The Hobby That Changed Dad's Perspective
One thing you could say about my dad - he stood on his hands. A lot.
While I was growing up, we thought nothing of seeing him leap up from watching TV, nimbly toss his feet in the air, and walk around the living room on his palms. The most any of us would say was, "Dad! I can't see the TV!"
There was something about being in water that particularly seemed to bring out his urge for a change in perspective. Lake, river, ocean, or swimming pool would suddenly sprout two legs unfolding like gigantic sea serpents. Once straightened, they would leisurely advance through the swimmers, white shins gleaming in the sun.
"What's that?" kids would shout, pointing.
We'd shrug and say, "Oh, it's just our dad."
He liked to enter the water that way, too. At the city pool, he would press his palms to the searing concrete walkway. His legs would rise majestically. Slowly, he would raise one hand and then the other over and over, finally plunging headfirst into the pool.
Or he would kneel at the top of the high dive and clasp the sides of the board. Legs waving wildly in the air, he would make his way to the end. He would pause, to heighten the dramatic tension. Then he would drop. The kids in the pool would go wild, all except his own. We'd seen that show so many times we were blase.
Sometimes the teenage lifeguard would blow her whistle at Dad and say things like, "Mr. Miller, we can't have you doing these stunts here. Some of these kids might decide to...."
"Dad got into trouble at the pool," we'd tell Mom when we got home.
"Oh really?" she'd say. "Again?"
On the rare occasions we hit the beaches in southern California, we would try not to see those familiar legs on their way to the waves, feet pointing to the sky, above the wall-to-wall tanners on their beach towels.
We would hear a fascinated voice or two: "Hey, mister! How do you do that, huh? How do you do that, mister?"
It takes all kinds," some sunbather was sure to mutter.
When I was a small child, I thought hand-walking was a thing fathers did. They worked, watched TV, mowed the lawn, tinkered with the car, ate a half-gallon of ice cream at a sitting, read the Sunday comics to their kids, and walked on their hands.
But when I became a teenager, I realized that Dad was different, that what he was doing was odd. And I was mortified by his absolute weirdness.
"How come Dad has to walk on his hands when other people are around?" I whined to my mother. "JoAnn's father doesn't do that. It's embarrassing."
My mother would shrug and turn a page of the book she was reading. "Because he wants to," she'd say mildly.
"But," I'd say.
She'd look at me over her book. "Listen, your dad works hard all day. If that's what makes him happy - running around on his hands like a kid, then that's what makes him happy."
There might have been lessons to be learned: About finding your own pleasure, about creating your own joy. That sometimes things are more interesting from a different perspective. But I don't think Dad was trying to teach us anything. He was just standing on his hands. Because he felt like it. And anything we thought or learned was incidental.
Somewhere along the line, I grew up and reconciled myself to having an eccentric father. I guess my sister did, too.
One summer, Mom and Dad, who were grandparents by this time, were visiting her in Dallas. My sister's husband took Dad to see a building removal downtown.
The plan was to implode the building, causing it to crumple without disturbing the buildings on either side. Dad was fascinated.
Now, Dallas is a stylish, suit-and-tie type of city. There were crowds of men watching the event, dressed in their business best, briefcases in their hands.
My sister's husband told her about it afterward. "It all went according to plan," he said.
She asked, "Was it pretty neat?"
"Yeah," he said, "it really was. The building went down just the way it was supposed to. And then the oddest thing happened. I went to look for your dad; we'd gotten parted by the crowd. I didn't see him right off. Suddenly, I saw these shoes, up above the shoulders of all those businessmen."
"Uh huh?" my sister said.
"Your dad! He was walking around on his hands!"
"Oh," she said. "So, where did y'all eat lunch?"
My father passed on some time ago, but my son has a framed photograph of his grandfather on his dresser. "This is the way I like to remember Grandpa," he says.
It shows two large white legs waving above the pristine blue of the Pacific Ocean. Dad's head is submerged beneath the waves. I can't see his face. But I know he's smiling.