In my family, fatherhood is a role that is half police officer and half labourer. In my dad’s father’s case the police officer was literal. Frank was a New York City cop until one day he wasn’t – and he moved his wife and three kids to a small Vermont town and left crime fighting to others.
Outside the home, that is. Inside the home there were still laws to be enforced and major sentences handed down. One day when I am thirteen I shout up the stairs to my mother “MOM! DO YOU WANT ME TO BRING UP ANYTHING FROM THE FREEZER WHILE I’M HERE?” My dad called me over and told me not to yell at my mother, telling me that his dad said that you must always respect your mother and never yell at her – or even call to her from another room. Doing so would result in a beating. My dad tells this story to me as if to say “Didn’t he run a tight ship? At least you don’t get beaten…but I still don’t like you to yell.”
One day when I was fifteen, after a six pack and a bit my dad is feeling a bit maudlin and is talking about the stress having a strict dad brought on. He was so strict that the day he after his father died, a few years before I was born, the warts that covered his hands mysteriously disappeared, never to return again. I’m unsurprised based on what he’s told me. I see a common thread underneath it all: Dad’s job is to make sure that the son grows up to do the right thing at any cost.
My mom’s dad, Tony, had a different approach. His greatest focus was on earning. He worked in a mill making wood paneling. It was the 60’s and 70’s and there were still many dens and living rooms left to be covered in dark walnut veneer. It didn’t pay well – enough for rent and food – as long as he had his garden to supplement so he often worked overtime to make ends meet. No matter what, he showed up. Even though he never had a driver’s license in his life, he carpooled 45 minutes each way to get to work. And when, one night, it was so snowy on his way home at 2:00 AM that his ride got stuck 10 miles from his house, my grandfather just left his friend behind and walked the rest of the way. Dads do what they need to do to keep food on the table.
He, too, ran a tight ship. A picture taken in the 1960’s shows my youngest uncle tied to a chain in the front yard. My grandfather and mom laugh as they tell me that he was “such a hellion” at age 3 that they finally had to chain him up outside in the yard. They never did get the rebel fully out of him, though, and he grew up to be an adult who regularly drove drunk and for a time drove an 18 wheeler, keeping awake with coffee and cocaine.
All of this work made my grandfather fairly stressed out as you might imagine and he took his leisure time seriously. When the weekends would come I would see him in his chair watching Lawrence Welk or Hee Haw. A tumbler of vino, poured from a gallon jug in the kitchen, would be on a TV tray next to him along with a can of Copenhagen snuff. On the floor next to the chair was an old metal Planter’s Peanut can with plastic lid. As a kid I had to be extra careful running around in the house. If you came too close to that can as you ran by you risked knocking it over and spilling all of the tobacco juice from inside.
The oldest picture I have of me is at 6 ½ weeks old. My dad, who had just turned 22, is holding me in his arms looking so young and a bit shell-shocked. I understand the feeling. At 27 when I became a father I had the same feeling. When I was five years younger I was still trying to figure out how to finish Sonic the Hedgehog.
“What do I do with this thing?” he appears to be thinking. Looking at the picture now I think of what it must have been like to be the parent of a son. What script had his dad handed him down to work from? What tips and advice did he get from Tony?
A couple of years later he gets one of his first opportunities to try out the script. I am upset to have to go for a nap and am having a massive temper tantrum in the living room. Inspired by Don Music, a character on Sesame Street back in the day, I decide to show my fury by smashing my head on the glass coffee table in front of me. Unlike Mr. Music, I only am able to hit my head once before I put a large gash in my eyebrow.
My mom picks me up, putting a towel over the wound which is bleeding like crazy. My mom, seeing all of the blood is crying and shouting about how now my one good eye is going to be blind. My dad is silent, his feelings all channeled in the roar of his Plymouth’s engine as we head to the hospital.
We arrive at the emergency room of the Womack Army Medical Center where a doctor, not just superior in medical training but in literal military rank, barks orders at my dad: “Just hold him down. If we use anesthesia it will result in a scar.” and proceeds to put several stitches in my eyebrow while my father pins me down to the hard wooden table.
I scream at the top of my lungs, calling for, of all people, my Uncle Rick, the child who had been chained in the yard as a child. Surely he could help me. He knows what it’s like to deal with a dad just doing his job.