Monday, September 27, 2004

One thing leads to another

My old man had a pretty rough childhood. Rougher than most, that’s for damn sure. It wasn’t obvious at birth, but after seven or eight years the physical differences became apparent. His mother tried to deny it but when a boy is mismatched in every way to his own father, folks start talking. Eventually the truth came out as the unmistakable resemblance appeared between my old man and his mother’s employer.

Not pleased that his wife had cheated or that he’d been snookered into raising another man’s child for eight years already, my grandmother’s husband gave her an ultimatum. Either he goes, or I do.

So she gave my dad away.

My dad spent the next 5 or 6 years with a spinster friend of his mother’s who coincidentally hated children. She whipped him, hard and often. She had a 2x4 piece of wood out in the shed and no part of his body was sacred to her when she was pissed.

In the mid 60’s something or other happened and my grandma and her husband parted ways. The details get fuzzy during that time as my old man doesn’t like to share much and my memory fades a bit now that mom has passed and can’t remind me of them. My dad went back home to live with his mother and half brother again for the first time since 1959. By this time he was a punk, rebellious and less than impressed with scholastic challenges.

The first time he was picked up by the cops he sat in a cell all night because his mother didn’t come home from the honky tonk until morning to find out he needed her to bail him out. The cops knew my dad and the whole town knew his background. The second time he was picked up the cop, a man named John Henry, gave my dad an option, “You either go back to the jail with me, boy, or you join the service as soon as the sun comes up.”

That next day my old man enlisted.

My grandma did her own thing, my old man’s biological father never claimed him and his so-called father washed his hands of him too many years ago to remember. But John Henry stuck around. They kept in touch over the next 30 years as family tends to do. My dad used to take John to the coffee shop every week, send him a check every month, and bring him to our family reunions every year. John has boys of his own but they don’t want to have shit to do with an old man like him. Last year they found it easier to put him in a home than to help him out from time to time.

Yesterday we went to go see John for his 87th birthday. He cried when we walked in and asked of my dad, “Boy, take me home.” Legally, my dad has no say.

It was an exhausting visit and when we headed out we remained silent for most of the four hour drive back home. After about a hundred miles my dad finally broke the silence and asked me, “Would you put me in a place like that when I’m 87?”

I shook my head. “Hell no. They’ll take you at 65.”

He smiled. “Remind me to take you out of my will, boy.”

I grinned. Sure thing, old man.