The first man in my life…

My Father Sept 12 1914 to Jan 26 2006

Posted by on Feb 7, 2006 in Dad, Death and renewal | 0 comments

“Twenty six inches from elbow to elbow”, said the funeral director, and we searched with a yardstick tucked against the padded coffin walls, for one that would hold a man who was larger than life to me. I thought of all the foolish risks he had taken in his life, like dodging the railroad cops when he rode the boxcars in his teens, traveling to the 1933 Chicago World’s fair penniless, in a car with no brakes, and piloting a new $100,000 boat over the Rodchester Dam in high water. I am astounded that my father had just slipped away quietly, in his sleep.

Before he married Mother he had been a desperado, a fatherless child during the great depression. She gave her heart to this handsome, slightly dangerous, young man in 1936, and worked her whole life to domesticate him. She was so successful we never knew his weaknesses until she died in 1994, after a romance of fifty eight years. Even considering the foibles of his youth, and his anchorless old age, I believe when he is weighed on the scales of justice, good will overbalance iniquity by an easy margin. In his eulogy, the minister he had know for 40 years, made it clear that the moral sanction for that judgment was not in mortal hands. I only know that if God loves him half as much as Mother did, he will be received with open arms.

I will always remember him sitting quiet in the early dawn, watching the mist rise off the river. I loved to sit beside him, and in those moments, the conversation connecting us did not require words. I reach out into the silence between us now, and try to recapture the unspoken understanding we always shared, but I am here alone. I touch his manicured hands, now icy with death, and remember the many times I slipped my childish hand into his. I would marvel at the tattoo of grease, permanently ground into the life and heart lines of his palms. I am told that these are the hands that held me first, even before my mother touched me, tenderly cleaning and dressing his newborn daughter. My gender role was predetermined from that day on, yet my father could be counted on to let me do dangerous things forbidden by my mother. Because of him I stood on many a rocky precipice, gazing downward, and grew up fearless, with a love of all things wild.

I stand now in my mind on that cliff, and see him in his boat, floating into the distant mist. He has his fishing pole in hand, and is casting expertly into likely spots. I am too far away for him to hear, but even if he could, I know that noise is not the fisherman’s friend. I smile and wave, and I think I see him lift his hand to me, or maybe he is adjusting the oar. I don’t know where that stream runs, but I am content that he is at peace with where ever the river takes him.

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Water over the Dam

Posted by on Sep 7, 2005 in Dad, Just for laughs | 0 comments

She went outside on the deck to have a quick smoke, but that’s not how she caught the houseboat on fire. After all, she had the whole river as an ashtray, so there was never a smoldering butt tossed in the trash or even in the bottom of one of the RC pop cans left empty on the deck table. I never asked her why she lingered so long over the cigarettes, but I understand the lure of resting under the shade of the sycamore and oak that overhang the dock, scanning the opposite bank to find out what the neighbors are up to, and waiting to see if the flotsam drifting slowly by is a tree limb, a snake, or maybe a turtle. If she had seen a snake that day she would have headed back inside for her gun to shoot it, so most likely Catherine didn’t spot one that morning.

I guess I should explain that Catherine is my Dad’s live in girlfriend, although I cringe when I speak it out loud. Dad will be 91 this month, with health problems that likely preclude any physical relationship between them, but Dad manages to be just charming enough to keep her there, cooking, cleaning, and mopping up after his accidents, without paying her a dime. Not that she’s the world’s best housekeeper or cook, but Dad’s standards have dropped in more ways than one since my Mom died in 94. She’s not what you’d call a genius either, but Dad brags on her strong points to everyone who’ll listen, mentioning her fishing abilities, then praising her extensive health care experience, “She wears one of those things around her neck. You know, like the doctors use,” he confides in his booming stage whisper. She sits nearby, a grin etching yet deeper trenches into her weathered face, testament to her years of river life.

On this particular morning her paramour was off in the pickup truck. They didn’t take away his driver’s license and cancel his insurance till some years later, after the second, or maybe third accident. She saw the black smoke rolling out of the door before she smelled it, and with the acuity of the panicked, she immediately raced into the inferno. The pan of grease she had left forgotten on the hot burner was ablaze and had engulfed the lower cabinet, blinds and the microwave. Using her lightning quick wits, Catherine grabbed the pan and ran with it across the living room, out the door, onto the deck and threw it over the railing into the Green River. Turning back, she realized that she had caught several items on fire as she passed them with the boiling oil, so she snatched up burning chairs and seat cushions and lofted them over the side too. Being boat furniture, the cushions were made to serve as floatation devices, so naturally they bobbed along toward the Rochester Dam like a war-ravaged armada. Frenzied, she returned to the stove looking for more items to throw into the convenient fire extinguisher, but found that while many things were melted, there were no more flames, only the choking smoke.

