Friday, November 20, 2009
I sat across the old oak dining room table from Uncle John, the remains of breakfast the only witness to our uncomfortable silence. It was July 27th, 1981, my father’s birthday. Coincidently, there I was sitting in the farmhouse where he grew up, at the table where he used to eat, on an early morning, with his younger brother, who had never really recovered from the death of his older brother, whom he had so greatly admired. We didn’t talk about dad’s birthday; we didn’t talk about his life. We really didn’t talk at all.
The fact that I was his brother’s son, I know now, as well as having me hanging around the farm for a month, was probably something that made him very uneasy and uncomfortable. If he had to deal with me, that meant he had to deal with his brother’s death, and ultimately that would force him to think about his own mortality. For many years, the bottle was both his friend and his foe. Years after this summer day, he did get the monkey off his back. Sadly, many days of drinking, depression, and self-abuse had worn his body down, and he died about twelve years later. However, that’s another story.
In this story, on this day, Uncle John and I did that dance that we had done since I first started coming to Indiana for the summer ten years before.
I have no doubt that he loved me, and he cared deeply for me, but I also know that the tangible reminder of his departed older brother made him think about things he would rather not dwell on. But, there we were.
At the time, I was sixteen and at the ideal height and weight I wish I could have carried for the rest of my life. In college, and in later, I often rode the poundage pendulum a dozen times or more from 295 to 250 lbs back and forth. But on that particular day I stood a strong 6-3, 230 lbs. I could wrestle a bull and I could run like a gazelle. When I wore football pads and helmet, I was a powerful force, and I could smash-mouth with anyone.
From behind the Indianapolis Times, Uncle John’s voice broke the awkward silence, and we began another dance.
“Well, Robbie, what position are you going to play in football this year?”
I lied. I was really going to be a defensive end, but I thought telling him I was going to be a LB would impress him. He lowered the paper and looked me over.
“Well, the way you’re built, I would think the coach would play you at defensive end.”
“Maybe I’ll get some reps there too, I don’t know just yet…” My voice trailed off. What a dumb ass I was. I wanted Uncle John, the man closest to my father, to be impressed with my athletic prowess. I thought maybe telling him I was a budding linebacker would do the trick. I should have just told the truth.
I excused myself and got up from the table, internally embarrassed, and headed out the door into the bright day. Indiana is a lush, beautiful state, and the sounds, smells, and memories made me feel glad to be alive. It was very different from my home, carved out in the Coal Regions of Pennsylvania. I loved my visits to the farm each summer, and the explorations and adventures during my time there helped forge a large part of the mettle from which I was cast.
I lopped out into the barnyard and began to go through the ritual of my stretching exercises. I was going to try to run a few miles—at least two, and then my plan was to lounge the rest of the day reading, swimming, and just generally being a “Farm Bum” with no real pressing responsibilities at that moment of my life.
However, with the promise of that sort of lazy day before me, I was motivated to get my workout done, thus justifying my slothfulness. I progressed through my stretching, peeled off my shirt, and pounced onto the gravel and tar road. Springing up and down in the shade of the huge elm tree like a boxer, I eyed the road that stretched out across the countryside. With the round bell ringing in my ears, off I started, stepping into the heat and light, and forward into what would prove to be one of the strangest days of my life.
By the time I finished my run, the tar was beginning to bubble and pop when my jogging shoes pounded the road. July in Indiana could be very hot, and today was shaping up to be a scorcher. I couldn’t wait to get into the pool after my run, and that promise of the cool welcoming water surged me up the slight rise in the road that ended at the driveway of the farm house.
Grandma had gone up to Lebanon for a few days to take care of Aunt Maude. Aunt Maud was, according to family legend, quick as a cat and crazy as a loon. She was one of the ancient Pratt’s, a branch of my Grandma’s family who lived long and got loonier the longer they lived.
Aunt Maude was in her nineties at that time, and Grandma and several other relatives took turns caring for her up at the big, old house with the gingerbread trim in Lebanon, Indiana. I remember, back when I was younger, how we would go up to the house to visit. Aunt Jess, Maude’s younger sister, lived with her at the time. We, my cousin, and me, were always warned each time we went to visit, not to ‘disturb’ Aunt Maud. The thing was we never really saw her, so how could we disturb her? Regardless, her creepy legend grew with each summer, and she eventually evolved, in our young, impressionable minds, into a menacing specter—dark and creepy, and quick like lightning, with an appetite for gullible children. Later in life, after I read To Kill a Mockingbird, I thought Aunt Maude and Boo Radley were one in the same. Either way…she freaked us out, and was the source of many ghost stories that we told late at night for years now.
