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Sunday, June 19, 2005

Father's Day

Father's Day has always been a loss to me. Growing up as the youngest son of a single mother, it was simply meaningless. For most of my life, I didn't know where my father lived, though I certainly knew who he was and what he was doing.

Dad was, for most of my life, a picture on the wall, a memory that brought fond smiles to everyone who knew him. I remember him coming home from the Navy twice - once before I had even started school when he took us out for hamburgers and then piled us into the car for a fishing trip out on the Pecos River. I don't remember much about the trip - after all, I was pretty young. I do remember throwing tumbleweeds on the fire and watching the sparks catch the wind and get carried off into the darkness where they winked out of existence. I remember sleeping in Grandaddy's camper and Uncle Hubert shining the flashlight in on Uncle Tom in the middle of the night and telling him to go check the trotline. Tom hit his head on the roof of the camper, cussed a bit, and went back to sleep to dream he had checked the line. The next morning he got up looking for fresh fish to fry for breakfast. Tom also told me that Fig Newtons were made with cat turds and kept it up until I wouldn't eat any more. At that point, he scooped up the bag and finished them off saying between each bite, "Mmmm, I sure do like these cat turds."

I couldn't swim yet, so Dad made me wear a orange life vest anytime we got near the river. At one point I got caught in the current and started screaming for help. I heard Tom say, "He's headed for the rapids." In my young vocabulary, "rapids" meant "mean water". I remember Dad looking over his shoulder and disappearing under the water. That scared me even more because I had spent all summer staying up late to watch monster movies. Somehow Dad surfaced about two feet on the other side of me so the current carried me into his arms. As I kicked and fought my way up on his shoulders, he laughed and said, "What's a big boy like you screaming like a girl over a little water for?" That pretty well took the screaming out of me. If Dad could laugh about it, how could I be scared?

The other time I was, I think, in third grade and we once again piled into his old car and went down to the Pecos. The snowpack had melted early and the river was high - and I managed to catch more fish than anyone by snagging two white trout. I remember it mostly because my brother Will and I got to drink a whole case of Shasta sodas - which was probably more soda than we had both consumed in our whole life at that time. Oh yeah, Will almost drowned and was pulled out of the Pecos by Dad while I was catching perch and brother Jim got one eyebrow and a good bit of hair on his head singed from standing downwind while Dad lit a tumbleweed for Will to warm up.

The big thing about that trip was Dad found a stray dog - a little speckled bird dog covered with millions of fleas and ticks that was so skinny his ribs actually cast a shadow on his flanks. Dad fed that dog - that he somehow named "Hotshot" on the spot - all the bacon we had and a few potatoes soaked in bacon grease. We didn't do much fishing, but I remember dad spending two enternities going over Hotshot, crushing fleas between his fingernail and thumb and burning ticks with his cigarette so they let go of the dog and he'd flip them into the fire.

I also remember that Dad went to sleep sitting on a rock and drinking coffee - it seems coffee didn't do much to keep him awake. At one point his foot slipped out from under him and he spilled the coffee on his pants. The really important part we didn't find out for a few minutes when Dad finally looked at the fire and noticed that the toilet paper had been kicked into the fire when he slipped. We climbed the bluffs and chunked rocks out into the river and Jimmy sat on a rattlesnake.

The next time I saw Dad, he was climbing out of his car in the driveway the summer before I started High School. He was retired from the Navy now and I was going to spend a whole week with him. I remember listening to records with him - Jim Reeves and Johnny Cash. Somehow the counterweight fell out of the arm and Dad tried to balance it by stacking quarters on the head of the needle. His hands shook so bad that he had to use both hands and still managed to drop more quarters on the record than even hit the tone arm on the way down. He drank a lot of beer, smoked a lot of cigarettes, and we had the only father-son conversation we would ever have. I wrote about that here.

The next time I saw Dad - the last time I saw him - he was wearing his service blues and laying in a box. I don't remember much of that day. Somehow I left Grandaddy's house with a couple sacks full of live chickens - a big Jersey Giant rooster that eventually grew to be about ten pounds, a couple of red "Cherry Eggers" that laid two eggs per day, and a Auracana rooster and two hens that had silver flecked feathers and laid eggs that were pastel blue and green. I don't know why it's important to put that in, but the story just doesn't feel complete without including that.

Sometimes I see Dad in my dreams. He looks just like he did when we spent those last few hours together. He's always smoking, the cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, his head cocked to the side so the smoke doesn't get in his eyes. He told me two weeks before I got divorced that it was going to happen and everything would be alright - and that I should fight hard for my kids. He told me that he was proud of me when I became the first one in the family to graduate from college. Once he pulled a paper out of his pocket and gave it to me, telling me that "Mr. Kennedy wants you to know something" - the paper said, "Love the writing - Jack". At various times when I was worried about my brothers, he's told me, "Don't worry, son. It ain't time for us to fish again. We'll go fishing again soon - but not yet."

I don't often miss my Dad. Even as I treasure these few memories I realize that one of the reasons they are all good memories is that there are so few of them. I can't help wish for more, even though that's an impossible wish. I feel the loss, though, when I realize that my kids will never know the gentle strength of their grandfather. They'll never understand when I try to describe the way the scent of his hair oil mixed with stale beer and cigarettes - or how that can possibly be a good smell. It's a hard thing to miss something you never had, but somehow I've managed how to do so. Fortunately, I've also learned that it isn't necessary to live with that on a daily basis. I've learned to let it come and go as it will, neither viewing it as an enemy that reminds me of what I've lost or a friend with which to tie my future to the past.

I'm a father now, and sometimes I think that helps me understand my father. Sometimes it only makes him more of a mystery. I think fathers are always a bit of a mystery to their sons - I know that probably fits pretty well coming out of my son's mouth, too. I don't talk to him enough. I don't see him hardly ever. But I never stop loving him. I never stop being proud of him. Maybe someday we'll get past this mystery phase and find a way to relate to each other as men.

My daughter called me earlier today to tell me she loves me. She also needs my address so she can mail me something. At least I can offer my kids that. Looking back, thinking forward, that isn't such a bad deal.

To anyone out there who is a father, and to everyone who has a father - happy Father's Day.

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