long.
I’ll begin by pointing out how how appropriate it is that many of us flew to be here. Because while we’re giving my dad over to the earth today, I want to talk about another element that was so integral to his life and who he was. For my father was, first and foremost, of the air.
When I was a kid, I remember finding some old coloring books from Dad’s childhood in our basement. On the inside covers and across every blank space, he’d drawn complex aerial battles between vintage fighter planes. And what struck me was that when I drew planes—like every boy did—mine looked like some vague jet-type thing—something that was, at best, identifiable as a plane. Yet even though he’d drawn his as a kid, Dad’s actually looked like real Messerschmitts, Mustangs, and Spitfires. You could identify them. Planes were a thing with him. He grew up building intricate wood and paper models from kits and sent them aloft.
Dad couldn’t watch a movie without telling you what kind of airplane you were looking at. And he knew them all. We lived near an air base, growing up, and whenever we’d be outside raking leaves and hear something come tearing overhead, Dad would tell you whether it was a Phantom or a Skyhawk or some other fighter I no longer remember.
He was of the air.
My father worked on NASA’s Biosatellite 3 project, and he spent many years designing aircraft-carrier launch systems for the Navy. It was because of that work that we have this amazing photo of him, my brother, and me at Cape Kennedy, standing in front of Apollo 11 a month or so before it carried Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the moon. Dad never flew anything himself, but some time ago, we bought him a glider ride at a place down in Florida. He didn’t get to take it, because every time he tried, the weather decided not to cooperate, the skies clouded over by the time he got there, and they had to cancel. But it doesn’t matter. In my mind, when he’s been in River Garden for the past four years, without his eyesight and moving further and further into a place where he saw things and people that only he could see, he’s been up there whenever he’s wanted to be, looking around and simply marveling.
Of the air.
And yet nobody was more grounded and down-to-earth, especially given how just-plain-damn smart he was. He could draw. He invented a couple of things. He was a low-key lord of the Trivial Pursuit board. When he went at a problem, it always involved a pad of graph paper, and it resulted in line after line of arcane formulas and equations using characters I’d never seen before, like Russell Crowe scribbling on a window. He never bragged. He never complained. But if he did a job, you could count on two things: it would take forever, and it would last forever.
In our house in Dresher, we had a bannister that had three supports, only two of which were screwed into studs. The middle one was just attached to the drywall, so after years of two knucklehead boys hanging on it, it gave way and punched through the wallboard. Well, Dad did this beautiful wooden support rail and attached the bannister to it, and that thing didn’t give out again. If that house ever burns down or gets carried away by a twister, you’ll see the basement, the chimney, and that bannister hanging in the air because it ain’t going anywhere.
He owned not one, but two slide rules—that I knew of; there might have been more. And he could use them. The larger one, in fact, was in a leather case, and it had a loop on it so it could hang on a belt, like a holster. That man could plug you full of hot calculations at 50 paces like a gunslinger. Have Math, Will Travel.
Yet he was grounded. As my mother said not long ago, whenever anyone wants to say something isn’t difficult, they say it’s not rocket science. “Well, your father was a rocket scientist,” she told me. “But he never wanted to talk about it because he thought it would just bore people.” When I was at the beach with him one time, I asked him if there was anything he wished he’d done or done more of in his life. And he thought for a moment, and said, “I wish I’d been more of a success.” Because he couldn’t see that he had been.
As I said: of the earth. Grounded.
Dad was drafted at the end of World War Two and never saw combat, but he helped returning G.I.s who had been in the thick of it, and they told him terrible stories of the things they’d seen and done, exposing him to the worst man was capable of. But he also worked on the space program—and saw humanity at its best. He raised a family. He enjoyed a second shot at life after nearly losing his in college, at Lehigh University, when he was thrown from a car in a terrible accident, spent two weeks in a coma, and wasn’t expected to make it. Renée and I went to a wedding a few years ago and stayed in the Hotel Bethlehem, where my grandmother had checked in decades before, when she came to town to sit with my dad, wondering if he was going to pull through. At that point, certainly, nobody thought that so many years later, his son and daughter-in-law would be having breakfast in the same lobby she’d walked through.
But he lived. Boy, did he. Isn’t that a success?
