Heading west, New York to San Francisco today, back to work. The persistent, angry wasp of my Iphone at 4am assured me that my vacation was, indeed, over.
No complaints, though. Had a great break. Went to Hawaii, had time with Annie, swam in the Pacific, and stared into middle distance quite often. It was peaceful, and quite wonderful. It was the type of vacation….my dad never had.
We did things like drive from our home near Chicago to a place called Bliss Musky Lodge, in Wisconsin, and check into a cabin by a lake. It was one of those places a travel brochure would try to throw a gloss on by calling it “pleasantly rustic.” I recall it had indoor plumbing.
I was maybe three or four, in the embrace of the exuberance of youth, and its concomitant lack of caution. I was on the dock, calling to my mom, who was stridently urging me to be careful. This exchange was conducted while I was looking at her on the shore, walking backwards—off the dock.
I hit the water and began to drown. My beloved sisters, both older, charged down the dock to help. Kathy, who had longer arms, got to me first and in her desperation to save me, she pulled me up rapidly, and banged my head into the bottom of the dock and dropped me back in the water. Not her fault of course. She was just trying to help. Given my pain in the ass status of being a baby brother, I’m sincerely grateful to both of them that they didn’t just throw me an anchor and sing loudly to muffle my cries for help.
My long suffering dad had just settled into a lawn chair with the sports section, a beer and a cigarette, which meant he was ascending rapidly into his version of heaven, and most likely about to close his auditory portal to anything resembling the pitch of my mother’s voice, when the splashing and the shouting ensued.
He had been in the Navy, and was a good swimmer. His specialty was the breaststroke, which he called the “Hudson River Crawl.” He explained he and his mates used it when they would swim in the Hudson off the Manhattan docks. The sweeping motion of the stroke would push the garbage out of the way. He hit the water, fully clothed, and churned his way over to the dock like a motorboat, and hauled his son’s sorry ass out of the lake.
His clothes, hat and shoes hung on the drying line for the rest of the day, a sheepish reminder to me to look in the direction I was walking, especially around water.
We upgraded vacation-wise, over the years. Mom and dad were determined us kids would see the country, so our family mounted an all out assault on the American west. Dad built a box, painted blue, a 1950’s, thoroughly non-aerodynamic version of the present day Thule cargo carriers, and bolted it atop our Plymouth Belvedere, or Oldsmobile F-85 station wagon. We bought a couple tents, and headed for places like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone Park.
Dad had only two weeks off, and year after year he spent them behind the wheel. He was an amazing, driving machine. My mother would make lettuce sandwiches, slathered in mayonnaise, on white bread, which would get soggy and delicious in the heat and humidity of the car. Dad would munch on these, smoke Camels, and just drive from campsite to campsite. I suspect he drove with such purpose because there was a measure of peace there for him. There was no air conditioning in the car, and the roar of hot wind as we made our way through the roasting, endless fields of Kansas in August may have presented him with a white noise respite from, well, everything. That, and the promise of a six pack of Schaeffer beer, which would be the first thing opened at the campsite after the tents.
Rosemary and Kathy would be in the backseat, managing our dog’s drool, and I would sit in front next to mom, who used my left leg as a squeeze toy every time Dad would pass a truck at what she considered was an ill advised speed. Which was often. He never really listened to anyone, no matter how well meaning or shrill, when he was behind the wheel. He was the captain of that big boat of a car, and it was definitely talk to the hand time. Which of course made my mom even more bat shit crazy than she ordinarily was.
And then, uncomplainingly, he would go back to work. He would pick up his banged up briefcase, don his suit and a fedora, get on a train, and go back at it. (A hat was just part of the uniform. He felt it unprofessional to not wear one. During the summer, he would sport a straw boater for his commute.) His work animated his life, and gave him purpose. It also consumed him, at the same time it gave him a reason to live. Even in the days of his sickness, bald, his body riddled with various cancers and the almost equally vicious effects of the chemotherapy of that era, he got on a train. As he liked to say, he just wanted to “keep an oar in the water.”
He was a happy warrior of his day. He came out of the service, got a job and a family, and figured if he worked hard, everything else would get solved. I’m glad I have that old briefcase of his, hanging on my wall. It was part of his armor, a shield he wielded just as gallantly as the heroes of yore in the battles of legend.
The more the working world evolved, and grew steeped in paperwork and the complex pursuit of profits, the more it disappointed him. His advice to me was to “hang out your own shingle.”
I did that. Just like his briefcase, it’s pretty battered, but it’s still on the door. Thanks, dad.