Monday, June 16, 2008


In Which We Remember Dad (and the Coyote)...

In my family, we never celebrated Father's Day. Or Mother's Day, come to that. It wasn't that my big brother and I were ungrateful shits (well, I'll admit on occasion that in fact we WERE ungrateful shits, but not all the time), but it was just not an occasion my parents believed in. More than once I heard my mom dismiss these days as "greeting-card holidays" and so we followed suit.

Thus it is that I cannot honestly remember a single instance of doing anything for my Dad on Father's Day. Not a card, not breakfast in bed, nothing. And we were all okay with that. After all, it's not as though we ignored him on real red-letter days, at Christmas or on his birthday. In fact, we always went to some lengths to treat him quite well on his birthday (which was the first of June, making any subsequent June festivities seem redundant). Father's Day, though? Total non-event in our house.

So how do you explain the fact that I spent a solid two hours yesterday, sitting in the dark, crying for my Dad?

A little context: At the Magazine Mansion, and largely under the influence of Her Lovely Self, Mother's Day and Father's Day are big deals. I go along with it because, hey, why not? Yesterday, I got to sleep in, I got a nice breakfast with all my favorites, and then for my afternoon enjoyment, Thomas and the Brownie announced that they would take me to any movie I wanted to see--as long as it was Kung-Fu Panda.

So off we went to see this animated spectacle which, if you haven't seen it, involves a number of anthropomorphized animals engaging in various energetic moments of chop-socky, culminating in a fight between Dustin Hoffman and Ian McShane, right before Jack Black shows up to save the day (sorry, but I have a memory for voices and once I figure out who's voicing which character, the animation magic falls away for me and next thing I know I'm watching Tootsie fight the evil whorehouse owner from Deadwood as they wait for the fat guy from School of Rock to put in an appearance).

Now let me say, in all fairness, it was a pretty funny movie, as these kinds of movies go. When I take my kids to the movies, I try to put myself in their mindset and enjoy it as much as possible, which helps me bond with my children, and also makes me feel immensely superior to the wise-cracking, eye-rolling, cynical adults around me, who obviously have forgotten what it's like to be a kid.

But yesterday, something happened that I didn't expect.

Because the movie has a kung-fu theme, it revolves around a lot of physical comedy. And as I was watching, I was suddenly reminded of the old Road Runner and Coyote cartoons that used to run on CBS when I was a kid (and as shorts in movie theaters decades before my birth).

My Dad loved slapstick and physical comedy, and the Road Runner cartoons were full of it. When I was growing up, if my Dad was home on the weekend, my brother and I had to be extra-quiet going out to the family room to watch cartoons. Often as not, my Dad had driven home late the night before and was still sleeping, and therefore not to be disturbed. It was understood that we were to wake him for only two reasons: if the house was on fire, or if there was a Road Runner cartoon on.

As long-time readers know from previous posts (which I don't have the heart today to dig up and link here), my Dad was an alcoholic who did not sober up until I was almost an adult. I won't guild the lily: he was erratic in his behavior and often abusive to my mom and us boys. He never put us in the hospital, but he beat us enough that today I can't imagine any situation in which I could bring myself to lay a hand on my kids (which I've heard runs counter to the conventional psychology regarding adults who were physically abused as kids, but I'm not complaining). Still, he was my only Dad and I didn't know what else to do but to love him and to live for those moments when he was kind and funny. And the best of those moments was when we watched Road Runner cartoons together.

And as I watched this movie with my kids, watched the hapless panda flop bonelessly down endless flights of stairs, or saw the villain fall from a great height or any of a dozen other moments of someone getting unexpectedly brained, I swear I could hear my Dad's high, harsh laughter echoing in the theater, as it so often echoed in our family room in the house in Goffstown, New Hampshire, as we watched the Coyote take his ten-thousandth fall from the canyon heights, usually with a large boulder or an Acme-brand anvil falling right behind him. "Ohhh jeezuz!" my Dad would cry, wiping tears from the corners of his eyes. "That poor dumb bastard!"

Pretty soon my own tears began flowing.

Thankfully, we were in a darkened theater and I had plenty of napkins acquired as accessories to the greasy popcorn we'd bought, so I was able to wipe my streaming eyes and make it appear that I just really enjoyed the movie. But I came out of the theater--and spent the rest of the day--in a much more introspective mode.

