FATHER'S DAY AND THE GHOST OF OZZIE NELSON

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

Full disclosure:  It is startling and tragic that today’s millennials 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 nice guy with three sons, what was his name?

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These are Fifties TV Fathers, and as one show said, they knew best.  They still have a lesson to teach us (stay tuned), and thanks to cable TV, they can still be seen on the high end of your 7000 channels.  Sitting in the living room, in suit and tie.  Having no job or visible means of support.  Offering gentle advice when a son gets a bad grade or a daughter gets pregnant — No, wait, that was Eighties TV Fathers — Make that, “when a daughter has ‘boyfriend problems.’”

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

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Fifties TV showed few of those gruff Dads who roamed golf courses and tackle shops with a pack of Camels and a hungry look.  TV cast such men in Westerns as lone and lonesome types.  But change the channel.  Ah, there’s Dad!  In the living room.  In a suit and tie. Saying “Beaver, your mother and I are very worried.”

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

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Yet there was deeper truth about TV Fathers.  Over the years, they served a solid purpose.  Along with giving aging actors a job, they calmed a nation scarred by war and Depression. You say your real Dad is on a fishing trip (wink, wink)?  Haven’t seen the old man since last Father’s Day?  Relax, son.  Tonight at 8, tomorrow at 9, Dad will be right where you want him — in the living room.  Trying to figure out 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 they were in the garage.  Perhaps they wore tank tops or Hawaiian shirts.  But at least when it came time to barbecue, they were there.  Gentle advice, however, was just “You want to pass me that lighter fluid?”

What, then, to do with Fifties Fathers?  Each day, like old soldiers, Ozzie, Ward, and their brethren just fade away.  Sitcom Studies departments at major universities suggest that by 2030, 97 percent of Americans, when asked to identify kindly Jim Anderson of “Father Knows Best,” will say “?”

In the meantime, though, Father’s Day demands a tribute. My own is simple.  Every day now I see young fathers with children.  Walking.  Shopping. Offering gentle advice.  They learned this involvement from their own fathers.  And their own fathers learned it, if not from distant Dad, then 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 Dad lifting a toddler into his arms or reaching down to hold a small hand.  In each gesture, 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 get a job?