Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Who's Your Daddy?

My father was such an interesting man. I wish I had gotten to know him a little better when I had the chance. He was a big man, like a major appliance, moving perceptibly through the house, usually from the garage to the kitchen and back again. In his later years he grew a beard and a Harley and a jean jacket and he looked like some wild hybrid of Robert E. Lee and Saddam Hussein.

He loved that garage. Inside he was surrounded by all manner of noisemaking power tools. As we tried to watch TV he would fire up the band saw or the lathe. Most of his attention was focused on classic cars which he restored with an intense, loving care. If I even so much as got in range of it he would demand to know what I was doing in the garage. But I couldn’t blame him for paying so much attention to those cars. Even flesh and blood can not compete with classic internal combustion.

Once restored he would buff the car to a high gloss shine and drive it to car shows where he would win plaques and ribbons. Soon our family room was lined with these major awards. He hung them around the room like other men hung moose heads. And when he would finally come inside, sometime after we had all gone to sleep, he would sit in his chair, surrounded by this cloud of witnesses. They whispered into his ear and kindled his passion all the more.

There are things I’ll never forget about him. Like the time I sat in the back of his 67’ Ford Mustang at a stop light while a Chevy Camero rolled up along-side us. As the light turned green the Camero burst off the line with animalistic fury, its tires screaming as they attempted to gain some traction. It was barreling down the street ahead of us but my dad hadn’t even moved. It was like he hadn’t even noticed. And then he did it. He mashed the pedal into the floorboards and my body was thrown against the back of the car. The Mustang jumped to life, charging down the street faster and faster. I peeled myself from the back seat and peered out the window just in time to see the Camero to our right and falling behind. We flew through the next intersection and my dad slowed the car to a respectable speed. All I could do was look at him in wide-eyed wonder. “I always give them a head start,” he informed me, and we drove home.

He was a proud man, very sensitive. His Italian emotions were always just below the surface, held fast by efficient German logic. He also could not hear out of one ear, thanks to an explosion in Vietnam. All of this combined to produce what our family will always remember as “the incident.” After a day of fishing, dad was backing the boat into the drive way. My uncle Denny was guiding him in and telling him how much farther he had to go. “OK, that’s good, stop right there,” he said. But dad kept backing up. “Stop, OK! OK, OK!! Stop the damn car..!” But dad couldn’t hear him because Denny was outside on the side of his bad ear. The boat’s outboard motor rammed into the back of the garage with a sickening sound. The aluminum of the garage door buckled and moaned for a moment, while dad abruptly stopped the car and pulled forward. It was bad enough to have crashed the boat into the garage door on dry land. But worse, the motor left an imprint on the door that neighbors could see. We never mentioned the incident in his presence.

Now we are free to recall those moments whose remembrance is heightened by the pride they wounded, like the time dad came crashing through the screen door coming in from the yard. He didn’t see it and simply walked right into it, his mass carrying the screen door off its track and into the middle of the kitchen.

“Who put that damn door there?” He snarled. “Who closed that door?”

There was always a conspiracy afoot. Someone was always trying to take his pride away. But really, nothing could have been further from the truth. We gave him room and steered clear while he worked on cars, mowed the lawn, and parked the boat. We just hoped to god he wouldn’t break anything in the process, because if he wasn’t happy no one was happy. We were just codependents in his life, and our best strategy was just to stay out of the way.

Perhaps the greatest mystery is how a man who loved guns, explosions, and combustion, could produce a son who hated all of those things. As such, I’m sure he regarded me with suspicion and I was never included in those sacred activities because I couldn’t appreciate them from the start. Oh well. We had baseball and snowmobiling, and that’s better than nothing. He had a lot of talent and skill but he was just too scared to share it. He grew up with a father who regarded him with contempt, and so he learned to keep his simple pleasures all to himself. Better to do that then to cast pearl before swine. And now, all of it, from beginning to end, everything he knew, is locked up safely in his head, silenced forever. I wish I had coaxed more of it out of him when I had the chance. Or, better, I wish we had trusted each other enough to share.

But I'm not bitter at all. His heart was in the right place and he put a roof over my head and I knew if anyone did anything to me he'd be there with his shotgun. He was from a different time, for sure. They say dad's are evolving. They can cook and clean and they listen to their kids. I too vow to be different. If I crash into my own garage door I hope my kids get a good laugh out of it. I hope I take the time to explain to them everything I know. It should take about six months, I figure. After all, how long does it take to explain baseball?

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