Once, when I was about eleven or twelve, I think I actually caught a glimpse of her. We were up to the house on a visit, and my cousin and I had been playing hard at the park on the corner. I was thirsty, so I walked back to the big house alone, and headed into the kitchen for a glass of milk. As I stuck my head deep in the old fridge inspecting the odd assortment of contents that you only find in the fridges of the elderly, I had a strange sensation that I was being watched. In a scared shitless spasm, I spun around quickly, seeking the source of the eerie feeling. I heard a rustle of cotton and saw what I thought, was a quick wisp of a blue smock-like garment, flashing quicker than the pop of a paparazzi bulb. It all happened so swiftly, I began to question if I had really seen something or not. I raced back to the park where my cousin, Andrea, sat with her legs swinging over the bridge that crossed the creek. She was quick to assure me that I had indeed seen her. The “sighting” provided even more fodder for the folklore of Aunt Maude, and the whole thing gave me the heebie-jeebies. Now, at the age of sixteen, I could decline to visit Aunt Maude with Grandma, and wanted to even more since Grandma planned to spend a few nights there.
Overall, it promised to be a quiet day on the farm. My cousin, Andrea, three months my elder, was at a band camp for the week. My uncle John had disappeared into his shop, and would probably stay there working on his 67 Vette until he left for the second shift at Allison Turbine in Indy. Most nights, after work, he would stop at the Am Vets, just across from the motor speedway, and stay there drinking until wee hours of the morning. Actually, it was unusual to see him in the morning as I had that day.
Aunt Immy and my little cousin Johnny had left first thing that morning for an overnight visit with uncle Zeke, so for that day anyway, I was king of all 70 acres of the Alexander fiefdom. It was good to be king…
I stretched out on my back in the tightly trimmed grass of the barnyard. I was soaked with sweat, but feeling good and very much alive. A few puffy clouds drifted overhead, and I could hear the hum of insects, far away tractors, and a distant dog bark or two. Life was good.
The rest of the day went pretty much as I had planned, I swam in the pool for a while, and then I spent a few hours reading. After a late lunch, I crashed on Uncle John’s couch. A dream I didn’t remember woke me up, and I realized I slept much longer than I planned. It was getting towards evening now. Starving, I grabbed a few pieces of cold fried chicken from the fridge, and began gnawing on a drumstick while I strolled outside.
Fireflies were just warming up their glows across the fields, and it had turned cooler. I decided to walk over to Grandma’s. She had a lot of neat stuff crammed in her trailer, and I went through the open back door and settled into her small, comfortable living room. Looking for something to do, my eyes fell on the reel-to-reel tape deck and ancient stereo that my Dad had bought in Korea around 1962-63. An Army man, my dad had been stationed there after my parents were married.
There were stacks and stacks of boxes of tapes, thin reels of recorded music, mostly classics. I picked out a reel, Beethoven, cued it up, and started the music while I began to sift randomly through all the recorded tapes. There were about two hundred boxes, all meticulously documented by Grandma or Aunt Ann, which included the artist, the title, and year recorded. I’d started going though some of tapes last summer, enough to learn how to use the system, but then I’d gotten lured out by my cousin to chase bugs and butterflies for her 4H project, and never returned to the task before my visit ended.
Now, a year later, somewhere, in the middle of the stack, I found a box labeled with Grandma’s handwriting. It read, “Recording of Jim explaining how to use the stereo system, 1963?” My heart skipped a beat.
You see, I really didn’t know my dad, and I didn’t really remember him either. He died in Vietnam in 1970, just after I turned six. Sometime in 1967 would have been the last time I laid eyes on him. That was also the same year my parents divorced after seven years of marriage. From there, he went to Texas as an instructor at Ft. Wolters, remarried, and eventually returned to Vietnam for a second tour.
The only “memory” I had, and to this date I’m not sure if it was a memory or just a dream, was of him, there at the farm in Indiana, standing across the gravel road from me. He seemed tall and broad, and he wore his Army khaki uniform with short sleeves. He was saying my name, and beckoning to me as if to cross the gravel and come to him.
