What does Dad want for his day? You could always ask, but then you run the risk of the casual demurral, "I just want a nice quiet day at home with the family — you don't have to buy me anything." You know he deserves more than that, and you'd love to surprise him with the perfect gift.
So I asked some fellows who are the same general age as my own father what they would like to see inside the Father's Day gift wrap. Their answers may (or may not) surprise you.
TECH TOYS: Might Dad like an iPod? Or how about a sleek Razr cell phone, or a Blackberry?
According to my friend Ted, a retired USN commander with a collection of hi-tech gear in his own study, Dad generally doesn't want to hand anyone in the family a better way to reach out and touch him. If he leaves his current brick-sized cell phone in a drawer at home, don't assume it's because it's too heavy. He may just want the option to be "out of reach" for part of each day.
As for the iPod, guys in my Dad's generation who have a penchant for music usually still have a vinyl collection and a working stereo phonograph system, often one they built themselves when hi-fi was young and required an engineer's certificate to operate. They're not likely to switch to MP3, even if there were somewhere to download the complete collection of the greatest hits of Nelson Riddle or Johnny Puleo and His Harmonica Gang.
Buy him a car navigation system, Ted advises. There are some pretty good deals going on Garman Street Pilots. With this, Dad will never have to stop and ask directions, ever again. Not that he ever did, anyway.
FROM THE BOOKSHELF: Books are safe for a bookish parent. Chances are, you think you know your Pop's taste in reading material: World War II or Civil War history, maybe, or a coffee-table book of early-19th-century hand-tools.
"Good grief!" was the reaction of my ex-SeaBee neighbor, Colin, whose bedroom walls are lined with bookshelves. "When I open a book, I want a real story." No coffee-table stuff, Colin recommends; that's more appealing to an interior-decorator type. (Colin's wife is an interior designer.)
He recommends something moving, like James Bradley's Flags of our Fathers or Wisdom of Our Fathers by Tim Russert. These are books that celebrate the fathers in my father's generation, both war heroes and the ordinary, everyday men who fed their familes, kept the roof over their heads, and lead them to be better men and women by their sterling example.
If you need fiction to round off the bookshelf, try a classic Clancy like Patriot Games or a stirring Nevil Shute novel like Trustee from the Toolroom .
DVD DELIGHT: I called Andy, a long-time friend who lives (and still works at age 72) in Hollywood for his suggestions for Father's Day movies. Should I get Dad a circa-1950 Oscar winner? Or would something more contemporary suit better?
Andy has his own peculiar preferences in film; he has a copy of every movie that features a major character in clown-face, from Killer Klowns from Outer Space to The Family Jewels, and onward into nuttier realms. But his suggestion for your Dad's day? Icon sports movies, or something with John Wayne.
You know the ones. Field of Dreams. The Natural. Victory. And for that other icon, the Duke: The Quiet American. Hellfighters. Donovan's Reef. No musicals. No "chick flicks." Just solid stuff that Dad will want to watch.
SPORTS GEAR: Finally, I asked Greggo, an interesting grizzled fellow we fell into chat with at a local bar last Sunday, what he would like if his kids were to buy him sports gear for Father's Day. Greggo (the only name he would give us) has eight sons, all active or retired Marines. We were impressed by this feat of paternal child-rearing, and asked if he was himself a jar-head. "Nah," he told us. "I taught PE and math at a Washington State high school while they were growing up."
So, should we give Dad a golf club or a pair of skis for his Day? Greggo suggests that if your Dad is into a sport enough to appreciate the gear, he's probably already got a well-worn whatever that he loves. And if he isn't, he may see such a gift as an unsubtle hint that he needs more exercise, or better gear to compensate for poor skill.
"Give him a beer mug with a sport-related theme," he said, lifting his own stein. "Or a really nice pair of gloves." Besides, you never know when possessing a "Richmond RiverDogs Logo Mug Collectible Officially Licensed Hockey Team Gift Accessory Merchandise" (huh?) will elevate Dad into the elite of the country-club set.
Or you can fall back on the time-honored tradition: give him a tie and let him watch whatever's on TV all day without a single kid's spat, spouse's "honey-do" request, or grandchild's "why did Mommy leave me with you?" wail. And maybe that's what Dad meant by his request for a quiet day at home.