My Father's Eulogy

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My father passed away on January 2nd of this year. I've had several posts in mind but haven't had the energy to put them down. This is the eulogy I read at his service. Maybe this will help me sleep a little better until I can get something better down.

My parents visited the Vatican last year. I have no proof of this but I think there was motivation behind the trip. I think it was a job interview. If it was... he got the position. The new VP of marketing for the rebranded Pearly Gates... and Gardens. He’s probably already had turnstiles installed and is calling each evening for the days attendance.

My father was born into a farming family in rural Nebraska and spent his first 12 years there until my grandmother moved him and my Aunt Suzanne to her hometown of Savannah after their father passed.  In 2012 my wife, son and I along with Donna and my Uncle Doug had the privilege of joining my Dad and Aunt on a return visit to Nebraska. This was the first time they had been back since they were children. On that trip I watched my dad explore where he came from. Miles and miles of perpendicular roads with hardly another human in sight.

My father never budged at a challenge. You can’t just call it work ethic because it’s how he lived his life. From grade school to fatherhood, whenever I talked with him about a struggle he would guide me and help me figure out how to get through it. Often we would walk away with an inside joke about the event that we would share and laugh about for years later. Even after being told he had cancer he never complained or fussed about the card he was handed. It was after I saw that farm and imagined what his life was like there in Nebraska that I was able to start putting the pieces of his character together. Farmers work in harsh environments. They create things from barely nothing and work with the resources they have at hand. They start with a seed. I have many brothers and sisters here in Tampa that got their professional start through my dad. We were all his seeds.... And all of you became family. From Busch Gardens and Adventure Island and Sea World to most recently the Florida Aquarium. You took all of us into your family as much as my dad brought you into his. Thank you all for everything you did for us over the years. I’ve joked before that Ericka and I grew up in a theme park. That makes many of your our baby sitters.

I’ve taken many vacations to his second hometown of Savannah. My family and I were there just this weekend. Savannah is a social town. Especially when you are a descendant. It is a Catholic town where everyone knows each other, looks out for one another and barter with what they have. Your character is as much your currency is as what you have to offer. Add these skills to the work ethic my father learned from the farm and you are starting to get a better picture. He was always looking out for his Tampa, his Florida and all of us here. And he was never without a free ticket. When he’d give out a few to a family... if asked he’d simply say he worked at The Aquarium. Or Busch Gardens. Or Adventure Island. Or Sea World.

My father was humble. He was honest. He worked hard and taught me that work is not work when you love it. These are the things I will pass on to my son.

I know I’m not alone in saying that since being told of my father’s diagnosis… today, this service and the idea of his passing have been on my mind and in my heart constantly. I would wake up in the middle of the night and it would take me a few seconds to remember why I felt so horrible. The feeling would be there before I could remember why. But one night I fell asleep and had a dream about this day. I was here at his service. We all were. We were all here to celebrate my father’s life and accomplishments. But in my dream he was here at the altar too. He was loving you guys. All of his people. Many of you… his seeds. When I awoke from that dream knowing he was happy... I felt at peace. And finally slept.

I now know why I had that dream. Because he is here. I think one of his other initiatives at the newly rebranded Pearly Gates and Gardens is a hand stamp program for return visits back to see us and check on us. And this is exactly the kind of inside joke my father and I would have shared. And now it’s one I hope to forever share with my son. Going forward, whenever he feels like someone has been looking out. Whenever he feels that someone has his back… I’ll suggest it was his Papa.... and that he must have gotten his hand stamped.

A 1980 Tampa Tribune Article Featuring My Father on Parenting

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By BESS ADAMS COLEMAN

"With my 5-year-old son, I'm experiencing the greatest love affair I’ve ever had,” said 31-year-old Thom Stork. "There are lots of rocky roads, no question about it, but you can say that I’ve really found my child. I’ll freely admit that for four years he was there and I loved him and we did things together. But I didn’t know him. I wasn’t his best friend.”

“I recently took my 7-year old son out to lunch to talk about my plans to remarry,” said Alan Baker, 38. "I wanted to know how he felt about it. He said, 'Well, Dad, once in awhile you have a really good idea.’

