“Colonel – we’ve got more flak holes than fuselage and Skippy is stuck in the ball turret!”
“OK – keep working on getting him out.”
“Pilot to crew: Keep a sharp lookout for enemy fighters. We’re going in!”
“Pilot to bombardier: We’re coming up on the IP.”
“Patches of cirrus clouds obscuring the area sir!”
“Get your boots on Gus!”
“Can you still see the target?”
“I said get your boots on NOW!”
…and just like that I went from 25,000 feet over the armament plants in 1943’s Schweinfurt Germany to 3 feet above the living room floor in 1965’s Sterling Alaska. For some reason KENI TV had decided to run the second season of Twelve O’clock High on Sunday afternoons. For an equally mysterious reason my dad chose Sunday afternoons to go out and get firewood.
Oh, and did I tell you that it was the middle of winter?
I’d learned long ago that there was no point in arguing discussing the matter; after pulling on my work boots and grabbing my coat and gloves I’d slog out to the pick-up where (with any luck) Dad would have the heater already going. Riding in Dad’s 1941 Ford truck was one of the very few positive aspects to our firewood expeditions – I loved that old bucket-of-bolts and would eventually earn my license by driving it all around the pastures surrounding our house. The other slightly positive factor was the proximity of dead trees to cut: we lived in the middle of what had been the big fire of 1947 when a good part of the Kenai peninsula had been burned out – so there were plenty of cuttable dead trees fairly close by.
While this trip took us only a couple of hundred yards up the road it was still physically challenging as years of harvesting left most of the suitable wood at least fifty yards off the road. It was not an easy hike – after negotiating the earthen berm left from the road’s construction there were enough fallen logs, hillocks, and depressions in the ground to make the trip between cutting site and truck more of an obstacle course than a stroll in the woods.
…all of which contributed to the blue funk I was wallowing in. In addition to the hike I was cold, the chunks of wood were heavy, and to be brutally honest I was kind of creeped out being around Dad (not that anything hinky was going on) – I just didn’t know him that well.
Dad had spent twenty years in the Navy, retiring when I was about five and during those five years I rarely saw him – he was just this guy in a uniform that showed up about every six months. Unfortunately when he finally did become a full-time parent not much changed. As I have mentioned before my dad wasn’t so much “raised” as dragged up; his birth father abandoned the family when Dad was an infant only to be replaced by a physically abusive step-father, so my father had little opportunity to observe much less develop parenting skills. I think that shortcoming bothered him more than he let on because his first five or six post-service years always entailed jobs that entailed a lot of travel away from the family.
He was gone a lot until we moved to the Kenai Peninsula where job duties and our living arrangements kept us all in close proximity for the first time. As the fifty-year-old-man-in-a-twelve-year-old’s-body that I was it didn’t take me long to figure out his past absence was a major factor in my discomfort, but that was information that I shared exactly one (1) time with my mom who unfortunately was in the middle of one of her bi-polar spells. It took time, effort and an icepack to extinguish the resulting metaphorical flames.
…but for the moment I was tired, cold, my feet were wet, and there was a butt-load of wood left to haul from the cutting site to the truck. A year earlier I would have been sniveling and crying at my cruel fate, but from the lofty perch of my 12-almost-13 years there was no way I was going to give in to tears. I think it surprised Dad – he’d started out gruffly giving instructions, but as visibly started to tire his tone of voice started to soften a bit.
He asked if I was OK, mistaking my silence for whine-control, but when he saw the determined look on my face his expression hardened for a moment – then softened again. Then told me that I’d moved a lot of firewood, almost as much as a grown man would have and when his chainsaw stalled he called me over and explained the process as he manipulated the choke, then asked for my input and had me try pulling the start cord a couple of times too.
Then he inexplicably stopped trying to restart the chainsaw, packed it back to the truck and started helping me with the rest of the cut wood. I was mystified – when we piled up the last piece the truck wasn’t nearly as loaded down as usual, which I most definitely did not comment on for fear of spoiling the moment and somehow prodding him into cutting and sawing again. Instead of more cutting and sawing something incredible happened – he started the truck up, briefly instructed me on the functions of the clutch, brake & throttle, then asked me if I wanted to drive the truck back home!
The trip back to the house felt more like riding a severely gaited mule than a truck, but eventually I made it back to the house driving all the way in first gear. After stacking the wood, we went in to hot chocolate and oatmeal cookies, with Dad and I bantering in “guy” talk with like he never had before…but then Mom started setting the table for dinner which was my cue for cleaning up and getting my stuff together for school the next day.
…and just like that the spell was broken…
If this incident had been a script for an episode of The Waltons my relationship with Dad would have changed for the better and from then on we would have become close buddies as well as father and son but unfortunately The Waltons would not be on the air for another seven years and our relationship didn’t change much. There were other non-video factors at work – in addition to his own self-doubt about fatherhood Dad had to operate under a set of strict guidelines my mom had given him regarding me, guidelines that guaranteed a permanent gap.
She had watched her older brother struggle with alcohol for most of his life, a condition that in my mom’s very black-or-white manner of thinking was brought about by excessive family pressure to excel in everything he did. Her favorite example was when he would play the first half of a football game (both offense and defense) then play the tuba with the marching band at half time, THEN go back for the second half, again playing in both directions.
She was convinced I would follow that same path, so she told Dad that she didn’t want him forcing me into any kind of sport or interest – that I had to approach him to instigate the activity. It didn’t matter if it was just playing catch or collecting stamps – I had to express an interest first. When you connected the dots between Mom’s restrictions and Dad’s own inner demons it was easy to understand why my father and I existed on the same planet but lived in different worlds.
Unfortunately, this was decades before even the idea of family counseling, and in our textbook bi-polar home the situation remained an open secret and was never discussed. Nevertheless that particular day we went chopping firewood together was a start. The door had been opened just long enough for me to see what Dad was really like and from then on, other doors were opened from time to time. We could be framing a shed, camping with the family or even just standing on the roof adjusting the T.V. antenna; I’d catch his eye, he’d look back and his expression would relax just enough for me to know that the door was open and for at least a couple of minutes the words “father” and “son” were not just titles.