My father was a practical man. He did not believe in risk-taking or gambling or trusting the fates or your luck. Instead, he was devotee to moving slowly, thoughtfully, patiently and sticking to things, especially when they were soul-crushingly boring, exhausting or unrewarding. He felt that hard work purified the character. He believed in the middle of the road and safeguards and safety nets and insurance for insurance. My father’s life was a tribute to grim struggle, exact planning with low expectations.
Here was a man who gave me loads of grief for quitting my first job at a Chinese restaurant with the line, “You can’t keep hopping from one job to another, you know. Think what it will look like on your applications. Think about your future.” I had been a dishwasher.
This was a man that, (and I am not making this up) decided for my birthday one year to buy “the best pair of shoes I would ever own”- Boone Brand Shoes- the only dress shoes I have ever seen with steel toes. (I imagine that he figured that steel-toed shoes might save my feet in the case I was run over by a tank on the way to my Homecoming dance.) But, as if this wasn’t bad enough, in order to teach me the value of quality, he decided that he would donate half of the price for the shoes. The other half would be up to me. So, in effect, he gave me for my birthday one steel-toed dress shoe, that was about as heavy as a VW. I think I wore
them about four times and marched about with a resounding thud on any bottom step.
My father loved cars because, I came to think, cars were such complicated machines that no matter what you worried about, there was always something else that could break down. Something explodes- or merely snaps- under the hood, the driver grips the wheel but the vehicle spins violently, crashing past the guard rails and now hangs like a cocoon over the edge of a bridge with the muddy Missouri below.
Was there enough of this fluid or that fluid? enough air in the tires or fuses in the fuse box? A spare filled with air and checked regularly? Registration and inspection completed? Insurance paid up? After years of constant nagging about the thousand and one possibly-neglected items, I decided to turn the tables and “feign” worry about the car. I pretended to visibly fret about not having checked the depth of the tire tread with a penny that week, or some such nonsense. I really hammed it up. It was a kind of experiment. And to my surprised confirmation and amusement, he said, “Well, you can’t worry about everything. Take one day at a time.”
Years later, when I was old enough to listen, I learned more about my father’s early years. Never from my father. He was not the kind of man to talk about intimate things. It embarrassed him for some reason, as if, by discussing the events of his past, he was trying to find excuses or sympathy.
According to the family legend, when my grandmother went into labor with my father, it became clear that something was not right. There was some kind of problem, protracted labor, I think. His family might as well have lived about 150 years ago. There was no car or truck, only a mule and a wagon. There was, of course, no gleaming hospital and maternity wards. Just a grumbling ancient doctor of dubious qualifications.
My grandfather and the older sons, Fred and Frank, went off in a freezing rain to bring back the physician. Apparently, they found the doctor who managed to resolve the birthing problems easily enough. However, my grandfather, due to the freezing weather, had caught some kind of flu. Within three days of my father’s birth, his father was dead.
And so, my father grew up fatherless, pampered by his older sisters and excessively beloved by his mother. They managed to survive only for the fact they had own the land they farmed. Selling whatever the chickens and the gardens might produce. My father told me, maybe a hundred times, about being too ashamed to go to school because he had no shoes to wear. (To this, I would roll my eyes up like cheap window shades.)
Uncle Fred became my father’s father. I have only seen photos of Fred. A dashingly handsome man with a genial smile and sparkling eyes. He made quite an impression in his military uniform when he was sent off to fight in World War II. My father was 15, when they received the news that Fred had fallen in the Battle of the Bulge, the last attempt by the Germans to hold the occupied lands of northern France. The government brought his body back- he became a sad local hero for a week or so and some military representative gave my grandmother a triangular flag. She stored it away in a steamer truck in the barn along his his dashing uniform. And although his photo hung on the wall, in my aunt's home, I can't recall a time when Uncle Fred was ever mentioned.
That was how my father lost his two fathers and became such a practical man.