I said, ‘Well, thank you, and I’d like you to be the best man at the wedding.’ He said, 'That’s wonderful — what’s a best man?’ ”

“There’s no way to know when something really special will happen between you and your child,” said Dr. Joseph Ferrandino, 38. "Not long ago, I sat in the audience while my 8-year-old daughter auditioned for a part in a play. As she stood on the stage, they unexpectedly asked her to sing a song. My heart stopped, thinking she’d be afraid or embarrassed, but to my surprise she said OK, and began to sing 'Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer in a strong, clear voice. It was a touching moment I‘m glad I was able to have.”

“Through my son, I discovered the child in myself,” said 29-year-old. Joel Hunter. "I remember once getting all excited over a kite I bought for him when he was about 5. We were out running with it against the wind. I was having a ball, but when I looked down he was crying. I asked him what was wrong, and he said, 'Dad, you won’t let me hold it.’ I was so involved and having such a great time, I almost forgot to let him participate.”'

Four special moments in the lives of four Tampa fathers. These fathers however, represent a new and increasingly prevalent breed of men who, either by choice or circumstance, are raising their children alone.

While the number of such men is growing, the percentage is hardly mind-boggling.

Steve Sessums, a Tampa attorney who limits his practice to marital and family law, found in a recent study in Pinellas County that mothers received custody in approximately 75 percent of all contested cases. Sessums points out that these figures would probably closely reflect those for the state of Florida as well.

"While accurate statistics are hard to come by, my experience tells me that in well over 90 percent of the cases that never reach the court (by far the greatest number), the divorced woman also assumes sole custody,” Sessums said.

In the last few years, several factors have begun to change this traditional pattern. Some divorcing couples decide the husband should take the children because he makes more money.

In other cases, the wife expresses a desire to pursue career interests or to find self-fulfillment outside the role of wife and mother. And some women believe that their husbands may do a better job of parenting.

Whatever the reasons leading more men to raise their children alone, those involved have found themselves thrown back on their own resources in new and challenging ways. They’ve experienced, as any new mother soon learns, the boredom, frustration and occasional pain of caring for young children.

However, with this newly found knowledge of the humdrum comes the joy of knowing unexpected moments of gentle ecstasy with their children that many say makes it worth the effort.

Thom Stork, promotions manager at Tampa’s Busch Gardens, has had custody of his 5 year-old son, Christopher, for almost a year. In many ways, his experiences closely parallel those of Ted Kramer in the recent film. "Kramer vs. Kramer," which depicts a young father coping with the business of raising his son alone.

"I cried through most of the Kramer film,” said Stork without apology. “To some extent, I identified with Dustin Hoffman as Ted Kramer because I am in the same business. He was in an ad agency, whereas am in a marketing department.

"I was also very work-oriented,” Stork continued. “I probably didn’t spend enough time with my family. Now leave work at 5, because I have to meet the needs of my child.”

After their 8-year marriage ended in divorce, Stork and his former wife agreed that he would have full legal custody. Both parents felt that Stork was in a better economic position to take care of their child.

"I said wanted him, and believe strongly that a son should be with his father,” Stork said.

"The first thing people said to me was, "My God, how are you going to handle this?” Stork said. "Sure there were questions, and it was confusing for me until learned how to budget my time, but from the very first day knew I could do it. I’d been raised knowing how to do basic things, such as cleaning, but didn’t know how to cook.”

Stork’s first attempt at cooking was almost as clumsy as the French-toast scene from the Kramer film. In the movie, Hoffman ineptly stuffed. bread into a coffee cupful of shell-laden batter under the watchful eyes of his son, whose deadpan reply was: "I don’t like it folded, Dad.”

What Kramer was to fench toast, Stork was to spaghetti. “We ate out a lot at first," said Stork. "But my first meal was scream. I wanted to fix spaghetti, but honestly didn't know how to cook the noodles. I called one of the women at the office and asked how to do it, and she said, ‘You dummy, you read the side of the box.’ At Christmas she gave me copy of the Joy of Cooking.

