My Dad


Borrowing from a Facebook relationship status type, my relationship with my Dad was “complicated”. I have fond memories of childhood with dad. He and my mother divorced when I was in 7th grade and although we went through extremes in closeness and not … including a period when I refused to see him … as I see how custody battles rage in today’s families, I had it better than some.

Phil Gardner was a fireman for @32 years and I grew up around the firehouse. My first memories were of an old firehouse built originally for horse drawn equipment. The sleeping quarters were on the second floor. When an alarm sounded, the men would slide down the pole landing next to one of the trucks.

Since it was a job where he was on duty for 24hrs and then off for 48, we would sometimes visit him at work. I remember getting to sit in the driver’s seat and pull the cord that rang the bell as well as in the seat atop the rear ladders of the “hook and ladder” truck. Eventually, he was one of the three deputy “chiefs” (each had a ‘shift’) of a moderately large fire department in Covington, Kentucky.

In the early 80’s they built a newer main station, which he was in a few years before he retired.

He was not afraid of controversy. At different times in his job as one of the chiefs, Dad was accused of both racism and sexism. When the city asked why he didn’t have any blacks on the force, he replied that they hired from those who passed the fireman’s test. He was ordered to re-write the test. ….and then to re-write the test a second time, and a third time. He then refused to continue to modify the test, which he insisted was about finding out what someone knew about fire and he didn’t want to send people into burning buildings who didn’t understand what they were up against. Eventually, he hired an African-American and he told me about his first conversation with a guy who eventually became a strong friend. The conversation went something like,

“I want you to know that you’re a rookie on this shift. You’re not a black rookie, you’re a rookie. You’re going to scrub the tires on the trucks, not because you’re black, but because you’re a rookie. You’re going to get to wash the trucks because you’re a rookie. There are a lot of grunt jobs around here that you are going to have to do because you are a rookie. They are the same jobs I had to do when I was a rookie and which every other man on this force had to do as a rookie. I will treat you the same way I treat everyone else on this force. I’ll give you the same respect and expect the same respect in return. Oh, and another thing. You need to trim your hair, not because you’re black, but because if you go into a burning building with that Afro sticking out the bottom of a helmet, you’re gonna burn. So just to make sure that we understand each other, if you don’t show me your ‘black power’ (common phrase at that time), I won’t show you my white (i.e. I’m the fire chief) power.”

He was also in charge when they wanted to hire women and wanted him to have one on his shift. He fought it, but eventually lost. His reasoning:

“Other than the fact that you’re requiring me to build another restroom, another shower/locker area and another sleeping quarters in this building without giving me any additional space in which to do it, I have no problem with any female firefighter who can get all the hair under the helmet, can hold a hose with high pressure water coming out and can climb out of an upper story window with a 250 pound man of dead weight on her shoulder as she climbs down the ladder.”

He got in trouble with the Covington School System when they built a new elementary building where my two sisters would attend and he refused to let them open the building until they put in larger windows.

He was proud of a claim that he could have someone on the scene anywhere in the city 90 seconds after an alarm. There were 10 firehouses at that time and he might not have everybody on site that quickly, but claimed that “someone will be there communicating with the rest of us en route”. I saw that first hand once as my siblings and I were in the firehouse as an alarm sounded. His instruction was to “stand over there against the wall RIGHT NOW and I’ll have someone come and get you”. As the firehouse PA system was announcing the location and description, 8 firehouse doors were going up, men were scrambling, engines were starting and in about 15-20 seconds, the chief car, ambulance, rescue truck, pumper, and ladder truck were GONE. It was just a few seconds after that one of the dispatchers came out of the room from which they had received the call and determined who and what to send, and had us come in and spend time with him ’til our mother could arrive to take us home.

Over the years, I got to watch him fight several kinds of fires. In the winter he might be covered with ice and walking on several inches of frozen water around a building. In the summer there were the firefighters passing out from heat exhaustion. One of the problems dad had was that he would often go to a fire from home while off duty — without his gear. Here he is in his street clothes (striped shirt) doing something to help at what looks like a fire at a lumber yard.

