That’s My Daddy

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I shared my first bedroom with my brother Tony.  The walls were painted a cheerful shade of buttercup yellow, and sun streamed in on a Sunday morning and lit up a pile of clothes resting on a Danish modern scoop chair in the corner next to my bed.  My parents bustled in and out of the bathroom across the hall, and I could smell my Dad’s shaving cream.  I lay on my bed, hands under my head and relaxed.  Today was going to be a good day even if we had to go to church.

Dad hits the brakes of our old Dodge, the one with the oxidizing purple/blue paint that shimmers with rainbow iridescence in strong light.  He’s found a side path that leads from the top of the levee down to a strip of concrete and gravel on the shores of the Great Miami River.  We gingerly descend the narrow track and park.  I can see a dam farther upstream and tall buildings across the river.  Dad, Tony and I empty the trunk and carry a minnow bucket and two seine nets to the river edge.  We’ve changed into old tennis shoes and wade into the water with a seine.  The river bed is rocky, slimy with moss, treacherous.  We make several passes, water up to our knees, and snare some crawdads.  I fall twice and twist my ankle. When we have a bucket full we stow our gear and change our shoes.  My shorts are wet, but Dad doesn’t care about the car seats.  One of the blessings of driving old cars is that they become more useful the less they’re babied.

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Dad and I go fishing at Caesar’s Creek a few days later with the crawdads.  We’re not getting any bites until we set our bait at a lower depth.  Catfish are bottom feeders, and soon my line bends over double and jerks in tight circles.  I haul a ten inch catfish out of the muddy water, and Dad snares it in a net.  I’m afraid of the spiked whiskers even though I’ve never been stung, and Dad obliges me by taking a pair of plyers out of his fishing tackle box to extract the hook.  The catfish looks up at me from the bottom of the boat and croaks.  He seems to be saying, “Hey, buddy, what did I ever do to you?”

My sister Carla and I are scraping paint off the side of a wood paneled house across the street from the Delco battery plant in Kettering.  The paint comes off easily in the blistered sections, but some flecks stay embedded in the ruts and crevices of the pitted wood.  We use a wire brush on the stubborn spots and worry whether we’re doing a good enough job.  Dad’s warned us that the new paint won’t stick to the side of the house if applied over a loose layer of old.  Carla and I talk as we work to pass the time as the job is boring and nasty.  Our shoulders ache, and scraped paint sticks in speckles on our sweaty arms.  We’re grateful when Dad shows up and appears to be satisfied with our progress.  He doesn’t say anything, but carefully scans the walls, points out a few patches that need work, and nods.  We hope that he’s brought some soda–it’s a high and dry summer day with feathery clouds floating in the powdery blue sky–and he tells us to look in a cooler in the trunk.  He’s bought a cheap brand of grape, but we don’t care.

I get off work at  three a.m. from a restaurant shift that should have ended at twelve.  A late rush pillaged a practically spotless kitchen and dining room, and it took two hours to restore order after we ushered the last customer out at 1.  We’re exhausted but hungry, and five of us go to an all night coffee shop to get breakfast.  We talk, smoke cigarettes and tell a few jokes, and it’s dawn when we walk out to the parking lot.  I pull up to the house just as the front door opens.  Dad trudges out carrying his lunch pail.  He stares at me for a minute, shakes his head, and gets into his car without saying a word.  He no longer thinks that a lecture would do any good, and it’s too early for a shouting match.

I shoot a photograph of my Dad for a class at Wright State University.  He’s wearing a t-shirt and work pants, and glowers at me.  Art classes are a waste of time.  I develop the 35 mm. film and make a large print.  A class mate asks me if I took the shot in a prison yard.  I said, “No, that brick wall behind the man is the neighbor’s garage, and that’s my daddy.”

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So, The Last Kid Gets Married

My son wed his long time sweetheart, Amy Carlie, a few days after Christmas.  My daughter married Bryant Scott yesterday, May 20th.  I felt a lot more relaxed on the day that Alan walked the aisle, but found it harder to give Annie away.  A father feels a protective attachment to his daughter.

I spent the morning of the wedding beset with dull anxiety.  I kept mostly to myself and said the least amount possible.  When I saw Annie in full wedding regalia a few minutes before the ceremony I had to catch myself.  She looked stunning in her gown and with her hair swept up.  I knew that if I was going to break down it would be at that moment.

She looked nervous but happy and a little tearful.  She had been afraid that she would cry through the ceremony, so I told her a joke.  That didn’t work, so I deadpanned, “I hate you.  I wish you’d never been born.”  She picked up on her cue and said something about hating me too and that I had been a horrible father.  We meant the opposite, of course, but our declarations of mock disdain cut through the welling emotions that threatened to turn our walk down the aisle into a Dad/Daughter weepy fest.

We made it.  I shook Bryant’s hand, hugged Annie, took her hand and placed it in his. I sat down next to my wife. The ceremony was brief but funny, sweet, and touching.  Their ring bearers were the couple’s two dogs.  The officiant, a friend of the groom, declared the official words of union saying, “By the powers invested in me by the internet and a quasi-religious cult, I pronounce you husband and wife.”

Several hours later my wife and I drove home.  I sighed with contentment and relief that all had gone well and that my daughter had married a man who loves her deeply.  A feeling of gratitude replaced the odd sense of loss that had been plaguing me for several days.  I was happy that I had been given a chance to be my daughter’s father.