“Wow! I can’t believe this! I said aloud to no one. With slightly trembling fingers, I opened the box to find a folded white piece of paper with Grandma’s handwriting on it, sitting on top of thin reel of IBM magnetic tape. I pulled out the note and read it.
“This tape has a recording of Jim reading instructions on
how to work some of the features of the stereo system.
I think, this was recorded sometime around 63 when he
brought the system back from Korea, where he bought
it while he was stationed there. I remember him telling
me about what a good deal he got on it because the Asians
were making all of the best new electronic equipment. 1971”
I doubt the box was opened at all in the ten years since Grandma had placed that note in it. Cutting off the reel-to-reel deck off, I rewound the tape that was playing, and pulled if off the machine. Gingerly, I began to cue up the thin, fragile tape from the box.
I couldn’t believe that, if this tape even worked, I was actually about to hear my dad’s voice. This was heavy stuff for me. Growing up over the ten years since his death, I went through phases, thinking about him every so often, especially when I was younger. Even now, I had lots of questions, but nobody really wanted to talk about him or answer my inquiries…not my mom, not Grandma or Uncle John, no one. Most of the time, I just buried those thoughts. Still, I wondered what he was like as a person, how he looked in three dimensions when he moved, and what he sounded like, and so on. However, by the time I reached my teens, I didn’t really think too much on him…except when I was in Indiana, on the farm where he grew up, and where I was surrounded by pictures, memories, and folklore about his life. This was so crazy!
I took a deep breath, hoping that what was on the tape really was my dad, and then I turned the knob to “play”…
Some hissing and crackling filled the air, and then the hum of audio, the clearing of a throat, followed by a voice from the past filling the room.
“Now …what you have here… is a high Fi-del-i-TEE stereo syst’m.” The voice had just a touch of that high nasality sound, common to folks from that part of central Indiana. It almost sounded like Uncle John, yet it didn’t, he sounded different. I was mesmerized.
“If you want to increase the power level…for maximum wattage, then…you toggle this switch…the one that says “amp” and the red right light will come. If you want to play records, then toggle the…‘see-lect’ switch to…phone-o-graph, cue up the record, and drop the needle. Remember to power the high Fi-del-i-TEE stereo syst’m down when you are finished en’joyin’ your music.”
The whole recording lasted about thirty seconds from start to finish. Goose bumps raced over my body, and the temperature in the room seemed to drop. I rewound, cranked up the volume, and played it again, and again, and again, and again. I intently listened to every word as if my life depended on it, closing my eyes and trying to imagine him, there in the room with me, speaking the words repeatedly. I hung on each syllable, analyzing each word, time and time again as I replayed the tape, trying to get a feel for the pattern and rhythm of his speech. Eventually, I began to feel numb. It was as though I had been sitting there on the floor for hours, and I came out of my hypnotic trance.
As my head cleared, I tuned in to my surroundings for a moment. It was now dark. I stood up, stretching and walked down the hallway to the front door for some air. Along the way, I paused to look at the pictures of my dad hanging on the wall. One of my favorites was a collage that had an interesting mix. In it, there was a baby picture of him, then him at about five, then ten, then fifteen, and so on. It seemed they were all in about five year increments; the last one was a picture of his tombstone in Arlington National Cemetery. I leaned in a little and read the writing on the stone. I suddenly remembered that today, as indicated on the white granite, was July 27, his birthday. Today, had he lived, my Dad would have been 41.
Instead of going out, I continued into the west room of the trailer. There, on the shelves along a whole wall, were boxes and boxes of the family archives. They included pictures, slides, report cards, drawings, notes, letters, and a hundred other mementos that only mothers would save to mark the passing of time for their babies. Filled now with a burning desire to connect with my father, I began to tear into the boxes. I’d seen some of the pictures before, but there was a trove of things I’d never seen, and I fell once again into the world of my father, a strange world that I struggled to understand. On this night, I would find many pieces to a puzzle that I really didn’t understand, and I would also realize there were many, many pieces that were still missing.
Of particular interest to me was a stack of letters, maybe twenty or so, that my father had written to the family between 1958 and 1970. I poured over these as if they were sacred texts. They chronicled his Army career from private to Chief Warrant Officer. They were filled with wit, wonderful language, vivid descriptions, and a respect for life that kept things in perspective. He really was a skilled writer, and I recognized, for the first time in my own life, that maybe some of the things I did well or that came easily for me, like writing, might have come from his contribution to my existence. Included in this stack were two items that really blew me away and framed my thinking for many years to come.
