Saturday, November 27, 2010
As far as I remember, I was 7 or 8 years-old the first time I heard my Dad tell how his own father could have gotten up off his death bed and whipped my Dad’s ass. From the first telling, there was no doubt about the seriousness and importance of the story. Maybe he figured that it was obvious, or maybe he had never really stopped to clarify for himself the meanings, but he never let us know what it meant to him, nor what he hoped we would learn.
I know that on at least one occasion, my grampa Harvey, whom I never met, took my Dad out the wood shed and “taught him a lesson” with his fists, for being “smart” with his mother.
From other stories over the years, I learned from my Dad that Grampa Harvey had been strong and brave and handsome and smart and honorable and respected.
As a kid, I took the story of the projected, ass-whipping capacity to mean that my Dad knew that Grampa was a better man than he; in every way.
By the age of 14 I was 6 feet tall; tall as my Dad, but not quite as big. My brothers and I were staying with him for the summer as part of the dance of divorce, and as we had done on so many occasions over many years, we engaged in all manner of competitions; card games, board games, physical agility, and arm wrestling.
I wasn’t just taller since the previous summer, I was stronger. My Dad and I arm wrestled for the last time in our lives. As I strained and struggled, giving it everything I had, the question flashed through my mind, “How will he take it if I win?” In another instant I was considering throwing the match, but unsure if I could I let him win without it being obvious.
I pushed ahead. His arm went down. Just as quickly, he was on his feet and putting me on angry notice that if I ever thought that I could take him on, we could go outside and he would set me straight. I have vague memory of saying something to show that I knew my place. Other than knowing that we didn’t go outside, I have no idea what happened next, or how things settled down.
When he wasn’t sober, my Dad drank a lot. It was no different when my wife, Joanne, and I, on one occasion while in college, visited and spent the night. By the early afternoon he had begun to drink. By dinner he was beginning to be a bit uncomfortable to be around. Later, as we sat talking in the living room, I with a full-length cast on my right leg, a few disagreements surfaced and began to flare. Next thing I knew, my father was threatening to throw me, cast and all, through the second-story, 8’x12’, plate-glass window which offered an expansive view of the San Francisco Bay. As I had at age 14, I pushed ahead. Unlike 14, I called him out; I invited him to see if he could put me through the window. I also remember what happened. He backed down.
My Dad ultimately and literally drank himself to death. I don’t believe that it was ever clear to him why his father’s ability to whip his ass was so important. And I don’t believe that it was ever clear to him why he was drinking himself to death.
....... This story would be incomplete if I didn’t tell you that my Dad was a good man. On his death bed, he could never have whipped my ass..... But then, that was never... what he really wanted.