My last interaction with my father before he was killed was a missed phone call. On Saturday, July 5th 2003 at lunchtime, my phone rang and I bounded up the steps and grabbed the receiver just in time to hear the click of the caller hanging up. A quick check of the Caller ID revealed that the call was from Houston, Texas which was the headquarters for the oil company that my father was working for in a refinery down in Aruba that summer. It was a strange phone arrangement- phone calls from the Caribbean via Texas to Tennessee.
That, plus my father could make calls but he couldn’t receive them.
Knowing that my father would use his Saturday lunchtime to check in with family, I quickly called my mother and siblings in New Jersey to try to tell them to have Dad call me again. My efforts were unsuccessful except for a return phone call from my brother twenty minutes later. He told me that he saw my call but didn’t want to click over because he was on the phone with Pop. These phone connections to the island were iffy and he didn’t want to lose him. Strange I had such a sense of urgency to speak with my father that day. We wouldn’t have talked about anything beyond the typical checking in with each other and talking Philadelphia sports. Technically, that unanswered call was the last I heard from my father.
The next afternoon, I received another call from my brother. He said, “Johnny, our father is dead.”
Frederick John Daum was born in Philadelphia in 1942. He was a high school drop out that did a stint in the Marines and then landed a job as a laborer at the Texaco Eagle Point Refinery in South Jersey in 1968. Known for his integrity and work ethic, my father worked his way up the company ladder, eventually topping out as a supervisor in charge of large projects in large portions of the refinery. It always impressed me how he was flown around the country to other refineries to give guidance on welding exotic metals or to run special projects that had little or no margin for error. “Done right and on time” was his mantra.
(Three Highlights from co-workers at his funeral: (1) I butted heads with your father many, many times but I knew that whatever he told me was the truth. (2) Your father never asked anyone to do anything he wasn’t willing to do himself. (3) It wasn’t uncommon to have workers come to the front office to complain if we accidentally shorted their paycheck; your father was the only one to come tell us that we had overpaid him.)
In those bygone oil refinery days, our dinner table was a classroom. My father would regale us with stories from his day at work. Tales of demanding projects in the labyrinthine refinery where hours were measured in thousands of barrels and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Conflicts where he was eventually proven right. Conflicts where he was wrong and had to admit it and make it right. In every story it seemed he always did what needed to be done. I learned more at that dinner table than I ever learned in all my formal education. My father really was a superhero to me: larger than life, very intimidating, ultimately a force for good. It was difficult to wrap my mind around the death of Superman.
The details were sketchy. Industrial accident in the oil refinery. The company was going to fly me and my brother down to Aruba first thing in the morning. We were to find out what happened, gather my father’s belongings, and bring my father’s body home. I remember touching down at the Reina Beatrix International Airport and being greeted by a few men from the company who expressed their condolences, set us up at a hotel and asked if we wanted to see my father’s body now or after the autopsy. We were told it might be better if we waited to see him after.
Well, let’s find somewhere we can talk.
Well, your father was overcome by hydrogen sulfide gas.
Well, we are still conducting our investigation and so is the Aruban government...
And so began intrigue straight out of a John Grisham novel. Key evidence like his breathing apparatus completely disappeared. Witnesses were shipped off the island or intimidated into not talking. Documents went missing. Shadowy “off the record” phone calls made startling revelations. Those are for another story on another day.
On the day that he was killed, my mother received a lunchtime phone call. My father said that he went to work on something up on a scaffold that morning and something wasn’t right and it was a bad situation. He said that the company was cutting corners and people were getting hurt in the refinery. Someone was going to get killed. This was the last project he was going to work on down in Aruba he confided to my mom. After 35 years in refineries, he was ready to go from “semi-retired” to “retired” and stop dividing his time between Aruba and New Jersey. Time for grandkids. Time for travel. A few hours after that phone call he was up on a scaffold dead.
When we arrived at his bungalow on the island to gather his belongings, my brother and I steadied ourselves before we crossed the threshold of the house. Entering that house is one of the most difficult things I have ever done. There is a strange silence that comes to a house that no one is coming home to. Everything is suddenly ominous and haunted. The fork and bowl on the counter from his lunch. The toothbrush on the sink. The Bible on the nightstand. The unmistakable impression on the pillow on the bed. The incredibly mundane suddenly charged with incredible significance.
[Two Key Facts About My Father That Nobody Believes: At the time of his death at age 61, my father could (1) do one thousand push-ups in under fifteen minutes, and, (2) recite about the same amount of verses from the Bible. Those were his disciplines, the physical and the spiritual. They tell you all you really need to know about the kind of man he was.]
After about two years of our family wrangling with corporations that wanted to blame each other, parsing the minutia of Aruban and Texas law, as well as reading hundreds of pages of depositions we finally reached some tentative conclusions about what happened to my father on that fateful July 6th. Tragically, it all boils down to one man. A single person cut corners and signed off on something that he never inspected or repaired according to company guidelines and policies. His sham signature on a work permit sealed my father’s fate.
When I am tempted to cut corners, or conduct my life in ways that aren’t “up to code,” I try to remember this man. I can chose to be like him or chose to be like my father.
In the nine years since my father’s death I have had two dreams about him. I will share one of them with you. In my dream, I am waiting outside the Philadelphia Spectrum to meet my father. We are going to attend a Flyer’s hockey game like we did so many times. The city is bustling around me as I pace back and forth in front of the entrance but my father is no where in sight. I can hear the crowds cheering inside the arena and the game is well into the third period. I keep pounding numbers into my cell phone and listening as it rings and rings and rings. My father never answers and then I wake up.