The most memorable example of his running off without equipment was to the horrific fire at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in 1977. This was the location of my high school prom not long before …. and it is the fire in which my high school clarinet teacher, Robert Roden was among the 165 fatalaties. Mr. Roden played in one of the stage bands …. he got out of the fire, but went back in to get his music.

For years, dad’s dream was to retire from the Fire Department, move to the hills of Tennessee and build a log house. But by the time he was forced into retirement by the disability of Emphysema caused by the combination of years of chronic cigarette smoking and fire fighting smoke inhalation, he had to settle for moving to Tennessee and buying a log home.

He tried to do all those fatherly things that seem to be expected. He taught me how to fish, but I never developed the patience to wait for the fish to decide to jump onto my hook. He took me camping, but my allergies made that a pretty miserable experience. He was an Eagle Scout who became a scoutmaster so I’d get involved….and I did, but again, the outdoor stuff was not allergy friendly….and I didn’t get too far. He became a summer league baseball coach so I would play and I did…..for a while. He taught me how to shoot and hunt. I was actually pretty good with the shooting part, but never got into hunting. As a child, I had a good dad.

And I realize now how hard he tried to be a good father even after the divorce. At Christmas, he would always bring some stuff to Mom’s house so we’d have things to open there too. We never had forced visitation but were often invited to his home. He never fought or failed to comply with child support and helped with some of our expenses. He gave me half what I needed for a bicycle I really wanted …. and half toward that Selmer Series 10 clarinet high school band director James Copenhaver demanded the entire clarinet section have. He never said an unkind word about my mother, although I suspect their problems were not as one-sided as she led us to believe.

Dad stopped going to church after an ugly railroad strike. HIS parents were asked to leave the church they helped start when Grandpa, who was in management for the L&N Railroad, moved some train engines during the strike. His decision was hard to argue with.

I was bitter over the divorce, mostly because of the hardship it put on the five children he left. In addition to having five children, two of which were still pre-school, Mom was a polio survivor, severely limiting the kind of work she could do. She ended up working for the nursing home she would eventually live and die in — because it was two blocks from our house, she could walk and because it was a school hours only job. For a couple years, we didn’t have a car … so, as the oldest, one of my jobs was walking to the dairy store, and the fruit/vegetable stand, the grocery store and the laundromat. We would occasionally use the public transportation busses (3 blocks away) to go downtown. We got a soft drink and a frozen pizza on Fridays. In the summers we could walk to a public swimming pool a few blocks away and my brothers and I would make money by selling lemonade to the golfers at the course that came within a few houses down the street. My childhood stories are probably for another entry, but I always blamed dad for the hardships.

He worked two jobs for years. On the off days from the fire department, he worked at a department store in Cincinnati. He would have one day (a Sunday) off per month.

I did not make things easy for him during my high school years. The worst was my refusal to see him for about 2 years when he had a child by the second wife. I regret that because I know it hurt him. I also regret the out of anger demand to have myself removed from child support a year early when he insisted I thank the step-mother for money he had given me for a European Band tour that he said (correctly) was from them both. That was selfish, because it put additional hardship on my mother.

Once he retired and moved to Tennessee and I was in college, dad and I made up. Well, I made up….he was never angry at me. When Joan and I got married we started making visitation trips to Tennessee and more so after our children were born.

Dad died of cancer in December of 1996. The TN family called after Thanksgiving to tell me he was sick….. but he was sicker than they described because he died before Christmas when we were planning a visit.

I suspect he never expected a “#1 Dad” shirt, but he was an honorable man and tried to be as good a father has he could given the circumstances. The most lasting gift he gave me was the determination to never walk away from my marriage and put my children in hardship. Joan and I just celebrated our (39th in 2016) wedding anniversary.

Happy Father’s Day. I love, admire, respect and remember you, Dad. 


2 thoughts on “My Dad

  1. Loved these articles. I’ve known you all this time. & not known much about how you grew up. You & Joan are both amazing. It’s funny how often I hear people who have made successes of their lives credit family members who did something, sometimes all things, hurtful. They used the other person’s behavior as a guide of what NOT to do. They aimed their life in the opposite direction and came out shining. God bless you and Joan.

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