Going on nineteen.
I gave him a call this morning. He is doing well. He has been to Thailand twice this year and is preparing to go for another five weeks pretty soon. He says he is planning on renting a house this time. He is also scheduled to go there later this summer for 42 days, and again in September for 60.
He loves talking about his trips to Amsterdam, and Belize, and wherever his fancy takes him.
I love him.
I also fear him.
I haven't anything to fear, it is just a feeling I get when I am near him, an echo of my childhood.
He has had an interesting life. He has had many adventures, many close calls, many ups and downs. He was beaten as a child, and grew up being pretty tough, pretty rough.
He turned 19 about a week after I was born, my mother had turned 18 three weeks earlier. It isn't easy to start a family that young. He worked in a battery factory, cared for an orange grove, grew popcorn, and dismantled old farm equipment to sell as scrap.
When I was five there wasn’t much money. He was renting a farmhouse, reduced rent in exchange for taking care of some wheat fields. He worked as a truck driver and supplemented our table with pheasant hunting and frog gigging. When he had to haul grain and would be gone for a few days, my mom fixed him a sack full of peanut butter sandwiches, no jelly, just peanut butter. He lost his truck's brakes on the grapevine headed down into L.A. on one of those trips. He's lucky he managed to get down that long grade in one piece.
He started messing around on Mom, and by the time I was in fourth grade she had moved us five times. There was no chance they would get back together (but I hoped).
He married the teen he had been fooling around with and that turbulent, on again, off again marriage ended with a child obviously not his. He claimed that child, my sister, with a determination that spoiled her... She killed herself four years ago. Now he is raising her son.
He scared me. He thought the best way to discipline children was violently.
I once tried to pad my butt with a paperback book before a spanking (hand, stick, or belt, depended on the severity of our crimes). That didn’t work. It was a big mistake.
I was afraid of the "Boogie Man" and set a trap one night. I ended up catching my father in a snarl of ropes and wire clothes hangers. He wasn’t amused.
There were good times. Once, when we were living in Chico, (northern) California, he bought my brothers and I BB guns. He took us out to the river bed and set coins up on rocks. Any we hit we got to keep. For the longest time I kept a quarter in my pocket that had a satisfying little dent in George Washington’s forehead.
He taught me to hunt. On that first trip I learned how to clean a deer, eat fresh liver, and throw a three day drunk. He tried to treat me to a prostitute, to lose my virginity, on that trip. But I refused. He was angry I rejected his generosity.
This is sounding pretty negative. I don't mean it to be. I really love my dad. He taught me to ride a bicycle. He taught me to ride a motorcycle. He taught me to operate a loader and a motor grader, how to tear down buildings, and what it meant to be a man, at least the macho kind that drinks, and swears, and womanizes. He taught... but I just couldn’t seem to learn those things very well. Not his fault.
We used to play stupid games on the demolition job sites, usually something demonstrating mental acuity. The penalty for losing was always some stupid prank. We'd sit around eating jalapeno peppers, cottage cheese, and avocados with our fingers and broken bits of plastic, and create interesting penalties for losing. One time he suggested the next loser would have to pee on the stop sign on the corner. This was in downtown L.A.
He sidled up to the sign, looking nonchalant, and paid up for losing. In a big way. Our grins turned to outright laughter when he began dancing around that corner, exposed, because he had forgotten the jalapeno pepper juice on his fingers.
Once he found me without much to do and put me to work. He had me picking rocks off the slope above the building pad where we dreamt of building a house for all of us, him, my brothers and I (it never worked out). I was seventeen. I just wanted to find an oak tree to climb into and read on that summer day. But he had me chucking rocks off that hillside and I didn’t like it. I was petulant, and whiney, and didn’t want to be out in the California sun. I was chucking the rocks angrily between my legs. I felt one of them twist as it left my hand and I knew it wasn’t flying right. I straightened up and saw that rock whiz past his ear, sending up dust as it bounced on down the hill.
“What the F--- was that?” he snarled.
I knew I was in a tight spot. "Come here!”
I started walking down the slope, at an angle. not looking up so it would appear I had an excuse for not having an accurate path toward him.