My Dad was quick with a laugh, but taken as a whole, it would be hard to find any great abundance of humor and joy in his life. He grew up poor on a hardscrabble farm. He was the third of four children and, near as I was ever able to tell, not much favored in his family. He started drinking at a very young age (there are tales of him dancing a jig on the table in his house when he was four and had his first snootful) and had to work or fight for everything he ever wanted. His parents actively discouraged him from going to college and refused to support him when he went anyway, incurring debts and loans that he would spend most of my childhood paying off.

Later, when he wanted to buy 120 acres of timberland from his father--land my grandfather neither used nor needed--the old man came very close to refusing to sell it to my Dad, and then finally set a price that was stingingly high, but which my Dad paid, check after check, for years. My Dad had plans to build a house on that property--it was considered a matter of fact for years and years. But eventually, about the time Her Lovely Self and I started having kids, Dad had to admit that he was probably past the age of putting in a cabin on the hill. That was when he ceded half of the acreage of the hill to me, gratis, in the hopes that I might build a place where my family could stay when we came to visit.

Despite his drinking, and the attendant rages that followed, I know he loved his family, so I can't imagine how it must have pained him to have spent so little time with us. My Dad worked in construction and there was none in New Hampshire where we lived, so he spent months away from us at various job sites throughout New England and Canada. When I was older, I once tried to math out how much time I got to spend with my Dad throughout my childhood, and it figured out to something like one month a year on average. For 16 years. I can't imagine being parted from my family for that length of time, and I have no doubt the loneliness he felt contributed to his drinking, so that by the time he finally came back home to live with us, he was in an advanced stage of alcoholism that almost killed him.

When he eventually sobered up for good, both of his sons had grown up and it was too late to make up for lost time. But he went gamely on, doing what he could to make his amends, and I have to say that he succeeded on a remarkable level. I like to think he enjoyed a bit of a golden age: He and I made our peace and in that time of peace he got to see his grandchildren, if only for a little while. But to the end, things were never easy for him. A painful shoulder injury forced him into retirement a couple of years sooner that he would have liked, but he was accepting of it. And then, not 60 days after his retirement papers were processed he ended up dead--my mom along with him--on a highway a thousand miles from home, the victim of a careless truck driver looking for a cell-phone charger.

Holy shit, how tragic is that?

And yet, I knew my Dad well enough to know that he would not look back on his life and call it tragic, nor joyless. He derived his joy and pleasure from everyday events, both mundane and, occasionally, downright frightening.

Once, not long after my Dad had entered his final tenure of sobriety--which would last 22 years, right up to his dying day--I was visiting him in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where he had settled after coming out of rehab and getting a job at the Seabrook power plant there. It was the first time I'd spent any time alone with him since his drinking days, and there was a certain stiffness and distance between us that neither of us could find a way through. I was on summer break after my freshman year of college, and so I spent my days driving around town in my Dad's car and my evenings hanging out with him, either in the single bedroom he rented at a boarding house, or at the AA meetings he was religiously attending most every night. It was an awkward few weeks.

Then one night, Dad got a call from a coworker in trouble. The guy had been trying to quit drinking, but he'd fallen off the wagon and was at a bar in town and could my Dad come and get him?

Technically, my Dad had no business going into a bar for any reason, not this early in his sobriety. But apparently the friend's sponsor was unreachable and there was no one else this guy knew in town who could help him. My Dad didn't hesitate to tell him he'd be right there. Dad did hesitate slightly longer when I insisted on accompanying him, but he eventually agreed. I'm not sure why I wanted to go, probably because I was still suspicious of my Dad and didn't want him to sneak a drink at the bar or something. But of course, I was also bored out of my skull and thought this might prove an interesting night's diversion. So off we drove to the bar to rescue my Dad's friend.

Despite my tender age--I didn't turn 21 until late in my college career--I had been to a few bars at school, but the bars I went to were nothing like this bar. When we pulled up, I at first mistook the place for a condemned shack, that's the kind of bar it was. Rusted-out pick-ups and cars with doors and hoods whose paint-jobs didn't match all adorned the dusty lot that served as a parking area. As we got out, I could hear the kind of raucous noise and chatter that made me realize I was about to enter a place where only serious, career drinkers ever went. My Dad loped ahead of me with an easy grace and I wondered how many such shacks he'd spent his time and his money at in his long career as a drunk.