While she was assessing the damage, the phone rang. It was one of the neighbors across the way wanting to be the first to spread the news about the flaming fleet headed for the dam. By late afternoon the story had spread 30 miles and more in each direction on the air raid siren like gossip network that is unique to small communities of people. Months later when I came to visit, the cabinet, microwave, rug, and blinds had been replaced, and I helped hang the dry cleaned draperies back at the windows. I listened to Catherine and Dad’s recounting of the tale, and found myself amazed that the boat was not burned to the waterline and surprised that she came out without even a singed eyebrow. “Dad”, I said helpfully, “I’m going out today and get you a smoke alarm”. My father, the former fire chief, scowled at my suggestion. “We’ve got one of those dang things,” he replied, in an annoyed voice, “but we had to pull the battery out.” I held my tongue waiting for the reason I knew would follow. “That contraption just about drove us crazy. It went off every time Catherine cooked a meal”.

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The Day the Water Tower Burned

Posted by on Apr 20, 2005 in Dad | 0 comments

If anyone has not heard of Bill Monroe, the father of Bluegrass music, then you have obviously not spent much time in rural USA. You don’t have to know anything about Bill and his brother Charlie to understand the story of the water tower, but it does provide some prospective. They are both dead now; buried on the sloping graveyard in Rosine that is also the final resting place for my Aunt Delora, Uncle Leslie and their stillborn son, Phillip. If you are a Bluegrass fan and have a morbid desire to see where Bill and Charlie’s bones are resting, you only need travel to my hometown, Beaver Dam and turn right onto old highway 62. Take the pleasant drive of about 10 miles through a slightly rolling landscape inhabited primarily by farmers and cows. You will pass through Horton, but if you reach Horse Branch, you’ve gone too far. If you arrive on a warm Friday night you can go over to the Rosine Barn Jamboree to listen to a free concert given by local Monroe wanabees. They play in or outside the barn next door to the Rosine General Store, depending on the weather. I hope you get there before the lawsuits are settled and they build a multimillion-dollar amphitheater and memorial. The cemetery is on your left and usually staffed by some young barefoot entrepreneurs who will be happy to sell you Monroe memorabilia at a very reasonable price. Bill and Charlie would probably have smiled at their resourcefulness and asked for a percentage of the profits.

The railroad that was the reason for the existence of Rosine, Horton, Horse Branch and my hometown, Beaver Dam was built between1852 and 1896. By the time Bill was born in 1911 and my father in 1914, the Paducah and Louisville line was a thriving operation, carrying the coal and other mineral of the area to distant places and bringing romance and excitement to children of all ages. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show came through in 1901 and 6 million dollars worth of gold was brought to Ft Knox in 1936. Once a year, circus cars were added to the passenger and freight cars. The big circuses did not stop in small towns, but sometimes the animals came out to get water and exercise, eliciting the same excitement as a space ship landing in the yard would today.

My father loves circuses and would always travel anywhere to see one. I don’t understand the appeal. I once thought it was because of the exotic animals, but he might have been checking out all those girls in tights and feathers. He thrived on risk taking, so he may have been considering a job as the man on the flying trapeze. He indulged his need for danger by being the chief of the local volunteer fire department, giving Mother another reason to ring her hands. Once he crawled into a smoke filled, burning building to see if anyone was inside, secured with a rope around his waist so his unconscious body could be retrieved. Well. unless the rope caught on fire but what were the odds on that happening?

Before cell phones and pagers, the firemen were alerted by the alarm at the fire station, which also rang at noon each day, except Sunday, loud enough to be heard throughout the town. Dad owned his business, so he could drop everything and be the first man at the station. That’s why he happened to be driving the fire engine the day the water tower burned down at Rosine. I’ve questioned him, and he no longer remembers the year, but all other details are fresh in his mind. The last steam engine was retired in 1962 and I only barely remember the event, so I’m guessing the Rosine fire was in the early 1950’s. The water tower was built before the remembrance of all but those too feeble to be in attendance on that exciting day. It was made of timber harvested locally, probably hickory, and covered in and outside with pitch, making it watertight. The structure was very near the tracks in order for the engine to be filled at each stop, the water providing steam for the pistons. On that fateful day, as the smoking engine arrived in town spewing cinders and sparks from its stack, a wayward ember landed on the top of the wooden water tower. Before the eyes of the passengers and crew of the train, the tower burst into flames. The cry went out to Beaver Dam, but before the truck could travel the 10 miles to Rosine, the tower was an inferno. It was certainly a sight to behold, the steam engine sputtering on the track, the passengers and townspeople agape, the firemen spraying water, and the tower collapsing, dumping its contents over the scene.

