Archives For Dad

 

I think Americans are conflicted. About 18-wheelers, in particular.

Folks get frustrated, annoyed, and downright angry that they have to share the crowded roadways with these behemoths. They wish they could somehow ban them from the roads. And yet…

We want, and even expect, that our every creature comfort be stocked and ready to go, 24/7. We’ve been grown attached to, and even dependent upon, all this stuff that gets transported from its point of origin by truck.

Methinks there’ssome dissonance here.

I know there are rude truck drivers. And some drive dangerously. But I like to remind myself whenever I get frustrated by a trucker (who, let’s say, decides to pass another truck and ties up both lanes of the interstate for several miles) that they’re just making a living while performing a demanding job that ultimately brings my stuff where I want it to be, and he likely just wants to get home in time for his kid’s birthday party.

And yeah, I’m biased.

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My dad drove a truck from 1970 until he retired, all across the interstates of America from the East Coast to the Rockies, and from the northernmost states down to the Gulf. He logged some serious miles, wore out a bunch of Rand McNally road atlases (pre-GPS), and slammed down enough coffee to fill a lake, I’m sure.

His excellent safety record would occasionally be marred by making split-second decisions like jack-knifing a rig rather than plow into a VW Beetle that pulled in front of him and then stopped on a dime. Another time, he had a right front tire blow out when he was carrying air compressors. He was unable to maintain control of the vehicle, and it veered off the roadway and into a field. He later said, “When it rolled, compressors came shooting out of the top of that trailer like bowling balls out of a paper bag!” The cab came to rest upside down, with him dangling from his seatbelt. He made another unpleasant decision – to unlatch the buckle, meaning he would land on his head. He considered himself blessed to have walked away from that incident without harm to himself or any other motorists. Nevertheless, his safety record got dinged again.

I got to ride with him once. I was home from college during summer break and he was making a run somewhere out east. I had been hankering to see my cousins and since his route would take him right through Indianapolis, he suggested he drop me off after the first leg of the trip, then about a day and a half later, he’d pick me up. Sounded like a winner to me.

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[Me and Dad in Indianapolis, about to head back home (with  my brother); cousins on the right.]

Well let me tell you right here and now, the right seat in the cab – at least back in the day – will jiggle your liver loose. Meanwhile, the driver’s hydraulic seat floats blissfully down the highway. And the noise. So much noise. I discovered a new kind of violence that could be perpetrated on the hair cells of one’s inner ears. However, despite these discomforts, there was a major compensation.

Truck stops.

I can’t remember ever having a more delicious breakfast than the one I ate with Dad at about 1:30 a.m. (somewhere in Illinois – I was pretty groggy when we stopped). I think we ordered eggs, hash browns, pancakes, and the best chipped beef gravy on toast ever – and washed it all down with the quintessential brew, no cream. As I gushed about how wonderful it all tasted, he informed me it was actually pretty typical, because truck stops that don’t dish up good food, don’t stay in business. Made sense.

But as good as the meal was, the conversation at that truck stop was much, much better. The satiating of our taste buds, the unusual hour for communing, just the two of us travelling together… it all converged to create a powerful bonding moment between us. That trip was both memorable and sweet. (My jostled innards settled down eventually, too.)

Quite a few years later, after Dad had retired, I was visiting at my parents’ with my two little ones in tow. As I gathered our stuff and headed for our van, Dad asked me if I wouldn’t rather just spend the night, since it had gotten so late.

“Dad, it’s only 10:30 – I’ll be home well before 1:00 in the morning. You know what a night owl I am. I rarely get sleepy driving at night.”

“Are you sure? What if you have car trouble and some sicko comes along? A lot of bad stuff goes on out there, you know. Why don’t you just sleep here.”

Dad. What makes you think the first person I’d encounter would be a slasher and not some family man driving a truck?”

Heh heh, I had gotten him where he lived, as they say.

“Besides, whoever comes at me has to get past my Protector first! And if He lets them through, then the next thing I’ll know I’ll be on the Other Side. And I’m okay with that!”

