A Long-Distance Check-in – “We Called Him Daniel Instead”

Dan Kempner 

Come this fall, I will have been dead for twenty years. That’s a long time and it gives a man room to think.


Scattered here, in this slow-bending creek, and mixed here and there with the powdered bones of my second wife, I’ve pondered a good deal. The water is warm this season and the creek is not exactly a rapid. Things move lazily here, and thinking is pleasant. The few little fish that make this their home are too small to disturb me much, though the frogs do get irksome at night.

Now, I can already feel the cornpone seeping into this tale, and that’s absurd because a country boy I was not. Born in London, “within the sound of Bow Bells,” as I probably told my children far too frequently. Technically, that makes me a cockney like my father, the ultimate “city” designation. He had the full-on East London accent. I don’t, for I was hustled onto a ship at a year old and brought to Chicago’s Jewish and Polish South Side. I was raised there in a tenement with my little sister and a bunch of aunts and uncles until the War.

She’s gone too now, I hear, my sweet little sister, died of old age, of course. We gather the news here, though I’m not really supposed to tell you how: you’ll have to trust me on this one. So I got the accent my son calls “The Continental: American,” but you have no idea from where, a perfect radio-announcer’s voice. He has it, too, as a matter of fact, probably got it from me.

My dad learned to play ragtime piano, though he never taught me. I had to learn my own two-finger method so I could sing along with things I’d write. Dan did me one better there, and plays well, but he also learned by ear as I did. Maybe he picked up the fact that music could be written and made without fancy staffs and notes, just by banging it out.

He got his musical start on a Ukulele I bought him and then on my guitar – on which I taught him his first chords. Music was certainly something he came to love from me. I had the turntable filled all the time, from Sinatra to musicals to Baroque and all the other classical styles. Big day in our house when the Beatles went on TV.

My own dad was a tailor in the first World War, sewing up the fabric wings of shot-up Sopwith Camels and other bi-planes so they could go out and get shot up by the Germans again. One of his legacies to me, from running around Saul the Tailor as a kid during the depression, was a lifelong ability to sew on buttons, to iron things beautifully, and to understand quality clothing. That is all damn useful stuff. But the war came, and I volunteered for the Army Air Corps and a baggy uniform.


I would have made it as a pilot, too, if my ears hadn’t felt like bleeding every time I went up. And if I hadn’t thrown up in the plane all the time. Oh, and if just the thought of flying hadn’t given me the vertigo. I washed out of that in a hurry.

Instead, I wrote for the base newspaper and for Stars and Stripes’ national edition. I interviewed people on the base radio station – where that voice came in handy – and did the newscasts. There was a pretty big war on, and there was a lot of news. Quite frankly, it was a lot more relaxing to report on it than to go fight in it, so I was happy where I was. I never threw up or had a nosebleed during a newscast, that’s for sure.

Now, I realize this is supposed to be about my son, and I’m getting to him.

We were going to call him Christopher – because we liked it, we told ourselves, but it seems clear from here that it was, at least in part, to stick it in my religious mother-in-law’s ear. We were all Jews, but she was the one who believed. She had the last laugh of course, and we did not name him thus. We called him Daniel instead.

So that’s the first thing I gave him – a biblical name and, along with it, my own skepticism about religion, something that is a hallmark of him today. Oh, he had his own little religious period back there in the 70s – who didn’t? – but that’s long in the rear view. When his mom checked out in ’88, he held no concept that they’d meet again in the afterlife somewhere. Nor did I, for that matter, and no one is more surprised than me that I am, in some sense, conscious still.

I also gave him my genetics – he’s built along my lines and he seems to have the same type of constitution. His goal is to live longer than me – 78 – and that’s important because, while I had him later than most, at thirty-eight, he deferred until he was in his late fifties. He’s sixty now, with two little girls, and he’d damn well better outlive me. As I told you, we get the news here. It’s a special part of the service.

There’s something he doesn’t have of mine, though. I remember an exercise in some workshop back in the 60s. Yes, I had my own little Renaissance then – as I say, who didn’t?

In any case, the instructions were for all us men to form a line and place ourselves where we believed we belonged on it, the front being Alpha Dog and God knows what the rear was. I sure as hell never found out because, while other men were finding their graduated locations, one other man and I were locked in a wrestling match for the top spot. Dan never had that, the need to be in front, the Top Dog, whatever they call it now. (Hey, we get the news but it’s not always today’s edition, OK?)

But that’s alright. I know there’s some sentiment out there in the current so-called men’s movement that a man only is a man if he grows extra hair and fangs during the full moon. What these people may forget is that mothers have a legacy too, and often one as meaningful as we dads do. And he’s a lot like his mother that way. He is a walking live-wire, don’t get me wrong, and prepped to lash out at any moment. But he doesn’t place the same value on it that I did. He’s just as comfortable as a lieutenant and feels less need to be the Captain all the time. He studied mediation in graduate school, for Christ’s sake, the ultimate in settling disputes without resorting to force. No collaboration, no result. I admire him for that, and he sure didn’t get it from me.

What he did snag was my sense of humor, that idea that wit and timing were the tools with which to elicit a laugh. Come to think of it, he came to love words from me, too. I was reading at three, and his mother and I used to suck the library dry and come back for more on a weekly basis. His love of biography and memoir comes from me also, and he picked up on the fact that, if one reads enough of those from the same period, a fairly complete picture of the history of that time, and the ones prior and following, will emerge.                  

On the other hand, he’s content to treat books like old friends he hasn’t seen in a while and read them over and over. Who the hell has time for that? Well, I do, now, but he certainly didn’t get that from me.

I’m not sure where he got his powerful sense of honor, though I doubt it was from me. He didn’t always use it in a way that served him, certainly, and he’s been a mite too eager to fall on his sword for my taste. But he has one and that’s all to the good.

In the end, there’s a story he tells about me that, over the years, I’ve thought of a good deal. It’s the time he was about nine and we walked to a Toronto park to throw a ball around. Today’s kids may not know this, but that’s how fathers and sons bonded in those days, when they came from Chicago and New York, in any case.

As always, he wanted to run and make the equivalent of Mays’ “the Catch” every time, running straight, looking over the left shoulder and making a basket catch of a high and deep fly ball. So I’m tossing him these mile-high, lazy flies and I get one a little too much to the right. I shouted as loud as I could, but he was in the zone tracking this sucker and, when he hit the pole, it might as well have gone through me. I carried him home, blood streaming from his forehead, and put one of my shirts on him as a smock. Like I said, I know clothes and it hurt to have a beautiful custom-fitted Brooks Bros. button-down bled all over, but what else could I do?

His mom was off with the car – we only had one in those days – so I picked him up in my arms and carried him to the mile or so to the doctor’s office. He was nine, solid and heavy and I thought my arms were going to shatter, but I got him there and they stitched him up.

I’ve watched – hovered, you understand – while he told this story, and as he puts it, it was the moment when he truly realized how much I loved him. It’s a great story, and quite true. Because what he didn’t know is that it was the same moment that I realized how much I loved him.

Seems to me that’s a good enough legacy for any man. Now that he is a man, I hope it’s enough.

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