Lately, I have been spending far more time with Kina each night, and very little time with the work I was bringing home. In fact, increasingly there were nights when I never opened my briefcase at all. My baby daughter, Shornay, was a newborn, and Kina was at that age where it was important to guard against sibling jealousy. This was one of those nights I certainly would not be opening the briefcase. I don't know
why I was even going through the motions of taking work home. Habit, I guess. Even Kina and baby Shorn would have to compete for my time with something else altogether on this night. ...Of course, I would make some time. I was addicted to my girls, and as anyone with a dependency does at stressful times, they turn even more to their "drug" of choice. I knew I would need my babies tonight.
If I was reluctant to call my mother, I absolutely dreaded calling my father. My father is very difficult to talk to, no matter if the conversation topic was negative or something that ordinarily should be viewed as positive. He is the epitome of a glass-half-empty kind of person.
Even if the topic were something that dad was very interested in, like his beloved New York Mets, he would find a way to make you want to end the conversation. The Mets could be firmly entrenched in first place in September, and he would say something like, “Ahh; those bums are going to lose the lead by the end of the season.” Disdain, pessimism and negativity about anything and everything was palpable in every conversation you had with dad. Making matters worse was that dad’s style of interacting with his sons gave him a larger than life persona, and not necessarily in a good way.
Paul, Sr. was known, more or less affectionately, as Bunyan, so nicknamed after the mythical giant, a friendly diss by a witty neighborhood kid that hung around with my brothers. At first it was a term of disparagement that was uttered only out of earshot of my father. Bunyan had a gruff exterior, and was very strict. While not nearly as big as his nickname implied, at over six feet one inch tall, broad shouldered, and about two hundred thirty pounds, Bunyan's size and stern demeanor made him an imposing presence over his six boys during our pre-teen and early teenaged years.
When the boys were downstairs in the basement watching television, we could hear the sound of Bunyan’s footsteps upstairs when he arrived home from work. With the seemingly exaggerated click-clack sound of his shoes on the kitchen floor, it did sound like a
giant had entered the house; you could easily imagine the roar of fee-fi-fo-fum (okay, so that was from Jack and the Beanstalk; I am mixing allegories but you get the point), and we braced ourselves for dealing with him for the rest of the evening. Bunyan was sure to find something wrong: the house wasn’t clean enough; dinner was served too cool; dinner was served too hot...
Bunyan did mellow somewhat over the years. The emotional and sometimes physical abuse of his sons subsided, and Bunyan allowed himself to show a little pride in our occasional accomplishments. I suspect the transformation into the more congenial Bunyan was due in part to his sons growing into young men in their own right, with a couple approaching or surpassing Bunyan in size. Two of us, Calvin and me, took up boxing in our teens. My claim to fame is that as the second tallest boxer in the local gym, I was regularly pressed into sparring duty with my high school classmate who was 6’5 and clearly the burgeoning star of the gym: Gerry Cooney would go on to share the cover of Time magazine with Sylvester Stallone dressed as Rocky, and would earn ten million dollars for fighting Larry Holmes for the heavyweight championship of the world.
Calvin, at over two hundred pounds became a professional boxer. His career was short-lived but his entrée into that world led to acquaintances with several well-known fighters, and a genuine friendship with Muhammad Ali, who Calvin once rode with to his Deer Lake,
Pennsylvania training camp, and who had been to my mom’s house (and would later touch my life in a small way.) Calvin’s whippings with Bunyan's belt came to an end when at around 14, Calvin caught the belt with his hands and refused to let go.
Besides the physical changes in his boys, Bunyan's mellowing process was helped by the fact that Bunyan had to take notice that he was driving his loved ones away. I fled from the unhappy home by joining the US Army at seventeen; a couple of my brothers became habitual runaways, despite a vintage Bunyan admonishment when we were younger that if any of us ever ran away, do not even think about coming back; Jerry and Calvin enlisted in the Air Force as soon as they each turned 18; and Mom eventually divorced Bunyan. Finally, my dad’s transformation from Bunyan the ogre to lovable Bunyan was solidified by finding and becoming a very active member of the church in the neighborhood; the same one where Dorey and I married.
As Bunyan mellowed, the nickname Bunyan eventually became a term of endearment, no longer only used behind his back. In fact, grandchildren and great grandchildren would come to refer to him as Bunyan more so than the traditional grandfatherly moniker of pop-pop or granddaddy. More than a few younger relatives as well as family friends of all ages knew my dad only as Bunyan and had no clue what his real name was.
Dr. Paul Thornton is currently a university administrator. In the past he has been a professor, small business owner, and corporate executive.