FATHERS DAY GHOSTS

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       This Father’s Day, like every Father’s Day since 1955, is haunted by a ghost — the ghost of Ozzie Nelson.

       Full disclosure:  It is both startling and tragic to ponder how many Americans DO NOT KNOW WHO OZZIE NELSON IS!  Say Ozzie and they think Ozzy Osbourne.  This Tale of Two Ozzies explains the bewildering times we live in. 

       But those of a certain age — and you know who you are — WE know Ozzie Nelson. And Ward Cleaver.  And that single dad with three sons, what was his name?

       These are the Fathers of the Fifties, and they used to know best.  Thanks to cable, most  can still be seen on the high end of your 7000 channels. In a sweater.  In the living room.  Having no job or visible means of support.  Offering gentle, sage advice when a son gets a bad grade or a daughter gets pregnant — Wait, that was Eighties TV.  Make that “when a daughter has ‘boyfriend problems.’”

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       Ozzie and Ward and that other Dad still haunt Father’s Day because for a decade and more, they were the face of the American father.  Never mind that the average father in my town was Missing in Action.  Never mind that the bulk of Boomers were sired by men just back from war, embattled men who married the first woman that smiled, then slapped a down payment on a house, had kids - 1, 2, 3, 4! — paid the bills, went to work, came back saying “Honey, I’m Home!” And then vanished, often for weekends at a time. In my town, at least.

       Just once I wanted to see some connection between TV and reality. Not my reality – raised by a single mom -- but the reality friends described.  Just once I hoped Ward would tell a weepy Beaver “Keep It up, Beave, I’ll give you something to cry about!”  Just once Ozzie would be Missing in Action, David and Little Ricky asking, “Where’s Dad?” And Harriet saying, “beats me, boys.”  Just once the guy with three sons would be out boozing it up, then come home to eye the babysitter. But all that would have to wait for today’s TV dads — Homer Simpson or the dad on Family Guy. The 50s rolled on and father still knew best.

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       Years later, we learned the truth about these fathers.  First, they were actors whose previous careers were far more interesting than being a Fifties Father.  Fred MacMurray (“My Three Sons”) starred in such classics as “Double Indemnity.” Ozzie Nelson was a band leader, with Harriet as vocalist.  Hugh Beaumont, before Ward Cleaver, played detectives, killers, cops. . . “Ward,” I can hear June Cleaver saying as she enters the living room, a concerned look on her face, “I’m worried about your career.” 

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       Yet there was a deeper truth about Fifties Fathers.  Over the years, they served a purpose.  Along with giving aging actors a retirement income, they calmed a nation suffering from the PTSD of Depression and war. You say your real Dad is on a fishing trip (wink, wink!)? Relax, son.  Tonight at 8, tomorrow night at 9, Dad will be right where you want him — in the living room.  In a sweater. Wondering what he does for a living.

       Of course, beyond my tumbledown town there must have been dutiful Dads who were home more often than not. Perhaps in the garage, not the living room.  Wearing a tank top or Hawaiian shirt.  And when it came time to barbecue, they were there.  Gentle and sage advice, however, was usually mumbled and met with “Dad, give it a rest.” 

       What, then, to do with Fifties Fathers?  Each day, like World War II vets succumbing to age, images of Ozzie and Ward fade away.  Sitcom Studies departments at major universities predict that by 2030, 97 percent of Americans, when asked to identify kindly Jim Anderson of “Father Knows Best,” will shrug and reach for their phones.

      In the meantime, though, a Father’s Day tribute. Every day now I see brawny guys with bushy beards, out with their kids.  Walking. Shopping.  Offering gentle and sage advice.  These fathers learned this involvement from their own fathers.  And their own fathers learned it, not from some distant dad, but from Ozzie and Ward.  And that nice guy with three sons.

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       This has been a quiet revolution, as gentle as a father lifting a toddler or reaching down to hold a small hand. In each gesture, in just Being There, I see something of Fifties Fathers, some ideal it took decades to realize. So the ghost of Ozzie Nelson is still with us, and he’s a kindly specter.  Isn’t it time, though, for him to change sweaters?