Article — From the April 1971 issue
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There was that blindly adoring period of childhood when my father was the strongest and wisest of men. He would scare off the bears my young imagination feared as they prowled the night outside our Texas farmhouse, provide sunshine and peanut butter, make the world go away. I brought him my broken toys and my skinned knees. He did imitations of all the barnyard animals; when we boxed he saw to it that I won by knockouts. After his predawn winter milkings, shivering and stomping his numb feet while rushing to throw more wood on the fire, he warned that tomorrow morning, by gosh, he planned to laze abed and eat peach cobbler while his youngest son performed the icy chores.
He took me along when he hunted rabbits and squirrels, and on alternate Saturdays when he bounced in a horse-drawn wagon over dirt roads to accomplish his limited commercial possibilities in Putnam or Cisco. He thrilled me with tales of his own small-boy peregrinations: an odyssey to Missouri, consuming two years, in covered wagons pulled by oxen, fordings of swift rivers, and pauses in Indian camps where my grandfather, Morris Miles King, smoked strong pipes with his hosts and ate with his fingers from iron kettles containing what he later called dog stew. The Old Man taught me to whistle, pray, ride a horse, enjoy country music, and. by his example, to smoke. He taught that credit-buying was unmanly, unwise, and probably unforgivable in Heaven: that one honored one’s women, one’s flag, and one’s pride: that, on evidence supplied by the Biblical source of “winds blowing from the four corners of the earth,” the world was most assuredly flat. He taught me the Old Time Religion, to bait a fishhook or gut a butchered hog, and to sing “The Nigger Preacher and the Bear.”
I had no way of knowing what courage was in the man (he with no education, no hope of quick riches, no visible improvements or excitements beckoning to new horizons) to permit him to remain so cheerful, shielding, and kind. No mailer low difficult those Depression times, there was always something under the Christmas tree. When I was four, he walked five miles to town in a blizzard, then returned as it worsened, carrying a red rocking chair and smaller gifts in a gunnysack. Though he had violated his creed by buying on credit, he made it possible for Santa Claus to appear on time.
I would learn that he refused to accept the largess of one of FDR’s recovery agencies because he feared I might be shamed or marked by wearing to school its telltale olive drab “relief shirts.” He did accept employment with the Works Progress Administration. shoveling and hauling wagonloads of dirt and gravel for a road-building project. When brought home the latest joke from the rural school — “WPA stands for ‘We Piddle Around’ ” — he delivered a stern, voice-quavering lecture: Son, the WPA is a honest way some poor men has of makin’ their families a livin’. You’d go to bed hungry tonight without the WPA. Next time some smart aleck makes a joke about it, you ought to knock a goddamned whistlin’ fart out of him.
Children learn that others have fathers with more money, more opportunity, or more sophistication. Their own ambitions or resentments rise, inspiring them to reject the simpler wants of an earlier time. The son is shamed by the father’s speech, dress, car, occupation, and table manners. The desire to flee the family nest (or, at bottom, to soar higher in it; to undertake some few experimental solos) arrives long before the young have their proper wings or before their parents can conceive of it.
The Old Man was an old-fashioned father, one who relied on corporal punishments, Biblical exhortations, and a ready temper. He was not a man who dreamed much, or who understood that others might require dreams as their opium. Though he held idleness to be as useless and as sinful as adventure, he had the misfortune to sire a hedonist son who dreamed of improbable conquests accomplished by some magic superior to grinding work. By the time I entered the troublesome teen-age years, we were on the way to a long dark journey. A mutual thirst to prevail existed — some crazy stubborn infectious contagious will to avoid the slightest surrender.
The Old Man strapped, rope-whipped, and caned me for smoking, drinking, lying, avoiding church, skipping school, and laying out at night. Having once been very close, we now lashed out at each other in the manner of rejected lovers on the occasion of each new disappointment. I thought The Old Man blind to the wonders and potentials of the real world; could not fathom how current events or cultural habits so vital to my contemporaries could be considered so frivolous, or worse. In turn, The Old Man expected me to obediently accept his own values: show more concern over the ultimate disposition of my eternal soul, eschew easy paths when walking tougher ones might somehow purify, be not so inquisitive or damnfool dreamy. That I could not (or would not) comply puzzled, frustrated, and angered him. In desperation he moved from a “wet” town to a “dry” one, in the foolish illusion that this tactic might keep his baby boy out of saloons.
On a Saturday in my fifteenth year, when I refused an order to dig a cesspool in our backyard because of larger plans downtown. I fought back: it was savage and ugly — though, as those things go, one hell of a good fight. Only losers emerged, however. After that we spoke in terse mumbles or angry shouts, not to communicate with civility for three years. The Old Man paraded to a series of punishing and uninspiring jobs — night watchman, dock loader for a creamery, construction worker, chicken-butcher in a steamy, stinking poultry house, while I trekked to my own part-time jobs or to school. When school was out I usually repaired to one distant oil field or another, remaining until classes began anew. Before my eighteenth birthday, I escaped by joining the Army.
