Update: Dog King John Page 2

2018-08-04 DJKSS Page 2

Page 2 of the Dog King John book.

Page-numbering in this book is a little different. Pages that are numbered (1,2,3 etc.) tell the story of the syrup hijacking.  Pages that are lettered (A,B, C etc.) show maps, diagrams, historical notes and other information that expand on the story. I’ll post the numbered pages but I’m holding back the lettered pages to keep the project  special for my grandkids – they’ll be the only ones completely “in the know”, at least  for the time being.

2018: Monday Morning Mystery

Two of my favorite television programs are NBC’s mid-1970s Ellery Queen series starring Jim Hutton and BBC’s Poirot starring David Suchet. While they vary in tone a bit they are both mystery shows that hold the solution to the very end of the program and presented when all of the suspects have been gathered together. It’s fascinating to see these two characters  combine attention to detail, careful observation, and logical thinking to solve very baffling mysteries.  I’d like to think that I’d do likewise in their place…and I had an just such an opportunity to do so today.

Lack of air-conditioning means that I spend little time in my shop during the summer months, my time out there consisting of quick trips to do the laundry or fetch a tool. It was while I was doing the latter this morning that I was met with my own mystery. In line with my borderline OCD I keep my work area neat and my tools carefully stowed (though I  have not gone so far as to draw silhouettes in each tool’s specific spot). That’s why I was dismayed to see my primary work bench totally cluttered and both tools and hardware scattered on adjacent work spaces as well. While it’s true that my warm-weather speed-runs to the shop can result in a little clutter, it’s never in the chaotic state I found it today.

A bit mystified, I started putting tools up, then I stopped, looked again and solved the mystery – and the solution can be found in this photo:

shop after Jayden

2018: Studio Deitrick

Due to a very fundamental misunderstanding with Dad we spent most of the summer of 1987 without a studio. “Useful studio space” was one of the deal-breaker conditions  to be met before we assumed house-sitting duties while my folks served a mission in Nova Scotia, but evidently there was a generation gap in the definition of the word “useful” and we were left to work out of an unfinished/unheated garage. Nevertheless I had clients to service, so after squeezing my drawing table into my old loft bedroom, I divided my long Alaskan days between marker renderings and carpentry, taking care of both my clients and construction chores.

It was a happy day in mid-August when Lori and I nailed the final bit of trim, hung the last of the curtains in the windows, and had an impromptu party sipping New York Seltzer, eating poppy-seed muffins from the Soldotna Safeway and listening to the Peter Gabriel blockbuster album SO.  I was feeling great relief at having the wherewithal to go into full production, but there seemed to be another intangible presence dancing along with us to “Your Eyes”.

For the preceding three months it felt like a member of our family was missing, and it was only after three sets of verbal volleyball that we figured out  what had been missing:  Studio Deitrick.  The studio had become a part of our lives in the same way writers described the Starship Enterprise as being as much a character as Kirk, Scotty or Uhura in Classic Star Trek.   For years most of our life revolved around that particular kitchen of the mind – no matter what else was happening, we all eventually congregated in the studio. In addition to serving as delivery room to countless works of art, our children grew up in our studios, we entertained in them, and all my prep time for thirty years of college teaching happened in Studio Deitrick.

…but then something happened in the early summer of 2015 and Studio Deitrick went away. Even though the house we bought had a very similar floor plan to our previous rental, there was no room for a studio as such and I was left to cram what I could into an extension off the back of the kitchen…and when I was done  nothing clicked. Oh, I got the room into a semblance of order but there was no magic and it remained nothing more than a converted breakfast nook …and the three years I spent in there were the three least productive years of my life.

It was only after we started making changes when I lost my contract with Nashville State that the Studio came back into existence. As we sat in the sitting room that we’d organized from the old studio space it just felt capital-letter R Right. When we trudged up to the new studio in the old bonus room it felt capital-letter/bold, underscore/Italic R “right” – the strongest impression of “rightness” any of our studios have felt since leaving Sterling in 1989.

That extra member of our family has come home.

It still has that vibe now. No doubt the resemblance to my loft bedroom back on the ranch has a lot to do with the feeling, but even on the worst days when that flight of stairs seems a thousand feet long, I continue to feel a calmness of certainty when I sit down at my desk.

Does that mean that our troubles are over and all of our challenges are being solved?

No…but for the first time in years I feel hope.

