I woke up thinking one day, “Who will carry my father’s torch?”
He died sixteen years ago. The memories, although fading as I get older, are still there. But there isn’t a record of his exploits. And I wondered out loud if I should put some of them down.
I loved my dad. He was smallish. About 5′ 6 ½”, brownish-blonde hair, which he kept combed straight back for as long as I can remember. His arms were stout and muscular. I can remember asking him to show me his muscles once more and wondering at the same time whether or not my arms will be like his—that gigantic. Now the eyes of a boy are wide with wonder. The world isn’t all that big and life is just waiting to be taken by the horns and wrestled with. And somewhere along the way play is set aside for responsibility and the world becomes a much darker place. It isn’t as safe but it is still wild. And I also know that any time that I write about my dad I am really writing about me.
As you dig around in the closet of your memories you sometimes find things that you never really expected, some are good, some are bad. And then you find that things you really tried to run away from are just things that are true about you. And you say, “What the hell?”
So, this is as much a story about me as my dad.
We moved from the fertile valleys of central California to the rocky Ozarks of Southwest Missouri in the mid-seventies. There were only four of us. I was four, my brother had just been born. I learned later that my parents had intended to go on to Springfield but decided on Neosho when they saw the hills of that sleepy town.
We lived in a rental on South Lafayette street. The house was yellow and small. But not small enough for a family of four. I never really found out what motivated my parents to move–I think it was just wanderlust. My brother and I shared a room. I still remember my bed. I remember the play. I remember my dad going away to work. He was a carpenter, as his father and brothers were. And a carpenter’s life is never easy. Work is spotty, seasonal. Not all the drama and glamorous tripe you see on the DIY shows. And the mid-seventies were tough anyway. I can only now understand the fear that he must have felt starting over. But there wasn’t just the fear of starting over. He was mortally afraid of tornadoes.
Central California, Modesto particularly, was a very mild place. Winters are wet, but that’s about it. Temp doesn’t change all that much, according to my parents. Not so Missouri. It is a place of extremes. Four distinct seasons. Insanely hot in the summers with high humidity and really cold winters with ice. It can be downright miserable. But the falls are wonderful and temperate. And beautiful. Nothing quite like Fall in the Ozarks. God dumps his box of crayons over the hills and they erupt with color. It’s a place that is quite unique geographically as well. The Ozarks themselves run mostly along an east to west plane which makes it the place of great weather battles between cold fronts from the north and tropical air from the south. When they work out their differences, especially in April and May, we get thunderstorms and tornadoes.
And if you have been here for any length of time, the locals make that Spring storm season almost like a spectator sport. I remember going outside to watch the thunderstorms and the fresh smell that came after all the violence.
Having never experienced them, though, my dad didn’t know what to do with them. So I can remember sitting in my living room watching old 8mm movies we borrowed from the Newton County library to get us ready for the terror. But that’s what my dad did. He faced fear. It wasn’t easy for him because he was an easy-going man. It took a lot to make him mad. To relieve any tension he may have been feeling he would run his hand through his hair. My Lord, did he do that when I became a teenager…anyway.
My dad built things. He built houses, furniture, retaining walls, kitchen cabinets, all kinds of things people use. That was my dad. He helped people. All the stuff he made? It’s still here in the town. I take friends from time to time just to see them. “This is my dad’s work. This is what he did. I am proud of it. He did it honestly.” Sorry…swept away a tear, there.
I had a conversation with him once out in our garage. I was about to travel to Montana for a couple of weeks to ask the woman who would be my wife for nineteen years to marry me. We talked about doing things, serving God, being happy. I can remember listening talking. I can remember the regret that he felt. Building house wasn’t his first choice. You see, he loved making music. He loved playing guitar. But I found out later he really liked to promote people almost as much as he like to play music. And that was something I didn’t know about him until after his death. My mom told me. But what was remarkable was the fact that in the face of the dissatisfaction he felt in not being able to follow his desire for a musical career, he continued to live and provide and be a man. He gave himself to us. He built a successful business (not based on metrics that most professionals would use) because he did it honestly, day in and day out. He came home bone-tired, took a shower, watched TV, read his Bible every night, ate a concord grape peanut butter jelly sandwich, and slept.
When I close my eyes, I see my dad dressed in his white Tee and bluejeans, his arms darkened by years of working in the sun but so muscular. They were the arms that love made. They were arms that built homes and gave things to people that have outlived his brief fifty-six years on this planet.