Picture your standard seedy, red-lit, smoky bar from any of your favorite working-class hero movies, and you'll pretty much have the look of this place, plus the smell of stale beer and fresh vomit for ambience. My Dad told me to stand at the door and I was only too happy to obey him. Big lumbering fellows, smelling of axle-grease and copper and body-odor, staggered to and fro, all of them too busy getting hammered to give me a second glance. My Dad approached the splintery slab that passed for a bar and leaned in to say a quick word to the bartender, a sullen man with a greasy shiny head, who pointed to a darkened corner. My Dad looked--from the door I followed his motion--and there in the corner sat a reed-thin man with an amazingly long, scraggly beard, weakly putting a hand up to gesture to my Dad. Mr. Scraggly, I couldn't help but notice, was flanked on either side by two of the most genuinely meanest looking men I ever hope to see. One had a long, scarred face with a single snaggle-tooth hanging from his upper lip. The other had black, beady eyes, which glittered when he turned to face my Dad.

As I later found out, Scraggly owed some money to one or both of these men, had owed this money for some time, and had made the mistake of bumping into them at this bar, and that this was probably the real reason he had called my Dad to help him. They sneered at Dad as he ambled over, taking in this odd-looking, short, big-bellied guy with the funny red beard.

"Who the fuck are you, Santy Claus?" Beady Eyes asked.

Dad got to the guts of it fairly quickly, saying that he'd come to give his friend a ride home. "You come out of there," he said to Scraggly, as if his friend didn't have two thugs barring his way. As Scraggly stood up and edged his way around Snaggletooth, Beady Eyes made some noise about no one going anywhere until he got his fucking money. Whereupon my Dad reached for his wallet, his other hand out in a mollifying gesture. He dropped all the money he had on the table--about a hundred bucks--and said Scraggly would pay up the rest when he could get it.

Then without another word, Dad grabbed Scraggly by the arm and they both turned towards me and the door. But I couldn't help but see that, as my Dad and his friend started walking away, Beady Eyes and Snaggletooth exchanged a meaningful look. And then all hell broke loose.

Here's what happened (although it was all too fast to really follow at the time): Beady Eyes pulled a knife and made a move, whether for my Dad or his friend, we'll never know. My Dad, who'd been watching them through a mirrored beer sign hanging on the wall, saw the whole thing, turned, and caught Beady Eyes' wrist. The knife flashed in the air and someone screamed.

(Okay, it was me. I screamed.)

People looked at my Dad, at his goofy beard and his big belly, and they dismissed him as a joke. It made it easy to overlook his arms, which were as strong as any I've ever known (I once saw him crush a brick with his right hand). Once he had that guy by the wrist, he wasn't going anywhere. Dad spun, ungainly yet graceful, like a kung-fu panda, then yanked hard, pulling Beady Eyes off his feet. The knife fell harmlessly from Beady Eyes' hand. Dad scooped the blade up and, still holding the guy by his wrist, laid the knife upside Beady Eyes' nose (his friend Scraggly insists my Dad placed the tip of the knife in the guy's nostril. I didn't see that.) Snaggletooth didn't budge from his seat, his eyes like saucers.

"By Gorry, we gonna have any more trouble tonight?" my Dad asked, his voice booming in the briefly quieted bar.

"Huh-uh. Huh-uh," Beady Eyes huffed.

"Alright then. Get the fuck out," he said, letting the guy go. But he kept the knife.

Beady Eyes jumped up, and without so much as a backwards glance at my Dad, his friend or his crony Snaggletooth, bolted for the back exit.

And ran face-first into it.

It was a metal door with a push-bar latch and was apparently locked or something, because Beady Eyes hit it like he'd run full-tilt into a wall. He bounced off the door and fell to the sticky, beer-and-puke laminated floor, to the general laughter of the bar patrons, including my Dad, who hurriedly ushered me and his friend out the front and back to the car.

Off and on, while driving Scraggly back to his apartment and then taking us home, my Dad just kept chuckling to himself, while I sat in the passenger seat, a little shell-shocked.

"You all right?" he finally asked, eventually realizing I hadn't enjoyed the moment quite as much as he had.

"I guess," I said. "But, that guy could've killed you!"

"Oh hell, that fella couldn't pour piss out of a boot with the instructions writ on the heel," he said. And then he began chuckling again. "Oh Christ, did you see how he hit the door?" And then he broke out into fresh gales of laughter. "Jeezuz," he finally gasped, wiping tears from his eyes, "I do love slapstick."

Which pretty much summed up my old man's philosophy of life. If anything, he saw past the dangers, the everyday tragedies, and regarded the whole as one great physical comedy, which might explain his love for those old Road Runner cartoons, and his especial adoration for that poor Coyote. Because let's face it: as much as that bastard's plans went awry, as often as he ended up on the wrong side of a boulder or cliff face, he always got back up and continued his pursuit.