2018: Third Parent

Ranch2003Dad

It was a buzz-word as common to the 1970’s as paradigm was to the 1980s. Gestalt – it’s a German word that first became popular in the 1890s Berlin throughout medical circles. It refers to the idea that something can be more than just a sum of its parts. It’s used mostly in psychology, but I have found the concept to be true in other aspects of life:

  • In Sports when members of a team collectively accomplish much more than they could separately.
  • In Art when mixing several colors can make a painting more effective than just black & white.
  • …and in residential architecture when a home becomes more than a collection of rooms.

I grew up in a Gestalt home.

The house we moved to in August of 1964 was definitely a whole comprised of many parts. It started out as a three-room cabin built in the late 1950’s by the original homesteader Jim Hovis.  Family growth required a largish addition to the front of the original three-room cabin followed soon after by a row of three bedrooms built on the north side of the house. When a double garage was built on to the south end of the house, clapboard siding was added to the home’s exterior giving the place a unified, almost gentrified appearance. For a time it was the showcase home of the whole Sterling area – while everyone else was living in log cabins, Quonset huts or trailers the Hovis place looked like it had been scooped up from a neighborhood in the middle of Anchorage and dropped down along the east end of Scout Lake Loop.

We had no idea of the building’s history when we moved into the place at the end of the summer of 1964 because we had more pressing matters on our mind:

  • My older sister and I were very unhappy about the move to the Peninsula and were convinced bears would soon eat us.
  • The previous renters had completely trashed the place and it took our whole family six months of steady work to get the place into shape

On the other hand Dad was pretty happy about getting the place for a low price and comfortable terms. Mrs. Hovis had become ill enough to require relocation to the lower 48 which meant that  Mr. Hovis had been a “motivated seller”.

We really didn’t understand the convoluted construction details until Dad and I started work on my attic loft bedroom and had to remove portions of two other roofs under the one that was seen from outside of the house. When plumbing problems took us into the crawlspace we found even more indicators of start-and-stop construction, most notably three different types of foundation.

It was just after that discovery that Dad finally concluded “in for a dime/in for a dollar” when it came to additions/modifications to the house. We finished my loft just before Christmas 1966 then in the fall of 1970 Dad and I started converting the inner portion of the double garages into additional living space. I don’t think there ever was a specific goal for the remodeling when we started, but by mid-1973 we had a cozy TV room just off the kitchen and another nicely finished space that alternately served as a bedroom and/or home office. Fourteen years later the remaining garage space was converted into a studio where I could continue my career as a freelance illustrator while my parents served as missionaries on Prince Edward Island. The last major change was a new garage on the south end of the house that my folks were able to add using the inheritance Mom received when her stepfather passed away in the mid-nineties.

….but in and around all of those physical changes other less tangible modifications were made to the home and surrounding pastures. During the next 50+ years three generations of Deitricks grew up, and all the love, hate, hope, tears, sickness and health involved in that process imbued the house and land with a benevolent spirit that would sometimes echo and other times mend what we were feeling at different times. The ranch became a haven and refuge and for me I knew that no matter how physically or emotionally damaged I may be, all I had to do was push my fingers down into the dirt to be cleansed from whatever ailed me.

Very soon all of that will end. Both my parents have passed on and circumstances are such that the property will be sold, and the home likely destroyed. Over the decades the quaint idiosyncrasies of a continually modified homestead cabin have become liabilities; shifting foundations, sagging rooflines and questionable wiring have transformed what was once a showcase home into an oddity.

British author Brian Aldiss wrote that the only unchanging aspect of life is that change happens. Children, grandchildren and great-grand-children will move on to find other places for imaginary adventures with Klingons, halflings and Cybermen and a new family will move in for their own story of a half-century. Life will go on, but for me there will always be a little bit of my heart missing. Even though it’s been fifteen years since I walked through that clunky, squeaking door I still miss it and mourn our Home’s eventually passing.

It’s like losing a third parent.

Ranch1976Al

 

 

Sketch Cards for Dog King John

2018-06-03 GrandKid Cards JUN 2018

As I’ve written before I take great delight in my role as “papa” (AKA grandfather,  abuelo, old geezer) and even though six out of my seven grandchildren live far away I work hard to keep in contact with them. One of the ways I do that is by regularly sending drawings to them as postcards, starting out with one a month to my sole grandson and eventually expanding to a half-dozen every two or three months.

