My Dad & biking make life feel safer

man-on-racing-bikeMy father, Sanford Cleveland Kahrmann,  taught me how to ride a bicycle. To this day, when I’m on my bike, he is present. And for me, when my father is present, all the world feels safer. Anything with his presence helped heal the wounds of the day. Today, Saturday May 2, will be first time on the bike this year.

My father died at unexpectedly when he was 55 from peritonitis. I was 15. While we never got to be adult father and son, adult friends, we were friends. I absolutely reject the notion that parents and their children can’t be friends. Rubbish. If you become friends with a family member, the friendship is all the more sacred, and stronger.

I learned how to ride a bike on Buchanan Street in Pearl River, New York. My first two-wheeler was a Huffy. Now, I don’t know this for a fact, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the name was picked because of the bike’s weight, again, just a guess, but I’d say my bike weighed somewhere in the neighborhood of 200-zillion pounds. At least I thought so. After all, the name Huffy made perfect sense. If you had to pick up the bike and carry it for any reason, you’d be huffin’ and puffin’ in no time.

Nevertheless, it was my first two-wheeler. I was proud of it. A grown-up bike.

My Dad put training wheels on in the beginning. I didn’t know kid in the neighborhood who didn’t feel the painful stain of  stigma (usually self-inflicted) of having training wheels. Not just because you wanted to ride a bike like the older kids, but their name. Training wheels! No self-respecting kid in the neighborhood was comfortable being seen with training wheels.

All the kids in my neighborhood, boys and girls, were self-respecting. We wanted our training wheels taken off our bikes, as soon as possible.

Finally, the big day came. My training wheels were coming off! Holy crap! I sensed I might be experiencing a wee taste of what it was like to become a man.

The moment was as ceremonial as it gets. I got on the bike – Wait!

A sidebar, if you please. I had short legs.  may be worth noting that inch-thick blocks of wood were clamped to each side of the pedal by a generous wrapping of duct tape, all so my feet could reach the pedals.

Back to the story.

The ceremony was underway. I am balancing on both wheels supported by my father who is on my left and holding onto the back of the bike seat. I start to pedal, and we get underway. My Dad jogs alongside, holding onto the back of the bike seat.

My confidence grows. I am pedaling!

Now I am becoming a man!

Now I look to my left; my father isn’t there anymore.

Now I am careening onto the Costello’s front lawn!

Now I am toppling over!

Now, of course, I am trying again.

It took about two more tries to get it right, but soon I was riding my bike. Picking up speed. You discover one of the reasons people talk about the wind in your face.

There was a freedom to be had when I’m on my bike. Still is. Our movement is our own, and, for me, there’s the gift of knowing my father is part of my every stride.

Love for my father, Sanford Cleveland Kahrmann

My father, Sanford Cleveland Kahrmann, remains the greatest gift my life has ever given me. He was born 102 years ago today in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

I think my father and I found sanctuary in each other. When I was a little boy I would go to his room in the early morning, snuggle up next to him, and go back to sleep.

While my parent’s marriage seemed happy to me, I never heard them argue, they slept in separate rooms, we were told, because my mother was a light sleeper and my father snored. True on both counts.

My father taught English at Columbia University and John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and his desk faced the foot of his bed from about two feet away.

I liked to sit on the foot of his bed and watch him work. The paperwork that covered his desk was, for me, a delicious visual feast.

I’d be sitting there watching him work when I’d be overcome with surge of love for him, at which point I’d jump of the bed, run around his desk, and throw my arms around him. We’d hold our hug for a moment or two, and then I’d return to my perch. A short time later it would happen again. I’d run to him and hug him. He always hugged me back.

It wasn’t until years after he died at age fifty-five (I was fifteen) I discovered a gloriously love-filled truth hit me. Not once when I’d crawl into bed next to him or run around his desk to hug him was I rejected. He never responded as if I was a pain, a bother, rude – even worse, bad. No doubt, having your little boy climb into bed next to you in the early morning might wake you, and I know when you’re working hard at a desk, having your son rush into your arms every few minutes for a hug might interrupt the flow of things just a tad. He loved our rituals as much as I did. They meant just as much to him.

It didn’t matter if he was sleeping or working, what mattered to the two of us was the two of us. Father and son, para siempre.

Happy Birthday, Daddy. I would give up the rest of my life in a heartbeat to hug you again, just one more time.

