My father was a long-haul truck driver when I was born. I have no memory of it because not long after I arrived, dad changed his job to local-only freight delivery so he could be home each night with mom and me.
About this time, we moved to a new house, where they paid less for a new home than you paid for your last cheap used car. Our new home was in a new neighborhood on Petaluma’s west side near where they were building a new grammar school; Grant – for those of you who care.
Not long after we moved in, my parents began messing with our perfect ratio of 2 adults to one-child when they started to bring home sisters. Seriously – what were they thinking? My stuff (as long as it was in my room) used to stay where I put it. My toys and clothes were not routinely snatched, I had the whole spare bedroom to myself and that strange random screaming from that room once the girls arrived, simply never happened. Dad always hated conflict so he took action to diffuse what otherwise could have easily escalated to successful homicide.
His primary tool was “distraction”. As a truck driver, he frequently had “over” or “refused” shipments to deal with. Some of these were simply not worth sending back to the shippers who just told the company to discard or sell or build modern art with the unwanted merchandise. The guy who did this for dad’s company often would look at this stuff and say it wasn’t worth trying to sell so – “What do you think Rusty (my dad’s nick-name)? You have any use for this? Yea? Great, it’s yours.” Which meant Dad often came home with some of the strangest gifts for my sisters and me.
He also delivered to a local publishing warehouse who always had a pile of excess books scheduled for destruction – which really should be a sin – just on principal. Hello! They’re books guys!
Dad had a friend near that pile who would watch for books dad might want for us so he used to bring me odd treasures from this pile. Among these I would find interesting college textbooks and reference books that were way above my grammar school reading level, but I loved them anyway; they were books after all.
My dad knew that giving me a book always translated to a very happy kid. Once he brought me a huge book about space exploration and rocketry. It was massive with lots of photos and it birthed in me a strong interest in astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology and Star Trek that continues even today. I loved that book and kept it for years until the cover tore off and the page biding failed.
My space book was even better than the one with all the photographs of bizarre exotic diseases from all around the world. The hundreds of photos of twisted, malformed and blistered people both entertained me for hours and warped my soul. Thanks dad…
Anyway, all these unusual gifts were great. I won either way. Either I had some new (and often strange) treasure or my sisters did which gave them a distraction from making me crazy for at least a few hours. I recall one afternoon when the youngest sister was too young to participate (so I literally left her in a big cardboard box I kept around for such times) while older sister and I mobbed Dad as he came through the door and screamed, “Dada’s home!!!” We would then run into his arms and scramble like homicidal monkeys up to his broad shoulders. It was our daily ritual for his arrival.
For a time, he was so consistent about bringing home weird stuff; that we would also quickly follow with, “What did you bring us?” while squirming around his neck. One day, after we stopped making so much noise that he couldn’t have talked if he wanted to, he smiled at my sister and pointed to a bag he’d left on the floor. Her eyes got huge and she catapulted herself down to the bag where she discovered some kind of doll thing that I couldn’t understand anyone wanting. Now if there were any spare GI-Joe things in that bag, I would have been interested…
Anyway, she quickly thanked and hugged him, grabbed her bag and disappeared to leave Dad and me in peace for a more mature man-to-man moment. He had another box in hand and I hoped it was for me, but he called for mom and gave her the box. She smiled as she opened it and found (oh look!) a 10 year supply of blackberry Kool-Aid packets. At my age, I seriously did not understand the look she gave him, but suspected it was pretty sardonic.
Then he looked at me with a strange look that I later came to understand meant something like “you are about to be had”. I had not yet learned how sneaky he could be. Anyway, after that setting-the-trap-smile, he stepped to one side and revealed another box – a big unmarked cardboard box – for me? “It’s all yours son.” I launched down and landed on all fours in front of the box and tore it open. Inside I found miles and miles of model train track pieces. I did not have a train set and suddenly could envision a whole room of model railroad creativity. My sisters would have no use for any of it. “Oh wow! Thanks Dad! This is sooo cool!”
I dragged my box out to the living room where I had enough space to layout the most intricate electric railroad train track network known to man.
