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.