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Honoring the Forgotten Fathers

June 19, 1988|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

This is the day of benign reckoning and public recognition for plastic papas.

They are the dignified, satisfied ones smiling from their official portraits as fathers of this year of various national and regional choosings.

It's a vast paternity that has been stretched far enough to include a Jurisprudence and a Medical Statesman Father of the Year. Also Commerce and Finance, Communicator, and Milwaukee fathers of the year. There's even a Religious Father of the Year, a misnomer suggesting that two dozen other categories are open only to irreligious fathers.

Locally, football players, career politicians, prime-time entertainers and big-time executives have made today's list and advertising supplements.

Not for me to pick a fight with honored dad Dick Butkus, or denigrate the public service of gramps Kenneth Hahn or minimize the talent of father Hal Linden.

But they live in Newport Beach and Malibu and Westlake Village. They have job security, several cars, more bucks than smaller banks, only one wife since puberty and 2.7 handsome children following daddy's spoor into football, politics, network television, business or Notre Dame.

With that kind of support, fathering is a breeze.

My heart and embrace this day goes to the Weekend Father, the Disneyland Dad, the Rent-a-Pops.

We don't know how many are out there because, frankly, few groups are lobbying for them. Those that are, just aren't heard above the din of judicial and social biases. Thanks to which, of all divorces and dissolutions nationally, custody of children is awarded to the mother in more than 90% of contested cases.

That becomes an acceptable statistic only if one can accept that 90% of all divorced men are lousy fathers.

Sure, we can count and deplore the louts whose non-payment of child support annually matches the joint services budget. We all know a Jewelry Mart mannequin who uses his divorce to shove children a distant third behind a Porsche 930 and younger women.

Resilient Doers

But how high the awareness for organizations (the National Congress for Men and Fathers' Rights of America Inc.) and primers (such as "Weekend Fathers" by Jerry Silver and wife Myrna) with their urgent brief for a stubborn, unbowed majority of men who refuse to accept that although the law can create ex-husbands, it may never establish the state of ex-father?

These resilient doers are veterans of child-rearing by remote control; by telephone calls, letters, tapes, clipped comics and greeting cards for no reason. Each must be a long-range psychologist who must know the expression from a tone on the phone, when to praise, how to scold, just what to write, who to believe and what not to believe and that Robert Plant is still hot. He must be a distant Solomon who can judge the known and how not to react to the unknown and draw perfect-smile faces on a thousand envelopes.

These are the tough guys you see biting their lips at LAX every Sunday night while part of their souls, certainly much of their reason for living, toddles alongside a stewardess and into an airplane they just know will crash on takeoff.

Distant dads, even those who live just down a freeway, must cram a month of example, discipline, fun, education, hope, sympathy, friendship and proof of concern and understanding into one weekend visit each month. Rarely more. Often less.

Their Sunday goodbys can leave nothing unresolved because there will be no Monday morning hello between these fathers and their commuter kids. Only an empty room. Half a doughnut under the bed. A puzzled dog.

Somehow, these men survive Christmases without kids. When he's in Los Angeles and they are in Portland, Dad swallows not being there to hold a small, sopping head with the flu. He accepts missing the last ballgame of high school, fretting a daughter's late date or hopping car lots for a teen-ager's first pickup.

Rarely More, Often Less

Such fathers live with a father-daughter-son relationship that a care-less court has decreed will be about 50 days a year. Again, rarely more. Often less.

And in the 18 years leading to a child's majority, that typically works out to more than 16 years for Mom and less than two years for Dad.

I know of a Weekend Father who planned to take his son abroad to grandparents the lad had never seen. The mother bucked. She blocked the boy's passport application.

But this father fought back. It cost him travel expenses to another state, days off work and $2,000 for attorneys to obtain a court order that allowed the visit. He also put up his house as a security bond.

I know another man, a lawyer. He was married and there was a son. He was divorced and a Los Angeles court stipulated joint custody. Three years later, the boy was abducted by his mother and taken to live overseas.

This father didn't roll over. He spent two years, all of his money and most of his career before locating his son in England--where a British court has now assumed jurisdiction and ordered the father away from the boy.

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