Tag: Memories of Dad

Memories of My Father : The Shed

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Summer, 1972

I’m from a long and prestigious line of aggravators. I say that with more than a little pride. Our family doctors have identified a gene that is carried, almost without exception, throughout the branches of my entire family tree. Teasers, practical jokers, creepers all.

My father is the undisputed ringleader of them all.

As a child I suffered much at his hands. And as ridiculous as it sounds, I have very fond memories of that suffering. I think I’m a much better (or at least a more careful) person as a result of some of the indignities he visited upon me. I sure can move quickly for a guy with short, chubby legs. That’s for damned sure.

My fleetness of foot is result of the many frightenings I endured as a youngster. I’m sure of it.

I grew up in a small, three-bedroom home in the Midwestern suburbs. It was small even by the standards of those days. But my mother kept that house spotlessly clean. She kept my brother and I clean and well fed too.

Out in our backyard my father had built a small metal shed where all of our lawn equipment, swimming pools, bicycles, and related gear were stowed, because we didn’t have a garage. (Back then most of the houses in the neighborhood had “car-ports” instead). And invariably, my younger brother and I would forget to lock our bikes up in the shed in the evenings when we were called home to supper.

After supper, we’d get sidetracked with homework, playing, and generalized family activities. Just before bed-time (and always after dark), Dad would always ask “Have you boys put your bikes away, and locked the shed?” Our hearts would sink into our toes. It may seem like a small thing to ask, but when your 11 and you lived with a guy like my father, he might as well have been sending us to the chair.

We would beg. We would plead. We would wheedle and weasel with every conceivable excuse. But on this issue my father would not budge. “You guys know the rules,” he would scold, “now go lock them up.” And with these words we were doomed.

I’ve often driven by that old house, and I’m amazed at how tiny that back yard looks to my adult eyes. When I was young, it seemed like acres and acres. The trip from the back door to the shed in the dark seemed like a miles long walk. In pitch-blackness no less. My brother and I could barely make out the dark shape of the small metal shed from where we stood on the porch. Like doomed men on the way to the gallows, we would collect our bikes, and begin the miles long walk through the backyard to the shed. In the dark.

As we approached, the shed doors would be pushed wide open. The darkness inside that shed was the most amazing, impenetrable black one could ever imagine.

My brother and I would take a deep breath, and try, as quickly as a human being could possibly move, to get our bikes into the shed, get the shed-doors shut (saying little prayers, begging Jesus the whole time not to let those rickety doors slip their guide tracks, which would force us to take the long minutes necessary to get them back on the rollers) and get those doors locked before whatever nefarious demons that were probably lurking in the darkness of that shed woke up, and came leaping out of the darkness to tear us apart.

My younger brother’s job was to stand with the pad-lock ready. The key, hanging from an old lanyard that I had made at some summer camp, was already inserted in the lock, enabling the fastest possible snap and twist. My job was to get the doors closed as quickly as possible without de-railing them. As the doors met, my brother would slam the lock through the handles, snap it shut, and twist the key out with a deft, practiced move. He was only 5, but man could he move when it counted. We’d practiced this maneuver more times than we could count, and considered ourselves Olympic Class shed shutters.

But there were nights when things didn’t go so smoothly. There were nights, especially in the summer, when things went very badly indeed.

My brother and I would be sitting inside, usually watching television or playing a game and always, always, always after dark. Our Dad would come in, and the minute we saw him we’d realize that we had forgotten to stow our bikes, and lock the shed. We’d curse ourselves for not remembering earlier. When it was light outside.

So off we’d go, shuffling our feet in our patented gallows walk. We’d pause at the back door, steeling ourselves for the run to the shed in the dark. Each of us silently praying for Jesus to watch over us, and, if he had the time, to please not let those rickety doors slip their rails. I look at my brother. He’s ready. I’m ready. And out the back door we go at a run.

Across the yard. Through the damp grass. Down to the shed, which stands gaping at us in the darkness as it always did. My brother snatches the padlock and jams in the key, his hands trembling a bit. “Hurry!”, he says, breathlessly. “Don’t worry.” I reply as always. I slide my bike into the darkness, between the ancient lawn mower, and the even more ancient wooden ladder. My little brother’s bike is smaller and slips in beside it with ease. He stands ready with the lock, practically on his tiptoes with nervousness while I grabbed the door handles and began sliding them together as fast as possible. 3 feet apart. 2 feet. 1 foot. Down to inches now. 6 more of them and the handles will meet. My brother hands slide under mine, ready to slip the lock into the holes, and slam it shut.

And then… the doors stop moving.

