A Long Shadow
© 2019 CR Britting
Like a tall, sunlit tree standing on a hill, my father cast a long shadow across my life, and the experiences he gave me when I was young shaped the kind of man I am more than half a century later.
Dad was a man's man. He knew who he was, and he was strong without being loud. He liked to say that he was a 'jack of all trades and a master of none'. It was a pretty accurate statement, because he was very mechanically-minded, and he could fix the car, the plumbing or the washing machine when they broke down. He worked for the phone company back then, and repaired radios and TV sets in his spare time.
In the years after World War II, we lived in Alexandria, Virginia, just across the river from Washington, D.C. My father often took me on Saturday outings, three of which, in particular, shaped my future.
He had a friend who was a railroad engineer, and one Saturday Dad drove me to the railroad yard in Washington. The engineer invited us to climb up into the cab, and I got to sit in the engineer's seat. The next thing I knew I was driving the diesel engine. We probably weren't going five miles an hour, but I remember it being big and noisy, and all I could think was, "How do I stop this thing?"
Later, we coupled the locomotive to the rest of our train and pulled into Union Station, where the passengers boarded. Dad and I got to ride in the cab all the way to Alexandria, a grand total of five miles, but it was a great Saturday adventure, and it sparked an interest in trains that has lasted to this day.
My father was a Cub Scout leader, and on another Saturday, our group visited the Washington Navy Yard, where we got a tour through a submarine. It was a World War II diesel boat--nuclear subs were still a dream. I had to climb down a scary vertical ladder into the interior, and I was amazed at how little space there was inside. Up forward, I remember seeing those long, lethal-looking torpedoes in their cradles, and up top, the sub had a five-inch deck gun and a 40mm anti-aircraft gun--no missiles back then, either. Like the train experience, the visit to the sub sparked an interest, this time in military things. Dad had been a combat engineer in World War II, building airfields in the South Pacific, and for a long time I dreamed of a career in the military.
Then, on a third Saturday, Dad took me to visit a local TV station. It was the first time I'd ever seen a television camera up close, and it was pretty exciting. I got to look through the camera viewfinder, and, back in the control room, I discovered all the monitors, and the video switcher, a device that allows the director to select which picture he wants the people at home to see at any given time. Back in those days, the switcher consisted of two rows of ten mechanical push buttons, a far cry from the sophisticated, quarter-million-dollar marvels we have today.
When we got home, Dad built me a wooden TV camera. It had rotating turret on the front, with four wooden "lenses", and a hole cut through the length of it to serve as a viewfinder. It was cool, and I eventually built a second one. Both cameras had red "on-air" lights, and I could switch the lights from one camera to the other, and even talk to my 'cameramen' on an intercom system. I was hooked, and television broadcasting eventually became my career path.
As I got to be a teenager, my father and I didn't get along very well. He was pretty much a go-getter, and he didn't have much patience with his underachieving son. I wasn't much of a student in my high school days, graduating 267th out of a class of 500, and Dad was genuinely surprised when I was accepted to Ohio State University in the fall of 1961.
But I was more interested in the campus radio station and the ROTC drill team than in studying, and it only took me four quarters to flunk out. It wasn't until I worked a year and spent three years in the army that I grew up. I got out of the army in 1967, and went back to finish my degree, graduating in 1970, the same year I got married.
Over the years, Dad and I drew closer. He died of cancer in 1976, but he lived long enough to see the birth of his first grandchild, and left me firmly established on a path to the future, a path he helped create.
I still love trains, both model and real, and my wife and I often take the train when we go on vacation. Down through the years, I often visited Naval Station, Norfolk, Virginia, so I could go take advantage of the weekend 'open house' ship tours. It's great to visit with our military folks, and fascinating to hear of their experiences serving our country. I've been involved in broadcasting since my college days, and in 2014 I retired after 50 years in the broadcast business.
My colleagues laughed when I told them about my wooden TV cameras and my basement 'control room', but remembering those times brings a fond smile to my face as I sit here typing on my laptop. Last November was my 77th birthday. It was a time for reflection, and a day for remembering the long shadow my father cast across my life. Thanks, Dad.