I was so excited that I barely noticed a friend of his come through the door to have an after-work drink with dad and watch the fun that was coming. They talked in the kitchen where they could watch me carefully pull out all the different segments and plan the turns and straight parts to cover the largest area possible and use up every piece of that track. They were still talking and enjoying their drinks an hour or so later when I ran into the kitchen and, almost overcome with expectation, told dad that I was done with the track and was ready for the train.
His friend looked at him to see how the trap was going to be sprung. Dad innocently looked at me – like the question made no sense to him and said, “What train?”
His friend snorted and laughed. The message sank in. I had been gotten… I turned back to face my masterpiece of track design with a great “so what do I do now” thought knocking around my brain as I sat in the middle of the network trying to figure out how to use all this cool track.
But – guys seriously, exactly what does a kid do with train track and no train? I left my dad laughing with his friend and went back to try and salvage the moment.
I heard dad’s friend telling him that he was just plain mean. Determined not to let him have such an easy victory, I retaliated by finding something to run around that track, but only succeeded in giving his friend an even better laugh by pulling out a small wooden block that I made-believe was a great steam engine. I think I looked pretty pathetic with my little block on the epic track network, so the battle was on – and it was my turn.
A few weeks later, it was really hot out and Dad and I were working in the front yard when I stepped into the garage and grabbed the fully loaded squirt gun I’d hidden there earlier, snuck up behind dad, who was pulling some weeds and let him have it without warning. I got him pretty good but he soon had me cornered and took my squirt gun and turned it on me. No fair! He was about 3x my size!
So I put some distance between us by running around a neighbor’s side yard and into their back yard where I thought it unlikely that dad would follow. Whew – he didn’t. I jumped the fence which put me back into our side yard, opposite the side where dad was, so I unwound the long hose and put on the gun-shaped nozzle, turned on the water and climbed our fence which allowed easy access to our roof, all the while dragging that hose behind me. I carefully came over the top of the garage and down the other side to find dad – OMG – with his back turned. Such a bad mistake….!
I ninja-ed right to the edge of the roof, lifted my nozzle, aimed carefully, filled the yard with a blood-boiling scream and LET HIM HAVE A FULL PRESSURE BLAST – soaking him in utter defeat and humiliation! I kept the blast on him for as long as I could as he tried to run clear and by the time he managed to get out of range, he looked like he had just crawled out of a swimming pool. Except that I had no witness, I had avenged the great railroad track humiliation.
This short battle did not characterize how dad and I normally got on. We had some great moments, but for the most part he and I did not connect well. He was a hard-core sports guy and on a good day I am only annoyed by sports. Give me something electronic, mechanical or scientific any day – or another good book.
We did establish a great understanding around guns. Dad taught me that, if handled safely, guns always meant a great time was in store. He passed away many years ago now and I’m still realizing how great a father God gave me.
For example, one afternoon, he burst into my room to stop me from being rowdy and making so much noise. It turned out that we were both in rowdy moods and our discussion quickly escalated into a wrestling and tickling match (during which we were making much more noise than I was on my own) and at one point, he had me on my back but made the mistake of allowing me to get both feet up into his chest. Desperate to not be tickled again, I suddenly threw all my strength into straightening my legs – pushing him up and off of me. I had grown quite a bit in the past few years and frankly did not know my own strength. I was surprised when he flew backwards, up and over across the room where he landed on his back – much harder than I would have wanted, and smashed into the wooden floor with a huge crash.
Mom was on us in seconds. “WHAT ARE YOU TWO DOING !?”
I was too scared to talk. Had I hurt him? Was mom about to hurt me? Dad clearly had the wind knocked out of him and was struggling to regain his breath. Fortunately for me, he recovered enough to smile at her and wave off any need to intercede. She helped him up; scary – because that never happened. Then he made an exaggerated show of staggering like a wounded gladiator out of my room and made for his La-Z-Boy chair and turned on a football or baseball or basketball (I forget the shape of the ball) game.
I was left to worry that I would somehow be punished later (I wasn’t) but it frightened me that I had enough strength to throw my dad like that. After a few minutes of careful thought, I decided it was time to go as silent as possible for several weeks and stay off of everyone’s radar.
Where’s my giant space book?