He was outdoorsy. More outdoorsy than me. Don’t get me wrong. I love the outdoors just as much as the next guy. Sometimes, I spend all day watching movies that were filmed entirely outdoors. But he was different.
He smelled like the outdoors. That’s what I remember most about him. It was a leathery smell. Like soot, and foliage, and dirt.
He smelled like this because he worshipped his lawn. The man could waste entire weeks obsessing about one little brown spot in his yard. And he would work in the flower beds more than most peoples’ grandmothers ever did.
He was a blue collar man. It’s impossible for me to tell you much about him without highlighting that. His uniform was denim. He wore it every single day. Except Sundays. He was an ironworker. A union man. I never saw him sit in anything but a Ford.
On weekends, however, he was a certified nutcase.
Once, he had the bright idea to conduct a controlled burn on our land. Thirteen acres of tall, dry grass. His friends told him it was a bad idea, but like I said, he was a nut.
On Saturday morning, he drove the truck around the property; his buddy rode on the tailgate, dumping gasoline onto the grass. They spent half the day saturating the land. Then he parked near the house and lit a match. One match.
Thirteen acres exploded. The fire department was called. The police were called. I think he even made the paper.
It took a full day to put the fire out. And when it was all said and done, my father was covered in black soot, head to toe. He said, “Well, that was a bad idea.”
I remember those words exactly.
Another story I remember. He was driving and he saw this man on the highway whose car broke down on the side of the road. He stopped.
My father hopped out of the truck. He told the man to pop the hood. My father labored for hours. When he finally fixed the car, the man offered to pay him. My father was offended. He held up his hands and said, “I don’t want your money.”
So the man offered him an unfiltered cigarette.
My father didn’t smoke. He had quit smoking a long time ago. But didn’t want to be rude. So he accepted.
He smoked a cigarette with that man and shot the breeze. Then the man said, “How about a few more for the road?” The man gave my father the entire carton of cigarettes.
My father took them. But he never smoked a single one.
He said to me, “Sometimes you just gotta let them give you something, makes’em feel good.”
There was the time he bought my first piano. It was on my birthday. He placed it in the basement and surprised me with it. He refused to buy me lessons. He believed that if I wanted to play piano, I simply would.
So I practiced for hours. And years. And decades. Soon, I was playing in church every Sunday. Much later in my life, I would play in rundown beer joints for extra money. It was not a glamorous life, but I liked it. And it was all thanks to him.
When I was in my twenties, I thought I was good enough to get into college on a piano scholarship. I wasn’t. Not even close. They turned me down because I couldn’t read music.
Sometimes, I wonder how my father would have reacted to the new world. What would he think of cell phones? What about IPA beer? Or online shopping?
His world wasn’t high-tech. The life he knew was slower. Radio was still important, newspaper was king.
He was the kind of man who loved books. He read so much that he ruined his eyes. I still see visions of him in my memory. Lying in his bed. A book in his hands.
Twain. Doyle. Michener. Ludlum. Clancy. Steinbeck.
I wonder what it would have been like for him to read one of my books? Would he have liked my writing? Or would I have bored him to death? Like I’m doing to you right now.
Would he have thought much of the man I became? Would we have gotten along? Would he like me?
I’ll never know because I grew up without him. He is a memory to me. I think that if I were to meet him today I would have discovered that we weren’t anything alike. I don’t look at life the same way. I don’t care about my lawn like he did.
Certainly, I try to stop and help people on the side of the road, but not as often as he used to. And I don’t think I could handle an unfiltered cigarette.
He was only a few years older than I am now when he died. When I look in the mirror, I think about that. He was a baby. He was too young. He didn’t even have gray hair.
I remember so little about him that sometimes he seems more idea than person. Even so, if I close my eyes I can still smell him. He smells like soot. And leather. Like foliage, and dirt. Like being outdoors.
And I will forever be sorry that he chose to die.
Happy birthday, Daddy.