Thursday, December 02, 2010

My Father

To say he was intense would be gross understatement. He was 50 when I was born, and restless and full of what he called "piss and vinegar". He was what I'd call a human dynamo. He worked a ton of different jobs in his life, from house painter to building the Alk-Can Highway during World War 2, to owning a string of small businesses ranging from Surplus Furniture to a giant Supper Club/Ballroom with my mother that would not book a wedding with less than 500 people at it. In the 1960's in heavily Catholic Wisconsin, that was not a large wedding.
He lived for two things, Hunting, (mostly bow hunting for bear and deer) and Fishing, although being the hardest worker on earth also seemed like a really important thing to him. I remember him in his late 60's working guys half his age into exhaustion doing roofing at the summer camp he was a caretaker for.
No work was beneath him, it was all just work. When he owned the Supper Club he tended bar and washed dishes, when you worked on one of his crews all he cared about was how much work got done.
He was famous for being a safety last kind of guy, though. He'd bark at you to "get on the stick" or say "get off your dead ass and let's go" or "dambitt, I don't care about how hard you're working, all I care about is production". He went to his grave a physically broken man, with joints that barely could move, missing one and a half fingers, with a metal plate in his hip. The only thing that slowed him down was cancer, and as you'd expect, he got that from working with asbestos in a shipyard during World War 2.
He retired in his late 60's. Only to go back to work at once being a logger, dragging a chainsaw through knee deep snow all winter, dropping trees that the crew following behind him cut into logs. I spent two winters working on that crew, and I was in my early 20's, and even in the best shape I was ever in, he was damn hard to keep up with.
He shot 19 black bear in his life with a bow and arrow. Every year he'd shoot at least four deer, we'd buy tags and fill the freezers. More than once we skipped the tags. We ate everything he shot, aside from racoons and rodents. I grew to really hate greasy bear roast.
I think I was the luckiest of my siblings when it came to him. He'd worn down a lot of his restless anger and agression by the time I was in my teens, and mostly he left me alone unless I fucked up, and I usually was sneaky enough not to get caught.
I think he never knew quite what to do with his oddball youngest kid, but by the time I dropped out of college and went to work for him, we had moved beyond the old father/child weirdness that's endemic in our culture to a strange but rewarding sort of respect for each other. When he died, I was in Alaska, for which I'm glad. I hate hospitals and the whole sick motions our society does when somebody's leaving the human fun ride, and I figured out later we were watching Grizzly bears right about the time of his death in Denali national park.
I still remember his last words to me as I was saying good bye. I walked into the living room, said, "Hey! Peter! I'm going to Alaska for three weeks, you going to be here when I get back?"
At that point you had to use his first name, he rarely responded to dad or Pa. He was done with that job, I suspect, all his kids grown up.
He looked at me, looked out the window, saw his dump truck being driven to the dump by one of the guys at the summe camp without current tags and said "that damn Kenny's using my dump truck without plates again, if he gets a ticket, he's paying for it", took another look at me and said, "what?, oh, goodbye".
Seems about right for the last conversation to have with your dad. And about the least dramatic one we ever had. And in the years after he died, although I loved him, I felt an odd sense of freedom come over me, that I could be whomever I wanted to be at last.
It felt strange, not having this huge personality around, like everything was two sizes bigger and a lot more comfortable.
I missed the funeral, but when I got back from Alaska, we fed his ashes to the fish in his favorite spot, which is another whole story that has a lot of Big Lebowski elements to it. It's on my list of things to write about, along with the day my dad Dropped a Tree on the Truck. Or got arrested after a low speed chase for poaching, or the day he and Russel killed an injured deer with a hammer, or how he smuggled a live bear cub back from Canada and kept it in the basement for six months.
When I look back on how I grew up, I really do think I grew up in a John Irving novel.

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"Sometimes a scream is better than a thesis." Ralph Waldo Emerson