Another parallel to the movie occurred one night when Stork was going out. Any evening out for Daddy is always well-planned in advance,” Stork said. "Walking over to my neighborhood babysitter on one of these rare occasions, Christopher went into tirade of ‘Don’t leave me.’ We marched back home and sat down for about 10 minutes of talk and reassurances. When we went back, he pulled the same thing again. I flew off the handle, almost physically dragged him home, threw him into the bathtub, washed him and put him to bed with no dinner at 7:15. Was screaming at him, and he at me. I just shut the door and left.

“About an hour or so later I went into him and we talked. We talked about how Daddy has to have time for himself. I think that one night, even though it hurt us both, was a big step forward.”

One major difference in Stork’s experiences and the Kramer film was an absence of conflict between his job and the needs of his child. While Kramer ultimately lost his job because of this conflict, Stork credits his company with being very supportive of his decision to raise his son.‘ "My relationship with this company from the top man down to my immediate supervisor is that ‘If that little guy has doctor’s appointment or needs you, you go,’ Stork said.

While Stork received sole custody of his child, some men have joint or shared custody of children following divorce. This arrangement enables couple to develop pattern for dividing the time child spends with each parent. Usually, one parent will be the primary parent, or the one responsible for greater portion of the child’s care.

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ThomChris1

Catholic School made me a Sinner

I put in twelve years of Catholic school... I was released on my on recognizance but served parole under the watchful eyes of a Baptist College. You could say I was "institutionalized" and feared life on the outside. Twelve years of a regulated wardrobe can have a lasting effect if they occur between five and seventeen years of age. I was the kid at the skating rink in navy blue dress pants and a white dress shirt. My time with Catholics made me a sinner. I'm not sure if it's that they taught me what sins were or made it so damned easy to be one? I get it, you break the rules... you're a sinner. But they made the rules and had I not gone to a Catholic School - I wouldn't have known they were there to break. I worried for my friends who weren't baptised because after they died they'd spend their life in purgatory with all the dead pets but they didn't know what purgatory was. What came first the chicken or the idea of a life of eternal damnation?

One of my most memorable grade school sins is also one of the most ironic. It happened once a month when we had to meet before the priest and confess our crimes against the church. I would practice my confession and set it to a rhythmic cadence to help with the memorization. The Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian" was a fun era for the Holy Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Bless me father for I have sinned

It's been one month since my last confession

I lied to my teacher

I stole from my sister

I skipped detention

I walked like an Egyptian.

Most of these were lies in themselves... lip service to get through the ordeal. If I had learned anything from Mass it was showmanship. Making up lies about lies was easy. First grade stuff. These were easy ones that would only merit the canned "Three Hail Mary's and an Our Father" penance.

The real lie came with the stagecraft. I often performed this well rehearsed song and dance in an empty confessional... I'd confess my made up sins to no one. No priest, layperson or janitor would be on the other side of the black screen to critique my routine.

As we would enter the church we'd line up in two single files lines of boy and girls, tallest to shortest. I'd be near the front of the male brigade and as such, I'd scope out the church for the empty confessional and form a line outside of it. Our teachers would split the lines up after a half dozen kids so there would only be a few behind me I'd have to remind of what we practiced in scrimmage. In the event the next tallest person wasn't an ally, I'd tell him the priest would be back in a bit after I'd emerge from the empty confessional downtrodden and gloomy after airing all my dirty laundry.

Sure, a big lie. But in the Catholic way, I always gave myself three Hail Mary's and an Our Father as my own penance to clean the slate so I could sin again.

I never got many Gold Medals - But I used to make them.

