To Dad, On Father’s Day

My father and my namesake, Benjamin Michael Boychuk, Jr., died in the early morning hours of June 6, 2017—a date that happened to coincide with my son’s birthday. Officially, the cause of death was heart failure. In fact, he died due to complications of a subdural hematoma he suffered in March of that year. He left behind a wife of 58 years, his son, two grandchildren, and a host of family and friends who loved and respected him more than he likely knew.

In 2017, we published the following revised and extended remarks I delivered at my father’s funeral mass just ahead of Father’s Day. A version appeared in the Sunday edition of the Sacramento Bee that year. Very little has changed. I’ve revised it only slightly for 2021.

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Today is Father’s Day, and I still haven’t the slightest idea of what to do. My father is gone now, and what an empty space he leaves. Normally, we’d go to the Smoke House, a venerable wood-and-Naugahyde steakhouse across the street from Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank, California. Dad used to love the oysters on the half-shell for brunch, though eventually, that gave way to less adventurous fare. Still, it was his go-to place on Father’s Day. It seems strange to go there without him, now that he’s left us. (I’ve been there a few times since, but it hasn’t been quite the same.)

My mother and I were at once honored and humbled at the turnout for Dad’s funeral. It is a testament to the life my father lived and the lives he touched, either directly or indirectly, that so many people would take time out of their busy lives to spend a little time with us to help us remember and honor and mourn the man.

Dad was born in 1931 in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He grew up in Albany and Schenectady, in upstate New York. He played football at Albany High School and had his nose broken playing a game when helmets still had no facemasks. He took classes briefly at Union College in Albany before he moved to California with his parents. He graduated from California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo with a degree in electrical engineering and eventually earned his master’s degree from USC. He joined the U.S. Army and helped the country build the greatest eavesdropping apparatus in the world. Then he went to work for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and made sure electricity got from far-flung lakes and rivers to one of the greatest cities in America. 

He married Arlene Smith, the love of his life. They adopted a baby boy in 1971. Dad had a distinguished career as an electrical engineer. He lived. He died. 

But my job isn’t to recount his biography in full. My job isn’t so much to recount the who, the what, the when, and the where, but rather the why and how and the what for. My job is to give you a better sense of the husband, the father, the grandfather, and the man—and to keep it reasonably short.  

My Dad liked to share his opinions. I’m in the opinion sharing business—I get paid to do it—but Dad would share his freely, whether you wanted it or not. He earned the right to do so over a long life rich with experience.

Over the course of 25 years or so, we talked at least once a day—sometimes maybe only for five minutes, sometimes longer. “What’s the good word?” he’d always ask. “Depends on what you mean by ‘good,’” I’d usually answer. And off we’d go, talking about family matters and his grandchildren, or work, or the aggravating news of the day.

Sometimes, if he’d dominate the conversation, he’d wind up the call saying, “Well, you’ve taken up enough of my time.” I’ve forgotten where the line originated, but the sense among his work friends is it came from one of his bosses—a tough old sod named Al Fricke. As Dad told the story, Fricke—a voluble fellow—was on the phone for maybe 20 or 25 minutes, berating the poor man on the other end of the line nonstop. Finally, at the end, he said, “Well, you’ve taken up enough of my time!” And hung up! But it became a running joke for Dad and me. “I’ll try to do better next time,” I’d usually reply, though I don’t think I ever did. Dad usually got the last word.

Dad served in the U.S. Army during the 1950s. One of the stories he liked to tell was how he and some of his pals in high school went down to the recruiting office to join the Marine Corps. The day was July 27, 1953. Why is that date significant? Because that was the day President Harry Truman announced the armistice that ended the Korean War.

With no proper war to fight, Dad went to college to study electrical engineering. He also entered the Reserve Officer Training Corps. The U.S. Army commissioned him as a second lieutenant and sent him to Germany in 1955, when and where the war was a cold one. He was attached to the Army Security Agency, which we might know today as the National Security Agency. I never learned much about what precisely Dad did in those days—the NSA may rest assured of that. Mostly he talked about shooting rats in the base dump or cutting down trees with .50 caliber machine guns or drinking very good beer in Frankfurt and Nuremberg, or the right (that is to say, Army) way of passing the salt, or how strange the Germans thought it was that this American ate corn on the cob, which was food for hogs.

But one detail stuck with me. Part of his duties as the executive officer of the base involved special transportation. He would carry the payroll to and from the base. He also transported highly classified information. If somebody wanted the money, he once told me, they were welcome to it. But if you wanted the intelligence, “I’d shoot you between the eyes.” 

