MY FATHER’S HEART and “Rin Tin Tin”

OCT

12

2011

4:28 pm

This excerpt appears on pages 287-288 of ‘MFH,’ in the final chapter, where I finally tell the story of the night my father died of a heart attack in 1969 when I was sixteen. Dad and I were home alone that night, in the TV room watching the tube.

My favorite Western, and [my sister] Kathy’s, too, had been The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin.
Though we rarely saw it. It aired in the late 1950s and was on ABC, and our TV barely pulled in the required Philadelphia station. But we’d try and sometimes we’d get a snowy image. If we were lucky it would be an episode that featured Tom McKee, our Uncle Tom McKee, Dad’s older brother. He played Captain Davis.

Uncle Tom and Dad had shared the unheated trek up the back stairs to the attic bedroom on Rodney Avenue [in Buffalo, New York] when they were boys. Dad didn’t talk much about him, and I don’t think they had much contact with each other. Though Dad spoke quite fondly of a couple of boyhood summers when he and Tom, the city boys, were literally farmed out to a working spread in Ohio where the two brothers side by side milked the cows and mucked the stalls. Dad remembered this with enough fondness that once while on vacation out that way we went looking for the place, though we never found it.

Tom moved to Los Angeles after the war and amassed a lengthy, workmanlike string of credits in TV shows [three full-episode videos!] and movies [“No Time for Sergeants”]. A line here, a spot there, often playing the unshaven tough-guy ranch hand or platoon-member leatherneck. Throw in the commercial work and radio voice-overs that Uncle Tom likely did to pay the bills for a wife and kids, and he had the kind of successful career any struggling actor would kill for.

Once, home from college in the early 1970s, I was off to bed when The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell came on the Late Show. It starred Gary Cooper as the Army Air Corps flier famously put on trial in 1925 for questioning his superiors. “Uncle Tom’s in this,” Mom said. So of course we stayed up. Since Mom couldn’t remember when he might appear on screen – or for how long – we watched intently, never blinking. … And then suddenly there was Uncle Tom. Seeing his face took my breath away, jolted me, snapped me to attention. He was playing Eddie Rickenbacker, in a spirited thirty-second exchange with Ralph Bellamy, but he was Dad. There was the same full, rich hair, swept back on either side, the severe widow’s peak, the intense brow. And of course the “McKee Nose,” too big for the rest of him. He looked just like Dad, especially through the lips (thin) and jaw (square). Mom said that in real life Uncle Tom’s hair was darker, but the movie color lent everything a reddish cast, making him all the more Dad. It was perfectly stunning. My father, alive again, here in our TV room.