He was funny, and he loved people who were funny. He did a very respectable Elmer Fudd. You could count on him to randomly toss out a “Fwee Bwian” or some other Monty Python quote. Or he’d do a Señor Wences routine or a bit from an old Lone Ranger radio episode. He was always game for plopping down on the couch with his sons and their friends to watch cartoons or some terrible Saturday-afternoon movie. It drove my mom crazy, of course, because he was supposed to be adding a third story to the house, or flipping the lawn, or building a new car. But he was there with us instead.
One Saturday, we all watched this terrible movie called The Bruce Lee Story, which was supposed to be a biopic about the late kung-fu legend. It starred some guy named Bruce Li who spelled his last name with an “i” instead of a double-”e,” and he looked nothing like the real thing. He was kind of out of shape, and I think he even wore glasses, and we called him Bruce Lie because there was nothing true-to-life about him. I mean, they hadn’t even tried to get a guy who even remotely resembled Bruce Lee. Anyway, in this one scene, he and some other guy are arguing about whose martial art is superior, and they fight, and Bruce Lie humiliates the other man. And the humiliated guy runs back to his home gym, where all these other guys are practicing. And he tries to get them to come beat up Bruce Lie, and they don’t care. They’re not gonna help him until one of them finally asks, “Well, what’d he do?” And the guys says, as if he’s talking about genocide, “He put down Thai boxing.” Now, at that point in the movie, I don’t think they’d even mentioned that they were Thai boxers. But for some reason, that does the trick where nothing else had. Immediately, the gym clears, and all these Thai boxers go looking for Bruce Lie. They find him, and he wipes the floor with all of them, too.
For the longest time after that, that line explained why anyone did anything mean to anybody else in a movie, no matter what. Why’d that guy jam a lit torch into a zombie’s face? The zombie put down Thai boxing. Why’d Chief Brody blow up the shark? Why did Luke Skywalker take out the Death Star? It put down Thai boxing. That went on for a while, and then we forgot about it and moved on. Only years afterward, I was painting the den with Dad, and we’re both concentrating on doing the trim and such. And this poor, dumb fly lands in my paint tray and is immediately covered, setting himself up for an awful death. So I scrape him out with my brush, paint him onto the newspaper we had on the floor, fold the paper and smack it to put him out of his misery. Dad stops painting and walks over to look down at the folded paper with the dead fly in it and says, somberly, “He put down Thai Boxing.”
The man knew his way around a joke.
To get a bit more metaphysical, I remember asking Dad about an Einstein quote I’d read, where Einstein, writing about a friend who’d passed away, said, “[H]e has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That signifies nothing. For those of us who believe in physics, the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” In other words, his friend wasn’t truly gone.
Dad wasn’t familiar with the quote, and I’ve looked up explanations that have been written about it to try and better understand it, and finally I decided to bend it and interpret it the way I wanted to see it. And I did some admittedly strange things.
For one, I was always upset that Dad’s eyesight was gone, even though he never let us hear him get emotional about it. As he put it, in his direct way of speaking over the phone one time, “The problem is, I can’t see.” And I considered that to be unfair. He would never see anything new to him again. He would only be able to review what he’d already seen in his mind’s eye.
Yet here I was, bike commuting to and from work, six miles each way, riding along this beautiful lakefront in the summer and fall. And so I decided to do something. I never told anyone I was doing it—I never even told my dad I was doing it—but I would ride along and concentrate on the beauty I was seeing. The blue sky on the green lake. The blinding sand. Or the giant autumn moon over the black water in the dark. I’d talk to my dad about these things as I rode, and I’d pretend that he could hear me, that he was looking through my eyes, like a camera. And I pretended that maybe, sitting there and unable to see what was in front of him, he’d suddenly have a picture of what I was looking at pop into his head. Or maybe he’d dream about it that night. I never spoke to him about it, as I said, because I wanted to think that maybe it might happen, even if he didn’t know where it came from. Or maybe, if Einstein was onto something and things exist outside of a linear timeline, it’s happening now.
One of the last times I saw Dad, something happened that occurred more than once towards the end. When we were leaving, we’d give him a hug goodbye and walk out of the room, and sometimes he didn’t realize we weren’t there anymore—because, again, he’d lost his eyesight—and you’d hear him say something just as you were almost gone. This one time, I heard him say, still sitting where we’d left him, “It was so short.” And I knew he was talking about our visit, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that he might have meant his life. And I’ll never forget hearing that.
