After my parents divorced when I was six years old, I still saw Dad often. When I was older, I enjoyed going to his groovy apartment. He had orange shag carpet, and raked it to make it stand up better. In his living room sat a zebra print bean bag chair. Mom had a leopard print one; it’s still in my attic, just in case the Smithsonian needs it for a 1970s exhibit. Or maybe I’ll put in a time capsule. The “beans” were miniscule pieces of Styrofoam that clung to everything, so it was a nightmare if one of the chairs got a rip in it, especially on Dad’s shag carpet. And, of course, Dad had the iconic lava lamp.
Some of my favorite times at Dad’s were when my cousin Jesse, or my future stepsister Stevie, stayed the weekend too. Both of them are close to my age, and we got along well. Dad, being the World’s Greatest Sugar Addict, always made something decadent for us to eat. He had a lifelong love affair with sugar, and could eat an entire box of chocolate-covered cherries in one sitting. Even I can’t do that. But I indulge in a box every Christmas, in his honor. Often, he would make vanilla ice cream and ginger ale floats for us.
Many weekends, Dad and I went out for a cheeseburger at a restaurant attached to a drug store, near my home. Or we’d go out for my favorite, fried shrimp, at the August Moon Chinese Restaurant. They had the best shrimp in town. Regardless of where we ate, I’d often look up from my plate to see Dad with a smoking cigarette hanging out of his ear. Anything to get a laugh from me, but I was mortified by his behavior when I was a teenager. Since feeding frenzies were our hobby, before the Super Bowl one year, we picked up copious amounts of bar-b-que from The Wink, a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant; there was enough to feed 10 people. We ate our way through the game. I can’t remember who played that day, but I remember the barbeque.
Unfortunately for those around me during mealtime, I inherited my Food Commentary Noises from Dad. Not the kind of chewing and crunching Flash does, which make me homicidal; my food noises are reasonable, such as “Mmmmm,” “Oh, this is amazing,” and “Um, um, um” noises. Even when a food caused intense pain due to his ulcers, Dad would indulge. When we went to eat Mexican food, he’d eat peppers, as he explained, “These are going to kill me later.” And then he’d wash his meal down with his trusty aloe vera juice, drinking it right out of the bottle, to help ease the pain.
He introduced me to sausage gravy on sliced tomatoes, something his family ate quite a bit during the Great Depression. Of course it was great; gravy makes everything better, and my stepmom, Gaga, made the best sausage gravy I’ve ever had. But one of Dad’s favorite meals was simple bologna sandwiches. Mom said, when they traveled, and lunch time came, they’d stop at a store and get a loaf of bread, bologna, and mustard, to eat on the road. Dad was the ultimate big spender when it came to travel meals.
But he wasn’t the only person in his family who could eat huge amounts; I come from a long line of big eaters. The first time Mom saw my Aunt Odelia cook for “the boys” - Dad, Uncle Rab, and Uncle Redus - she was astounded. Aunt Odelia fried two pounds of bacon, cooked two dozen eggs, and sliced an abundance of tomatoes. And, of course, she made the essential gravy. She and Mom ate too, but like “normal people,” Mom said, adding, “I’d never seen people eat as much as those three men.”
When he wasn’t eating, Dad often enjoyed making candles. He created a couple of wax Christmas trees that would bring in a lot of money at a holiday craft show these days. They were green, with white “snow” cascading down their sides, and little plastic and ceramic woodland creatures on and surrounding the hollowed out trees. A light bulb was placed into each tree, making them glow.
But his most impressive wax creation was a multilevel pyramid candle. He used empty pint-sized milk cartons to shape the individual candles used to build the pyramid. He poured layers of wax into each carton, letting each layer harden before pouring the next one. The colors were those of a sunset - orange, red, and yellow. The bottom row of the pyramid had seven candles, the next layer up had six, and so on, until the pyramid was complete. Somehow, he joined together all the individual pieces, making it one solid candle. When he lit all the wicks, it was brilliant.
