Dad, I Miss You
My dad's right knee was bad for as long as I can remember. A few years before he died, he had it replaced with a titanium knee. Having a total replacement like that takes a while to recover from, but just a month later, he and Mom were vacationing in Branson, MO when his truck, a Chevy Z-71, broke down. He got out and pushed the truck a half-mile up a hill back to where they were staying. It is advised not to pivot or twist your knee for six weeks after surgery. Not the best medical decision but damn impressive.
But that was my dad. He was tough, loving, and impulsive. He never took pain medication unless it was fed to him via I.V. in a hospital when he was too physically weak to prevent it. Before his knee was replaced, I used to stand next to him in church and watch him sing, his leg locked and trembling slightly, a streak of sweat running down his temple.
He bought my mom a dozen roses for every birthday, Mother's Day, and Valentine's Day and sometimes just because. On Valentine's Day he not only got my mom the biggest heart box of candy he could find but got my sister and I Valentine's gifts as well. He bought my mom jewelry when he didn't have the finances to do so, because he had an extravagant soul and worked hard to enjoy life.
He was handsome. He was broad and carried himself well. In fourth or fifth grade, the week after a swim meet a fellow swimmer named Dustin came up to me in the cafeteria and said, "Man, I saw your dad at the meet. I wouldn't want to meet him in a dark alley." He was intense. He felt intensely. He danced and could play guitar and sing. I am forever grateful for this video. This is my parents' song. Watch this video. Notice how my dad looks at my mom off-camera at 33 seconds in.
Although Dad was a smoker and a drinker, his voice was still beautiful. Rough and smooth at the same time. He was a natural musician and even rusty after years of not playing, he could skillfully execute the chords. At 1:52 in the video above, the tempo of the song changes, and he nails it.
He learned how to play guitar as a teenager and played in a local band. He actually taught Tommy Bolin how to play guitar when they were growing up together in Sioux City, Iowa. Bolin grew up to play guitar for a number of bands, most notably the James Gang, and Deep Purple. My grandma used to tell the story of my dad coming home one day from giving Tommy a lesson and saying, "I can't teach that kid anything!" The Deep Purple song "Smoke on the Water" is now one that is often a starter song for new guitarists. In the weird circuitousness of life, when I was a young teen, it is the song I was being taught to play by my boyfriend when my dad stormed into my room and told him that he'd break his legs if he caught him on his daughter's bed again--we were sitting on the edge with the guitar.
Smoke on the Water
His loyalty and determination
Every year when it snowed, my dad would attach a snow blade to the front of his pickup and drive across the Missouri River bridge to my grandmothers' houses to plow the snow from their driveways and shovel their sidewalks. He would use the blade to clear neighbors' driveways. After we moved to Texas, my dad would make the 11-hour drive home to see his mother even if there was snow and ice on the roads. No weather deterred him.
Years ago, before I and my siblings were born, my dad worked at a convenience store. One of his friends came in to rob the place while my dad was working. Instead of turning him in, my dad took the blame.
When the General Motors plant that he worked at closed, they laid off something like 300 people, but not my dad. To him they said, you can keep your job, but you have to move to Detroit, MI or Wichita Falls, TX. There was no real contest--Texas was our new home.
My dad was a cowboy at heart. He loved John Wayne movies. His first real job was breaking horses. He taught me how to ride a horse, and my sister and I both love horses. So does his eldest grandchild, one of the only two grand-kids who were fortunate enough to know him. Now there's ten of them.
In that video of him singing, at 0:57 seconds in, he forgets which verse comes next, and as he begins the verse a few seconds later, he shakes his head thinking this is not the right one, and his expression is my own.
He coached my soccer team. He taught me to wink, to build cairns when we went hiking, to play chess. He taught me to take care of and be responsible for my pets, to chop mesquite and ride horses. He let me accompany he and the boys when they went hunting. He made me deal with the consequences of my choices.
He could inspire fear with one look and his praise was highly sought.
I may only have one sister and brother, but my dad had many other children. He was Uncle Steve to them, and he was someone who my cousins loved and respected as much as my sister, brother and I did. His brother's and sisters' kids were as loved by him as we were. He was a big man with a big personality and an even bigger heart.
When I got older, my dad and I grew closer. I realized I was really into horror and horror movies. My dad, it turned out, was a horror lover, including the B-movie variety. Every year around Halloween, certain cable channels play the classic horror movies from the '80s, and my dad would call me to let me know they were playing. Even if I wasn't home, he would leave a message on my answering machine, saying simply, "Abbie, Freddy's on" in that resonant and gruff voice. Man, I miss his voice. I cannot tell you how important that video of him is to me--to be able to hear his voice still, after all these years, to be able to listen to him play and sing, if only for a couple of minutes.
In 2005, I added a second major to my B.A. in History. This gave my dad and I something else to share and talk about. I would call him after history class almost every day I had it, two or three days a week, to bubble over with everything I had learned. He would listen and discuss it with me. I was in the first half of Russian history when he died, and I got a B in the class for that reason. Now, I have a masters in History, and I wish he had been around to see it. He was so intelligent. He never finished his bachelors degree, but he knew every answer to the questions that stumped the rest of us when we played Trivial Pursuit, a common family past-time.
One memory I have of him is from when I was about six or so, of going to chemistry class with him. It was a three-hour class, which was an eternity to me at the time, but Dad concentrated and took copious notes. I remember reading my Little House on the Prairie book and watching him listen and learn.
He gave everyone nicknames. My sister, brother and I each had a couple of nicknames from Dad. He even nicknamed the pets. My rabbits Merry and Pippin became Lunchbox and Snackpack. My birds Sea and Sky became Fred and Barney.
Dad was a retired blue-collar worker on disability thanks to lupus and heart disease at the end of his life, but he had business owners at his funeral, because his buddies included some of the wealthier people in the area. Not because of what they had or made, but because they were his drinking buddies at the bar in the local hotel by the falls that had been his home away from home since we moved to Texas in 1992. They shared common ground after work in the bar, where they watched sports and discussed politics and shared jokes. They were such a common sight in this bar that the group of them were known as the "Round Table." They were given stronger drinks and cheaper tabs because they were the bar's daily occupants, even on holidays. Both my father and another Round Table member were posthumously honored with name plaques on the backs of their bar stools.
One time a cartoonist for The New Yorker, Matthew Diffee, was passing through Wichita Falls and stayed at the hotel. He went to the bar for a drink and met my father and his buddies. At the time, I read the magazine every week, because my boss, a friend, had a subscription and would give me his copy. One day I was reading through it and came across a cartoon with the caption, "The Celebrated Wits of the Radisson Round Table." I showed it to my dad, who smirked slightly and gruffly said, "hmph" when I showed it to him then informed me of having met the cartoonist. The guys at the bar were insulted by the drawing but my dad didn't seem to mind. He was not easily hurt by insults. He was stoic.
I hope that my boys grow up to love me the way my dad loved his mom. They talked on the phone often. I hope they love their partners as much as my father loved my mother, with a love and devotion that he felt to his core. I hope I can teach my sons as much as my father taught me, and I hope that when I am gone, they remember their momma with as much love and understanding as I remember my dad.
He was deep and passionate, complicated, strong and intense, determined and hard, loving and soft. He was my dad, and I miss him.