Because it is. Life is short. Even when you leave the world at 89.
The last time I saw Dad, in April, I was trying to get him laughing, so I started Googling jokes and riddles, and reading them to him, one after the other. You know, “Hey, Dad, what’s a dentist’s favorite time of day? Tooth-hurty. Hey, Dad, this horse walks into a bar. Bartender says, ‘Why the long face?’ ” I got him chuckling with gags so awful that I wouldn’t dream of inflicting any more of them on you nice people now. But I kept telling him, “Okay, Dad, I’ll hit you with one more.” And he said, “Must you?”
And I must. And we must. Because we should always leave laughing. I’d like to think Dad did. That somewhere he still is—maybe up in that glider, looking around at the wonder of it and just laughing in astonishment at how gorgeous it all is.
That’s what I want to leave you with. The picture of my father flying and laughing.
We love you, Dad. And we will miss you so very much.
So. Here’s to Ira Joel Peck, an original rocket man. A man who touched the sky, even if he himself never flew. A man who loved a bad joke as much as a good one. Who was a success. And who never, ever—not once, ever—put down Thai boxing.
Geralyn and I were given free rein to handle the event as we pleased. We decided on an open Q&A where we’d each give a quick summary of our careers to date and answer a list of questions, allowing attendees to jump in and ask their own as we went along.
It started out with our brief recaps of entering and winning the contest, which is sponsored by the state’s libraries and is open to self-published authors only. We talked about what it’s been like to appear at libraries in the Chicago area and beyond. We touched upon our latest projects and how we were coming along. And then came the questions from those in the room, several of whom were authors themselves.
Which is when the magic happened.
I’ll confess: when I arrived, I wondered how we were going to fill 90 minutes. Soon enough, I wasn’t thinking about the time at all until I looked at my watch and realized we only had 15 minutes left—and we had to leave space for our host to explain the 2017 contest.
A creative community sprang up out of nowhere. Discussions ranged from how young people read nowadays to why the best way of working is whatever gets you to “The End.” One woman wondered how the kids reading her book would ever know what a cold-water flat is. (I told her I think it’s fair to expect readers to do a bit of research rather than having to explain everything to death.) Another had more nuts-and-bolts platform and publishing questions.
By the time we’d finished, I’d agreed to help Geralyn with Scrivener, and we’d all seen what happens when you put newly empowered authors in a room and get them talking. In the past, the conversation might have been all about how to write a query letter and land an agent. Now it was about writing and editing a story, then getting it out into the world and finding an audience for it.
None of us have identical processes. Each of us is in a difference place, career-wise. Nobody’s blowing the doors off in terms of sales, and that’s perfectly all right. In this new world, as Hugh Howey has said more than once, you’re never a failure unless you quit. You’re just someone who hasn’t succeeded yet.
As any self-respecting Spider-Man fan knows, with great power comes great responsibility. And in the world of indie authors, we have both for the first time. We have the power to pilot our own careers and the responsibility to learn and grow while doing so. That’s far preferable to waiting for someone to choose me and treat me fairly.
It’s a great time to be indie. And this afternoon in Elgin, that was as clear as Indie Author Day.
Ambient/drone music and Moodstar incense are the fuel of The Commons. When I hear and breathe those things, I know it’s time to get on the word count.
Kyle Bobby Dunn is one of my mainstays when writing, and I can’t say enough about his work. Enjoy.
When I moved from third grade to fourth, Mrs. King kept giving me mimeographed short-story assignments—even though I was no longer in her class—because she saw something in my scribblings she thought was worth encouraging.
Happy Teacher’s Day and a heartfelt thank-you to my first fan—and to all of the teachers who do whatever they can think of to keep pain-in-the-ass kids like me showing up and, to whatever degree possible, engaged.
Way down deep, beneath the obstinance, wise-assery, and chewed-up scrambled eggs I pretended to throw up so I wouldn’t have to go to school, I always suspected you were right.
Now please turn your back while I bang out another brick-wall obscenity with these erasers I’m supposed to be cleaning.