With these particular sketches  have fun and let my imagination run wild  – for example for my granddaughter Hazel I went through a six month run using yetis as a theme. The Yeti is/was Hazel’s own personal boogey-man and over the span of that half-year I worked to change the yeti’s image from something scary to a comedic figure.

Lately I’ve been using the cards as a design forum for my book project Dog King John and The Stolen Syrup. I want to keep the details consistent so I’m using these drawings to work out details before working on the actual book art .

…some of the cards are just cards though. The younger grandkids don’t really understand the book-thing – for them I come up with something quasi-educational like the “fourteen-flounder” card above

The Telephone Game

Remember playing “Telephone” ?

A dozen people would sit in a row and whisper a brief sentence one to another, with the entertainment coming from the way the  message is garbled when arrives at the end of the line of whisperers. It was a party standard when I was a kid but a bit more challenging now – there’s more than enough distortion in a sixty-year old’s ear-drum before the message is even started.

Sadly there are people who practice this procedure in real life, and they play it with no “game” in mind.  You can call it gossip, back-biting, or fake-news-at-a-personal-level – there are individuals purporting to be close friends or relatives  who inexplicably prefer to pass on distortions  instead of truth.

Unfortunately I’ve recently had that sort of activity aimed at me and I’ve found it’s easier to retrieve pillow feathers in a windstorm than stop the damage.  Please, if you hear something that “David said” that really doesn’t sound like something this particular David would say please double-check with me.

 

Music: Doobie Brothers “South City Midnight Lady”

 

During the heyday of 33rpm records – the 1970’s-  there were a few albums that could be found in every collection you encountered. They weren’t always Grammy winners or even particularly good, but they showed up everywhere. Some examples are:

  • Other Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd
  • Rumors by Fleetwood Mac
  • Saturday Night Fever soundtrack

The Captain and Me by the Doobie Brothers enjoyed that status for most of 1973. It contained a couple of well-played singles like “Long Train Running” and “China Grove” but the music worked best when it was played in sequence, though it wasn’t really a concept album like Pet Sounds or Rubber Soul. The hits were great, but my favorite was the second track on the B side: “South City Midnight Lady”  a mellow ballad and a marked contrast to “Without You” which preceded it. It was penned and performed by Patrick Simmons, the only member of the band in all its incarnations:

South city midnight lady I’m much obliged indeed You sure have saved this man whose soul was in need I thought there was no reason For all these things I do But the smile that I sent out returned with you


I love two separate passages in that song: The break, which features a beautiful guitar solo backed with strings, and the last couple of measures that lead into the fade-out, which again features beautiful guitar work, but laid over the backing track of an ARP synthesizer.

When I returned home in the early summer of 1973 I found that my job at Swanson River had fallen through…and unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find work until three weeks before going back to school. I spent most of my summer working on plastic models1, watching television2 and binge-listening to The Captain and Me. I spent so much time listening to it on the stereo that it began to run through my brain all the time – like a Walkman without the earbuds.

There was one other thing that occupied my time: making a long-distance reconciliation with my Best Friend after our break-up the previous spring. She was back up in Fairbanks and while we’d been regularly writing and calling the discussions had hit a plateau. As was the case when I totaled the Maverick 3, it was at this point when I was in trouble that my Dad made a connection with me and showed himself to be an incredibly caring and sensitive man.

We were on vacation camping on the banks of the Little Susitna river in the same place we’d camped in 1970. There was one big difference this time?  The Parks Highway had been completed and it was possible to drive all the way to Fairbanks. Dad must have noticed the times I’d wistfully look north because after we’d packed up and got in the Microbus, Dad turned around and said “You know, we haven’t been to Fairbanks since 1967. Let’s drive on up!”

I would have never thought he’d piece together the reality of my broken heart and without saying a word administered the best medicine. Later, that day we reached Fairbanks and 30 minutes later I had found and made up with my Best Friend and for a short season everything was OK.

Because that mental stereo had been playing The Captain and Me I will forever connect it with that trip. I have one special mental snapshot of us driving along the highway next to Denali (then Mount McKinley) with the closing instrumental to “South City Midnight Lady” playing in my head. I can close my eyes; my family is put-put-putting along under the mid-summer Alaskan night sky painted with magenta and orange. Patrick Simmons plays a slow crescendo on the synthesizer and it’s all good.

__________________________________________________________________________________

 

  1. A 1/25 scale kit of a German Tiger Tank by Tamiya. It has a complete interior and the tracks were made of individual polyethylene segments that had to be snapped together.

It took almost an entire month.