“Doesn’t sound like I can talk you into staying.” Parents are often unsatisfied with their adult children’s decisions.

“I’ll be okay. Really.”

“All right. But call me when you get home, okay?” (Pre-Nokia.)

As expected, the van didn’t even hiccup, so I would neither be able to confirm nor deny the presence of slashers trolling I-70 that night. The promised phone call was brief.

About six months later, my parents came over for a jazz concert in which my two older kids were playing. As we piled into two vehicles to come back to the house, the guys were in the car ahead, and Mom and I took the van, with the two little ones in the back seat.

I meant to stop at the gas station earlier that afternoon. Really, I did. But they were temporarily closed to install new underground tanks. (Note to self: stop for gas at another station further down the road, after your next errand.) As fate, and my attention deficit, would have it, I never actually made it to the gas station that day. It became an issue on the way home from the concert that night, about a mile and a half from our house.

When the van sputtered I knew immediately I was toast. It came to rest within a couple hundred yards of the exit ramp we would have taken. I was glad I had on flats, since I’d be walking to the convenience store, less than a mile away. I put on my flashers and opened the side door of the van so I could let the kids out of their car seats. Grandma would watch them.

It was dusk, but the lights that pulled up behind us nearly blinded me.

“Need some help?” he asked as he approached.

[Now, lest you think I’m making this up, I promise that what I am about to share is indeed truth.]

This Good Samaritan got out of a truck.

That’s right. He pulled his semi onto the shoulder to see if a woman in a minivan needed help.

I said I’d be fine, since there was a phone just a little ways down the road, on that exit ahead. He offered to make the call for me.

“But you’d have to get off the highway to get to a phone (and get behind schedule). You don’t need to do that. Really, I’ll be fine. My mom’s right here with the kids.”

“No, let me do it,” he insisted.

So I handed him a slip of paper with our phone number, thanked him profusely, and he drove off. About ten minutes later, my husband showed up with some gas. Crisis completely averted.

Now, the humor in this scenario wasn’t lost on me or Dad.

We would smile about that one for years to come.

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[Dad, beside second cab.]

The King of Jokes

October 22, 2013 — 5 Comments

My dad was a true extrovert: I don’t think he ever met a stranger. Upon making someone’s acquaintance, he would immediately seek opportunity to amuse or cheer the person. To accomplish this he would resort to resources he had on hand, such as several good impersonations in his repertoire: Fred Flintstone, Mr. Magoo, and Yogi Bear, to name just a few. These Hannah-Barbera and UPA feature cartoons were very popular with both adults and children in the 60’s, so dad’s renditions could be counted on to evoke smiles. (He could also re-enact the entire pool hall speil by Harold Hill in The Music Man — flawlessly — but that wasn’t one you’d whip out on a first encounter with someone.)

He also stockpiled Laffy Taffy caliber puns that would elicit either grins or groans. (Unfortunately, when I got to my teenage years, I took to groaning.*) He had one-liners that were designed to catch people off guard and amuse, such as his compulsory after-dinner quip to dinner guests, “Well, don’t leave hungry… just leave!” at which point he would begin laughing, completely caught up in the humor and scandal of it all.

He could blow smoke rings, often to the oohs and aahs of observers. He could simulate a person with his dentures out by manipulating his lips (which was sure would get giggles from kids), as well as the classic, “Pull my finger” ploy. He wasn’t averse to sporting his hat or cap at a funny angle, creating impromptu zany mustaches with whatever props might be on hand (think soda straws and other restaurant paraphernalia), or other silly antics to get a reaction from folks — especially young people.

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Entertaining two grandaughters with a Play Doh mustache,
circa early 80’s

I grew accustomed to him being Johnny on the Spot with little gags and rib-ticklers, but one that stands head and shoulders above the rest was when he master-minded a caper to pull off during the next card party he and my mom would host.