For years, working as a marine supply salesman, Dad drove a Cadillac, something seldom seen in our neighborhood. He also paid me a dollar for each of my fingernails that grew longer, to encourage me to quit biting them. The fancy car and the nail money meant Dad was deemed rich by some of my friends on the block. Of course, I tried to use the Cadillac to my advantage.
It was the night of my first date with the guy I’d had a crush on throughout my freshman year of high school. He had, much to my dismay, taken six weeks to give me an answer after I asked him to go to the annual Band Banquet with me. But that was okay, because he said yes.
I had invited Dad over to see me in my dress that evening. Earlier in the day, I’d asked Mom, “Can you park your car in the street when you get home from work, so Dad can park in the driveway?”
Mom knew exactly why I asked; I wanted the Cadillac, not Mom’s beat-up Plymouth, to be the car that my date saw when he got there. Mom obliged. But, not only did Dad foil my plan by parking in the street, he added insult to injury by parking behind Mom’s car. When my date drove down the street, the only thing he could see was the front end of Mom’s car; Mom got the biggest kick out of that turn of events, and laughed every time she told the story.
Thankfully, I redeemed myself a little by wearing diamonds to the banquet; Dad had bought me a ring and necklace for the occasion. They matched, each having a heart with a diamond in the middle. I guess that made up for the Plymouth.
To add to the Wealthy Dad perception others had of my father, he was usually wearing a suit and tie when he came to pick me up. He always looked nice, and his biggest commandment was “Don’t touch my hair.” So, of course, I had to touch it, just to hear him say, “Honey, stop it. You’ll mess it up.” He was worse than I was, in my teenage years. Maybe it came from his being a hairdresser for years, before graduating college and becoming a geophysicist. His resume was varied and impressive, especially given his humble beginnings.
Recently, my brother, Doc, told me that Dad grew up poorer than most people of the time. Dad was born to a half-Cherokee father, whose mother was the daughter of a Cherokee chief. Dad left home at 15, and went to live with an aunt and uncle. His senior year in high school, he borrowed the principal’s car and wrecked it. The school administration threatened to keep him from attending the senior trip to Niagara Falls, but Dad got mouthy with them, and they let him go on the trip; clearly he had convincing “negotiating” skills. Dad began working at the Civilian Conservation Corps, making $5 a week and sending $4 of that back home. When Dad was caught poaching deer on the King Ranch, the fence rider who caught him mercifully let Dad go with a warning to stop poaching. Dad’s explanation for his crime had been, “Because I needed something to eat.” Due to Dad’s excellent marksmanship, he was assigned as an air gunnery instructor when he joined the army. He told the story that because they were to conserve brass/artillery while on maneuvers, Dad would yell, “Save your brass.” Apparently, one day, the gunner thought he said, “Save your ass,” and quickly parachuted out of the plane.
As a civilian, in the 60s, Dad worked with the Navy on Operation Deepfreeze, aboard a destroyer headed to Antarctica; the team was mapping the ocean floor during the Cold War. Dad designed a microphone that would drop down into the water at a constant rate, regardless of water temperature and regardless of how much cable it pulled with it. That type of microphone is still used in submarine detection today. We have endless home movies of Dad on his mission to Antarctica, but the most memorable scene is the initiation ritual he endured when he crossed the equator for the first time on the voyage. He was required to go down the garbage chute, and kiss the belly of a very rotund man waiting at the bottom.
In working with the space program, Dad instructed NASA astronauts where and how deep to dig on the surface of the moon, so they would collect actual lunar samples, rather than surface dust and debris.
When Dad retired and moved to Kerrville, Texas with Gaga, his inner Country Boy came out. It was the first time I remember seeing Dad in blue jeans. He wore baseball caps, albeit not pushed all the way down because that would muss his coiffure, and his blue jeans sagged in the seat. Neckties were gone, and the collars of his short-sleeve, button-down shirts were open. He was a changed man, as he spent hours piddling around in the yard. To complete the look, he kept a huge lump of chewing tobacco in his cheek, like a chipmunk storing up for the winter. What have you done with my father? I thought, the first time I saw New Dad. As he spit into an empty coffee can, I looked for the Apocalypse on the horizon. Every time I gave him my I-can’t-believe-you’re-the-same-man look, he’d extend his bag of Levi Garrett chewing tobacco to me and say, “You want some, honey? It tastes like bubble gum.”
