I always knew Dad wanted a son, but he got five daughters, so he made the best of it.
He taught all of us how to cast a fishing line, how to check the oil in our cars, how to catch a football. He always told me not to take any shit from any boy, because I was too smart and too pretty. (I assume he told my sisters the same, but most of them didn’t listen.)
He never knew a normal family. He had two older half-sisters, and one brother. He lived on a dirt farm with his mother and grandparents, and his father was in and out of prison for years. He and his brother used to skip school to shoot squirrels and rabbits so the family could eat. Then his parents divorced, and he moved to town with his mother.
Twice-divorced, single, working moms were not common in the 1950’s. So he ran with the hoodlums in the streets, and became something of a juvenile delinquent, a la James Dean. Here’s one of the funniest stories he ever told me:
He had a 194something Ford, and one of the hubcaps had been stolen/fallen off/whatever. So he told his buddies about it. They went through the entire town, taking one hubcap off each car in town, and piled all the hubcaps in his backseat. Dad came out of his job, and saw his car piled TO THE ROOF with stolen hubcaps. He cussed a lot, and then drove out of town and dumped them all in some creek. He said the massive hubcap theft was on the front page of the local newspaper the next day, and he just laid low, and nothing ever came of it, but there’s probably still a pile of rusty hubcaps in some ditch out north of town.
He was a high-school dropout, but he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and then completed his high school education while he worked third-shift at a factory. He and my mother had been engaged for four years, but he refused to get married until he had a high school diploma. They married on his last day of high school; he went to school that day, got his diploma, and married Mom that evening at 6:30 p.m.
He told me the story of that day: He went to school, and was falling asleep in class. The teacher asked him why, and he said, “Mrs. Whatever, I’m getting married in eight hours, and I’ve been working all night.” She smiled, and told him to go home and get some sleep. But he stuck out his last day of high school, at 20 years old, because he would never expect a lady to marry a dropout.
So then he worked, seven days a week, getting all the over-time possible, because he and Mom wanted a large family. He got his apprenticeship, and became a skilled tradesman. They planned for four kids, but then I showed up, too. The year I was born, he was diagnosed with some extremely rare disease. When I was 4 years old, and he was 39, he had a massive heart attack. Almost died (as in, no pulse for several minutes, in the ER). He bounced back. Stubborn man.
He then proceeded to argue politics and ethics and everything else under the sun with me, until I grew up and went to college. That man could make our ordinary family dinner into a philosophical or political debate, about abortion or civil rights or unionization or feminism or whatever. I just LOVED having dinner (they called it supper) with my folks. (My big rebellion was that when I was 10, I told Dad I was a Republican. He almost went apoplectic, and spent the next year convincing me why I shouldn’t be.)
The first week that I was in college, he had a stroke. It paralyzed his left side briefly, but he overcame it, and went right back to work. Stubborn old guy. He told me to quit hanging around, and go back to college. He had always told me, “You can’t have too much education.” Seems he was serious about that.
Nine years later, he was working on Memorial Day. He had decided to retire in August of that year, and filed the paperwork. He had another massive heart attack, and died right there at work. He was transported from my little hometown to a cardiac intensive care unit in a hospital in Indianapolis, only about 20 minutes away, but he was gone. He had turned 62 two weeks before. Mom offered to donate his organs, but with his medical problems, there wasn’t much that would benefit anyone else.
When I got married, Dad refused to wear a tuxedo like all the other men. He wore a suit and tie, but his tie clip was a sterling silver shotgun. At the back of the church, he leaned over and whispered to me, “We can ditch this and go have a beer, if you want.”
I miss him. He was a great dad. And now I really want to go have that beer with him.