When my father invited me recently to join him on a Railway Historical Society trip from Sydney to Broken Hill and back, my initial thought was “5 days stuck on a rusty old train with uncomfortable seats isn't exactly my thing”. But I'd been looking for an opportunity to travel somewhere and spend some quality time with my Dad, so I ended up jumping at the chance.
My father is 79, and although he's just as mentally alert as he's ever been, he's not getting any younger. His father lived to be 100 and there's no sign of mine dropping dead any time soon. But whenever I speak to men whose fathers have died, they often talk about feelings of regret over the questions they didn't ask, and the connection they never made with their father while he was still alive. He's not going to be here with all faculties intact forever.
On the other hand, connecting with my father isn't exactly easy. He's in his element in a group of mostly-retired mostly-male historical train buffs. They talk about the intricacies of the trains, the tracks, the sidings, government mismanagement of their cherished but slowly declining rail transport, and the resulting increasingly-deserted towns we pass through on the way. It's enthralling chatter to them I'm sure, and I know Dad's old railway engineering buddies are among his closest friends so this is about as connected to his fellow human beings as my father ever gets.
Dad is a fritzer; he fritzes around with things taking seemingly forever to get moving. Not a lot of decisive action happening. He's overly polite to the point of being annoying. I know that sounds intolerant of me, but that's just because you've never hung out with him. I suspect underneath it all he's nervous; a stereotypical Nice Guy in a 79 year old's body, doing his best to connect with other people but employing life-long ineffective strategies. Part of me wishes he'd man-up and stop being such a pussy. Doesn't he know that people respect leaders who take action more than followers who hang back apologising and offering everything to others on a platter? It isn't appropriate to give up right of way in every social situation, like when you're holding up other people getting on and off a train, say.
Other times, I feel sorry for the men of my father's generation. Growing up during World War II, they didn't have a great start when it came to free self-expression of feelings. I learn on the trip that my father was 13 when his school in Brisbane rushed into the air raid shelter as the sirens went off alerting them to a possible Japanese attack which came perilously close to eventuating. There were more important things for their parent's generation to attend to than their kid's feelings at the time, like staying alive. Now that I'm aware how fundamental emotions are in relationships, I have a sense of how much men like my father from this era have missed out on.
I sense that these retired railway enthusiasts with a lifetime of technical work of one sort or another under their belts are pretty firmly stuck in their heads and it takes quite a jolt to get them out. Each time I speak to my father, I have to pad my sentence with something to get his attention first, or he stares back at me blankly with a “huh?” Unexpected communication seems to catch him off-guard. But having to repeat everything twice is starting to bug me. When he speaks, as often as not his comments are directed to nobody in particular, and frequently they're almost inaudible. It's not really clear if he's speaking to me, and even when he is, I have to ask him to clarify what he just said to find out, too.
Everyday communication is stilted with this double effort with little actual meaning and zero emotional content. I get a sense of how my mother must feel living with him constantly. They're at each other's throats when together, but he talks about her frequently and in glowing terms when he's away from her. He rings her every night to let her know how we are; as much to keep her in the picture and relieve her loneliness as anything. When I overhear her voice, she doesn't sound happy to hear from him, but I'm sure she'd be furious if she didn't. He tells me “I know she resents being left at home uninvited, but she'd resent being brought on a trip like this even more.” He's dead right on this one.
By the end of Day 3, I'm ready to run screaming from the building; preferably via a window on the second floor. Over dinner, my father's banal, inane chatter is driving me crazy. So much for quality time. His victim this time isn't even me; it's the friendly, sociable lady sitting to his left. I'm on his right, and while she has his full attention, I have mixed feelings about being excluded from a conversation which has me gnawing my own arm off even just overhearing it. The look on his victim's husband's face becomes increasingly grim as I imagine him forecasting his wife's future mental health bill growing larger and larger the longer my father drones on and on. I can take it no more, and decide to take off for some time-out: I wander the freezing winter streets of Broken Hill for a half hour before settling in an almost deserted club out of the cold, and texting a few girl friends for moral support. Turns out their fathers drive them crazy too sometimes. I am not alone.
The next day, the lady from dinner remarks to me “Your father certainly knows a lot of facts, doesn't he?”; which I know is code for “He bored me senseless last night”. I couldn't help but notice that when I got up to go for my walk, she and her husband took the opportunity to make a run for it too. After a bit of time out and a good night's sleep, I was back to letting my father's emotional distance and the bland conversation strategies he uses to maintain it just wash over me again.
Of course the thing that bugs me the most about my father is the way that he reminds me of myself, of how I used to be, and sometimes still am. Uncertain. Scared. Difficult to connect with. Emotionally closed. Child-like in a way. They say that life is a mirror, and the things that bug us about other people are really just the disowned parts of ourselves we don't like being reminded about. I hate the people who say that, because I know they're right.
Still, I remind myself that I've come a long way. I'm less of a chip off the old block these days: more open, more confident, more emotionally available, less interested in playing it safe all the time, more up for adventure. I know how important a man's relationship with his father is, and I'm glad I took the time to spend with him on this trip, but I'm also glad now that it's over and I can go back to relating to real human beings again.