To execute the prank, he would first need a drinking glass. The one he selected may very well have been “borrowed” from my mom’s stash. It was made of clear glass, was about eight or ten ounces in volume, and was weighted by a thick glass base — your standard issue beverage glass. Next he would need a drill and a bit. Back in the day, drills in our household weren’t fitted with electrical cords, but were powered manually. So with his very own hands, Dad drilled a very small hole in the bottom of the glass. Afterward, he rewashed the glass and positioned it at the very front of the other glasses in the cupboard, situated so that a person would naturally grab that one first. End of preparation. Ready for Show Time.

When the card friends arrived, Dad could barely conceal his excitement over the practical joke which was sure to play out at some point during the evening. And, as expected, one of the men asked if he could have a drink of water.

“Sure. Help yourself,” he replied. “The glasses are in the cupboard above the kitchen sink.” Then he sat back and waited. Of course, when the hapless fellow re-entered the room with tell-tale drips of water from the “dribble glass” all over the front of his shirt, Dad busted a gut.

Now, all the while Dad was planning his little gag, I wasn’t all that sure it was such a good idea. I mean, I sure wouldn’t want to go to someone’s house and have water dribble down the front of my outfit while getting a drink. But then again, I was a six or seven-year-old who was prone to miss the subtleties and nuances of adult interactions, communication, and humor. Dad’s buddies, on the other hand, were highly amused by his stunt and may have even borrowed the cup for a lark of their own.

Score one more for the King of Jokes.

(*When I got older, I became an inveterate punster myself, which means I’m either a chip off the old block, or a product of “A Child Learns What He Lives”. You pick.)

I was almost six years old when my mom went to the hospital to have my baby sister. In her absence, Dad must have done a fine job taking care of the household, as I can recall no major mishaps or catastrophes. The three of us kids were well fed, had taken our baths, had clean clothes — the works. I figured that when we piled into the car and went to pick up Mom and the new baby, she would be pretty impressed. Well, except for one thing…

My hair.

Since my two brothers had crew cuts, they were in need of no special attention. My hair, on the other hand, was a little longer than shoulder length at the time, and I generally wore it in a pony tail, pigtails, or braids. Braids must have been trending at the time, because the morning Mom was being released from the hospital, I remember Dad sitting me down on a hassock in front of his chair in the living room. He combed out my hair, parted it neatly down the middle and proceeded to braid each half of my head. He was very methodical and knew the steps to get it done. But what Mom could have finished in about two minutes took him forever. I remember aching to just forget the whole thing.

But I think I understood that this was a matter of pride: he would want Mom to see how seriously he’d taken his extra responsibilities while she was away. So I sat still and refrained from grumbling. When he got part of the way finished with a braid and realized he needed to start over, I groaned silently. This happened more than once. When he was all done and I looked in the mirror, it was clear that this was not a standard-issue pair of braids. These had more of the “loose and casual” look. But braids they were, and I thanked him roundly for making them, considering how determined and unflagging his efforts had been.

When we greeted both Mom and baby sister, I was just sure she’d notice my droopy braids and say something. Or maybe she’d just give me a knowing look, from one insider to another. But she didn’t. Apparently, their irregular appearance hadn’t fazed her one bit.

Once again, in my cluelessness, I would miss the real deal and merely perceive the obvious. Sigh. What my dad had actually communicated in that act (which I unfortunately experienced as mild torture) was a care and concern far beyond the call of duty. He wanted to present his children to his wife in fine form — no second class, half-hearted attempt, but an all-out effort. I think he hoped it would say how much he loved her, how much he appreciated all that she did for the family, and how devoted he was to us children, as well.

At the time, though, I figured Mom’s silence was because she was just caught up in the excitement of coming home with the new little bundle and didn’t notice. But reflecting on it now, I’m persuaded that she, being savvy to his motive and intent, and understanding the extreme patience that would have been required on his part (this was a man with hands as thick as two-by-fours, attempting to manipulate little strands of fine hair into a semblance of a braid!), deemed it a tender tribute. Her appreciation of his loving gesture would quell any mention of the sag in my hairdo.

And so I spent the rest of the day with my hair just the way it was; I, for sure, wasn’t going to mention it if she hadn’t noticed. But the next morning I headed straight to her bedside, comb in hand, eager to get things back to normal.

My head never felt so good.

