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.
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.”