  1. Mostly Watergate hearings and on-going discussion of the passage of Roe vs. Wade the previous winter.

 

  1. See 1969: Blue Paint and Dry Pavement

1966: Mukluk Camp

Military service is a much more popular career choice now than when I was a young man. While public antipathy had ebbed from the poop-flinging, hippie-spitting antics common during the height of the Viet-nam conflict, wearing an ROTC uniform on campus didn’t exactly make me a babe-magnet. The kindest comment usually involved my military aspirations being motivated by not having brothers to play army with when I was in grade school.

…a comment that wasn’t all that far off. Living on a homestead in Sterling (AK) with only my four sisters for company left me with little prospects for recruiting playmates (oops!) squad-mates.  Living in Anchorage had been a different case entirely when on any given day there were at least two armies headquartered in Mrs. Green’s fifth grade class. These two armies were usually under the command of either Mark Davis or myself with national identity alternating between Americans and Germans, depending on who looked coolest on the latest episode of Combat!

That type of play was not happening when we subsequently moved to the Kenai Peninsula where I encountered a reverse sophistry in place. You’d assume that an urban institution would be much hipper and “grown-up” than a country school but the opposite proved to be the case: while imagination games were accepted at Woodland Park Elementary the kids at Sterling were much more interested in sports (and the female body). It may have been a natural change in attitude for that particular age so it was possible  the Anchorage kids were embracing older interests at the same time but as the change in attitude happened  at the same time as a change in locale I missed the memo and ended up being mocked unmercifully by my Sterling classmates for playing “baby games”. 1

Eventually I smartened up and learned to blend in at school by talking tough and playing sports during recess but at home my spare time was still taken up with living room maneuvers with my plastic soldiers, writing to former comrades-in-arms back in Anchorage or (on warmer days) getting outside to run and fight the phantom armies of my imagination.  Such activities were good for passing the time, but I never had as much fun as I’d previously had back in Anchorage with my buddies. Sadly, the situation didn’t look to get better anytime soon as there was little hope for recruiting the manpower to fill the roster for an elementary school infantry squad.

Then a solution came to me one evening as my whole family was gathered together watching Sink the Bismarck! on TV.  As I looked at the faces around me transfixed by the on-screen action I realized the answer to my manpower shortage was in fact girl power – my three little sisters who had had been pestering me to join in the war effort from the day I got my first Mattel Tommy-burst.  All along they’d been sitting right next to me watching Combat!  and The Gallant Men, and had been bitten by the imagination adventure bug, but in my grade school chauvinism I had classified all three of them as 3-F: three little females with no business on the battle field whatsoever.

It appeared that in the intervening year or so all three of my little sisters had grown out of their toddler clumsiness and would make good soldiers.  It also appeared that the tom-boy gene figured prominently in their DNA and they could all shoot and scoot right alongside of me without missing a step.  What’s more each one also brought a unique skill that added to the play:

  • Holly had the gait of a deer and made an outstanding scout.
  • Heather was deceptively strong and was good at negotiating obstacles.
  • Dana had a talent for camouflage and could literally hide behind a clump of grass.

They also collectively possessed something else that would add immensely to our experience: friends. There wasn’t a weekend that our squad strength was not augmented by the addition of Patty, Sandy, Bonnie or any number of the girls’ friends who were just as enthusiastic about pseudo-combat duty as they were.

I soon had them kitted out in mix of helmet liners, satchels, canteens, carry-cases that I had acquired as personal gifts, thrift store purchases or trade with other kids2, and I was able to issue each one of them at least two items of equipment. It was during the issue of this equipment that the experience took on an even more realistic Army flavor when Dana, the youngest and smallest of the three was invariably saddled down with the heaviest gear.

Once we were all equipped I started out with some very basic training:

  • How to wear and use the wide assortment gear I’d come up with
  • Basic terminology – as in using the term “weapon” instead of “gun”
  • Marching in step was right out so I just taught them to all move in the same direction
  • Proper use of our toy weapons to include proper sound effects3

One seemingly obvious training aid conspicuous by its omission was the use of pyrotechnics or in our case fireworks. At the time they were legal and when we lived in Anchorage my friends and I would add realism to our maneuvers by lighting off the occasional string of Black Cat firecrackers or peppering each other with torpedoes, a silver-colored munition about the size of a cherry bomb that would detonate on impact.  With my sisters involved it seemed better to rule out firecrackers, a seemingly altruistic decision that in fact came about when I discovered the hard way that I couldn’t lead troops and chuck Black Cats at the same time.4

Despite our rural location one of our biggest problems was finding areas to train in. There was a real danger from wild animals like moose or bear so we had to stay relatively close to the house but as LTGEN Arthur Collins states in his excellent book Common Sense Training you don’t always have to have large areas to conduct good training. The outbuildings behind our home worked well for house-to-house combat and while the barbed wire fences around the horse pastures weren’t quite the impenetrable obstacles that concertina coils were, they could still prove to be tricky to negotiate and added an element of realism to the activity.

