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 with mom and me each night.
I recall being interested in the idea of driving about the country in a giant truck and wondering how Dad could pass that up to be home with us. Thus, this image stuck and when my own son was, in the oven baking, so to speak, I followed my father’s example by making and executing plans that allowed me to do the same. In a few month’s time I changed from being on a jet sometimes up to two times a month for week long business trips to none for a year and then only a few each quarter – but I digress.
When I was two years old, we moved to a new house. This happened in 1957. Just last week, my wife and I planted our daughter into medical school three time zones away and bought her a used car so her life would be easier, and she could focus more on her studies.
That car, cost us more in 2022 than my parents paid for a whole new home in 1957. 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. And my parents raised us, molded us and protected us in that home. As I write this, in mid-2022, my parent’s three kids are finally preparing to sell that home, hopefully to a young family who will build their own memories and legacy from it.
Very soon after Dad, Mom and I moved into this home, they began messing with our perfect ratio of 2 adults to one-child – yes, they started the painful process of producing and keeping sisters for me . . . 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 moved in, simply had 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”. I suggested we return my baby sister and her toddler older sister, to the hospital like a unsuitable pets and quickly found out that my opinion in this matter – didn’t matter. . . I sighed and went back to the limited protection of my room.
As a freight truck driver, Dad frequently had “over” or “refused” shipments to deal with. I learned from him that most of these things were simply not worth sending back to the shippers who 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.
One of Dad’s frequent customers was a big-name publishing warehouse who always had a pile of excess books scheduled for destruction. When I learned this, I thought that such an act really should be a sin, Hello! They’re books guys!
Dad had made a friend who was responsible for that pile and he watched for books dad might want for us. This created a weird flow of books a kid would otherwise never own from that warehouse to my room, because Dad would spontaneously bring me odd treasures from this pile. I was in grammar school and this publisher focused on college textbooks that were way above my grammar school reading level, but I loved them anyway; they were books after all.
Both Dad and Mom knew that giving me a book always translated to a very happy (translate that as ‘quiet’) kid. Once he brought me a huge book about space exploration and rocketry. It was MASSIVE. It outweighed my baby sister, was quieter and a lot less trouble. It had gobs of photos and, along with the 1960’s television show ‘Fireball XL5’, seeded me with a strong interest in astronomy and astrophysics which eventually turned into cosmology.
Man – I loved that book and kept it for years until the cover tore off and the binding finally 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 enraged spider 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, but if it keeps her out of my hair for a few hours – then great!
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.
Dad finally looked at me with a strange expression that I later came to understand meant something like “you’re 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 toy 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!” Dad smiled, knowing the trap had been set and I enthusiastically jumped right into it.
With visions of building my own country-size model train world in my head, I dragged my box out to the living room where I had enough space to layout the most intricate toy railroad network known to mankind.
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 answered, “What train?”
His friend snorted and laughed. The message sank in. I had been duped. . .
I turned back to face my masterpiece of track design with a great “so what do I do now” burning in my brain as I went back to sit in the middle of the network trying to figure out how to use all this cool track. But – seriously, exactly what does a kid do with train track and no train? Dad was laughing with his friend and I thought hard, trying to 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 must have looked pretty pathetic pushing 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 three times 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 – Oh so perfect – 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 still am only annoyed by sports. Give me something electronic, mechanical or scientific – or another good book any day. My dad was almost clueless about such things. We’re pretty sure he was dyslectic and struggled to read where I was consumed with reading. Dad could rewire power cords and light switches. I wanted to understand radios, television and computers. He knew a lot about camping and being in the outdoors. I wanted to understand the stars and gravity and light and atoms and, well, you get the picture.
We did establish a great understanding around guns. Dad taught me that, if handled safely, guns always meant a great time was in store until it came to hunting. He taught me how to handle a shotgun and I became very skilled with clay pigeons, but hunting didn’t make much sense to me.
We had moments where we just plain had fun together, but as I grew, we more often did not understand each other.
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 both of us? 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?
So, we had a strained relationship at times. I developed a thing for stories, written or televised, movies or even radio dramas, Dad was happier watching a football game so if I was watching a program when his game came on, I lost and could only storm off to stew about how unfair he could be.
He would do odd things to try and close the gap between us, but I was a kid and missed the nuance of his efforts. One day, he came home from the sporting goods store with something he wanted but also brought me a new football and tee, thinking I’d love to learn how to kick. I recall thinking, you have to be kidding me. What about me have you seen that would cause you to think such a thing?
It turned out to be an iconic moment for us both. Dad was trying to invest something in me that we could share for fun. I – I was more insulted by the attempt because it was a sports thing that I could not be less interested in. He urged me to try, Mom, intervened and urged me to try. We went to the Grant School yard where he set me up and then went out to catch and return the ball over and over. I only got more and more obstinate and resentful as he tried harder and harder to build this bridge. I only got angrier and angrier.
So – I turned his attempt into an epic failure. That tee laid in the large barrel of balls and sports related stuff for years, untouched by me on principal along with that stupid football. Not a good idea on my part, but that is where my young mind was on the matter.
As the years passed, he and I grew back together because we never really hated each other, we just were so different, and both lacked the means of understanding the other.
He could not understand the things I really was interested in nor could I understand or value most of his.
But Dad beat me in the end because he tried, multiple times to bridge the gap. I had to grow up, and watch as age and cancer took my father away before I figured out that he was never trying to antagonize me – he was reaching out with the only tools he had and understood. He took risk after risk trying to be a better father. I never doubted his love and only now wish I’d recognized his motives much sooner than I did.
Now, I realize what a great father God gave me and I hope that somehow, I managed to let him know before he left us.
So, do I have a moral? Yep, it’s simply this; kids, know that your parents will likely frustrate you but they have a job to do which is turning you into a healthy adult with an adult ability to reason. Like everyone else, they’re flawed and will make mistakes – but they love you in ways you cannot – and therefore will not – understand, most likely until you have kids of your own. Until then, love them for their efforts to reach you, care for you and protect you.
Finally, whatever the ‘football tee’ is between you and your parents, just smile and kick the damn ball with them.