My brother goes to slip the lock in, but something is wrong. The doors aren’t shut all the way. The doors won’t shut all the way. It’s stuck open with the handles still an inch or so apart. I’ve been careful, the doors are still on their rails. Something must have fallen inside the shed, and is stopping the doors from closing all the way. Maybe a rake handle. Maybe an errant garden hose. Maybe a werewolve’s bloody claw.

Our hearts stop beating for a second. The doors will now have to be opened. The problem will have to be found, corrected, and the process will have to be started all over again, as precious seconds tick away. Precious seconds and a lot of noise rooting around in the darkness. We’re almost certain to awaken whatever monsters lurk in there now.

I slide the doors back open about a foot, and try to shut them again quickly, hoping that will dislodge whatever obstacle is keeping them from shutting. No such luck.

They stop dead on their tracks, still about an inch from being closed. I slip my hands inside the inch wide crack, and start feeling from the ground to the roof, looking for the obstacle, and hoping nothing bites my fingers off. I get near the top of the doors when my fingers find the obstruction. It’s soft, and hairy, and it takes a minute for my mind to register that it is also moving. I go to snatch my hand away in horror, but it’s too late. A claw-like hand has shot from the inside of the dark shed with inhuman speed, and wrapped itself around my wrist in a vise-tight grip, and is trying to drag me into the shed.

I try to scream to my brother to run, run for his life, but I’m so scared nothing comes out of my mouth. He hears me gasping, and in a shaky, 5-year-old voice asks “Wha.. wha.. whaaat’s wrong??”

That’s when whatever has grabbed me starts a long, low, growling noise, and pushes the shed doors open from the inside. I look for my brother, but that little fart is already in the house, screaming for Mom in a high pitched squealing voice. My insides turn into cold, white lead.

And that’s when I hear the laughter. The thing in the shed is cracking up, and its iron grip on my wrist lets go amid the gales and gales of laughter.

Out steps my father.

Again.

Oh yes.

This isn’t the first time we’ve been victimized by this man. Or the second, or the third for that matter. But, unfortunately we never see it coming.

To this day my brother and I wander aloud to each other about how Dad could have gotten out the front door, over the back fence, and into the shed before we had time to walk to the back door. The only theory that we can come up with is that he was driven. By the gene. The urge to aggravate must be so ingrained into his DNA that it gave him superhuman strength and speed.

As my brother and I became fathers ourselves in later years, this gene would manifest itself in our lives, and we would realize – in horror – that we were carriers too. My brother and I actually had entire conversations detailing how we were going to top The Old Man with our own kids. And did. We look at our children – ALL of our children – and know without any doubt, this gene lives in them as well.

No DNA tests necessary.

And those are stories that you can look forward to seeing here… soon.

 

Memories of My Father : The Bug

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Circa Summer, 1976

The Aggravator’s Gene I surmise, must be responsible for heightened levels of creativity.

Our Dad was never a very artistic kind of guy. But when the aggravation gene kicked in, he was a veritable Picasso.

Dad had many hobbies. All were of the healthy, stay at home variety. He built models. He built radio kits. He learned to cut gemstones. I look back now and realize that some of my friends had fathers who hung out in bars. Some had Dads that were gonzo sports fanatics. My Dad made things. Some were unique. Some were meaningful. Some were even useful. But all were made with a careful hand, and a steady eye.

One afternoon in the summer of my 15th  year, I walked by his workbench, and saw him carefully sculpting something out of the odd black clay he used to hold his gemstones in place while cutting. It wasn’t modeling clay, and I’d never known my Dad to sculpt anything before, so I leaned over for a better look. When I did, he sort of slid the whole sculpture under some other work, and gave me a “What’s up?” smile. He wasn’t telling me to go away. Dad would never do that. But… he didn’t necessarily want me in on what he was up to either.

“Whatcha makin’?” I asked innocently. “Ah… nothing.” He said, dismissing me. It was obvious that he wanted to keep his private project private. I didn’t take offense. I had only got a brief glimpse at it, and it looked like some sort of bug or something. I just figured that he was goofing off, and didn’t feel like anyone making fun of his little attempt at sculpting something. That was cool with me.

But two hours later, I walked by again, and he was still working on it. I didn’t pry further, but I thought it unusual that he was investing that much time in his little sculpting project. Little peeks here and there confirmed my assessment. He was making a bug. This was tres strange on the one hand, and clearly none of my business on the other hand. Later, after he was finished, I saw no trace of the finished work. I figured maybe just once in his life my Dad had gotten bored, and done something silly. Like sculpt a bug, and then smoosh the sculpture back up into a blob when he was done.

