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The man I could have been

My parents are in town. I spent the last week dreading the day they would come. But like most things I fear, their arrival and stay has been less traumatic that I supposed. They have revealed themselves once again to be just people, regular people who happen to be my parents.

cobbWe don’t have much of a relationship. I don’t think we’ve talked about anything weighty for twenty years or more. There’s too much that divides us. I ache to have a conversation with my parents. But that possibility has passed. Getting in a few words about the weather is about what they can handle.

When I was growing up, life was filled with violence, drunkenness, and reactionary religion. My dad had a fiery personality that might erupt at any moment in flights of grandiosity or outright rage. God forgive us if we did anything wrong while he was away at work. We lived in mortal fear of a guy who was loose with the belt, and in lieu of the belt, the open-hand slap.

I remember when I was 13, one of the kids at school told us that he hit his dad back after a beating. The sin of it, I thought. We were supposed to respect our elders. It said so in the Commandments. I couldn’t imagine a situation in which I would strike back at the man who sometimes beat me and my siblings mercilessly. My dad was so mighty, so strong that I feared being crushed if I ever hit him back.

There were other things, too. My dad acted out in all kinds of childish ways in public. From about the time I was ten, I was in constant embarrassment. I never knew when he would break out in one of his long monologues about how great he was, how the country was going down the tubes, or how liberals were taking God out of the classroom.

In one way, my dad was a saint. He worked a job he hated for thirty-five years. He sat in a windowless concrete room and repaired cash registers for the National Cash Register Corporation. He built up three and then four weeks off every year. He always took us on camping vacations in the mountains. We went to the Grand Canyon once. One year we spent a miserable week at an Ozark campground. It wasn’t the mountains. We all pined to be in the Rockies that year.

He complained but he paid tuition for Catholic grade school and high school for four kids. He railed against public school and envied the things that people who sent their kids to public school could afford. We drove junkers because we went to Catholic school. I don’t know how those kids did in public school, but when I went to college, I found the first years easy after the rigors of Catholic education.

But life at home was rugged. I remember three events very clearly. My grandfather sat me down when we went to his house one night. My dad had beaten me pretty severely that day. I had bruises. Handprints festooned my cheeks. My grandfather said that I needed to mind my parents. I earned what happened to me because I had stepped out of line. Looking at his serious face, I didn’t know exactly what I did. He said, “When he says jump, you jump. You don’t even stop to ask how high.”

Another time, I was sitting on the fender of the 1966 Dodge Polara Station Wagon. My dad was performing some repair under the hood. I thought we were talking breezily about things. I don’t remember what. But one second I was sitting there, the next minute he erupted out from what he was working on and smacked me so hard, I wound up on the ground. I’d peed my pants. He walked up to me and kicked me in the gut. That’d teach me, he said. Now, get up and get out of here.

I built a world outside my home with the Boy Scouts. Every Thursday and one weekend a month, I was free of home. I built my own friendships and achieved in competition with other kids in the troop. I was an Eagle Scout by the time I was 13. It was my life and I was proud of it.

Then, my dad decided he would get involved in his boy’s life. He began coming to scout meetings and coming on overnights. The leaders and older kids, the 18 year olds, drank a lot of beer. My dad found himself right at home. But he overdid it. He got into fights with other leaders. Then, one time, he hit a kid. I remember it like it was yesterday. We were on the bank of an Ozark stream. My dad was facing down one of the mouthiest kids I’d ever known. My dad couldn’t make that kid do what he wanted. The kid mocked my dad. My dad slapped him across the face.

It was as if my life had ended–my pristine, self-built life was ruined. The other kids in the troop kept me at a distance. They berated me for my dad’s behavior. My dad was kicked out of the troop, of course, after the trip. But I couldn’t have my Boy Scout life back. It was all over.

Which was, in a sense, just all right. By that time, I’d taken to drink myself. I had friends who were 16 and could drive cars. We knew places in Kansas that would sell us beer. (The drinking age for beer in Kansas was 18 at the time.) Then, I turned 16 and could drive myself. I took up with a group of guys who would drive to Kansas and buy up a bunch of beer. We’d drive to the Mid-Continent Public Library at 77th and Prospect and put the beer in the back seat. The boys would climb in the trunk. Since I was the fat kid, I drove the car to the Fairyland Drive-In at 75th and Prospect and paid admission for myself.

The Fairyland showed only two kinds of movies at the time. They projected martial arts movies on one screen and porn on the other. We never went to the kung-fu movies.

I’d drive in, pick a spot, and sit in the driver’s seat for a minute. Then, I went and let the boys out of the trunk. It was our pastime: beer, cigarettes, and porn movies. We were 16 and 17. We did that every couple of weeks, regardless of season, for a couple of years.

It was a life I built on my own and it seemingly went against everything that my Catholic education was about. I couldn’t get a date. I was a failure with women. But I could drink and smoke. I could sit and watch people writhe around with each other. It was a life I made and one that my dad had nothing to do with.

When I moved out of the house at the age of 20, I really made life my own. I drank what I wanted when I wanted. I didn’t have to fear getting the daylights beat out of me when I came home. I didn’t face the shame of having a drunk berate me for drinking. I didn’t have to answer to anyone.

The distance between us only grew over the years. I sobered up, finally, at the age of 27. It was then that I had a chance to contemplate home life. I tried to approach my parents about it. They dodged the questions. My dad flew into a rage when I brought it up. I stayed angry with them until I just didn’t have it in me anymore.

Now they are old. The mighty father, the man whose raised hand sent me cowering, moves about the house meekly. His memory is failing. He is weak physically. My mother takes care of him as she would a child.

The time for discussing the past is over. I suppose I could talk religion or politics around him now and he would have to put up with it. There is nothing he can do to me anymore.

So, in a way, my parents staying at my house, sleeping in my beds, and eating my food, is just and right. I have accepted our truncated relationship. Short of a miracle, we won’t ever have a conversation. But I have seen the mighty fall. I see myself in my father when I near 80. But I know that I’ll be talking to my kids. They will come to me for advice. They will take my guidance into consideration.

I suppose I can say that I learned a lot from my father. He gave me my work ethic. I have a firm sense of right and wrong. I know the value of loyalty, and my friends can attest to that.

I also learned how not to be a father and husband. I am gentle with others, listen to what they have to say, and show interest in other people because he could do none of these things. I don’t live in fear of him anymore, and the older he gets the more I understand that the time we have is limited. To cut myself off from others with moral and mental rigidity is to sever me from myself. I won’t have it.

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