I was not my mother’s pride and joy. Let that go right there.
My father could never have managed to play a father on TV.
I don’t know what my brother who died could have grown up to be.
My sister went to Bible College so now she can speak authoritatively when she states her sincere belief that Jesus sure as Hell did not die to save the likes of me. Also, she is grossly obese. But she doesn’t blame it on a glandular disorder like some people might. She thinks being fat is somehow on account of the molestations.
Eventually, by working at jobs he hated, my old man raised his economic status to the point where he actually owned a postage stamp piece of land. He grew rocks and tree stumps for the most part. And my job in the family was to dig them out for him. Sometimes, when I did a particularly good job he gave me a half a can of beer to drink. Other times all I got was constructive criticism.
My father and I were never buddies. We did not play catch. I tried to stay out of his way. But we did have a father-and-son talk when I was 18.
“You’re 18-years-old. What are you gonna do? What do you think?” We were walking down the kind of road nobody walks down anymore. It was Spring. The air was buzzing.
I kept waving my hand in front of me. “I don’t know. What do you think? The Army or the Marine Corps?”
“The Marine Corps? Why? So you can come home and impress some girl with your pretty dress blues? You’re going to hate the Marines. I know you. Let me tell you about chipping paint.” He lit a cigarette and shared it with me while he told me about going over the side of a ship and chipping off the old paint. The cigarette timed out how far we were going to walk and it discouraged the bugs. “The Army’s not much better.”
We started back. The old man lit another cigarette. He was a chain smoker. I didn’t want to smoke anymore. This was our first actual talk and I was pretty sure it would be our last. So I wanted to take this golden opportunity to confess to him my most secret ambition. “I’ve been thinking about trying to go to college.”
The old man laughed. Then he coughed for about a minute. “Are you drunk? You know you’re not smart enough for college.” He shook his head. “Geez.” He laughed and he coughed some more.
“Then I don’t know.”
We stopped when we got back to what we used to call our yard. The old man grabbed my arm. “If I was you….” He got close to my face. His breath was hot and smelled like Lucky Strikes. “If I was you I would buy a motorcycle. Hear me? I would buy a motorcycle and I would get the hell out of here.” I might not have been smart enough for college but I was smart enough to know that he was talking about himself. He wasn’t talking about me. “I would get on that motorcycle and I would just go be free.”
So, it was my old man who put the idea in my mind.
Of course, I ignored the son-of-a-bitch for about ten years. I had big plans. I wasn’t going to be me. I was going to be somebody better than me. And then all those plans had to be revised. Then my new and improved and smaller plans got revised. Eventually, I got stuck being me.
I did not see my father for years at a stretch. And, we did not have much to say to each other when we did meet. After a while, I started to think every time I saw him would be the last time. The laughs got fewer. The coughing got worse. The signatures on the Christmas cards got shakier.
By then he had already been dead to me most of my life. But, it is never the things you say or do that eat at you. The worst parts of life are always what you did not do or did not say. So I wrote the old man a letter.
“Dear Dad. Remember that advice you gave me that time about getting a motorcycle? Well, I never said thanks and I wanted to thank you for that. Every time I get on my bike I think about thanking you.”
This was in the mid-90s. It was about a year before he died. He never bothered to write me back. It was too late for him to live his life through me so why should he? I did not hold it against him. He probably felt about the same way I felt when I did not go to his funeral.
But I did not forget him. In fact, I probably like him more now than I did when he was alive.
And, I do still love to ride my motorcycle. When I ride I still feel 18-years-old and free and all the possibilities of what I might yet do and see and know and what my life might yet be seem to stretch out forever in front of me like a long, grey ribbon of highway. And, I know I have the old-son-of-bitch to thank for that. And, I know that most fathers leave their sons less.