My old man was born 83 years ago this month to a poor family in central Texas.
This man was at war. At war between the tangible, things that you could taste, smell, hear and touch. Hard things like six penny nails, ten gallon buckets, bailing wire, guns. Shiny things of value like coins, toy trains, scientific equipment, stamps and books. On the other side, the conflicting side, was the ideals, the thoughts, the letters, the poetry, academia.
Throughout all of my life, the man worked six days a week. When I was very young, he worked five days at the oil refinery as a chemist, and each evening and on Saturday, he worked a forty acre piece of land laying a garden, hog and chicken pens, a corral for a few horses, and a bunch of various piles of junk, machinery and whatever else he might find interesting and couldn’t keep at our house back in town. Beside the garden was a rusted out miniature train that kids used to ride in the 60’s at the drive-in movie theater. Unclear how he acquired this prize, and I think he had the idea to put down some track, repair the unrepairable engine, and become the Walt Disney of The Panhandle. That never happened, but all was not lost. I spent a lot of hot Texas afternoons sitting in that train engine, hauling freight up the Rockies, dodging bad guy bullets while rescuing the girl.
The six day work week continued, even after retiring from the oil patch and buying the auto salvage just outside of town. That was were I reluctantly spent my Teenage Saturday’s. I wish I could say I learned anything about breaking down cars, engine parts, or really any knowledge about car repair. Didn’t happen. But what I did learn, was a few other tenants of my father. Having cash on hand can make or break a deal. Eat a good breakfast. Don’t judge a man’s financial worth by how dirty are his finger nails. A gun that is not loaded is worthless – he carried a lot of cash at that time and, although he didn’t carry it on him, there was always a 357 magnum close by, loaded.
My relationship with my father has always been a good one. I was lucky. Born the youngest and the only male. By the time I came along, my folks were somewhat past the struggles of a young couple with two young children, my two older sisters. They were firmly established in the middle class, financially healthy, and living well in a small town in rural Texas. After I was born, I believe both my Mother and Father were exploring the life outside of the early family unit. My mother, after taking college courses at night, eventually achieved a bachelor’s and masters degree in teaching and began her career as a teacher. My father also attended night school and somehow gained an anthropology degree, an addition to his chemistry degree he achieved as a young man, along the way. The point being, my early years were shaped by an environment of discovering new things, finding freedom from the mundane, while having the comfort of a house over my head, food on the table and a family that keep me safe.
I was deathly afraid of my father. A man with little patience who angered quickly. He grew up in a time and place where the male, the husband, the father, both set and administered the rules. No grey area here. As a youngster, I tried to stay out of his way. The man was so powerful to my young mind, I can’t remember a time when he actually physically punished me. Not needed here. A look, a harsh word and I would be in tears, in internal anguish trying like to hell to get back to toeing the line. My earliest memories are strictly commands. You’re going to need a hat. Hold my coffee cup (many of the street’s of my hometown were not paved and I had the honor of holding his cup while he drove the pickup on the bumpy roads). Get me the pliers. Turn on the hose. At that age, I really wasn’t much use to him. One of his favorite sayings to me – you being here, is like two men gone.
As I grew older, he found me to be more useful, and I might be of service in whatever task or venture was at hand. I believe since I was a curious and interested child, he found an eager learner in which to part wisdom and know how. Essentially, I was an unpaid, unskilled laborer, probably lower than a Mexican in his eyes, but still probably a little useful. And in the end, we both profited. He had a quick learning assistant that kept quite, followed orders, and the satisfaction of developing his son in becoming a man. On the other hand, I came away with hard skills like don’t tighten all of the nuts until all the nuts are in place. Leave the gate open or shut, depending on how you found it. Power tool operation. Horse riding. No matter what anybody says, a gun is always loaded. And I also learned the softer skills. How to identify the person in the room with the power. Spirituality can be found outside of the church. It’s better to read a good book twice, then a bad one once.
Which brings me to books, an essential part of my father’s life. Our house was filled with books, and I was encourage to read at a very early age by my father. The material didn’t matter. Novels, nonfiction, magazines, newspapers, all encouraged. His favorites became mine. Zane Grey, Hunter S. Thompson, Cormac McCarthy, Edward Abbey. He challenged me with books by Robert Persig and John Graves. And of course, Hemingway. I still have the faded paperback of “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. When he handed me this book, he told me he first read this book on cold nights sitting next to a wood burning stove. He said Hemingway and the stove kept him warm, while terribly missing home, serving his military time stationed in Germany in the 50’s.
This is the inscription –
To Clayton: Just for being.
I was sixteen years old.
I’ve loved my father for all of my 47 years. He has influenced and shaped how I think and provided a solid base of intellect I carry to this day. It’s unfortunate, that deteriorating health, old age, and the deep lying faults of stubbornness, distrust, and arrogance, compounded by his managing of my mother’s dementia has led my father to take a path of anger and paranoia. My early attempt at writing this brief essay began with me recording a conversation with him. A conversation about his life, how he gained knowledge and wisdom as he aged. The good, and the bad, of his life. Our conversation took place on his home turf and where he is at his best – breakfast at his local coffee shop. I began by saying I was going to record this and he immediately stiffened and began telling me how he was misunderstood most of his life and how others in his life made it difficult for him. He described how living in rural Texas held him back and the people who lived here were beneath him and just plain dumber than him. Luckily, one of the locals rambled to our booth, sat down and began talking to my father. He became distracted and our short interview concluded. The recording continued throughout their conversation. I have never listened to the recording.
A few years ago, I told my father that he could choose how he was going to live out his final years. One path, the good path, would be the charming intellectual he could be, going on about a wide range of subjects and softly challenging others to think differently. Or, continue down his current path, of holding grudges, distrusting everybody, complaining how this is a bad place and how unfair it is to take care of my increasingly mentally ill mother. It was his choice to make and I felt he, and everyone close to him, would be much better off if he chose the right path. Looking back, my challenge to him was not fair and probably disrespectful. How am I to know how hard it is? Regardless, I just want the old him back.
I suspect everyone of us is conflicted, waging our own personal internal wars. If I am alive and sane at 83, I hope I gained the wisdom to leave out all of the bad…and keep all the good.
I owe a lot to my father.