If I could get across the building pad, past the cow shed, and to the top of the steep grade of the drive, I figured that the momentum of the race down the hill would be enough for me to outrun him.
“Over here, damn it.”
I angled my path so it looked like I was trying to comply. Just the bare minimum, a hint that I was obeying. I got to the bottom of the slope and ambled casually in his direction, but really more toward the cow shed, as if I might be going to get a drink of water.
“Where the hell do you think you're goin'?”
It wasn’t going to work. I swerved right and ran with all I had toward the road. I heard him curse and start scrambling down the hillside after me.
My heart was racing. My breath was blowing hard. If I could just make the top of the grade I would race down that 12% slope with all I had and just concentrate on keeping my feet under me. He wouldn’t risk injuring himself speeding down that steep dirt road pursuing me.
I heard him behind me. His longer, stronger legs were gaining on me.
With forty feet to go to the top of the road I knew I wasn’t going to make it. I would have to slow down to make the turn of the road and I didn’t have the time to manage it. He would have me. So I wouldn’t go down the road. I would just run straight on out, over the steep 50% slope of the hillside above the creek, fly out into the air, hoping I'd land in mesquite brush, and that it would roll me to a gentler stop than the one he'd give me.
I put on all the speed I could. I heard him do the same, very close behind.
Twenty feet to go.
A strong hand grabbed the back of my neck, yanked me to a stop.
Dad’s getting his fifth divorce. He owns at least two houses (I suspect there may be another in Mexico and he might be looking for one in Thailand). He has a girlfriend near where he lives, and I think he has another in Thailand.
He has set two world motorcycle speed records. He holds the record for open stock frame gas engine, and closed stock frame gas engine, set on the Bonneville Salt Flats. He lost a lot of teeth a few years ago dumping a Harley at 163 mph.
One year from today he wants to set another record. He wants to be the first seventy year old to go more than 200 mph on a motorcycle.
I have so many mixed feelings about him... it is hard to sort it out. When I sat down to write this post I thought I was going to write a tribute to him. To the strong man who refuses to let life slow him down. The man who lifted himself out of years of an alcoholic binge and made himself a successful businessman.
Instead of honoring him I have dredged up painful experiences, laid those old wounds open. I have explored the discomfort that grew from his questioning glances at my stack of books, my lack of dates.
I called him this morning to wish him a happy birthday and since that call I have been thinking about the times when he nearly killed me... the times when he went into a rage... the times when he questioned my sexuality and my fitness to be his son.
I have heard it said that how we view our fathers colors how we view our Lord God.
Perhaps that is true. There is something about drawing near to God which terrifies me. There is something about meeting my creator that makes me grateful Jesus is sitting to His right.
Happy birthday Dad. I know you will not read this, you don’t use computers, but if you do come across this somehow, if someone prints it off and hands it to you... I want you to know something.
I love you. I love you very much. I don’t want anything from you. I don’t need any of your money. I don’t need any of your things.
I want you to know that if you were to ever need anything from me... anything at all, all you would need do is somehow let me know. I know you wouldn’t want to ask. You wouldn’t have to... I'd just have to know there was a need and I'd be there.
I want you to know that if it all comes apart, if you need anything I have, I would be there.
I want you to know I love you, I want you to spend eternity with me, with all of us... my friends, my family. I know you are aware of what it takes to be saved, and perhaps you have met the bare requirements for that, it isn’t my place to judge.
It is just my place to love you, and I do. I love you more than I can say.
You weren’t the best dad in a lot of ways, but I know there were many times you thought of me. Loved me... and that is enough.
May God bless you, Dad. May you find the source which quenches your thirsts. May you find peace, and joy, in this life as well as the next.
Happy birthday Dad.
(Heavenly Father. Bless my Dad. He is my earthly father and I love him. Bless him Lord. Please draw him near to You. Bring people alongside of him, people who follow You, people he will listen to, people he will hear, notice. Bring him examples of joy, and peace and grace, so he may wonder where they get such things, and that he may look beyond what he has and to what is missing and have real rest and happiness. Lord, I worry about this ambition of his a year from now. It sounds suicidal to me. Help him to see that the only record worth setting is one which places his name in Your book. Bless my father Lord. --Amen.)