medalI once quit a job without giving two weeks notice. I quit after my lunch break. The boss wasn’t surprised at all. I think she even wondered why it took so long like it was a bet amongst the bosses. Each day that went by with me still on the line was another nickel in the jar.I worked at a trophy factory in Tampa and made the medals people wear around their neck after winning track meets and what not. For some reason we made lots of medals for the PBA - "The Police Benevolent Association" and I thought that if I ever got pulled over I could use this as a conversation starter. I was on an assembly line and would be given scalding hot medals from out of the mold and was to sand down the edges on a steel-brush sander until they were smooth and round. Like when Christmas cookies come out with bits that cooked under the Santa mold. My job was to remove those bits with spinning bristles of steel. These were very hot cookies and shards of lead would fly off everywhere. Along the line there were several of us with varied levels of sanders in front of us. The first would sand off the rough edges with each in the line making the edges smoother until the last in line had a very fine sander that polished the final product. Although each on the line spoke a different language... I was the only one who could communicate with any of them. On Tuesdays, it was my day to control the radio - I got news from the outside this way. We were in a hot windowless room. Often while sanding the medals I would secretly sharpen a screwdriver into a fine point to make a shiv for the day I broke free. I would tuck it under my lab coat when one of the bosses walked by. We had to wear lab coats to keep the shards of medal off our clothes. Once, I had my coat open and got it caught in the sander when I took a big old "look how many medallions I’ve completed" stretch. The sander instantly pulled me up to the machine and was sanding my already hairless chest until the Korean guy next to me turned off the power to my machine. He gave me a pat on the back as if to say, "This is why we keep our coats buttoned you little jackass who plays stupid music on Tuesday." The next day, the “No accidents in 300 days" sign changed to "No accidents in 1 day". So, I quit one day when I couldn’t take it anymore. I didn’t even have to use my weapon.

I used to watch alot of Fanny at my Nana's house

Plenty of sick days from Grade School were spent at my Nana's in Tampa watching this show from her king sized bed. I think it was on at 1pm while she was watching Days of Our Lives in the other room. (Side note - I threw up on her new carpet one day and while she was yelling at me for puking she started throwing up too. As a result, if it was "Bridge" day, I'd sleep in the back of her car in her friends driveway while they were inside drinking Martini's and playing cards. The ladies were afraid I had a weak stomach and would ruin their carpet.)

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I am part of the StarWars Generation

me r2d2 A Collection of Photo's on Flickr of the rest of us Jedi's from the 70's and 80's. It is amazing to look back and see that even though we were spread across the globe we all shared the same fascination and suckered our parents into buying all the same merchandise. And to wonder where we all our now and if without the lessons of the evils of the Dark Side and the power of "The Force", if we'd not be the people we are today? As far as I can tell in the photos, I'm the only R2D2 with tube socks.

My childhood "Boy named Sue" moment

This is a girls shirt!

In grade school we wore navy blue pants and white dress shirts. The boys had triangular collars while the girls wore the rounded ones that little Catholic school girls wear. There was an unfortunate era when my sister and I wore the same size shirt even though we were two years apart. And, of course, there was that day. One of the days that sticks with you forever and came back to me the other day when i was trying on used sweaters at an outdoor market in Amsterdam.

"This is a girls sweater." I said to Susan.

"Oh no it's not. It looks good on you." She answered.

"Irrelevant how it looks, the buttons are on the wrong side."

Back to grade school. The unlucky day must have been around 5th grade and it was made clear to me by my teacher that I was wearing a girls shirt. She asked, of course, in front of the class. "Are you wearing your sisters clothes?"

The class turned and errupted in laughter.

"Stork-dorks wearing a girls shirt!"

So my question is this, was it I who was half asleep while dressing watching Woody Woodpecker or was it my father who was half asleep while he ironed our shirts that morning. Where were the parental checks and balances to sound the buzzer for these things? Was this just a "boy named sue" moment in which my father tested me on how I would handle the rigors of manhood? The only thing it has taught me is to pay extra notice as to which side the buttons are and what shape the collar is.

And it only cost a quarter

And It Only Cost a Quarter

It was a Jesuit, shirt and tie, all guys’ high school. Everyone drove to school or had a ride. I rode the city bus. “H.A.R.T. Line” was the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Association. They had a big red heart for a logo. Most were faded to a semi-brown heart that looked more like the ones on anti-smoking ads. The buses were smoke-free although smoking may have been a welcome relief to mask the random odors floating through the cabin. Looking back I think the decision to send the boy home on the bus was a character builder. Maybe it was a message to do well in school. But with transportation only a quarter from school on a student pass, how could a parent go wrong?

