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Dad

Originally published September 18, 2011: Remembering my father.

William Thomas Hanstock was quite a character.

If you knew him, chances are that he made you laugh.  He was always waiting for an opportunity to crack up a room, and he usually got it.  In more recent years, this role has fallen to me more and more, but I don't think Dad minded.  Maybe it's the beard.

Sometimes he would tell outlandish, unbelievable stories, but I have no doubt that he believed them.  He was convinced, for example, that in the 1960s and into the 1970s, Trader Vic's menu offered high-priced dishes with exotic meats like tiger and zebra.  My maternal grandmother assured me, in no uncertain terms, that this was ridiculous.  It didn't matter to Dad, that's just what he remembered.  He also claims he was in some commercials that didn't air in California; that he once received a third-place trophy in a steer wrestling competition at a rodeo, because only three people had entered; and that he was one of a few people who taught Julia Roberts how to ride a horse on the set of "Blood Red."

The film "Big Fish" reminds me of my father for many reasons, but his stories and jokes and tall tales were an outward example of the larger-than-life character that my father truly was.  Over the past few weeks, I have spoken to friends and family members, read comments in his yearbooks, watched home movies, and pored over piles of photographs.  Everything I've encountered has reinforced the lasting impression my father made on all of us who knew and loved him, and reinforced that he was, indeed, quite a character.

He was the biggest, tallest and strongest guy in the room - even when he wasn't.  He was the funniest, wittiest and warmest man around - even when he wasn't.  He was the most generous, the most kind-hearted, and the most forgiving - even if he wasn't.  Above all else, he was full of love and never had a lack of any to give.  My father loved the people and the things in his life wholeheartedly, unashamedly, and occasionally recklessly, and it is from him that I learned never to be ashamed of the things I love or why I love them.  If there are two things that we can learn from him and his life, the first is to never, ever have any guilty pleasures.  You should never be ashamed of the things you enjoy, whether it's a stuffed animal that plays a novelty song when you squeeze it, or a dress made out of duct tape, or the great deal you got on 50 used marching band hats.  The second lesson is that you will never run out of love, so be generous with it, to a fault.

Everyone who knew him loved him, or at the very least never forgot him.  Whether he was dressing up as Santa Claus to distribute candy canes to Lincoln Elementary School at Christmastime or parking a hearse on his front lawn at Halloween - to the chagrin of his neighbors - he was certainly memorable.

When we were asked by the funeral home what Dad did for a living, we were at a complete loss.  How could anyone sum up in one job title what my father took on in his lifetime?  He was a cowboy.  For a time he tried his hand at rodeo, but one attempt at a bull ride nipped that in the bud.  He was a professional photographer for a short time, and never stopped taking pictures throughout his life.  He owned a western store with my mother.  He drove a forklift.  He ran a harness and tack business out of our house.  He broke horses.  He worked on movie sets.  He imported livestock from Canada.  He was a part-time used car dealer.  He was a caretaker and personal assistant.  He was a handyman.   He owned more vehicles and animals in my lifetime than I would ever be able to recall.

He was a father.  If you know me and Trudi, you can pretty much guess that was a full-time job in and of itself.

If I had to guess, I'd say that being our father was the one thing in life he was most proud of.  He was a man of immense talent, some of those talents unrealized or not capitalized upon, but I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that being a father was the one thing he was best at.  Even when we drove him crazy getting tattoos and breaking his vehicles, he loved us more than life itself and did everything he could for us, and always wished he could do more.

I'm so glad that he had the opportunity to meet his granddaughter, Audrey, and I know that Trudi and I will have no trouble telling her what a wonderful person her grandfather was.  I hope that I'll be able to impart upon my niece - and, someday, my future children - the best things in life that I learned from him.  Here's a partial list of what Dad taught me:

-        How to ride a horse

-        If they don't laugh at one of your jokes, use all of them

-        Don't be ashamed to cry

-        If you get too tired to drive, pull over

-        Play an instrument, or at the very least, sing all the time

-        Call to let them know you got home safe

-        How to appreciate a Burt Reynolds movie

-        Bring home some fast food for your kids - maybe just not every day

-        Animals are a big responsibility

-        You can never say "I love you" too much

-        Christmas is the best time of year, and Halloween is a close second

-        Everyone needs to call in sick once in a while

-        Anyone can appreciate a good showtune

-        You can do anything you want, so do what you love

-        Don't be afraid

Lots of people knew my dad by lots of different names:  Bill, Billy, Uncle Bill, Big Bill, Griz, WT, William, Cousin Billy, and probably half a dozen others that I never even knew about.  One of the things that makes me happy about how many people knew and loved my father is that I'll never know everything about him, and I'll never hear every story.  We should all be so lucky.  I'll certainly never stop telling stories about him.

I never met my grandfather, Dad's father, but by all accounts he was a difficult man to get to know.  If you think it seems unlikely that my father would be so open and boisterous when his father was so reserved and quiet, then you clearly didn't know his mother, Mary.  It would be impossible to mention Dad without mentioning her.  He was one hundred percent his mother's son.  Mary passed on her big, feisty, unapologetically loving heart to her son, and he passed it on to us.

I believe my father had two heroes in his life.  His mother, and his sister, Willa.  Willa passed away last year, and the largest common trait that the two of them shared was a practically superhuman resilience and toughness for whatever life threw at them.  Given the obstacles that the two of them faced in their lifetimes, it is humbling to know that so much strength and resolve could come from one small family.

Most of you probably know that Dad lived every single day of his life dealing with some degree of pain, which by the time I was old enough to be aware of it was of a scope that I can scarcely even imagine.  Through this, he managed to be the life of the party, the clown in every room.  Through this, he managed to raise us and to be my hero.  I hope that I have even a portion of the toughness and grit that he possessed.

My father's life was amazing, and unbelievable, and normal, and eccentric, and quirky, and tragic, and sublime, and hilarious, and unstoppable.  He was unstoppable.  I know that he will live on with each of us, and that I will always be proud that I came from such a diverse, amazing, and loving man.  He taught me that you can never run out of love, and for that I am eternally grateful.

There is a song that always reminds me of my father, called "The Trapeze Swinger."  It's a very long song, but I'd like to share with you the bits that have really been on my mind the last few weeks.

Please, remember me
Happily
By the rosebush laughing
With bruises on my chin

Please, remember me
Fondly
I heard from someone you're still pretty

Please, remember me
At Halloween
Making fools of all the neighbors

Please, remember me
As in the dream
We had as rug-burned babies
Among the fallen trees
And fast asleep
Aside the lions and the ladies


Please, remember me

My misery
And how it lost me all I wanted

Please, remember me
You turn from me
And said, "The trapeze act was wonderful
But never meant to last"

Please, remember me
Finally
And all my uphill clawing
My dear
And if I make
The pearly gates
I'll do my best to make a drawing
Of God and Lucifer
A boy and girl
An angel kissin on a sinner
A monkey and a man
A marching band
All around the frightened trapeze swinger

Dad was all of these things and more.  The boy by the rosebush.  The fool at Halloween.  Above all, he was the trapeze swinger.

We're not here today to say goodbye.  We're here to celebrate, and to laugh, and remember, fondly, the most remarkable man that I've ever known.  William Thomas Hanstock was a character.  He was my father.  I will love him and miss him, forever.  I will never forget him.   I don't think there's anyone here that could.