In all times

In all times

And in all lives

There are moments filled

With the sincerest intimacy

You and I shared such moments

And I thank you

And love you

For those times

~

Note: I wrote this poem for my father, Sanford Cleveland Kahrmann,  sitting on the bed in his room ,the day after he died.  August 16, 1969. He was 55.  I was 15. It is the only thing I’ve written that I remember word for word. Never have I been more focused when writing than I was  writing this.    ~  PSK

And the boys sing

***

Shift rocking stumble knees sing sweet songs on the corner

Rusty acapella chains  shackle hearts and the boys sing

Mama where’d you go to now  so far away

Soft skin close Mama it’s so hard when you can’t see

Skipping stone ladies hopscotch blues bending string sounds

Wounded soul arias for millions and the boys sing

Papa’s all gone before curtain rise and back grown full

Son stands on corners lost and hungers gained

Powered thighs stride across fractured dreams

Words shuffle sweet sad peace and the boys sing

***

Time on my father

My father celebrated his last birthday, his 55th, on February 16, 1969. He died 177 days later from peritonitis on August 16. When I celebrated my 55th birthday on October 2, 2008, it was not lost on me that in 177 days, March 28,  to be exact,  I would have outlived my beautiful father by one year. I knew the very moment I would pass him; he died at 1:43 in the afternoon. At 1:43 p.m. today I will have outlived him by four years.

Now there may be some folks who think my memorializing moments like this is maudlin, macabre even. I frankly don’t give a damn what those folks  think. To each their own, as they say. My father was and is the greatest gift my life has ever given me. I am positive I would not be alive today were it not for the fact his presence is alive and well in my heart and soul.

He was a remarkable man, and, a remarkable parent. Born to working class parents in Elizabeth, New Jersey, he served in the Army during World War II (his was in one of the three divisions that liberated the Dachau Concentration Camp in 1945, something I would not learn about him until after he died), went to Columbia University where he majored in English Literature and later taught same in Columbian University and, in the last years of his life, a second college, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

As a parent, he was skilled at knowing when it is better to let life rather than parent be the teacher. When I was about eight or nine I went into his room and told him I needed to talk to him because I was very, very nervous about something. At the time we lived in the hamlet of Pearl River, New York. Our home was a few miles from the hamlet’s business center, comfortable walking distance for us young folks. He leaned back in his desk chair and asked me what I was nervous about. “I want to buy a pack of rubbers!” I announced. To this day I have no idea why this was. I was certainly not sexually active. My father paused, then asked, “Are you short on money?”  “No, no,” I reassured him, “I’ve got my allowance.” “Okay then, what are you nervous about?” I told confessed: “I’m afraid the man’s gonna ask me what I want’m for!”

My father smiled. What he said next calmed all my fears and nervousness because what he said next made all the sense in the world. After all, I had purchased model airplanes and boats and such and did not think myself a novice when it came to shopping. “Well, Peter, I’ll tell you what you do. If the man at the drugstore asks you what you want them for, you just tell him you’ll read the directions.” Perfect! Why hadn’t I thought of that!

And so it was that I marched out of the house brimming with confidence. I suspect my father called the man at the drugstore and told him he was in for a wee bit of entertainment and could he please be kind as he went about saying no to my request for a pack of rubbers. I’m sure my father told him to ask me what I wanted them for because he knew the man would get quite a kick out my response. Which is exactly what happened. The man did ask me what I wanted them for, I said I’d read the directions, and the man said I should come back in a few years when I probably wouldn’t need directions.

Humor and entertainment aside, my father also knew when – and how –  to protect his son from fear, from feeling in danger. One winter day we were driving towards Pearl River proper on Washington Avenue. It was a snowy day, the plows were out.  Almost immediately after Washington Avenue passes Lincoln Avenue it takes a rather steep downward dip, perhaps a quarter mile or so in length. As we came over the rise and began our decent, we saw about six or seven cars stuck at all different angles at the bottom of the hill. It was still snowing and the hill was very slippery. We began to slide slowly down the hill right towards the stuck cars. “Well,” my father said, in a totally calm and matter of fact voice, “looks like we’re gonna hit.” “It’s like bumper cars,” I replied. “Seems so,” said my father. And so it was that we bumped into a couple of the cars and came to a stop. No one was hurt. Years later I realized that not once was I scared. My father was so calm and serene it didn’t cross my mind to be scared. How different my experience would’ve been if he’d gotten all wound up over the fact we were sliding down a snowy hill.

I share all this with you because I hope you have or have had someone in your life like my father. Someone who loves you completely simply because you are you and need not be anything but you. Life has taught me this is not a common experience. And while I was only 15 when he died, you can be sure I wouldn’t give up those 15 years with him for a thousand years with anyone else. So when the clock reaches 1:43 this afternoon, I will be thinking about my father. I will be grateful for the four years I’ve reached that he didn’t and I will, as I always do, tell him that I am doing the best I can, which is all any of us can do, and is exactly what my father would want me to do.

I love you, Daddy, my whole wide world.