Now, it’s important to know that in our small suburban house, there were two bathrooms. Our bathroom, meaning mine, my brothers, and my Dad’s. And mom’s bathroom. Mom’s bathroom was inviolate. No male human had ever stepped foot in that room and come out alive, and none ever would. Under pain of death. Horrible, agonizing, excruciating, painful death. It simply wasn’t done. No matter how bad we had to go.

So I thought it unusual when I watched my Dad disappear into Mom’s bathroom, and re-appear a minute later. Surely he hadn’t actually used Mom’s bathroom? The Mysteries of the Mom/Dad relationship were still totally beyond my young years, so I let it pass. If he was dumb enough to risk the wrath of Mom, then he deserved what he got. I pretended not to notice, and vowed silently to myself to deny all knowledge if questioned on the matter.

Time passed. Maybe it was an hour or two. Maybe longer. But eventually I saw my mother disappear into her bathroom, and shut the door. I had forgotten that Dad had been in there a bit earlier, but when she gave a loud, startled scream, and came tumbling through the door, her side-zipper polyester pants undone, but held together at the waist by hand, I suddenly remembered Dad’s furtive moves of earlier. And then I remembered the sculpture.

You know, the one that looked like a bug…

Suddenly a mental image flashed across my mind. I knew my father well. He had placed it under the seat. Where maybe one hairy little bug-leg protruded. Maybe protruded just enough to be felt by a bare bottom. The owner of which would almost certainly have to lift the seat a tad to investigate what might be causing the foreign sensation. Where her eyes would fall upon… a big, hairy, black bug.

I totally lost it. So did my Father. My younger brother Chris didn’t have any idea what was going on, but Mom was screaming, and his older brother and father were laughing their butts off. That’s funny to an 8 year-old. He fell down on the floor with us, and began to howl.

Now, my mother has a sense of humor. About most things anyway. But that sense of humor tends to only stretch one way. When she’s doing the dishing. Being dished on was another matter entirely. My father and I continued trying to catch our breath through the gales of laughter, while Mom gave us a look that could wither an oak tree. She turned on her heels, zipped up her polyester slacks, and slammed into the master bedroom in a huff. I heard her rattling around, and I buried my face in the cushions of the couch to stifle the laughing fits.

Suddenly, I realized that my Dad’s laughter had stopped abruptly. I looked up to see my mother standing in the doorway holding a 3-foot long strip of wood. It was a yardstick. It was the yardstick. The one she used from time to time to discipline her unruly children. Dad was still lying on the floor, but he wasn’t laughing anymore. He was checking his exits, and then he made a truly Herculean effort to push off the floor and make it through the door to the kitchen, and down the steps into the basement. To safety. But it was way too late for that. Mom was on him in an instant with that yardstick.

Now, my brother and I pulled some shenanigans that truly merited the whippings we got with that yardstick. But we never saw the like of the beating that she threw my father that afternoon.  My father is built like a fireplug. Short, broad, and not an ounce of fat on the man. I’ve seen him dead-lift the railroad ties we used for landscaping in the yard, the ones that weighed maybe 175 pounds each, without even turning red in the face. And here he was, his arms slung over his face for protection, getting the Holy BeJeezus smacked out of him by this tiny, angry woman, trying desperately not to let her see the giant smirk on his face, which would undoubtedly make the whipping harder and longer. And it was truly the most hilarious thing I think I’d ever seen.

More hilarious were the implications. It never once crossed her mind that perhaps my brother or me may have crafted the evil sculpture. She had gone straight for my Dad. It did our hearts good. We’d suffered much over the course of our lives as a result of The Aggravator’s Gene and we fairly howled with laughter while he took his beating. With every whap of the stick across his scalp, and arms, and back, and butt, we howled.

Paybacks were sweet.

Memories of My Father : Dadisms

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Fall, 1999

I took my younger brother to lunch the other day. It wasn’t a fancy place, but it wasn’t McDonald’s either. He enjoys cigars, and imported beer. I don’t enjoy either, but I had heard of a trendy place that catered to both vices, so I took him.

At sometime during lunch, a patron walked in wearing a stylish looking hat. He was a young guy, and as with all young guys, wearing any hat other than a ball-cap is a gamble. You either look really spiffy, or like a real dork. This guy was one of the lucky ones. The hat looked great on him, and gave him character.

I noticed. My brother noticed too. “Nice hat.” He said, around a mouthful of roast beef sandwich.

“Yep,” I agreed, around my own mouthful of Rueben.  “I’d look like a geek in it.”

“You know,” he stated purposefully,  “eighty percent of your body heat escapes out the top of your head.” I almost choked to death. I sputtered, trying to keep the corned beef, Swiss cheese, and sauerkraut in my mouth. This was one of our father’s gems of wisdom. He used to say it all the time when we were kids. I hadn’t heard it in many, many years. Hearing it again really cracked me up.