Pigtails

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When I was a first grader at School #47, my dad was elected president of the PTA. I thought this was pretty heady stuff: getting extra attention from my homeroom teacher, seeing his name in newsletters and announcements that went home in book bags, and feeling like our family was at the center of what was “happening” at my school.

One memorable event the PTA sponsored that year was to stage a comedy revue. My parents were in several of the skits which I remember them practicing at home. Mom was to do a Phyllis Diller routine about stuffing a turkey for Thanksgiving, and she and Dad were to do a send-up of a popular talk show. There was another skit my dad would be in with the principal of the school. Dad was to play the part of a very near-sighted tailor and the school principal was to play the part of a customer who would come for alterations to his suit.

My parents may have noticed I had some reservations about their scripts, because I remember them assuring me that their lines were indeed funny and not to worry — the audience was going to love their schtick. Apparently this explanation alleviated my concern, because I remember really looking forward to the show.

On the night of the big event, I had a front row seat. (I was doubly excited because it was yet another occasion to dress up.) The skits went just like the rehearsals at our house and my parents had been absolutely right: the audience roared with laughter. My mom was especially hilarious describing the disaster she had created in her kitchen in an attempt to wrangle and truss a turkey. Then came my dad’s piece as the nearly blind tailor. He came out on stage with a tape measure hanging around his neck and very thick glasses. Mr. Snyder entered the “shop” and began to explain that he wanted his suit pants shortened. My dad got down on his knees, began measuring and talking a mile a minute in an attempt to convince his new customer he was just the man for the job.

Mr. Snyder stood there while his pants were being “fitted” and my dad reached for his sheers. Mr. Snyder wasn’t able to see what was happening below as my dad began snipping away. The pants legs got uneven and, in an attempt to make things right, he feverishly kept shortening one, then the other, until they were half way up the man’s calves! And, as predicted, the audience loved his antics and filled the auditorium with gales of laughter.

The evening was a huge success. Some days later, however, I could be found sitting out on the front porch writing to Mr. Snyder.

“Dear Mr. Snyder,” my letter began, “I’m sorry my dad cut your pants too short.”

Unfortunately, I had never seen the men rehearse the actual cutting part of the skit and so I was mortified by what my dad had done. I was also scandalized that the audience had laughed about it. I couldn’t believe my dad would actually ruin the suit of our school’s head administrator. Right there on stage. In front of everybody! That they had, no doubt, found an old suit at a thrift store just for the gag never entered my thinking, and consequently, the “joke” was completely lost on me. The letter was my attempt to do what I could to make amends.

“I hope you get a new suit very soon,” I continued. “Sincerely, Linda Burns.”

When I finished the letter, written with my very best printing, I folded it up to send to him. It was then that I realized I had neither an envelope, nor a stamp, nor an address. And I couldn’t possibly tell my parents I was doing this and thereby obtain the needed resources — they’d never understand. After all, they were the very ones who had erroneously considered this whole business quite funny. So, hitting a dead end, I did what any seven-year-old would do: I tucked the paper in between the cushions of the glider I was seated on and turned my attention to a comic book. (Follow-through has never been my long suit.)

The letter stayed there for months and months before my mom found it and brought it to me. That was when I confessed to her that my sensibilities had been offended by the whole sordid affair; she gently explained that Mr. Snyder was not upset because had been “in on the gag,” and that I needn’t worry. I could tell by her demeanor that she found my consternation slightly amusing.

Tally another one in the Color Me Clueless column of the ledger. Sheesh. I can’t quite believe how many things my parents said and did that I just didn’t get. As I’ve been writing these stories from my childhood I realize this happened a lot. I’m sure my parents didn’t realize how often, because I didn’t even think to tell them I was confused most of the time. Sigh. The up side to it all: now I’m the one who’s amused as I bring these incidents out of moth balls and appreciate the humor in my cluelessness.

But I never did let my dad help me hem my skirts.

