On this Father’s Day I thought I would take some time and tell you about my father. I wrote of my mother on Mother’s Day a month ago, it’s only fitting I give my father equal time.
John Henry Knaak, Jr., was born Dec. 26, 1935. Having a birthday the day after Christmas was a curse for the poor guy. He rarely got birthday cards let alone presents. He was born and raised in Scottsville, New York, just outside of Rochester. I don’t know which hospital. There’s actually quite a bit I don’t know about my father. For all that I do know, there is plenty he kept to himself.
He grew up with his older sister Carole in a home I have referenced previously with my grandparents, John Henry Knaak, Sr., and the former Elizabeth (Betty) Woods. There was an even older sister, my Aunt Joyce, but she died when she was toddler. Pneumonia took her if I recall the stories properly.
From the photos in the album my dad enjoyed his dog, played cowboy and liked to read. He loved music, but I have my own anecdotal evidence for that.
By all accounts, he was a high school legend at Scottsville High. He played basketball, baseball and soccer. His high school yearbook dedicated an entire section to his exploits in the senior edition. Dad graduated high school in 1954 and that’s when his history starts to get murky.
He went on to play college basketball at the State University of New York at Geneseo in Geneseo, New York. However, I have a 1954-55 yearbook from another college. Dad never spoke of a transfer. I do know he didn’t finish his college career at Geneseo or graduate from there. His degree in education came much later from Empire State College.
John Knaak, Sr., died in 1959 and Dad left school to take care of my grandmother. Eventually he found his way into the United States Army and stationed in Korea where he met my mother. They were married in 1962. My father never liked to tell the story of how they met and I didn’t know until after she died in 2006.
The story goes like this. Dad and an Army buddy were walking down the street in a South Korean village and they came upon two young women. Somehow they worked past the language barrier and went for coffee, tea, or whatever you did in a Korean village in the early 1960s. Dad’s buddy took a liking to Kim Yung Hi, and she didn’t care for him. She took to my dad instead and sidled up to him. Thus began the greatest love affair I’ve ever heard of, read about or seen dramatized on a screen.
My father transferred stateside and separated from the Army. He decided that he could not live without Yung Hi. He re-enlisted in the Army and shucked and jived his way back to Korea. Actually, that’s not accurate. He was passed from transport to transport without orders and was told his orders would catch up to him eventually. According to my father, Yung Hi was in shock when she was told he was back. They would eventually get married in 1962 with the help of a general or a colonel. My memory is fuzzy. Back then they didn’t like GIs marrying local girls with the thought being that the soldiers were a ticket out of Korea. My father convinced a senior officer that he was in love and that officer agreed to marry them. He said one of the biggest regrets in his life was that he never reached out to thank that officer who believed in them. When Mom died, they had been married for nearly 44 years. I’d say Dad’s motives were pure.
My folks moved back to the states and ended up in Erie, Pennsylvania. There were stories of living in Columbus, Georgia, and falling down an escalator in Chicago. There are great photos in the album of parties my parents attended. They were very attractive, made a great couple and seemed very cosmopolitan.
Dad became a disc jockey and radio newsman. He had a fantastic voice. In fact, when I tell long lost relatives about Dad or ask if they remember him, they all say, “the one with the voice.” He became best friends with the man who would become my Godfather, the young guy who read the sports.
After trying in vain to have children, my parents chose to adopt. I was three days old when they brought me home. All he could tell me about my birth mother was that she was a single school teacher. Pennsylvania remains Draconian in their efforts to protect privacy when it comes to adoptions. I’d have a better chance getting access to the Vatican’s archives.
We eventually moved back to Rochester when I was two and Dad’s time as a disc jockey unfortunately came to an end. He ended up working tool and die for Bernz-o-matic. When the company decided to relocate, they told Dad he had to move at his own expense if he wanted to keep his job. He declined and spent a long time out of work. He tried in vain to get back into radio. While at Bernz-o-matic, he worked crazy hours and I only seemed to see him when he came home for lunch. I have a soft spot in my heart for hash and eggs. When I’m feeling homesick or really down in the mouth, hash and eggs fits the bill.
I never knew we were poor. I always had Christmas, I always had birthdays. Eventually, Dad landed a job with the City of Rochester. Three years in he could’ve taken a test that would have made him THE Records Manager for the City of Rochester. He said he didn’t think he was ready, declined, and regretted it the rest of his life.
After getting the job, I was nine at the time, he bought a 1979 Ford Mustang. Dad loved Mustangs. This was the car that was used to teach me to drive. I thought my name was “Jesus Christ” while he was giving me driving lessons.
My folks came to my little league baseball games, what high school basketball and baseball games they could. Actually, I don’t think either saw me play high school baseball. Mom maybe. Oh well, I digress. The one and only high school basketball game Dad attended, I was on the Freshman team, was the one where I scored a basket for the other team. I was so embarrassed. The one game he comes to and I commit the biggest blunder imaginable. He didn’t exactly prop me up afterwards.