“Yeah well,” I countered. “You can put your shoes in the oven, but that don’t make ‘em biscuits.” Another Dadism. Only this time it was my brother who was choking with laughter. I got him. The war was on.

“I know, I know,” he laughed. “One man on his feet is worth ten on his seat!”  He had accepted my challenge.

Him: “The average American family can save 300 dollars a year just by turning out unused lights.”

Me: “If ‘if’ was a skiff, we’d all take a boat.”

Him: “A man that can’t be beat, won’t be beat.”

“A quitter never wins,” I start.

“And a winner never quits”, he finishes.

We’re rolling now. Our sandwiches forgotten as we dig for all the old chestnuts our father had imparted to us repeatedly over the years.

“I know, I know,” he laughed. “If my aunt had balls… ” he started with a straight face.

“She’d be your uncle.”  I finished for him.

“When small men cast long shadows, the sun is setting.” He said, with a perfectly serious face.

It had taken me years to understand how profound that particular Dadism was, but it was still worth a chuckle from my brother.

“Don’t write checks with your mouth, that your fists can’t cash.” He had whipped out a real oldy, but a goody.

“Kill the body, and the head will die.” My retort, learned during boxing lessons with our father.

Back and forth we go each of us one-upping the other. Finally we finish our sandwiches, and bottom-out on Dadisms.

I lean back in the booth, and stretch. “Who wants dessert?” I ask innocently. My brother’s face brightens, knowing full well I’m baiting him, and playing along. “I do! I do!” he offers. “So do I,” I say dejected, “sure wish I had some.” We roar. People stare.

It was one of our Dad’s favorite ways to aggravate. He’d wait until we were wrapped up in our homework or a game and off of our guard. Then he’d yell to nobody in particular. “Who wants chocolate cake?” or “Who wants pizza?” My brother and I fell for it every time. We’d jump up from whatever we were doing, and run to the kitchen squealing “We do! We do!”

We’d arrive in the kitchen, not to the sweet taste of chocolate cake, or the garlic aroma of beloved pizza, but to a Dad with a look on his face that was half dejected disappointment, and half smart-assed grin.

“Darn,” he’d say, “so do I. Sure wish we had some.” Then he’d roll on the floor laughing at us. You’d think we’d learn.

My brother and I would look at each other and snarl.

Eventually we did learn. And when Dad would shout “Who want’s some ice cream?” we’d look up from our Monopoly game, smile, and go back to playing.  This only guaranteed that he’d escalate the aggravation to a new level. But we didn’t care. He’d taught us not to be gullible, and to ask questions before we just ran headlong into something that sounded too good to be true.

We loved it. We loved him too. Still do.

We were, and are, smart enough to know his teasing was a gentle way to teach us about life. It was also Dadspeak for “I love you guys.” Now he has grandchildren. And we watch as he visits the same indignities on them, that he did on us, and we’re powerless to stop him.

We wouldn’t if we could.

We tease him a lot about all the Dadism he beat into us figuratively over the years, but I find myself repeating them to my child more often than I like to admit.

As a kid I used to roll my eyes when Dad would shake his finger, and spew his oft muttered “The average American family could save 300 dollars a year if they just turned out unused lights!” As an adult I fume when my daughter goes through the house from room to room, turning on every light she sees, upstairs and down, and I realize why my electric bill equals the gross national product of some small countries. It’s just the two of us in that house, and she’s only there about half the time. Dad wasn’t far wrong.

I watch the evening news and see men of low character, and poor judgement assuming high offices, and controlling much that is beyond their grasp, and wonder where it will all lead. We chuckled at Dad when he’d see the same thing, shake his head and quip “When small men cast long shadows, the end is near.” We aren’t laughing now.

I watch my daughter as she strives to grasp difficult math problems, and throws her pencil at the paper in tears. “It’s just too hard Daddy!” she sobs. I pick the pencil up softly, and hand it back to her. In as gentle a voice as I can muster, my fathers words come tumbling out. “A quitter never wins,” I begin. She finishes my sentence in a sing-song voice: “And a winner never quits. I know, I know.” She rolls her eyes as I used to, but the wisdom of those words aren’t lost on her, and she goes back to work.

I wonder if the Dad’s of today will inherit the wealth of wisdom and character that we inherited from our Dad.

I walk through modern day offices and see the “Motivational” poster’s that line the walls and snicker. My Dad taught me those sayings 40 years ago. And more.

That inheritance made us wealthy indeed.

I love you, Dad.

 

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