Fatherhood outside the box


Long ago I lived out of a suitcase and performed in a soul band for six years. The band was the Satisfactions, a mix of Midwestern and Washington, D.C. musicians that played one-to-four-week bookings in nightclubs.

We played a half-dozen major cities and many smaller ones — International Falls, Minnesota to the far north; Joplin, Missouri to the south; Camp Springs, Maryland to the east; and Casper, Wyoming to the west.

It was a simpler time. I had a suitcase, three suit bags, a tough Jean-Paul Germain gray raincoat and my guitar gear. My one monthly bill was $90 for Blue Cross health insurance.

My father was a hospital administrator and my mother was a registered nurse and community leader. One promise I knew to keep for them was to never go without health insurance. I made an appointment and secured my own policy before finishing my music degree. Soon thereafter, I jumped at the chance to travel and perform.

Night life on the road was loud and jazzy, but I do remember my quietest Christmas ever at the Midway Motor Lodge in Elkhart, Indiana. I remember the eerie lapse of life in the hallways of the deserted motel and the half-present expression of the front desk clerk who drew the short straw to cover Christmas Eve graveyard shift.

I chose not to squeeze in a trip home to Albuquerque. So there I sat with a parcel from my parents on the small circular side table in my motel room. I explored the gifts inside. I found something small in folded red holiday wrapping paper at the bottom of the box.

Inside the paper was my father’s Naval Aviator Badge from his days flying, what I think was an AD Sky Raider from an aircraft carrier. I knew how much the Navy meant to him. I was in awe of his service, photos and great stories, but I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this gift.

I said my thanks in a holiday phone call back home, where everything was festive and fortissimo. The moments flew by with scant talk of the badge. I put it with my other jewelry, and it has been with me ever since.

A few years later, my father — at age 56 — made a fast exit from this world when he fell into a coma because of an undiagnosed brain aneurysm.

Weeks after his service, I mentioned the badge in the red wrapping paper at a small gathering. A friend who had heard about this gift softly looked into my eyes and told me it was his way of telling me I had “earned my wings.” She said he was proud I had finished my degree and was very proud I was on an adventure. Suddenly I felt my heart swell. My thoughts spun in all directions.

Every so often, I remove the badge from the paper. I think back and feel his affirmation. I love the confident folds in the paper that reflect how he did most things, especially driving — fast. This paper I cherish has no words on it. And his aviator badge is true treasure.

I am amazed how quiet gestures have such lasting power. 

Here’s to dads everywhere and the many, many ways they show love and support.

Happy Father’s Day.

Mikkel Kelly is an interim editor at the Englewood office for Colorado Community Media. He is former editor of the Westminster Window and Golden Transcript. Father’s Day will be Sunday, June 20.

fatherhood, Father's Day, Mikkel Kelly, Naval Aviator Badge


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