A Memory For Fathers’ Day

I remember how my dad took his children to Schroeder’s, despite a lack of ready cash. Screen door slamming; tall, work-slim body striding across the yard, he yelled to any of us within hearing, “If you want to go, climb aboard. I’m on my way.”

Word spread, “He might be going to Schroeder’s.” Deserting chores, we scrambled into our dilapidated jeep, jockeying for position. Dad gunned the engine, shot away and, singing that he’d take Kathleen home again, paid no mind to his passengers caught in mid-scramble.

A fast five miles of irrigated farmland flashed by, dotted by an occasional house hunched beneath massive outbuildings. The finger-smeared windows through which we peered softened the countryside and gentled farmyard clutter. Dad, more interested in his vibrato than our battles, bounced the jeep along rough roads in tempo to his tune, until, gravel flying, he executed his usual abrupt stop. “Whoa there, old boy, whoa there,” he shouted to our great amusement as he flamboyantly pulled back on the wheel and stomped on the brakes at Schroeder’s Auto Repair.

The single, rusted-out gas pump reflecting long departed prices isn’t tempt us; nor did the garage’s shadowed interior with its thick air smelling of rubber and oil. We didn’t stop to examine Schroeder’s grease-begrimed tools or the fly spotted glass case holding PayDay bars, Juicy Fruit gum, and hide-a–key containers. Instead, clutching unfamiliar dimes Dad distributed from a near-empty wallet — an act our money-worried mother wouldn’t approve — we ran to the rectangular soda machine sitting like a dusty treasure chest in a far corner, burbling moistly to itself.

While Dad discussed man things — lay-offs, unemployment checks, failed crops — with big-voiced, thoroughly dirty Schroeder, we circled the red machine and argued best flavors: orange and strawberry being top contenders. Then, decisions made, we clinked our dimes into the coin slot. The machine’s scratched red lid sighed reluctantly as we lifted it, exhaling cold air that washed over our peering faces.

Inside the rectangular chest, icy water bathed cold bottles that we slowly worked along notched metal rows until we could each lift our choice clear, remove its crimped cap with the built-in opener, and take the first sweetly stinging swallow.

Carolyn, a teenager, assumed a pose of nonchalance and sophistication, drinking as though it was almost more than she could manage. Bob threw his head back and drank like the rowdy boy he was, pausing only to burp. I sipped, savoring and saving. Barbara, who had yet to grasp the science of swallowing, let orange liquid flow down her throat in an uninterrupted stream, plugging it with her tongue when she needed to breathe.

As we drank and laughed, Dad looked over at us and grinned.

If the total of a man is made of small acts, our dad was a giant.

This post was adapted from my book, A Seasoned Life Lived in Small Towns


Of Food and Puffer Bellies

Young Dad In 3rd grade I made my dad a card shaped like a necktie for Father’s Day. I covered it with colorful stripes, avoiding pink because Dad wouldn’t wear pink. Inside I wrote, “I’m glad you are my father and work so hard to make money for food so we can eat good.” As I aged, I recognized other fine qualities my father possessed—honesty and humility, humor and quirkiness, absolute love for his family—but at eight, I didn’t see far beyond my stomach.

Twice a month, Dad, with a flourish, presented his check from Geneva Steel to Mom. “You earned lots of overtime, old boy,” she’d comment, the pride and affection in her voice making him grin. The rest of us headed for the car, anticipating our payday trip.

Dad drove and sang, his smooth tenor accompanying our commotion, while Mom refereed. The two little ones crawled back and forth, trying out the comfort of different laps. Squeezed into the back, the rest of us bashed each other about and complained: “Mom, she’s touching me.” Our interest picked up as we approached Ironton where Dad worked on the blast furnace—sometimes worked too hard on searing summer days, so that he came home sunken-eyed, hollow-cheeked, and weak-voiced. On those days, we stopped our play and whispered a phrase we’d heard, but didn’t understand: heat exhaustion.

As the car climbed Ironton Hill, the plant’s smell engulfed us: an oily, metallic odor spewing from rusty smokestacks and hovering in a yellowish haze over stacks of windowless structures, dark and looming. Small railroad cars, filled with molten refuse from Dad’s furnace, traveled along the plant’s massive slagheap, dumping their contents. At night the slag glowed red as it poured like lava over the sides of the pile. To me, Ironton looked like the devil’s playground.

If we chanced to pass when the small engine and cars appeared, Dad would begin to sing, “Down by the station, early in the morning, see the little puffer bellies all in a row,” and the rest of us would join in, though sometimes a haughty teenager refused to participate.

Reaching Provo, we drove to Ream’s Discount Groceries, where we walked behind our parents like ants following a trail of crumbs as they piled our cart with staples: flour, sugar, beans, rice, oatmeal, fruits and vegetables not grown in our garden or canned in our kitchen. After collecting these necessities, if they had enough money, they added luxury items that made our stomachs dance: a bag of oranges, a brick of cheese, licorice, hotdogs.

We never asked for treats. We knew better. We also knew we’d go to the Dairy Queen next, where Dad’s announcement, “Let’s have at it, kids,” triggered a stampede that terrified the teenage workers.

A few years after the deaths of our parents, their seven children reunited for a van trip around Utah Valley, the mountain-protected home we had loved. When the van neared Ironton, abandoned and mostly dismantled, we spontaneously burst into Dad’s song about puffer bellies and stationmasters. And everybody participated. I wondered if I was the only one who heard Dad’s voice soaring above ours.

Remembering My Father

youngm:d 2When I look in the mirror, I see Dad’s eyes looking back. I have his height, build, ears, and gestures. I like my physical resemblance to him, but I’m surprised when I display his behaviors, especially those I vowed to avoid when I was young, smug, and critical.

My dad’s unrestrained emotions, colorful language, and lack of guile wreaked havoc with my youthful notions of appropriate behavior. I remember refusing to go into the local bakery with him because he insisted on asking for stale bread, rather than day-old, as I thought proper.

Then the day arrived when my granddaughter told me she wished I would say soft drink rather than soda.  The only thing worse than asking her friends if they wanted a soda, she added, would be asking if they wanted pop.

Dad also embarrassed me by bursting into song at odd moments. I liked his melodious voice, but no one should sing “Blood on the Saddle,” while shopping at the supermarket or waiting in line at the bank. He’d croon obliviously, and I’d pretend not to know him.

Then years later, I received a note from one of my 4th grade students when I was home with the flu: “I hope you get well soon. I miss the way you go around singing and humming all the time.”

I used to judge Dad harshly when he flared into frustrated anger at things that didn’t work: cars, cows, the IRS. But to this day, when thwarted, I mutter profanities and thump the offending objects: sewing machines, vacuums, my hair.

However, even when young, I recognized that my father possessed the attributes that mattered: He loved and respected my mother and made her and his children the focus of his life. He never spoke a harsh, hurtful, or judgmental word about Mom, us, or anybody else. We always knew where he was and when he would be home, and he never disappointed us. Until the day he died, his children knew that if we needed his help, he’d be there, no matter how old we were or where we were.

He never said, “I love you,” to me, but he didn’t need to. I saw love in his eyes, sensed it in his actions, and carried its certainty with me every day I lived and every place I went.

At a recent class reunion, a former friend and neighbor, David, told me how much he had enjoyed knowing my dad. He remembered a time when he’d worked with Dad for several days putting up hay for an injured neighbor.

“I was lucky to be paired with him. He worked harder than anyone else, even those much younger, and sang or told stories the entire time. He treated me like I was worthwhile. I liked and respected him.”

So did I, David. And I loved him with all my heart.

Hug your fathers on Sunday.

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