Zach's PEN #9: My Dad Started The Fire

2020 Week 40

Dear PENpals,

Yesterday, my dad, Hugh Phillips, turned 71, and when I called him, conspicuously after my mom texted me that I had forgotten his birthday (which I totally hadn’t, I had an MRI that went long by two hours so we needed to beg a preschool teacher to bring the kids home and when we finally made it back the kids were the legions of Sauron and didn’t get to bed until 9*) he mentioned that he has lived in 9 decades (the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s, 10s, 20s).

This is the kind of technical/numerical curiosity that both my dad and I find interesting, and I will add that he was born the same year as Billy Joel. I only mention this because the anti-climactic song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (anti-climactic because it ends with a furious screaming declaration that “rock and roller cola wars” are something that Billy Joel just cannot take anymore) tracks moments in my dad’s life from birth to middle age.

Here are a few more notable facts about my dad:

  1. When the Nintendo Entertainment System arrived in America, he bought me one, and then himself played The Legend of Zelda enough that he could beat the entire game without dying once. Then he proceeded to play Zelda so much that he could beat the entire game without dying once OR ever visiting the Fairy Pond. It’s actually difficult for me to process that my dad ever played video games, much less to excess. (I have actually never beaten Zelda or Mario Bros. or any long game)
  2. He is well-known for his chocolate chip cookies, which he claims are just made by the recipe on the Tollhouse Semi-Sweet Morsels bag, but there is some secret stuff he does to make them next-level, and he makes ice cream sandwiches out of them which became the capstone of our summerly clambake throughout my childhood. I will say, because it’s important that I be fair and balanced in this PEN, that his cookies have lost a step in recent years. Now that I have my own kitchen, I will attempt to recreate the magic and carry on the legacy, so help me God.
  3. He has walked around every one of the Finger Lakes, and several other disputed/discredited Finger Lakes. The vast majority of them he walked in one day. For lakes like Seneca, at least a 90 mile walk, he dropped off his stuff at a hotel at one end of the lake, drove to the other end, parked, walked 45 miles to the hotel, slept, and walked 45 miles back to the car the next day.

I walked two of the lakes with him, one of which was Skaneateles (the greatest lake in the world). That was a 44 mile, 12 hour walk, after which I crawled around on my knees for a couple of days. The fact that he did that kind of mileage back-to-back, multiple times, is impressive. Brief Pity Pot: I would love to be able to walk 1 mile right about now, but the very esteemed doctor at Penn told me she’d have me all fixed up soon. What she did not tell me is what complete zenmindmastery it requires to hold one’s foot completely still for 20 minutes. No wiggling toes. Nothing. They should warn fidgety people like me about these things. The only reason I was able to hold it together was because of the threat of starting over again, which was too much to bear…

Back to my dad: The last thing I want to mention is something that the father of a very close childhood friend once told me, maybe when I was in 5th grade. His name was (is) Bob McClure and he was a professor at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse. He was a real Bill Clinton Indiana Democrat who, among many other things, taught me how to play pingpong at their lakehouse in Canada (and I’m much better at pingpong than you expect me to be).

He asked me what my dad did for work, and I told him that my dad was a psychiatric nurse at the state hospital in town, Hutchings. Bob was often adamant, but upon hearing my dad’s profession, this was the most adamant I’ve ever seen him. He got in my face and he said “Your dad provides a public service. A REAL public service.”

My dad spent 40+ years working for the State of New York, most of it as a nightshift psychiatric nurse, and later as a nurse administrator (he started as a therapy aide). He didn’t serve in Vietnam, wasn’t a firefighter or a police officer or a teacher, but he definitely served, and it’s interesting to think about where the lines get drawn for who we salute, particularly during this time, where suddenly grocery store checkout clerks and food delivery people are performing a public good at risk to themselves. The people my dad worked with at Hutchings were all over the map, but a lot of them were the people who you might walk a little more quickly to pass on the street. There’s no “market solution” for dealing with the mentally ill, so many of whom are veterans. They just need care. Someone has to provide that care.

So anyway, here’s to all the people on the front lines dealing with our mentally ill fellow citizens. And here’s to my dad.

Much love PENpals,


* I’ve heard it said that if there is more than one excuse for being late, it’s always bullshit. “There was bad traffic and I had car trouble” is automatic lies. This time I swear these excuses hold (fully admitting that I did forget his 70th birthday last year, gimme a break it’s a busy time).

P. S. Here’s a little snapshot from our glorious laundry room (we haven’t had a real, non-“condenser” laundry machine, well, ever, but I also think this picture really captures a good slice of 2020. We had some visiting workers and Louisa very studiously wore her mask, which impressed me. I found out later that she had hidden a pacifier underneath. She’s very clever in very dangerous ways.

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