Both my mom and older sister were working at a cannery in Kasilof so there wasn’t much to distract us from our training.  Other than the week I was at scout camp we spent the entire summer outside conducting operations, which says a lot when you consider that KENI TV began day-time television and Saturday morning cartoons in mid-June. The only reason we stacked arms and stood down in August was the start of school.

Like most aspects of my youth playing army didn’t abruptly stop but was slowly edged out by other activities competing for my attention. My relationship with my little sisters changed as well when I left Sterling Elementary for high school – it created an interest-gap just a little too wide to bridge. In the following years we would still have a good time playing outside but working every summer made it hard to keep the intensity going.  Playing army slowing morphed into a combination of hide & seek and tag with undertones of James Bond, but as I continued to take on further outside interests and activities the time we used to spend running around the outdoors was replaced by Risk and other board games played inside.

Then I blinked my eyes and I was leaving home for college, mission and the “for-real” army where I would run my platoon through collective and individual combat skills in the same way I trained my little sisters. Another blink and I was no longer a soldier but still passing hard-won leadership skills on to students, Scouts and Scout leaders…then I blinked a third time and found that I was old, and my body was cashing all the checks my ego had written years ago.

Now any shooting and scooting in my life happens only in my memory.

___________________________________________________________________________

1) It was my first exposure to mankind’s innate hypocrisy. All day long at school I was mocked for playing baby games (army), playing with baby toys (army men), and (gasp!) playing with dolls (G.I. Joe action figures). However, when George, Steve or any of the other kids at school came over to my house they’d make a bee-line for my Mattel Tommy-burst or my G.I. Joe, but the next morning at school they’d revert to type.

2) Between operations in the state during World War Two and the nearness of both Army and Air Forces bases Alaska was blessed with a plethora of surplus clothing and equipment. Quonset huts dotted the landscape, every contractor had at least one surplus Caterpillar tractor and thrift shops were loaded with personal gear.

3)There were several schools of thought on reproducing gunfire sound effects.

  • Single shot was easy – a loud raspy “K” sound formed inside the back part of your mouth.
  • The easiest machine-gun sound was a phonetic “duh-duh-duh” chanted out at low pitch.
  • Another option was a variation on the single shot method, with the raspy “K” rapidly repeated.
  • My favorite a combination of a tongue-stutter combined with a kind of deep gargling sound which a buddy’s  veteran father told me sounded disturbingly similar to an MG42 in the distance.

4)  The first accident involved a short-fused Black Cat that went off just as it left my fingers which required burn salve and bandages for a week. The second incident involved a torpedo that blew off the side of my sneaker. I didn’t wait for a third incident.

Lost Days

I can deal with most of the challenges of my life but I don’t handle “Lost Days” very well. Days that just don’t start out bad – they stay bad and I get very if anything done during the day.

 I’m told that at my age I should just slow down and enjoy life – and while I appreciate what people are trying to tell me I am hard- wired to be busy. Reading or watching the tube may seem like heaven to you but it’s hell for me.  I will be slowing down right about when the first shovel-full of dirt hits the top of my box.

 It’s very hard to “slow down” when I am:

  • ·       Goal-oriented
  • ·       Driven (to an extent)
  • ·       Competitive in that I constantly try to best my own efforts.

I woke up at 1:31 AM, then again at 4:14, 5:30 and 6:00. Each time it seemed like I was “awake for good” but each time I fell back asleep – hard. I didn’t fully wake up until 9:30 and I ended up staying awake because “distress in the lower tract” …and I am having a particularly nasty AS/RA flare that makes simple movement very painful.

 I won’t get much done – hence the term “lost day”.

 …which won’t be totally lost. I’ll call old friends and write to others. I’ll spend time with my grandson when he gets home. If I can do enough for other people it won’t feel quite so lost.   

1965: Three O’clock High

 “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!”

“What?”

>click<

…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.

1941FordStakeBed