The driver on bus number 7 was Richard Diggs. Dick Diggs we called him. I met Diggs the first day my dad dropped me off. I boarded armed with a quarter and my newly pressed Jesuit shirt and tie. Although I wasn’t the only wearing a hat I was the only one wearing a beanie. “That some kinda Jewish hat you got there, son?” Diggs asked.

I told him it was something we had to wear as freshman and it was tradition and we could burn it at a homecoming bonfire in a few months but he didn’t care too much about the details. He was all business. In the future when I realized I only had to wear my beanie on campus he’d asked, “Where’s that funny looking Jewish hat, Son. Shouldn’t you be wearing that hat?” He’d continue on the address system as I took my seat. “I think you may have left your hat at home, Son. You want I should turn around so you can get that funny little Jewish hat of yours?”

Unbeknownst to me, my father followed Diggs that first day to map out the route and see how long it’d take to get to school. I guess he followed a few cars back so as not to alarm Diggs. The plan didn’t work. Again, this driver was all business. Soon I noticed the bus taking evasive actions. Charging through yellow lights and making quick lane changes. Passengers would bounce free from their seats with each abrupt turn causing them to inadvertently hit the “Next stop” button. Each lane change was met with a “Ding – Stop Requested” followed by Diggs yelling, “Is that a real stop or someone hittin’ that button?”

Another sharp left and another “Ding – Stop Requested.” “Just trying to lose this Jack in a white Blazer truck!” Mr. business Diggs yelled. “I think I gotta white guy tailing us!”

“Ding – Stop Requested.”

I turned, aided by the bus’ momentum, and saw my dad a few cars back. Although his car was more agile than the city bus it didn’t possess the guts behind the wheel that we had. We were successfully pulling away. “Woah!” I yelled up from the back of the bus. “That’s my dad.”

The words bounced off each passenger on the way up to Diggs causing each to turn their head as they grasped the meaning behind my yell. Some translated the words faster and turned faster but overall it was a wave a twisting bodies starting from me and progressing to the front.

“What kind of kid are you who’s gotta dad has gotta follow you on the bus?” The lady next to me asked, “If your dad is going the same way why didn’t you save your quarter and maybe stop as McDonalds too?”

“This is my first time on the bus. I guess he just wanted to make sure I got to where I’m going?”

“It ain’t that hard.” She reasoned. “You pay your money and get on. You push the button when you want to get off. Simple as that. Pay to get on… push to get off.”

“I understand. I guess he just wanted to see how long it took.”

“All you gotta do is read the map.” She said. “ It tells you how long each bus takes. It even tells you what time they leave. What time it goes and what time it stops. Simple as that.”

“Yes, I know. I guess he just wanted to see for himself.”

“He could have scene it for himself on the paper there. Simple as that. I’ve been riding the bus for years and never had no trouble. Always on time. Always running on time. You should just push the button now and get in with your dad since he’s going the same way. Maybe he can stop off and get you some McDonalds.”

I soon learned that this is what I was paying my quarter for… the experiences. Some of them I’d offer fifty cents for if I had to do it over again.

One of the stops along the way home each day was at a K-Mart. It was a transfer spot where people would often switch busses. It was an intersection in the routes where you could get a transfer ticket and jump to a different route.

There was a day when a rather large black woman got on at the K-Mart stop. She had just done some shopping while waiting for the bus and came on board with all her bags. She was wearing typical H.A.R.T. Line summer attire… a single, large moo-moo. While maybe this fashion has its roots in Hawaii as beachwear it has made its home surrounding the fatty flesh of women across America. It’s looks like nothing more than a non-fitted one-piece bed sheet fashioned into a dress. A kids ghost costume with a hole for the head and arms.

She sat directly across from me in the seat clearly labeled “Reserved for Handicapped Riders” and even was able to harness herself in using the safety straps for wheelchairs. I watched her fumble through her bags. I played with my beanie to look busy. She pulled out a can of generic aerosol deodorant. She shook it up to get maximum spray. Armed with the can she reached up though her legs, under her moo-moo and aimed the can up from about belly level. She fired. She continued to fire. In all, she shot deodorant for about thirty seconds.

It emanated from every hole of her non-fitted bed sheet. It gushed from her armpit holes hiding her meaty arms in a fog of unscented aerosol. It rose from her neck hole like Old Faithful. It soon crept out from the same opening she took aim from dropping to the floor like a fog machine in a carnival haunted house.