The first was a letter written for him by a Red Cross worker from an Army hospital in Japan. Addressed to his mom, the tone was professional and reassuring. He explained that he couldn’t write himself because he’d lost his arm in an accident, but that he was feeling chipper and well and expected to make a full recovery. He noted that maybe now, he would be able to put Vietnam behind him and live out the rest of his days with his second wife, Dorothy, in Texas.
The other wasn’t a letter per se, but rather a Western Union telegraph from the Army informing my Grandma that her son had died on February 7th, 1970 in Japan from wounds he received in Vietnam on January 23rd, 1970. For the record, I turned six on January 11th of that year. I cried that night; I think, for the first time in my life, with a real understanding of loss. The magnitude of his death really blew me away. How, like a stone tossed into a pond, the ripples rolling out larger and larger, touching more and more people with each outward extension. I cried for myself. Finally, I came back to reality.
I had lost all track of time and place. The tiny alarm clock read almost 3 a.m., and I was exhausted, numb, and drained. A storm had blown in while I was lost in the letters, and I could hear the wind blowing and rain pelting the west side of the trailer like tiny pebbles. I closed my eyes to listen. A dense wave of fatigue swept over me, and I didn’t even feel like moving. I could have fallen asleep where I sat. I kicked off my Chuck Taylors, pulled off my sweaty shirt, cut out the light, and unwound myself on the old Army cot that Grandma kept in that room. My feet extended over the edge, but I didn’t care. I felt cozy. I shut my eyes and opened my ears; the pebbles pounded the wall, almost, but not quite like rain on a tin roof, the winds tousled tree branches, a deep sigh…then…sleep.
It was a voice, I think, that brought me out of deep slumber. I slowly opened my eyes, struggling to make sense of time and space. Did I hear something? A voice? I was aware of the dim light of early dawn softly illumining the room. Then, still heavy with slumber, my eyes began to shut slowly…and then I heard it. Clear as a bell. A voice…
“Rob-eeeee. Hey Robbie!”
My eyes popped open this time. Someone was calling my name. The voice came from outside, and it sort of sounded… like… Uncle John? I was tired and having problems processing. The room felt sort of… heavy, and I swung my feet onto the floor and rubbed my face trying to shake the lead feeling out of my head. I was awake now, and again, I heard the voice.
“Rob-eeeee. Robbie!” This time a bit louder than the last, and I thought for sure it was Uncle John. I eagerly pulled on my shirt, slipped my feet into my Chuck Taylor’s, and rushed out of the room and out the door onto the front porch.
It was just barely dawn, I think. The dew-laden grass was soggy from the night’s rain, and wisps of mist clashed then melted in the chill morning air. I didn’t see anyone, and it was quiet, save the hum of some insects. I looked across the driveway to the farmhouse; Uncle John’s car wasn’t in front of the house or in the garage.
“Robbie, come on boy.” The voice, this time like a command, came from the other side of a short windbreak running along an old section of fence, left over from when the barn lot held cattle back in the days. I stepped off the porch, walked through the mist and around the end of the windbreak. There, across the road, in the exact same photographic image from my old dream, or memory, or whatever it was…stood my father. A chill exploded across my body like a thousand needles…sense was unraveling there, right before my eyes. He spoke.
“Revelry Son, let’s get a move on! I don’t have a lot of time to be lollygagging around. Put some pep in your step, boy!” There was a smile on his face, but the tone of his voice, that same voice I’d heard for the first time the day before on fragile tape, held a sense of urgency. I was dizzy and lightheaded. I think I may have honestly been in shock.
I didn’t know what else to do, so I walked across the gravel drive way, reaching out my hand.
“D…d..dad?” I stammered as our hands met in a manly shake. His hand was cool, but it felt real and tangible.. He smiled.
“Come on boy, I don’t have all day. Let’s get a move on.” He put his arm around my shoulder. I was taller than he was, probably three or more inches, but I also noticed that we shared the same thick torso and broad chest and back. Unlike my long runners’ legs, his were thick and stocky, and his forearms, hands, and fingers were thick and strong. He looked powerful. He led me to the road, and we headed north. My mind was racing, but I didn’t know what to say.