Dad provided invaluable counsel throughout high school even though I rarely listened. All the trouble I had with time management, girls, money and schoolwork, I only wish I listened. He co-signed a car loan and I made him regret it. My indulgences and mistakes cost my father a lot of money and I always intended to pay it back. I never got the chance.
I always thought Dad was cheap. I learned later he was frugal. And he did have expensive taste, he just never let it show. We were the last in the neighborhood to get a VCR, to get a microwave, to get all kinds of things. Dad explained that he waited to get what he wanted not just what he could afford at the time.
Anyone who knew my father knew he loved music. Frank Sinatra was his favorite. Until a new collection of Las Vegas was released recently, Dad owned everything Sinatra ever recorded. From jazz to Big Band to 1960s rock ‘n’ roll, his collection was very eclectic. There’s even some classical. I played my favorite Sinatra song after I delivered the eulogy at his funeral, It Was a Very Good Year, because I thought it was fitting.
He loved fire engines too. I never understood that one. He loved classic cars. I lost many hours of my childhood at car shows. He was also an artist. Dad loved drawing and painting wildlife, my favorite hangs in my office. He used his skills as an artist for numerous homemade Halloween costumes for me. He also loved photography.
Dad was a collector. He collected vinyl records, movies, die-cast metal model cars, sports figurines and model trains. It was with reluctance that I took possession of all these things after he died. I knew what they meant to him.
He was a quiet, almost stoic man, but he had a wry, dry sense of humor. Laughter around the dinner table was commonplace. He also had a temper, although it took a lot to bring it out. He read the local paper cover to cover ever day. Hell, you couldn’t get his attention until he was done reading it.
I can’t tell you how many days and hours Dad and I spent just playing catch or shooting hoops. I cherish those times with my own son now.
My father always blamed himself for my enlistment in the United States Navy. He felt like he didn’t do enough to send me to the college of my choice. I wouldn’t trade my life experiences for the world, I never blamed him for not having college money for me. I didn’t do enough to send myself.
During my time in the Navy and the years after I got out, I didn’t visit enough for my father’s taste. After he retired, he didn’t visit me enough for my taste. After Mom died, I flew Dad out to California. I’m glad I did. He died three weeks later. I have photos of him with his grandson I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise and at least I got to see him one more time.
My father rarely gave you his handshake. He shook my hand three times in the 37 years I had him. The first time was after I pitched and lost in an all-star game. I didn’t have any good stuff that day but I kept fighting and ended up losing a close game. The second was when I graduated high school and the third happened when I returned from Operation Desert Shield/Storm. You had to earn his handshake.
He didn’t keep many friends, but the ones he did keep, he kept for a long time.
As for family, well, this is where it got confusing. Dad was great at taking us “visiting.” That’s what you did back then. You got in the car and you just went. Sometimes there was an advance phone call, sometimes not. But I remember just showing up at a random relative’s house and Dad saying, “this is your aunt and uncle…” He was terrible at explaining how you were related to these people. About six years ago I became the keeper of the family tree. I learned that my grandfather was one of 12 kids, and that my grandmother was one of 12 kids. Twenty-four siblings. I don’t have a family tree, it’s a freaking bush. I didn’t learn the names of my Korean grandparents until after Mom died.
That was just it. As much as I know about my father, there’s a lot I don’t know. Or, there was a lot I learned after Mom died and still more after Dad died. I was raised on the fringes of the Catholic church but I was never required to participate in anything. When I told him I didn’t want to go to church anymore, he said, “so, don’t.” Dad was a devout Catholic, I have paperwork to prove it, although he died an agnostic. The apple doesn’t fall from the tree on that one. In fact, my mother went through a period where she really embraced Christianity. These are the only times my parents fought – when Mom wanted us to go to church and Dad resisted. Dad and I would go see a movie on New Year’s Eve while Mom rang in the New Year in church.
There is so much about my father I don’t know. What was he like in elementary school? Did he have other girlfriends before my mom? I learned he spent time in the hospital after hurting himself in a baseball game. He was very popular as evidenced by the letters from classmates I found.
As much as he did earlier in his life, Army, radio, he never indicated he was unhappy with his station in life later on. He was entrenched in the American middle class. He owned a home in what can now only be described as a rundown neighborhood. It was getting bad when he passed away, it’s even worse now. This was the neighborhood where I grew up and it saddens me.
These 2,000 words or so don’t even come close to explaining who John Henry Knaak, Jr., was. I was so angry when I was told he died. Angry because he left me. I have no one to call when I need parental advice, not that I ever took it when he was alive. But I know he visits me. He’s visited three times. That’s a different blog for a different day.
Many young people look up to movie stars or athletes. My dad, John Henry Knaak, Jr., for all his secrets and flaws, is my hero.