Waiting for the air to clear I wondered if the same women would be there when the show was over? Maybe she was a superhero and this was her guise used during the transformation? Maybe she’d come out as a wonder-twin in a leather suit or a crime-fighting robot?

Unfortunately, when the air did clear it was the same rather large black woman that joined us at K-Mart albeit better smelling. As if to answer my puzzled look she explained, “Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.”

That piece of wisdom only cost me a quarter.

My theme park - My babysitter

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ad1I grew up in the theme park Busch Gardens and its water park sister Adventure Island. They were my babysitters. They were Grandma’s house. They were home. They were where I went when school was out for the summer, where I went when I was too sick for school or where I went when the parents didn't want me around for the day. They were where my sister and I did our homework and worked on after school projects. We weren’t latch key kids. We were turn style key kids. “Pick you up at the gate at 5” was as synonymous as “Don’t give your grandma a hard time.” Growing up, my parents both worked in management there. He was the VP of Marketing. She did the same but for the Special Events department. Both titles had there own distinctive perks for two spoiled theme park kids. Marketing, through the eyes of a child, was more about trade than advertising. We had plenty of coupons and free food cards to eat wherever the current ad campaign was partnered. One month it may be a stack of free Taco Bell tacos for dinner. The next we’d have our fill of subway six inch meatball subs.

Special events was hosting parties after the park closed. Often we’d pack up our homework and have to go to the park at sunset. After dining on whatever the banquet was serving for their guests we’d ride the rides until forced to do homework. The lure to finish was the promise of Churro’s and Strawberry Mirage’s for dessert from the stand outside the dolphin show. You might think the lure would be the actual dolphin show. When you’ve seen it as many times as we had it becomes no lure at all. Yet the dolphins get excited and jump through the same hoop for the same raw fish as last night?

During these events, the party would be held in one of the many themed sections of the park. The company would rent a section and have all the rides and shops open for them during their event. This would mean we’d have all the rides and shops open for us. Being that there were often more rides than people… there would be no lines. We’d have our run of the park. Ride all the rides we wanted or hit the water slides until our bathing suits wore thin. Often we’d not even get off the ride... they would just run it until we told them to stop or it looked as if we were too sick to continue.

Busch Gardens is an African based them park. Even though I’ve never been to Africa, I feel thatThe Python I am somewhat of an expert. I grew up in the suburbs of Tampa but African craftsman, belly dancers and snake charmers were my neighbors. As a child, I could probably bang out a brass pot or weave a leather sandal given the right tools. 
My treasure map was the printed park map or Busch Gardens. My friends would play hide and seek in Timbuktu or in the Congo or take a nap along the train ride through the African plains. I would wait for my father along the eastern edge of Lake Victoria or outside Stanley Falls. I'd use my Busch Bucks to buy a pith helmet from the gift shop to go along with the rest of my theme park wardrobe at home. The place that kept me most entertained was the Sultans Arcade. If the parents were looking for me… they knew to look in the arcade. I grew up thinking how great it would be to work in a game room. (I was given that chance in high school and it wasn’t that great.) I was there for the release of all the great games of the late 70’s and 80’s. This was my babysitter and home away from home. Being that I was there every day the clerk would give me a key to open the game and manually trigger the switch to simulate feeding it a quarter. I was there the day Paperboy came out. I was there the day Dig-dug was delivered. I remember watching them take the plastic off Hard-Drivin. But I was also there when they wheeled some of the greats out to sell them off to bars or laundry mats. My games were shipped out to undeserving drunks who would actually pay money to play them.

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Walking around the parks now as an adult I have the nostalgic feeling of going home for a visit. Like seeing your babysitters house from an adult eye... things look a lot smaller. I am reminded of so many pivotal moments from my childhood. Where I fought with my best friend or where I was shutdown after revealing a crush on a schoolgirl. I can pick out the spots where I was scolded for arguing with my sister and where we’d both have to sit and do our homework until we got along.

Maybe one day I'll make it the actual Stanley Falls. I hope they sell Churro's.