One Armed Man Battles Rat Snake

I woke up around 8 a.m. just as my wife was leaving for work. I stumbled to the dining room to give her a kiss as she ran out the door. She called me a few minutes later and told me that her Subaru had stalled at the corner of Eastbrook and Aloma. I pulled on a pair of pants, drove the four blocks and found her standing on the sidewalk next to the dead car. Rush hour traffic was backed up behind it, and I caught some angry glares as I gingerly stepped onto the road, opened the hood and pretended to look for something to fix. I gave up after making a token effort.

Judy got in the car to steer, and I began to push. I had 150 yards to go to get to the next cross street, and by the time I reached the 75th I was huffing and puffing. A cop pulled up behind us, parked and helped me. When we started to make the turn onto the side street Judy yelled out the window that she wanted the car another thirty feet further up the road for safety’s sake. I turned to the policeman and said, “Ours is not to question why, ours is but to do and die.” He laughed.

I drove Judy to work, got the car towed to our mechanic and raked up some dried magnolia seed pods in our front yard. My right shoulder started to feel stiff, probably as an after effect from pushing the Subaru, but I paid it no mind and kept working. I went down to my studio and painted later that afternoon, and I held the palette balanced on the finger tips of my right hand. My shoulder felt even tighter and sore, but I bulled through and worked for several hours. I noticed that evening that I had some trouble raising my hand above shoulder level, but figured that a night’s rest and some aspirin would take care of the problem.

When I woke up the next morning my arm was nearly immobile. The muscles in my right shoulder were brick hard and I couldn’t lift my hand above my waist. I called my chiropractor for advice about my symptoms, but he was busy with a patient. I left a message with the receptionist. I decided that I had to take the day off and sat under the magnolia, read a book and smoked a cigar while I waited for the doctor to call me back. I didn’t have a cell phone, so I left the front door open just a crack so that I could hear the land line phone when it rang. When Dr. Harris called he told me to ice the shoulder and take extra strength ibuprofen, and I made an appointment to see him the next day.

I had to pick up my son at Eastbrook Elementary that afternoon.  Shifting gears in my stick shift Honda gave me a lot of trouble. When I unlocked the front door of our house Alan started to go in ahead of me, and the next thing I knew he was down by the road hovering near the mail box. He quavered, “Snake!” I looked inside and saw the tail of a snake disappear behind a phone stand near the door.

The phone rang at that moment, and I picked up the receiver with my left hand well aware that the serpent was coiled and hidden inches away. My useless right arm hung at my side.  The caller said that he had been to a show at the Orlando Art Museum the week before and had seen a painting of mine that he wanted to buy. The canvas featured lots of animals engaged in cartoonish activities, and it didn’t escape my notice as we dickered over a price that the animal kingdom was giving me contrary signals at that moment.

I sold the painting for $500, hung up the phone and wondered what to do next. Alan was still down by the road waiting for me to do something fatherly and protective, so I tilted back the telephone stand and found a five foot yellow rat snake wrapped around itself in a tight bundle against the baseboard. It didn’t look happy as it stared insolently at me.

I went to the kitchen and grabbed a broom. I pulled out the stand one foot and back hand swept the snake sideways toward the open door using my good arm. I slid it about four feet. It didn’t take the hint to leave, but reared up like a cobra and hissed at me. I said, “All right, buddy,” and I swept it to the door sill, and its reaction was the same except that it looked even more pissed off as it faced me. It drew itself into a tighter coil as if getting ready for a lunge, but I didn’t give it a chance. I swept it onto the porch, but the damn thing didn’t slither away. It curled itself around the iron grill work along the side of the porch, pointed its snout at me and hissed again.

I motioned to Alan to come to me and he responded by circling the yard without actually getting any closer. I had the broom pointed at the angry snake: it showed no signs of admitting defeat. Alan thought that I was going to enlist him in some snake wrangling and refused to come nearer, so I yelled, “I’ve got the snake against the rails. I want you to run into the house so that I can slam the door! We go in! The snake stays out!” He nodded and sprinted toward me, passed me in a blur and found sanctuary inside. I edged backward with the broom between me and my adversary, and closed the door.

I watched for several minutes as the snake lingered on my porch, and it finally withdrew after it had decided that it had made its point. Both of my shoulders were sore now, but I had no one to blame but myself. I realized that the rat snake had probably slithered into the house while I sat under the magnolia waiting for my call.

I met the buyer of the animal painting a couple days later at Star Dust, a coffee house that rented art films. We drank some espressos after I turned over the painting and he gave me a check. I realized as we talked that he was one of the directors of “The Blair Witch Project”. I said that I had a horror story of my own and told the tale of my one armed battle with a rat snake.  He smiled politely, but didn’t offer to buy the rights.

Outings in the Country with Father.

Outings in the Country with Father.  Acrylic on canvas, 16×20″.

Text panel:  Outings in the country with father were always an adventure.  He explained the mysteries of nature to me, and I got to meet woodland creatures and father’s rustic friends.  One day we say Trapper Bob and his dogs, Patsy and Fred.  They were playing with a bear.

Text panel:  Mother stayed home and gave French lessons to Luann and Marta, our maids…Father said that French is bad.

Bear speech bubble:  “Et tu Bob?”

Dog speech bubble:  “Sic semper tyrannis”

Father’s speech bubble:  “Bear”