This is a piece I originally wrote in 2012. I’m re-posting it here in honor of him. Since his passing early Saturday morning, I’ve thought a lot about my childhood memories we shared. Love you, Dad!
“Don’t tell your mother.” Those are my Dad’s precise words I heard so many times growing up. Sure, he had perfectly good reasons to utter those four words. I mean, there were things that even I knew I shouldn’t do but I could talk him into letting me try and I usually paid the consequences.
I adored my father. I was his shadow. Once I got old enough to use the washroom by myself, I went everywhere he would let me go. Three steps behind him, that was my place in the world. It was there that I had the perfect vantage point to learn from him. Pretty soon I could walk like him, hook my boot on the bottom rail of the fence just like him and lean over to the right, ever so slightly, to spit like him.
My Dad worked two full-time jobs; one for the county highway department and the other on our family farm. During the Spring and Fall he stayed in the fields late into the night after he came home from his daytime job. Many days through the week I did not see him. I saw remnants of his existence; his dirty tea-cup from breakfast or his work boots beside the chair next to the back door. Then the weekend came.
Weekends were the best. Even if I couldn’t help him, he would let me ride along in the combine or tractor. My favorite tractor was our International with a cabin. This had air-condition and a radio. I often fell asleep lying in between the back of his seat and the window, waking only when he shut the tractor off.
One of my favorites things my Dad let me do was drive. Way before I could reach a pedal or see over the steering wheel, he would set me on his lap and let me maneuver the wheel. Before the age of ten, I steered tractors, trucks, combines and once, a semi. How cool was that?
Besides steering my Dad would let me: use an axe to chop wood, catch a ride on the trailer hitch, ride on the fenders of the other non-cabin tractors, help him diagnose what was wrong with the hot wire fence, amuse myself with the tools he wasn’t using to keep me busy (and more importantly out of his way,) use a hatchet to chop ice out of the water troughs in the winter and I’m sure many other things I can’t remember. Most of those activities ended with me hurting myself one way or another.
We had a wood burning stove in the back of our kitchen so we needed firewood in the winter. My Dad would take me into our woods in the Fall and while he was busy using the chainsaw, I would go off to explore. He would take down a tree and then cut it into chunks small enough to load in the truck. He would turn off the chainsaw and call for me. This was my cue to get to work. I helped to load the truck. Once home, he would use the axe to chop those blocks of wood into smaller pieces for the wood stove. I had seen my father use that axe many times. . .but that particular day, I wanted to use it. So I proceeded to beg him until he gave in. . .which honestly, wasn’t that long. He tried to demonstrate the process but I said, “I know, I know, I’ve seen you do it a hundred times.” So there I am, with a red handled axe that is almost as tall as I am. I placed both hands down at the head of the axe, swung it up above my head, brought it down with as much force as I could and drove the blade into the block of wood with all my might. Unfortunately, I didn’t let my hands slide down the handle of the axe so when I brought it down, the handle came up and socked me right in the gut and knocked the wind out of me.
Dad: R, are you okay? Talk to me.
Me: (Holding my stomach and breathless.) Yeah. . . I’m okay. . .
Dad: Are you sure? Talk to me. Breathe.
Me: Yeah, yeah, I’m okay. (As I’m gulping for air.)
Dad: (As he looks around to make sure no one is watching.) Now R, just don’t tell your Mother.
Now, you may wonder what the heck my Mom was thinking letting me go out with my father for hours at a time with, maybe questionable supervision. Maybe she wanted a break from me, I don’t know. To her credit, my Mom also had her own slogan, and it was: “Jerry, make sure you keep an eye on R.” She had a right to worry and remind him to watch me closely because when I was 4 1/2, I was involved in an accident. Specifically, my entire body got wrapped around a PTO (Power Take-Off) Shaft. I was very lucky in that I survived and kept all my limbs.
Time and time again, my father could have scolded, denied me or not taken me along at all. But he didn’t. He continued to put himself on the line, when it came to feeling the wrath of my Mom, and let me be a kid. . .a ornery and adventurous kid, but a kid nonetheless. He even talked my Mom into letting me do things or have items that I had no right to have, especially when you considered my history.
When my father was young he owned a Trail Horse mini bike. Somehow he convinced my Mom that fixing that bike up would make a good birthday present for me when I turned 13 or 14. And it was a good present. I zipped all around on that little bike. It would go up to 40 mph. I wore no helmet or padding. This was back in the day when parents let their children get hurt in hopes they would learn faster. Come on, who’s going to learn how to ride a bike sooner: a kid covered with all the those pads and guards along with a helmet or the kid that doesn’t wear any of that stuff and has found out that if they crash, it hurts like hell and it might bleed a bit? I would put my money on the kid with no protection. I didn’t say it was right, I’m just sayin’.
So there I am zipping along until that fateful afternoon when I was too busy dodging a tree stump and rammed into the front of the house. Yes, I said a house. My Dad found me sitting at the kitchen table with a wad of paper towels quickly reddening as I held it up to my face. I had smashed my face so hard on something that I broke my nose, had a small gash above my right eye and a slight concussion.
Dad: Oh, R!
Me: I’m sorry.
Dad: It’s okay, let me see what you did. Take off the paper towel. . . can you even see out of your right eye?
Me: No, I’m sorry, Dad. I didn’t mean to.
Dad: I know, I know.
And then he said something that I only heard him say this one time, never again.
Dad: Well pumpkin’, I guess we better tell your Mother.