On the morning of my induction, The Old Man paused at the kitchen table, where I sat trying to choke down breakfast. He wore the faded old crossed-gallus denim overalls I held in superior contempt and carried a lunch bucket in preparation of whatever dismal job then rode him. “Lawrence,” he said, “is there anything I can do for you?” I shook my head. “You need any money?” “No.” The Old Man shuffled uncertainly, causing the floor to creak. “Well,” he said, “I wish you good luck.” I nodded in the direction of my bacon and eggs. A moment later the front door slammed, followed by the grinding of gears The Old Man always accomplished in confronting even the simplest machinery.
Alone in a Fort Dix crowd of olive drab, I lay popeyed on my bunk at night, chain-smoking, as Midland High School’s initial 1946 football game approached. The impossible dream was that some magic carpet might transport me back to those anticipatory tingles I had known when bands blared, cheerleaders cartwheeled sweet, tantalizing glimpses of their panties, and we purple-clads whooped and clattered toward the red-shirted Odessa Broncos or the Angry Orange of San Angelo. Waste and desolation lived in the heart’s private country on the night that opening game was accomplished on the happiest playing field of my forfeited youth. The next morning, a Saturday, I was called to the Orderly Room to accept a telegram — a form of communication that had always meant death or other disasters. I tore it open with the darkest fantasies to read: midland 26 el paso yselta 0 love dad. Those valuable communiqués arrived on ten consecutive Saturday mornings.
With a ten-day furlough to spend, I appeared unannounced and before a cold dawn on the porch of that familiar frame house in Midland. The Old Man rose quickly, dispensing greetings in his woolly long-handles. “You just a First Class Private?” he teased. “Lord God, I would a-thought a King would be a General by now. Reckon I’ll have to write ole Harry Truman a postcard to git that straightened out.” Most of the time, however (when I was not out impressing the girls with my PFC stripe) a cautious reserve prevailed. We talked haltingly, carefully, probing as uncertainly as two neophyte pre-med students might explore their first skin boil.
On the third or fourth day, The Old Man woke me on the sleeping porch, lunch bucket in hand. “Lawrence,” he said, “your mother found a bottle of whiskey in your suitcase. Now, you know this is a teetotal home. We never had a bottle of whiskey in a home of ours, and we been married since 19-and-11. You’re perfectly welcome to stay here, but your whiskey’s not.” I stiffly mumbled something about going to a motel. “You know better than that,” The Old Man scolded. “We don’t want you goin’ off to no blamed motel.” Then, in a weary exasperation not fully appreciated until dealing with transgressions among my own offspring: “Good God, son, what makes you want to raise ole billy hell all the time?” We regarded each other in a helpless silence. “Do what you think is right,” he said, sighing. “I’ve done told you how me and your mother feel.” He went off to work; I got up and removed the offending liquids.
The final morning brought a wet freeze blowing down from Amarillo by way of the North Pole. The Old Man’s car wouldn’t start; our family had never officially recognized taxis. “I’ll walk you to the bus station,” he said, bundling in a heavy sheepskin jumper and turning his back, I suspect, so as not to witness my mother’s struggle against tears. We shivered down dark streets past homes of my former schoolmates, by vacant lots where I played softball or slept off secret sprees, past stores I remembered for their bargains in Moon Pies and then Lucky Strikes and finally Trojans. Nostalgia and old guilts blew in with the wind. I wanted to say something healing to The Old Man, to utter some gracious goodbye (the nearest thing to retroactive apologies a savage young pride would permit), but I simply knew no beginnings.
We sat an eternity in the unreal lights of the bus station among crying babies, hung-over cowboys, and drowsing old Mexican men, in mute inspection of those dead shows provided by bare walls and ceilings. The Old Man made a silent offering of a cigarette. He was a vigorous fifty-nine then, still clear-eyed, dark-haired, and muscular, but as his hand extended that cigarette pack and I saw it clearly — weather-cured, scarred, one finger crooked and stiff-jointed from an industrial accident — I suddenly and inexplicably knew that one day The Old Man would wither, fail, die. In that moment, I think, I first sensed — if did not understand — something of mortality; of tribes, blood, and inherited rituals.
At the door to the bus, The Old Man suddenly hugged me, roughly, briefly: not certain, perhaps, such an intimacy would be tolerated by this semi-stranger who bore his name. His voice broke as he said, “Write us, son. We love you.” I clasped his hand and brushed past, too full for words. For I knew, then, that I loved him. too, and had, even in the worst of times, and would never stop.
Larry L. King , a contributing editor, has been son, father, and — since his thirty-ninth year — grandfather. He is convinced that being a father is the most complex and demanding of these roles.
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