In the movie The Wizard of Oz, the key players all had something they thought was missing from their lives that they spent the entire movie trying to find. For the Cowardly Lion, it was courage. In one scene from the famous movie, the Lion, in a thunderous oratory describes what courage is all about, and cites some well-known examples of courage; including the magnificent elephant and the sphinx. One line from the oration sums it up, “what makes the muskrat guard his musk?” At the end of his oration he asks the question of the rest of the crew, “what have they got that I ain’t got?” Their answer: courage.
Rather than seeking the advice of the Wizard, the Lion could very well have collaborated with my dad. Dad had enough courage for both of them. He wasn’t afraid of anything or anyone. When Dad was around, we all felt safe and secure. If we ran into trouble in the neighborhood or school, we always knew that as long as we were in the right, Dad would be on our side (just like the muskrat guarding his musk).
At six-foot two and 185 pounds, he was physically intimidating with not an ounce of fat on him. In a similar way to John Wayne’s many characters (Dad always reminded us of John Wayne), Dad didn’t take any guff, and most people didn’t mess with him. When other kids in the neighborhood came over to our house to play, you could see the respect they had for Dad, and this led to me walking around with a little more cockiness than normal. I was proud of my dad.
I remember the time when David T. and I got into it, which wasn’t that unusual, as we were always getting into it. He had a habit, much like my brother, of hitting and running. His normal escape was to hop on his bicycle, a nice red Schwinn, and pedal as fast as he could to his house, and before getting to the front door leap off of his bike and continue running through the door, the bicycle rolling to a stop somewhere near the house. Once inside the house, he would stand behind the screen door and call me names and make faces. Of course, I would be at the edge of his yard yelling epithets back at him.
This particular day, I must have gotten to him really good, because the next thing I knew his sister came running out the front door and chased me down the street. I know what you’re thinking, but I must explain the reason I was running. I was eight years old and David’s sister was eighteen, so even though she was technically a girl, the age difference more than made up for that fact.
She eventually caught me and proceeded to pound me into submission. I did what any normal kid would do; I ran into the house bawling and went straight for Dad. Like John Wayne, Dad was concerned about justice, and this obviously wasn’t a fair fight. Now, he couldn’t go over to the T’s house and challenge the teenage sister to a fight, so he did the honorable thing. Dad stood in the middle of the street and called out Mr. T. Wow! Everyone in the neighborhood came out of their houses to see what would happen next. Dad angrily yelled toward the T house across the street, “Hey, T., get your cowardly — out here on the street. Your brat little kid can’t stand up for himself, so he sends his teenage sister to beat up an eight year old boy?” Not a peep came back from Mr. T., only silence. Dad was more incensed and increased his volume, “Hey, T. Stop hiding in your house. Get your — out here and let’s settle this like men.” Again, silence.
Finally, after a few more angry shouts Dad grew tired, gave up, and went back home; but the message was sent and the victory was won. I walked around the neighborhood like a prince; for weeks. My dad was the greatest! All the other boys were not only impressed, but envious just the same. It’s the kind of scenario that all boys dream of. “My dad’s tougher than your dad.” “My dad can beat up your dad.” We all thought it, and we all said it at one time or another. Now whenever I got involved in one of these back-and-forth’s, I had credibility.
Dad loved kids. He truly enjoyed having us around. I believe it was an entertainment kind of thing. He thought we were funny and he loved to tease us. Once, when we were grilling out on the back patio, Dad decided to make homemade ice cream. The ice cream maker was the hand crank kind and required rock salt and ice to create the temperature necessary to turn the cream, vanilla, and sugar into ice cream. Why rock salt? Dad knew that the rock salt, due to its chemical makeup, caused the ice to be colder than normal (he didn’t know it scientifically, but intuitively and experientially). It was the perfect additive to the process of making homemade ice cream.
Dad decided to have some fun with us; one, because we entertained him and two, because he wanted us out of his hair while he simultaneously ran the grill and cranked the ice cream maker. He turned to the four of us and said, “Kids, come over here. We’re going to play a game.” We excitedly said, “Okay” and ran to the patio.
Dad explained to us that the rock salt made the ice colder and the game was this: each of us would have a handful of ice and rock salt and then run around the backyard; the winner would be the person that held onto the ice the longest without dropping it. We were pretty naïve, so off we went, running around the backyard with ice and rock salt in our hands. Dad meanwhile, stood at the grill with a mischievous smile on his face while we ran around in circles with ice in our hands, thinking we were having fun.
When Dad went to buy the ice, he took all four of us with him. In that era there weren’t bags of ice cubes to buy at the local convenience store, so we had to buy blocks of ice, and then Dad would use an ice pick to break up the ice into usable pieces. To buy the ice, a couple of quarters were inserted into a big metal ice machine, and a number of seconds would pass before a large block of ice would come tumbling loudly out of a chute into a large holding pan. With ice tongs, the ice would be grabbed and loaded into the back of the station wagon. Dad, again wanting to have fun with us, would insert the quarters into the machine, and during the seconds before the ice came out he would bang on the side of the metal machine and say, “Ice man, if you’re in there, hurry up and send out the ice.” He banged a few more times and out came the ice. We believed that there really was a man inside the machine and that he responded to Dad’s instructions. Like I said, we were extremely naive.