When Dad tells the story he begins with, “Did you know that Rosine was the only city in the USA where they burned down the water tower?’ By the time he finishes it seems a bit like a Doctor Suese story. You begin to imagine the circus elephants and performers also lined up to watch, and perhaps an old time Bluegrass band playing on the side. For good measure, he always mentioned the local baseball team, the Rosine Redlegs, but never actually placed them at the event. The glory days of the railroad are gone now, as are my fathers. Still, when he tells the tales of his prime, he is that man again, showing me extraordinary things that I would have missed if he hadn’t been my Dad.

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Meanwhile Down on the Green River

Posted by on Mar 29, 2005 in All things natural, Dad | 0 comments

I thought I might tell you about my father, as charming an old scoundrel as you are likely to meet in the part of the world he inhabits, which is rural western Kentucky. I mention the fact that he lives in the western portion of the state since it is a point of pride for those who are reared in this beautiful, but financially depressed area. No matter how bad thing are there, at least they can boast that they don’t come from eastern Kentucky. “We’re from down home”, my daddy says, mimicking the easterners slightly more redneck accent. The expression he puts into the statement says it all for him, but those not “in the know” will miss his insult.

The differences my dad sees between east and west might puzzle you even more if you visited the western Kentucky area where my Dad was born in 1914. His father was a farmer who owned “the finest mules in Grayson County”. His mother, with her third grade education, scrubbed floors, did washing, and took in “boarders” to keep food on the table when her husband became ill with TB. Dad was only 14 in 1928 when his father died. After the burial on the hill above Uncle Jake’s farm, my grandmother packed her two sons and all her furniture in a road wagon and moved the family 20 miles to the metropolis of Beaver Dam. My dad and his brother perched on the back of the mule drawn cart, their bottoms bouncing on the mirror of their mother’s bureau with each turn of the wheels thru the dry streambed they used for a road. The admonishment they received for breaking the mirror was soon forgotten when they arrived in a world where “light” bread was sold in bags, already sliced, and such tropical delights as bananas and pineapple were sold in the general store.

The combination of poverty, a tough but harried mother, and a lack of paternal guidance had put wildness into the boy who came to town. Dad will tell of his younger days of stealing watermelons, working as a bouncer in a “road house”, getting in fights, and riding the rails (boxcars) to Louisville with a bit too much pride at having survived the ordeal. His salvation came in the form of a singular woman who was destined to tame his wayward character. Not that she ever completely succeeded, but lord knows, Mama tried. She accomplished more than anyone else thought possible, least of all my dad, but in some areas she was out of her depth. He did turn into a respectable businessman and a pillar of the Baptist church. By the time I knew him his most obvious vice was fishing. I know, it doesn’t seem like a vice, but the obsession my Dad brought to the sport is still beyond belief. He’s aware of his problem and did determine one time to “cure” himself of the desire by saturation. He had sold his body shop business in 1956 and took up fishing as a full time occupation. He would rise before dawn; grab a sandwich, head to the river or lake of his choice and fish there till after dark. If they were biting, he lost track of time, causing my mother to drive to the bank of the river, pace and wring her hands, believing him drowned. He repeated this every day for 6 months till he finally realized we were all sick of fish and he was never going to tire of catching them.

He and Mom started a new business together and by working 14 hours a day 6 days a week for 35 years they accumulated a fortune. Mom had an amazing instinct for business and Dad was the consummate salesman, which proved to be a winning combination. After 58 years of marriage Mom died and Dad proved who had been the brains of the operation by selling off the business and estate with equal amounts of haste and poor judgment. With some of his money he bought a luxury houseboat and moved to the river to fish for the rest of his life. To the complete astonishment of his children he spent a great deal of his fortune on loose women and other foolishness. None of the excesses of our own rebellious youth prepared us to see the Sunday school superintendent dressed in tight shoes, headed off to a dance on Saturday night. He’s too old now for any more of that. In fact, the walk up and down the ramp of the boat is too much for him. Despite his numerous health problems, we can’t get him off the boat. He’s convinced that the only reason everyone doesn’t live on Green River on a houseboat is because they’ve never learned to fish. He holds this belief even though he could never even get his own bride to show any interest in the sport.

If you like, you can visit him near the Rochester Dam any day of the week. He will be happy to entertain you with stories of his youth, told so masterfully that you never tire of them. You’re welcome to spend the night and listen to the chorus of brim butting their heads against the bottom of the boat in search of barnacles. The ever changing tabloid of the river is at it’s best at dawn. Dad will be there on the front deck when you awaken, waiting with a pole and bait. You can hear the grin in his voice when he asks you, “Did anyone every teach you how to fish?”

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