“I am sure you are in shock, and none of this makes sense to you, Robbie. It may be years before any of this makes sense, but you’ll figure it out. You’re a smart boy. I know you think about me, and I know you have a lot of questions, and I know that later on in your life you will get some answers, but not all of them.” He paused and winked. “ How you doing, boy?
“Uhhh, Ok, I guess, Sir.”
He laughed loudly, and the sound filled the air and echoed through the fields. It was a hearty, good laugh, and I couldn’t help but smile. He rustled my hair, and it felt as if I was being mauled gently by a happy bear.
“Don’t call me Sir, son. That’s what I called my daddy. I think these are different circumstances.”
“What should I call you, then?” We stopped for a moment, he dropped his arm off my shoulder, and we stood face to face.
“Call me Dad.”
I smiled. “Ok Dad”. The word hung in the air. It felt strange rolling off my tongue. It wasn’t natural to me as the word was never really a part of my vocabulary. I said it again. “Dad.”
“That’s better, now let’s double time.” He continued down the road, and I fell into step beside him.
“I tried to lead a good life, Robbie, at least as good as I thought it could be. It wasn’t perfect, and I made mistakes. I hurt your mom, and I hurt other people, and I have to deal with the pain that I caused others, but I never meant to do anyone any harm, you know? We all make mistakes. Understand?”
I nodded my head.
“Life doesn’t always work out like you want it to, but you try the best you can to do the right thing. Sometimes, the right thing that you do isn’t the thing that everyone else would do. Some folks call those decisions “selfish”, but sometimes we have to make selfish decisions. You’ll figure that out when you grow up, and remember that sometimes you have to do what’s right for you, no matter what the rest of the world thinks. Are you getting any of this?”
I was, kinda-sorta getting all of this. However, it was tough to digest everything as I was still, I think, honestly in shock on some level. After all, I was having a conversation with my father, and he had been dead for ten years now.
“Yes, Sir. I’m getting it.” He raised his eyebrows and face feigned anger. “I mean, yes, Dad.”
We had walked about a half-mile or so, down to the crossroads. It was a bit lighter now, but the mist and early morning fog still held a blanket over the rising sun. He stopped at the spot where the crossroads met.
“I gotta go, Robbie, and this is as far as you go.” He turned and looked me in the eye. There we stood, face to face, and he reached out and put one hand on my shoulder. “Son, I understand you’ve been playing football? Are you having fun?”
“Yes Sir, I mean Dad…I love it.”
“Well, you keep it up. It is going to take you to places you never thought you go, and it will teach you toughness and discipline. It took the Army to do that for me. Maybe you’ll get off a little easier, and maybe you’ll never have to go to war.” Dropping his hand off my shoulder, he offered it to me, and we shook.
“You take care now, Robbie. You hear me, Son? It was nice to meet you. Make me proud.” He turned and started down the road. There was a slight rise to the North, and then the road dipped off and wound its way down towards Jamestown. The mist and fog seemed heavier now.
“But Dad, wait…” I wanted to say something to him, but I didn’t know what to say. He stopped and winked. Smiling at me one last time, he offered his final words.
“You best get on back to bed now. A big ole boy like you needs his rest.”
He walked away, disappearing over the rise in the road and the mist hanging low off the ground. I stared in disbelief, and turned, looking back up to the road to the farm, and then back to him. He was gone.
I jolted upright from the Army cot. Bright sunshine filtered into the room through the blinds, and I looked at the clock. It was almost 9:30 a.m. My head was foggy, and I felt a little confused. I realized I had had a dream, or was it a nightmare? Either way, it was a trippy experience.
“Wow” I thought to myself, “that was crazy…and…so real!”
I fell back down into the cot with soft thud and closed my eyes, breathing deeply, and started to think about my experience, replaying it in my head. I’d never had a dream that seemed so real, or that I could recall with such vivid detail.
I laid my hand across my chest for a moment, thinking back to last night and trying to remember my last thoughts before sleep. Something didn’t feel right. I’d taken off my shirt, and…I’d taken off my shirt…and I’d taken off my sweaty shirt, and…
At that moment, I realized my arm was resting across my shirt-covered chest. Chills filled my body, and I opened my eyes. Looking down to my feet, I saw that I was wearing my Chuck Taylor’s, laced up, with wet, dewy, morning grass covering the worn black and white high-tops.