I have no idea when the custom began — probably long ago — but I remember it being rather commonplace for big people to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. (Can’t you hear it now: “So, Walter, what do you want to be when you grow up?” “Oh, I wanna grow up and revolutionize the animation industry, design a fantasy theme park, and create a cartoon character that will become famous enough to have his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame!” “Um, that’s nice…”) Whenever I was asked, I would generally rattle off this short list: “A teacher, a ballerina, or a mommy.” But you would never, ever hear the word “nurse” roll off my tongue. To this day, nursing is at the tail end of the list — slightly ahead of high wire acrobat, alligator wrestler, and tornado chaser.

Don’t get me wrong — I am profoundly grateful for those who have chosen the nursing profession. Over the years, I have been the direct beneficiary of the professionalism and skill of a whole company of nurses. That being said, the fact remains: I am quite averse to performing nursing duties myself. I get squeamish just pulling splinters out of family members’ fingers. Occasionally, circumstances will press me into service, but I’d much rather duck for cover when it comes time to change a dressing, treat a burn, or sprains, or rashes… (fill in the blank).

It’s much worse when blood is involved. I wish I could help it, but I reflexively shudder at the thought of seeing blood. Mine or other people’s — doesn’t matter. Truth be told, that’s probably the real deal-breaker on this whole nursing thing. Unfortunately, in real life, there just isn’t any way to control the blood factor. From time to time, it just happens. Like the time my brother was jumping from the garage roof onto the wooden frame of a wire fence and accidentally gauged his arm on a heavy wire protruding right where he landed. The puncture was fairly deep and, naturally, it started bleeding. I averted my eyes. Fortunately, mom was on duty and took good care of him.

And there was the time a bunch of neighborhood boys thought it would be a neat idea to play a pick-up “game” of something they referred to as a “Coke bottle fight” on the empty lot. The object of said “game” was to seek shelter behind a shield of some kind, then pop up to hurl a bottle toward an opponent, and then duck just before a missile made contact with one’s person. (Obviously, you will never see this activity on an approved list from the National Center for Sports Safety.) It was only a matter of time — and you no doubt saw this one coming — before the boy next door took one to the temple.

Why the whole bunch of them thought to escort their comrade to our house to seek first aid, I’ll never know. Before I knew what was happening, I looked up from reading my comic book on the front porch to see the wounded warrior, leaving a trail of blood spatters on our sidewalk and porch. Once again, I averted my eyes until the big people got his head all cleaned up and bandaged. As it turned out, his cut wasn’t actually very bad at all. Just bled a lot. (Oh, and the big people also nixed the “game.”)

Some years later, during the summertime, I was in the house when I heard the sound of glass shattering outside. Apparently the young mother who lived next door had been horsing around with a couple of teenagers and in the process chased them to her door. They pulled the door closed behind them quickly, but by the time she realized it, she couldn’t reverse her momentum. She crashed through the door’s glass pane, cutting her upper arm to the bone, severing an artery. The teens were panicky and began shouting wildly for help.

As fate would have it, the only adult within earshot, besides my 18-year-old self, was my dad. He had worked late into the night and was still sleeping when the mayhem began. He roused quickly and darted for the front porch, with me at his heels. The scene before me was incredibly scary. She was bleeding profusely and her two preschool children were just standing there sobbing. The woman herself was speechless and growing pale. Instantly — thank God — my dad’s civil defense police officer training kicked in.

“Go inside and call the police,” he commanded one of the teens in a firm, authoritative tone. “Linda, take the children inside and occupy them.” These clear and simple directives transmitted calmness and reassurance to all of us, perhaps most of all to the injured woman. He stood there on her porch with his large hand tightly grasping her arm, pulling the deep gash closed, and applying pressure to stanch the flow of blood. He also held the arm above her head to retard the flow of blood to the wound. He didn’t budge until a paddy wagon pulled up to the curb and two officers rushed her into their vehicle and sped off to the nearby hospital, sirens blaring.

Dad later reported that one of the policemen said, upon seeing the severity of her injury, that had he not been there to administer effective first aid, our neighbor may well have bled out before help arrived. He also reported that after the officers got her safely into the paddy wagon, his whole body felt like Jell-O. Nonetheless, in the critical moment, his cool head had prevailed and saved the day — maybe even a life. And I would forever hold in inestimable honor, his valor and amazing composure.

