In case it’s not obvious, my dad’s photo is on the left: Benjamin Francis Sykes. He was born September 10th, 1921, in Camden, New Jersey.
His dad was a self-taught engineer, who moved his family from New Jersey to Pittsburgh to work in the steel industry. Dad came from a very bright family. I am so lucky to have benefitted from that. He had two older brothers, James and Harry. He had a sister Alma. My dad was the baby of the family and Harry was the oldest. He lost his life in World War II. My dad was in that war also. He was stationed in the Philippines.
He began his army career in the kitchen, as a cook. He loved to cook and was good at it. My mom used to complain that honing his cooking skills in the army made him a messy cook in civilian life. “He paints my kitchen in food,” I can still hear her complaining. I think he was messy in the kitchen because he was celebrating not having to bend to military behavior.
Although he began in the kitchen, intelligence test scores moved him into the business end of his military outfit. He became a clerk/accountant.
That’s how he ended up majoring in accounting at the University of Pittsburgh. He was among the first military veterans to benefit from the GI Bill, which paid for his schooling.
He worked for his living expenses. According to my aunts and uncles, sometimes he worked three jobs while attending college. It was a lifestyle I ended up mirroring in the 1980’s. He still hung onto good grades, mostly making B’s. When I was a teenager, I saw a few of his Pitt grade reports. I asked him why he didn’t make all A’s. He said, “I’m smart, but was a lazy student. I didn’t study much.”
I believed him because I knew his first love was music. He tried jazz singing for awhile and because he was shy, he knew he would never have a stage presence. Plus, wanting a family and wanting to support one pushed him into practicality. The memories of surviving the Great Depression were engrained in his mind.
He was very good with numbers, but he never gave himself enough credit for being pretty good with words. He was a master punster and loved really horrible jokes. More than that, he loved telling horrible jokes and watching the listeners’ expressions of anguish upon hearing them. It would crack him up.
And people wonder why I’m twisted and earned a psychology degree.
He was also the inspiration for my love of photography. He probably had four cameras, including a movie camera. Every vacation (and there were lots. Both my parents loved to travel) was well documented on film. I have boxes and boxes of photos, both my own and those my dad took and images of ancient, long dead relatives. I could never part with them.
Eventually, my dad landed in Philadelphia, working for a few companies and by the time I was born he was working for a company called IRC, which was bought out by TRW, which used to be primarily an electronics and engineering company. My dad commuted to Philly each working day from Willingboro, New Jersey.
We moved to Florida in 1966. My last full year as a Jersey girl was 1965. My biggest concern about the move was whether or not it snowed in Florida (I was disappointed to learn it didn’t) and whether I would still be able to watch, Batman. Dad was transferred to the St. Pete branch of TRW. He was put in charge of helping to run the accounting department and budgeting for building the potentiometers that blasted the lunar modules off the Moon. The Apollo Missions were a big deal in my home. They gave us food, shelter and other living expenses. They also fueled my love of astronomy.
There are so many great memories I have of my dad. He used to purposely wear clashing outfits on the weekends-again a form of rebellion and an announcement of, “I am not at work.” This became kind of embarrassing when I was a teenager.
That’s also when he began, “borrowing,” my albums to listen to on the household stereo, which was wired for sound to reach three rooms. It was unheard of for a middle-aged man in the 1970’s to be listening to Chicago, The Beatles, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and even Led Zeppelin. Later, in the 80’s, he pilfered the Dire Straits and the Talking Heads. His love of music and his acceptance of constant societal and cultural change never wavered. I think it was a subconscious foundation of my love of the social sciences.
It was very difficult to realize toward the middle 1970’s that something was seriously wrong with his nervous system. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in about 1975.
It was bladder cancer that finally ended his life. I was 31. My mom had already been dead for six years. Dad was in Tampa General Hospital being treated for his cancer. At the time the doctors had told me he probably had a year left. In about 1987 I had moved him from Pinellas County across Tampa Bay because I was still attending University of South Florida-the main campus-in Tampa. It made it easier on both of us. I had no siblings and it was hard enough working 1-3 jobs and attending classes, let alone commuting an hour each way to see him in Seminole, Largo or St.Pete.
When he was in Tampa General I was working at Skipper’s Smokehouse and the entire staff of mullets knew my situation. It was a dinner shift when I got the call. Tom White, the owner, happened to pop into the hostess area and witness the anguish on my face. He looked at me and uttered one word, “Go!” I didn’t even have to explain. That’s one of the reasons that job made such a mark on my heart. The intuition and compassion ran so deeply. The rest of the night was a complete blur. I do know Brian was with me.
One of my most incredible memories of my dad comes via Brian. We had been together for a few months when I took him to meet my dad. I think it may have been in the hospital. I think I had to go to the bathroom and left dad and Brian together. Later, when we were leaving, Brian said to me, “Your dad took ahold of my wrist and looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Please take care of her.’”
I knew what that meant. He was going to make good on his promise to , “never be a burden.” It wasn’t long until that phone call came at Skipper’s on August 31, 1991.
My dad was an agnostic and never felt comfortable with traditional burials or memorials. He wanted to be cremated. That’s what I did. I’d cremated my mother’s body too. Now, both of their ashes are buried in a cemetery in Pittsburgh.
Quite by accident (or was it?), that occurred on the day of Pitt’s Homecoming.
He would have been pleased with that.
To all the fathers out there who are toiling in that capacity, either biologically or socially, Happy Father’s Day.