Don Stalker – My Dad – Sketchy Recollections

Why Memory is Hard

For those who don’t know, “flashbulb memories” are rich and detailed recollections like a photograph. These memories are typically formed at emotionally charged moments. An example of a flashbulb memory would be, “what were you doing when you found out about 9/11,” or “where were you when Kennedy or MLK was shot,” or,  what were you doing when the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan.”

These recollections have been the subject of study, and 9/11 provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to understand these phenomena over many subsequent years, with many people, with an event that should be unforgettable.

But guess what? Dr. Hirsh and his team discovered that, over time, memories change. People both omit critical details of the incident and create entirely new information that was not there. Over time this recent memory, now more vivid with edited details, is considered to person recollecting it to be the more accurate memory and representative of what happened.

Hence, Brian Williams, the former NBC Anchorman, was sure he did something that has been subsequently proven he didn’t do. But if the Hirsh study is correct, this inaccurate recollecting is commonplace as everyone does this.

There are also personal memories of a flashbulb type. These would be memories where the important emotional context was not tied to a significant societal event but rather an important personal one. Some examples of personal flashbulb memories would be along the lines of your first (or only) home run in little league, the first day of school, or a family vacation. For me, one such vivid personal memory was my first slow dance in seventh grade to Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” with Jill Ganswitch. Holy Moly!

Some Sketchy Recollections

All this is to say when it comes to remembering the Chief and my flashbulb moments with him. I wholeheartedly admit that my recollection of them is highly suspect if scrutinized for accuracy.

For example, I’m not sure if, as a kid, he regularly had me run into the liquor store to get him two packs of cigarettes and a racing form.   It might have happened. Or maybe it’s something I imagined. It may have happened once or dozens of times. I can’t say for sure. And, if I am honest here, I don’t care if it’s true. It’s a great story. A dad is having his 8-year-old son run into the liquor store. It’s a bit naughty. And the racing form is a colorful detail. Mostly, though, it sounds like something Chief would do. And everyone who knew him well knew he loved the ponies. It’s plausible this happened.

I am sure Chief introduced me to other naughty things like the racing form and its associated daily doubles, trifectas, and handicaps. Tony’s barbershop also had a giant stack of playboy magazines featuring girls, ironically with vast piles of their own.

Along these lines was also the flask. Craps. Lottery tickets. Coors beer was brought back from the west coast. Bookies. I was getting pissed at servers and their service in restaurants, forgetting hats, and speeding to the airport at the last minute.

On the less mischievous side were his constant reminder to save money and the value of sticking your tongue out when hammering a nail.

But mostly, there was his solid example of the value of working and supporting the family. There was also a constant promotion of having faith, the Catholic faith. He dragged his kids to church on Sunday; Don also made sure we were baptized, did the first holy communion, and were confirmed. Catholicism mattered to him. What it meant explicitly, we’ll never know. Like many men of his era, he was pretty tight-lipped about such things.

We always had food, clothes, and a nice place to sleep. Good schools were available to us. In fact, over the years, all those things got better. A bigger house. Separate bedrooms (except for Bob and me). A two-car garage. A basketball hoop. A full pantry and a full bar.

A Sense of Ethics

He always was focused on doing the “right” things for us. To that end, he dragged us all off to Sunday mass, holy communion, and catechism. There was also the observance of Christmas and Easter. Trips to Firestone to get the new Christmas album, invitations, and trips to the broader Stalker family spread across New Jersey.

But, complex as some of that might have been, let’s not forget he also dragged us off to the beach club every summer. Good times. No, maybe great times. I’m not sure, but I think those beach club years were some of the best he had with mom.

He also dragged us off the New York Worlds fair in 64 and 65. For me, this was a flash memory of the highest order. Its’ a small word, the Pieta, the Ford Assembly line, amphibious cars, and great moments with Mr. Lincoln.

And, let’s not forget there were three family trips down the I95 to Florida to the sounds of “Mrs. Robinson, “Young Girl,” and “American Pie.” These trips were flash memories, not just for me but for all of us.

Who can forget the intercoastal waterway? The trampolines in Hollywood. The Miami Aquarium. Whoppers. Fireworks. There was also going to Disney World in its opening year, staying at the Contemporary Hotel. By then, Chief was upping his game.

The family was so important to the Chief. No doubt those were some of his and our happiest moments.

The Move to CA

The massive pivot was when Dave went west. Don followed, then Chris and Greg followed.

A Nicer house. A view. A pool. The Country Club. Fucking Palos Verdes Estates. Don is set. The job, the Ford Granada, and his kids nearby.

But, as fate would have it, it wasn’t to be.

When I think of Chief, I have three distinct flashbulb memories I want to share. They show his character and, true or not, represent the man who is my father, who we are honoring this evening.

The first was in 1969 when he took me to game 3 of the World Series at Shea Stadium. Mets versus Baltimore Oriels. Gary Gentry versus Jim Palmer, the Cy Young award winner and Hall of Famer. Gentry had an RBI double, and Tommy Agee made two spectacular catches. Nolan Ryan closed out the game for the Mets with the oriels scoreless. The amazing Mets. Wow.

I remember this being such a delightful day with the Chief. The drive to NY, stupid conversations, his jokes I’ve heard hundreds of times. Mainly what I remember, it was him and me. Father and son. The Cat Stevens song. Love.

Handling a Difficult Situation

It’s crucial here I interject some context into this memory. Most of you know the Chief did not contribute to my DNA. My mother, fortunately, found someone else to do that. This was a big secret to all of us except the Chief. Whatever consternation he might have had to deal with a constant reminder of his wife’s infidelity, there was never a hint of animosity toward me. Whether this is a created recollection or a real one, this is the way I’ll always think of him, a loving father taking his son to the world series.

The second flash memory I have is not a great one. It was the day I came to him at his San Pedro office to ask to borrow money. I was out of college, maybe 25 or 26, trying desperately to get my shit together. My life was a mess. Five hundred bucks from Dad is all I need. Chief told me in the parking lot, “I’m sorry, Jim, but there’s no more money coming to you from me, ever!”

I thought this was unacceptable!” What was I going to do? I got so mad at him. I thought, “what an asshole” “You golfing prick!”

But you know what? That was precisely what I needed. My life turned around. Chief – the exact father I needed at the precise moment. Perfect parenting.

Finally, after I started getting my life together, I went to him to clean up some of the mess I had made. Among many other items was the pesky detail that I had lied about graduating college. I had gone so far as to throw a party for myself for my “graduation.”

I asked, “What can I do to make this right?” He said, “You can return to school immediately and let me pay for it!” Wow. This most unexpected and generous response still moves me.

I took him up on this, finished my degree, and never looked back. Thanks to him, I have a pretty good life today. His example of working steadily is what drove so much of this.

That devotion, I think, is while we’re here today.

Right up to the end, I’ve had a close and steady relationship with Dad. I think we were current on nearly everything. Not seeing his number pop up on my caller ID anymore is disappointing. I loved getting his calls. When I traveled for business, I would call him. Don always sounded thrilled to hear from me. And every conversation ended with, “I love you!”

RIP Charles Donald Stalker – the Chief.

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