So did my Dad.

That's what I was thinking about this Father's Day.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

I'm speachless, thank you for sharing....Your mom and dad are missed, even from a complete stranger who has heard stories of them for years.
On Suldog's recommendation, I started reading your blog just a couple months back and immediately put you on my reader so I never miss a post now. What a story this was! And, so much of it reminded me of the relationship my kids have with their dad -now 15 years into recovery from alcoholism. I've read so many Father's Day posts this weekend and still today -very good ones many of them were too -but this one totally blew me away. I cried and laughed, cried and laughed some more. And, just wanted to thank you for the things you tell me/us within these pages as I do must definitely appreciate them -no, I think I love 'em!
You've made me see the Coyote differently.

I'm sorry you had a rough day, but I appreciate another tale with your dad in it.
I miss my own Dad, too, like crazy, and especially on Father's Day. My kids never met him. He died when I was only 26, long before I even thought about having kids.

He'd have liked my kids. They'd have liked him.

He also battled alcoholism, every day of his life, up until the very end. Never "beat" it. I wish he had. I might still have him with me today.
Oh MM, only you could take such a tale and make it poignant and beautiful. The flawed loveliness of humanity takes my breath away, and you expose it like no one else. I'm glad that peace was had for you while that great guy was still around. Thank you for sharing yet another naked glimpse of your life.
This entry made me think of a story about my Dad I need to post on my blog. Great entry, MM.

My Dad passed away a couple years ago, but I did call my godfather yesterday to wish him a happy day.
What a beautiful post.
Wow. And a book, please.
"So how do you explain the fact that I spent a solid two hours yesterday, sitting in the dark, crying for my Dad?"

You say that like it's a bad thing. Forgive me for saying so, but IT'S ABOUT DAMN TIME. Now I know I don't know you, but there have been so many references in your blog to you holding back tears and generally being dismissive of your grief over the past year (the post about you and BB scavenging the SUV and a fairly dismissive quick comment after you posted the posthumous e-mail to your Mom come to mind) that I was wondering when you would finally allow yourself to cry until you were ready to stop! Thomas and the Brownie really gave you the best present that you could get by taking you to see THEIR movie since seeing it finally created the circumstances that allowed you to give yourself permission to grieve. Good for them and good for you and I hope you feel a little better for it.

And another great story, too. Your Dad's New England witticisms never fail to crack me up. And you manage to make him into such a great hero despite his faults.

Thanks again for the story.
Quite often, we as a species, have the all-too-unfortunate tendency to dismiss others who appear different.

I have a sneaking feeling that no one ever made the mistake of dismissing your Dad twice. :)

Just remember - he's there, right there with you. Never far away; your Mom is there too.

I'll never watch The Road Runner & Coyote again without thinking of your Dad!

Thanks for sharing him with us today.

Came over from Jeni's blog... what an incredible description of your memories of your dad. I'm sure he would be proud.
Well told. Through your stories, we know him (and miss him a little), too.

Happy belated Father's Day to ya.
You are such an amazing storyteller.

Alcoholism runs rampant in my family, too. It's wonderful to hear stories from the other side.

Thank you!

MM... I love you. In the most non-creepy, non-stalkery, someone-who-just-really-needed-to-remember-
there-are-decent-people-out-there way possible.

I love taking my lunch by myself in my office, and you constantly rival a delicious turkey sandwich for my most favorite thing of the hour... and you win every single time. Even when I put cheese and honey mustard between the slices.
Awesome. What an amazing story

These are the kinds of things that go through my mind. My dad was and still is very physical. He was a logger for 40+ years. He drove trucks when they didn't HAVE mirrors! lol. Oh the stories he can tell!
Only you can make me ball like a baby and laugh hysterically in one read, sometimes in one paragraph! I'm very glad I am alone here in the office still. I burst out with a solid guffaw when he ran straight into the door.

I'm not capable of writing any tribute posts, still. It hurts too much. Someday...
Hey MM -- thanks for this story.

I just lost my Dad two weeks ago at the hand of a reckless driver. Along with everything else, I'm finding myself in a constant fog of memories of him.

For him, he loved Looney Tunes for the word-play. I could have filled a book with all the quotes that would make him laugh. (Yosemite Sam saying "Dragons is sooooo stupid" being one of his all-time favs.)

Thanks for sharing. It helps. I hope it helps you too.
Thank you for that. I know I'm late in coming to the story, but I loved it all the same.

Happy belated Father's Day.
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