Whenever we were good (sometime between seldom and never), Dad would load us up in the family car and take us to the Rexall drug store for ice cream. Unlike today’s pharmacies, such as Walgreen and CVS, the Rexall drug-store sold ice cream and had a long bar with stools, where a person could sit and order food and drinks. The ice cream was the hard dip kind, and the cherry flavor had little cherry bits that tasted oh so good. After we devoured our ice cream, we would hop back in the station wagon and head home. Sometimes Dad would have one of us sit on his lap and he would let us “drive”. We would have both hands on the steering wheel, rotating it back and forth while he controlled the brake and accelerator pedals (and just out of our detection he would also have a couple of fingers on the steering wheel just in case we got a little carried away). In those days, the cars didn’t have power steering, so the steering wheel could be moved back and forth without really moving the vehicle. Nevertheless, we felt like we were driving and Dad was the hero once again.
Due to his truck-driving job, Dad was often gone over the road; sometimes for a few weeks at a time, but when he got home he made up for it by playing with us. Often we would play on the floor inside the house, kind of wrestling around and jumping on Dad. He would pretend he was a horse, and we would ride on his back. I can still feel his shoulders going up and down as he “walked”. We had to hold on tight or we would fall off. Sometimes he would stop short and we would go flying over his head, but he would catch us to make sure we weren’t hurt, at least not too badly. Another horse move was the “buck”, which also challenged our ability to hang on, clutching tightly his white T-shirt. There were times when he would ride all four of us on his back (I have a strange feeling that this may have contributed to his recurring back problems). Another of his games was to have us sit on his foot with our arms wrapped around his leg and then he would walk around the house (sometimes, a kid on each leg). We would hold on as tight as we could, giggling the entire time.
As Mom had made going to bed an enjoyable experience, what with all of the hugging and kissing going on, so too, Dad made going to bed a fun experience for us. We played a game where Dad was the horse and we were the riders, and he would individually give us a ride to bed. At one point in the evening we would hear Dad say, “Okay kids, it’s time to go to bed.” Vicki would ask for all of us, “Daddy, would you give us rides to bed?” “Yeah, can we have horsie rides?” I added. Timmy too made his feelings known, “I want to wide a hohse to bed.” Kathy, not to be missed exclaimed, “I want to wide too.” Dad, always willing to have fun with us directed us to the couch, “Okay. All of you go over to the couch and get in line.”
We would stand on the couch while Dad would sit on the edge with his back to us. We would then climb up on his back; broad, wide, strong shoulders ready to be grasped tightly. We would wrap our skinny arms around his thick neck and our skinny legs around his waist, and he would interlock his arms behind our knees and then proceed to gallop around the house, us bobbing up and down all the while. It felt like we were riding a horse. Dad would gallop through the kitchen, down the hall, and into our bedroom, depositing us one at a time into our beds. It was fun waiting for Timmy to come riding into the room while I was lying in bed, my heart still pounding from the experience. All of us wanted to ride again, but after the four of us the old gray mare was spent. Once deposited, Mom would arrive with hugs and kisses for all. How could a person not sleep well after that kind of special treatment?
Dad was really into pretending and we usually bought into whatever he was trying to sell us. We would be on the floor playing, when all of a sudden Dad would say, “I’m blacking out.” He would pretend that he couldn’t see, and with outstretched arms he would reach out for the nearest thing, or person, he could grab. He then would act like he was passing out and lie across us on the floor while we struggled to get out from under him. When we tried to get him to move, he stayed in character and appeared to be passed out, all the while, cracking up on the inside. Even when we tickled him, he wouldn’t move. Underneath him Kathy could barely get out, “Daddy, wake up. I can’t bweathe.” When it became Vicki’s turn, she too had to ask, “Daddy, get up please. You’re squishing my stomach.” Eventually the game went a little too far and when one of us began to cry, Mom got involved and the “blackout” game came to an end. It was one game that Dad revisited many times.
Many of the games we played as children could be traced back to Dad. He taught us so much of what we knew about playing. He taught me more about baseball than any coach I ever had and spent countless hours in the backyard, allowing me to break windows while learning to pitch the baseball. He set up the pool in the yard and spent entire afternoons tossing us into the pool, one at a time, including half the neighborhood kids. He taught us how to ride our bicycles. He built a playhouse for the girls and stilts and sling-shots for Timmy and me. He taught us how to play King’s Base. He taught us how to stand on our heads, and once we started, we stayed entertained for hours. He told us stories; about his childhood and sometimes about ghosts (The Man with the Golden Arm). We couldn’t have asked for a better dad. Many parents think that in order to show love to their children they have to buy them things. Dad gave us the most precious gift that he could give; himself. That’s my dad.
This was an excerpt from Little Heathens, written as a tribute to my Father, through the eyes of his eight year old son. Dad recently died and I hope this honors his memory.