First Person

Driving Dad’s Buick

It's the first time I'd ever been able to drive one of Dad's cars

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I backed my Dad’s 2002 Buick Century out of the garage of the 1950s tract house in Penn Hills that I grew up in. The driveway was a mix of snow and mud. At one time, the surface was slag, delivered by a dump truck back in the late 1950s. But the ground had long ago absorbed that.

I drove down Dad’s street to Beulah Road, then past Churchill Valley Country Club, where my brothers and I worked as caddies. The course had a dusting of snow, though the weeds that are overgrowing the greens and fairways were poking through.

At the top of the hill, past the 1800s brick church, I turned right onto Old William Penn Highway and got on the Parkway at the truncated Churchill ramp. I was headed west, to my brother’s house out near the airport and then back to Naperville, the Chicago suburb where I live.

Sometimes a drive is just a drive. This one was a journey.

My dad, James Bernard Lear, died on Jan. 3. He was 87. He went out early that morning to get his Post-Gazette, as he had done for years since his sons had stopped delivering the paper and since paperboys disappeared and delivery meant sticking the paper in a plastic bag and tossing on your driveway. He collapsed, which a neighbor saw, but before help could arrive he was gone.

Dad had one of those Greatest Generation backgrounds. He grew up during the Depression, neither poor nor rich but closer to the former, in suburban Chicago. He graduated high school a little more than a year early, in February 1944, enlisted in the Army Air Forces and served in the Pacific on the crew of a B-24 bomber. He was on Okinawa and Iwo Jima and in Japan itself in the early months of the occupation.

He got his discharge in May 1946 and later that year started at St. Mary’s College in Winona, Minn. During the next seven years, he got his bachelor’s degree there and his master’s and doctorate, in chemistry, at Purdue.

In 1950, Dad married Mary Barbieri, who had grown up in the same Chicago suburb. Their first child, my brother Jimmy, was born in 1952. Ten more would follow, including my sister Anne, who died as an infant. I’m the third.

Dad worked for PPG as a research chemist at labs in Springdale, which he helped set up in the mid-1950s, and Allison Park.

In the summers he would sit on the back porch he built, listening to Pirates games on KDKA. He loved baseball. For about 20 years, he was a manager and umpire for youth leagues in Penn Hills, and he’s in the township’s baseball hall of fame. For years he used a flat, ugly glove he’d picked up on Iwo Jima, and he kept it all his life.

In 1987, my parents were headed to Chicago for the wedding of one of my cousins when they were in a chain collision on I-94 in Indiana. My mother was badly injured and spent several months in hospitals there and in Pittsburgh before she was able to come home. Even then she needed a ventilator to help her breathe. Dad retired from PPG, learned to maintain the equipment she required and was her primary caregiver until she died in 1994.

After that, Dad lived by himself, by choice. He wanted to stay in his house and live a quiet, independent life. He read a lot. He cut the grass and shoveled the snow. He went to church, the grocery store and the barber shop. He watched a lot of sports on TV. Occasionally, he traveled, usually for family trips we took every year or two. Somewhere along the way, he got old.

I wrote him letters a couple times a year and called on holidays. When my mother was hurt, Dad set up a trust, with himself, me and my older brother Joe as trustees, so once or twice a year we’d have to deal with the business of that. That’s what’s bringing me to Pittsburgh now.

I always meant to spend more time with Dad, to tell him how good a father he was.

We didn’t say those kinds of things. When I was coming of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Dad and I didn’t get along. I grew my hair long, which he hated. I rejected his religion. I scoffed at his values of always working and striving to make a better living. For several years we couldn’t peacefully coexist in the same house, even with my mother’s attempts to smooth our disagreements.

Eventually, I grew up. I had to earn my own living. I got married and had children, two daughters. I came to see that, in those times of disagreement, Dad had the responsibility of a large family, with the oldest of us reaching college age. Dad and I got along fine. Only rarely, and only in fun, did he remind me of my youthful stupidity.

Now I’m driving his car, for the first time. Not the first time for this car — the only time I’ve ever driven any of his cars. When my older brothers and I reached 16, there was no question of access to Dad’s car. I didn’t get a driver’s license until I was 21, the month after I graduated from Penn State.

Even then, you didn’t ask Dad for the keys. By then, my mother had a car, which she was always willing to let us use. Dad’s car was his.

So now I drive across Ohio, the hills giving way to flatlands. The Buick was an anomaly for Dad. He always bought Fords. He got the Buick a little more than a year ago, when his Ford gave out. I’ve got the cruise control on. That’s how I know he bought the car used — he’d never spring for anything as unnecessary as cruise control.

The Buick also has an AM-FM radio and a cassette player, ancient stuff for most folks but unheard of for Dad. He never went beyond an AM radio, so he could listen to KDKA.

In the trunk I’ve got a few books from among the hundreds Dad had at the house. He never stopped reading, and he always appreciated the need for stories.

This one, Dad, is for you.

John Lear is an editor for Bloomberg financial news service. He grew up in Penn Hills and now lives in Naperville, Ill.

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