Happily, it never came to that—either with Commie spies or with me.

After Dad left the military, he spent a 40-year career working for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. I have little to say about that except . . . who does that now? Forty years at the same place! Some of us would be fortunate to last 40 months. (Note: I’ve been managing editor of American Greatness for close to five years, or roughly 60 months.) It’s extraordinary! I imagine it had something to do with the pension and Cadillac healthcare benefits. But not just that. It had something to do with the culture of the place. And the man’s personality. It may not have been easy at times, but Dad stuck it out.

There’s something else, too. Anyone who knows anything about engineering knows that all engineers are essentially the same. Engineers prefer certainty to uncertainty. They’re most comfortable with a set of blueprints in front of them. They know what they know, and that’s all they ever really need—and they’ll gladly tell you so.

Dad was a man of the Silent Generation, but, again, he wasn’t silent—which could be frustrating at times. He wasn’t one for sentiment. He wasn’t much of a hugger until later in life. But he could be warm and generous when he wanted. He always had a kind word and gift for his grandchildren.

He was a creature of habit. All of us are, to one degree or another, but the man knew what he liked. Once you get to his age, and you’re not out seeking thrills, I suppose you do. Also, as the Philosopher reminds us, good habits are what allow us to flourish. 

Dad had many good habits, as well as a few eccentric ones. His habits touched many lives and led to unlikely friendships. Dad walked twice a day most every day. That kept him in pretty good shape. He met a man named Larry on those walks. They’d swap stories about their lives. Dad told many of the same stories two or three or four times. When Larry wouldn’t show up, Dad would worry. And when Dad wouldn’t show up, Larry would worry. Larry worried so much, in fact, that he came to the house when Dad was in his final illness. He tracked down Dad’s address and came to visit when my father was dying. I will never forget that particular kindness. That is a special dedication.

Some things only become clear to us after a person near and dear has gone. I was genuinely surprised and moved in the days and weeks after Dad died to learn of the lives he touched and affected, even if only in passing. Larry is an example of that.

Dad taught the seven cardinal virtues by example. Be honorable in your dealings with other people. Be faithful. Be prudent with your time and your money. Clean your plate. Pay your debts. Don’t go for the extravagant.

And yet Dad was most at ease with numbers. He loved Sudoku. That helped keep him sharp. So did keeping his books. Dad was such a maniac with his record-keeping that he even kept a ledger of the dates when his bills would arrive in the mail. That’s what I mean by eccentric. Maybe the right term is “OCD.”

Humility is also a virtue and he sometimes struggled with that. Dad also tended to be a pessimist. “You can’t have nice things,” he would say, long before the phrase turned into a Millennial cliché. The origins of that particular line and that special story I’ll save for another time.

But an especially common refrain during my teenage years was: “Don’t do anything stupid”—a curt warning loaded with meaning. It really meant, “Don’t do anything to disappoint me.”

Every son wants his father’s acceptance, and I was no different. The highest compliment he ever paid me was, “I could never do what you do.” And I would always reply, “Well, Dad, I could never do what you did.”

When the mortuary men took Dad away in the fog in the early morning hours of June 6, 2017, they left a gigantic empty space where he’d been. Dad’s body was gone, yes, but so was . . . everything else. I described it to a friend at the time as something like a vacuum. Even when the Old Man was dying, I felt secure knowing he was still with us. But after he died, it felt as if something tremendous had been sucked out of the world.

He did right by his family. He did the best he could. I remember and honor the best of the man.

In life, we don’t always understand the decisions other people make or the sacrifices they endure. I never discerned, even now, an inner life in the man. Well . . . so what? Sometimes what we do is a mystery, even to ourselves. I’m certain, however, Dad loved his family. He loved Mom. He loved me. He really and truly loved his grandchildren, Benjamin and Isabella. He was loyal to his friends and stuck to his habits. We are sad he’s gone. We will mourn him and we will miss him.

Thinking back, there is something poignant in our running joke: “You’ve taken up enough of my time.”

Oh, no. Maybe his time, but not ours. Not mine. Not at all. He did not take up enough of my time, or my mother’s, or those of the people he encountered and befriended in life. No—not nearly enough. But now he’s gone and we’re left to be satisfied with what we have, which, though not nearly enough, is nevertheless an awful lot.

About Ben Boychuk

Ben Boychuk is managing editor of American Greatness. He is a former weekly syndicated columnist with Tribune Media, and a veteran of several publications, including City Journal, Investor's Business Daily, and the Claremont Review of Books. He lives in California.

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