The summer after I graduated from college, I went to visit Dad and Gaga for a week. The ice cream float ritual picked up right where we’d left off, but we’d graduated to caffeine floats, using Coke rather than ginger ale. Late every night, we’d watch The Jeffersons, while slurping down our creamy drinks. On my visits to the Hill Country, Dad and I enjoyed walking the rocky paths, looking at his garden, and hanging out on the porch. In the mornings, we’d sit at the little kitchen table by an open window and feel the cool air. On one particular morning, something in a nearby tree caught my eye.
“Dad, what’s in that tree?” I asked, not sure I was seeing well.
“Those are goats,” he replied, as if it were normal to see a goat in a tree. I didn’t even know goats could climb trees. But there they were, standing on the branches, gazing out, and probably trying to figure out how to get down. They stayed perched until we left the table; I never learned their dismount technique.
Driving to Dad’s from Houston was straightforward. Until I was within a mile of his place. Then his written instructions he’d given me were, “Turn left at the horses.” Thankfully, the horses were always in their fenced in area near the road. If they’d been out in the pasture, I’d still be driving. I’ve tried to find his old home on several trips back to Kerrville, but with no horses marking the intersection, I’ve never found it again.
Years later, when Dad and Gaga moved to East Texas, they acquired at least 20 cats, and a few dogs. This from the man who couldn’t stand cats when I was growing up. There must’ve been a blinking neon sign above their house, visible only to stray animals, advertising vacancies. Dad and Gaga even had an air conditioned trailer on their land for the cats to live in; Dad said they had the first “cathouse” in Cherokee County.
Throughout the years, Dad believed in me; he never told me I couldn’t do something. When I was a teen, struggling through some hard times, he gave me his copy of All Things Are Possible through Prayer, by Charles L. Allen. It was well worn, and the cover was dirty. Dad and I had never talked much about our faith, but he often told me to talk to God, and that He could help me. The book was life-changing, and altered the way I’ve prayed ever since. In 1988, when I called Dad to tell him I felt called to go to Amsterdam and do street ministry for a few weeks, his reply was, “I always knew you’d do something like that. Something to help people.” Then he sent me enough money that made the trip possible.
During the 16 years since Dad’s been gone, I’ve had a million questions about his world travels. When Mom learned Dad wasn’t doing sightseeing on his work related trips, she told him, “I can’t see those places, so you have to.” So he played the tourist, and brought back stories and souvenirs from various countries. If Dad were here, I’d also ask more about his work; I have some of his old books of calculations, but they’re over my head. All those growing up years, I never realized he was brilliant.
But his crowning achievement to me was his winning a dance contest, doing “The Bump,” when he was 55 years old. Oh, how I would’ve loved to have seen that. At the time, I was 15, and thought 55 was ancient; I hoped I’d be that cool when I was old. During our early 20s, my friend Red and I met Dad and Gaga at a little pub that had a dance floor. But I was too embarrassed to dance with my “old” dad; Red danced with him. Because Dad’s hair had turned pure white at an early age, friends always thought he was my grandfather at first meeting. Today, I’d give every penny I own to dance with that snow-topped man; youth can be vain and stupid. But the trip Red and I took to meet Dad and Gaga in San Antonio built some of the most precious memories I have; every time I go there, I eat at Casa Rio, and think of happy days with them.
Two weeks ago, Dad would’ve been 96; I always told him it was appropriate that he was born on April 1. I miss his voice and his laughter. I miss all the conversations we never had – like my telling him, for the first time, how incredibly proud I am of him – the way he bettered his life, and didn’t let his harsh past define what he could accomplish or who he was. If I’d asked, maybe he could’ve taught me more. More about geophysics. Or about Antarctica. Or about cutting hair. Or even more about goats.
Or maybe, through his life – accomplishments as well as mistakes made - he taught me some of the greatest lessons I’ve learned.