My Father Chose Technology Over Me

He was obsessed with a HAM radio and spent his time talking to nameless others instead of me. I see him in so many of today's phone-addicted parents.

“Hello test. Test, test, test. Helllllo test. Hello. Test. Test.”

“Test? Break break break break. This is VE1XE. Hello, test. Test.”

ADVERTISEMENT

If the above makes no sense to you, imagine the sense or nonsense, it makes to a 5-year-old. Is it a magic spell, a nursery rhyme, a warning?

The above are the first words I remember my father Murray speaking. I don’t remember “Da-da” or “Ricky” or “Daddy,” or “love.” I remember instead these chains of words spoken for hours at a time, every night between 6 and 10. My father was, to me, first and ever after, someone not to be trusted with words. But I get ahead of myself.

The incantation above is actually far more mundane than a magic spell or a secret code. My father was a HAM Radio hobbyist (such a benign term, when I want instead to say obsessive), and the staccato cluster of words above is how a HAM Radio user, citing their radio license number — in my father’s case, VE1XE — begins a conversation, or inserts themselves into an ongoing conversation with another or several HAM Radio users.

HAM Radio is an umbrella term for amateur radio communications hobbyists. The legend around the name goes that a broadcasting regulator once described amateur radio builders and table-top broadcasters as being “ham-fisted” in their use of technology. HAM Radio grew in popularity and technological scope as radio use grew, and keeps apace today. There are still plenty of HAM radio fans all over the world, but the internet has replaced the popularity of amateur transmission, which peaked in the 1970s with the CB craze.

When you are a small child and your father has an all-consuming interest that is not you, it takes no time at all for you to internalize your father’s prioritizing. You are, at best, second to him. A far second.

In the 1930s, my father built his own “wireless,” a radio made from a wood box and wires. He was barely out of his teens. In his last years, he would sit in front of a long desk crammed with a mountain of boxy hardware, dials and wires and speakers and microphones and illuminated meters, repeating the call-outs and codes into the void. It was only after his death that I learned the transmitters had been deactivated by him years before. In a fit of pique, he had disabled his own system, destroyed it beyond repair, and then faced his regrets by playing at being a radio operative.

He just could not stop.

When you are a small child and your father has an all-consuming interest that is not you, it takes no time at all for you to internalize your father’s prioritizing. You are, at best, second to him. A far second.

You learn, and learn to hate, the cold realization that in your world there is an order to love, a hierarchy you only half-comprehend but nevertheless furiously resent. Resent forever. Love, you learn, has a “place.” It is not unconditional, but the opposite: contextual.

I see my father every day. I do not mean that literally. He has been dead for years. I see him not in the flesh but in the empty gazes of the distracted, information-addicted dads who roam the streets, child in one hand and damned smart phone in the other. I try not to look down at the kids’ faces, lest I see myself.

Love, you learn, has a “place”. It is not unconditional, but the opposite: contextual.

I want to grab these young fathers by the arm and shake them, tell them to look, look down, look down at your speaking, singing, jumping, doing-anything-they-can-to-attract-you child.

Look, you idiot. Speak. Listen. Do you think that tiny creature will be tiny forever, or, more important, do you think your child lives in their own world, is emotionally self-sustaining? Your messed up priorities are as glaring (and potentially harmful) as the midday sun.

That damned phone, I think. I want to smash it and hand the broken bits to the child so they can make an amulet of the shiny gears, a fetish to protect them.

My father loved his metal talking boxes more than me, and he showed me that every night, whenever I burst into his “radio room” and was instantly silenced. By the time I was five, he locked the door. By the time I was ten, I only saw him at meals or when I had done something wrong.

But I heard him talking and laughing with … who? Who were all those strangers he raced to call every night, the people all around the world he never met, never saw? I was confused and angry. I turned up the television to block his distant voice out completely.

That damned phone, I think. I want to smash it and hand the broken bits to the child so they can make an amulet of the shiny gears, a fetish to protect them.

I became like him, a solitary figure sitting in front of a box. Our nightly volume battles, television vs. HAM Radio, became the way we communicated. It was a hateful game of reverse Chicken, of “who can stay distant longest.”

I was eleven years old and it was dinner time in February when I spit it out: I hate you Dad, I hate you. You can talk to people all night long but you don’t talk to me I hate you I hate your radios I wish they would blow up.

And he just got up, left the table for his radios. I was not old enough to understand anything more than the cold fact that he had made a choice and the winner was not me.

Even someone (like me) who has never been a parent knows that a parent cannot give a child limitless attention 24 hours a day. Parents have to work, to have lives of their own, and, conversely, children need time to themselves. However, watching phone-addicted dads ignore their children sets me off. I am again that child, the one made too aware of his low place in his father’s universe.

I can’t tell you how to parent. I have not read your child’s mind, only their face. Your child hates that phone, even if they sometimes want to play with it (we are drawn to the very things that wound us, must sometimes touch the knife, the flame). And after a while, if you keep this up, this constant scrolling and texting, your child will transfer that anger and frustration to you. It takes only a moment. Children are quick.

And then you will become an echo of my father and of the millions of failed fathers who are too attached to the lives they led before they had children to make room for the very present reality of their children. An echo of, maybe, your own father?

Your failure might come to haunt you (granted, I do not believe it ever did my father), or perhaps your distractions will continue to comfort you for all of your days. Roll the dice on that if you like.

Just understand that, if you see yourself in any of this, it is is not too late. Your child will give you another chance, and another, and maybe many more. Children are quick to forgive, up to a point. Just put the phone away. Step away from the message board. Please.

Get Fatherly In Your Inbox