So from this weak-kneed, chicken-livered, wuss of a “nurse,” to all who work or volunteer in health or emergency care professions — especially where the likelihood of encountering great danger (and blood loss) is high: my hat is off to you. Thank you, thank you for your service.

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Sometimes I forget how different things are nowadays. Numerous fixtures from my growing up years no longer exist: party line phones, drive-in movie theaters, and rabbit ears on televisions that featured three networks, to name just a few. One good change in our culture has been the drastic reduction in the percentage of adults who smoke. By 1965, the number of smokers in the U.S. peaked: half of adult men and a third of adult women. These high numbers were driven largely by Madison Avenue and Hollywood; both presented smoking as chic and glamorous.

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My dad had been a smoker since I could remember. I don’t know if he began in the Navy or if it was a habit he acquired in high school. He smoked pipes, cigars, and cigarettes — even rolled his own. I studied the rituals that attended his tobacco habit and found them fascinating. He would blow smoke rings to entertain us kids. Way cool.

I was an ardent fan of all things glamorous (loved, loved, loved the Dinah Shore Show) and I also wanted to be cool in the worst way. One day, I had this brainiac notion that I could really boost my glam/coolness quotient by taking up smoking. I didn’t waste any time. I found my dad on the front porch that evening and sat down next to him on the glider. It had gotten dark enough that the street lights had come on, which added to the mystique. He was — and my timing was perfect here — puffing away on a cigarette, probably a Pall Mall at that time, if memory serves. (He was also known to be a Lucky Strike and Camel smoker, too, in different years.)

“Dad?”

“Yeah, honey, whatcha want?”

“Can I smoke?”

“Whu…?”

“Can I smoke a cigarette?”

“You want to smoke?

“Yeah. Can I?” And, to my utter amazement, he said yes.

No doubt about it: I was ecstatic. Dad thought I was ready to handle it. I mean, to my knowledge, he didn’t even let my older brother smoke. I was about to become — at seven years old — the envy of the neighborhood, and possibly my entire class. What a heady moment in my brief existence! I sat up straight, assuming a posture worthy of the confidence my dad had placed in me.

“Breathe in real deep now,” he said as he poised the glowing symbol of my new glamorous persona next to my lips. I dutifully — no, willingly — complied. I drew the smoky “coolness” as deeply into my lungs as I could. I didn’t want to miss one iota of this thrilling new adventure. However, in the next instant I bolted from my seat on the glider and draped my body across the banister of the porch, gagging, coughing, sputtering and moaning all at once. I craved nothing more than some fresh air to hit my supremely violated lungs.

My dad gently thumped the middle of my back and inquired if I was going to be all right. As my heaves abated and I finally caught my breath, I was overcome by a feeling of bewilderment. What was up with this burning, asphyxiating sensation? I mean, the starlets and models with cigarettes in hand never appeared green at the gills or just about ready to puke. Gone was the promise of cocky coolness that I had staked on a relationship with tobacco.

My dad mustered a sufficient level of self-restraint to cloak any mild amusement he must have felt. Or perhaps it pained him to watch me go through that brief ordeal. Yet it had been me, myself, who had initiated the misery and suffering by requesting to smoke. He merely consented and let the natural consequences of my choice silently impress the lesson. (Of course, he sort of sealed the deal by instructing me to inhale.) My first cigarette was destined to be my last.

It also bewildered me that my dad just stood by and let me do something that would turn out so badly. I mean, he could have spared me, but he didn’t. It wasn’t until I was an adolescent that I understood his rationale. While other kids were taking up the smoking habit, I wanted nothing to do with it. And then it suddenly dawned on me what a huge favor my dad had done for me that summer night long ago on the front porch. (Didn’t B. F. Skinner label this “negative reinforcement”?) Dad’s wisdom ensured that I would have absolutely no desire to light up a cigarette. Ever. And, statistically speaking, he just might have added an extra 14 years to my life.

Thanks, Dad.

P.S. Happily, my dad quit smoking two years following my bombed experiment.