My father died Saturday, 9 January at the VA center in Bonham, TX after the long decline typical of Alzheimer’s Disease. Over the last few days, I’ve been contemplating some of my best early memories of my father, most of which are from a two or three year span of time just before I entered first grade.
During those years, I remember my Dad constantly out in the garage building things out of wood. For the most part, I have no idea now what he was building. What I do remember is being impressed by the noisy circular saw and by how easily he could put things together with a hammer and a few nails. There’s an image in my mind of sparks flying off the nails as he hit them with the hammer. Whether that’s a real memory or just an artifact of a child’s imagination, I’m not sure.
He taught me to use a hammer, gave me some scraps of wood, and I built a crude box that I thought was a bird house. It was no thing of beauty and had a rough rectangular entrance since I didn’t know how to use a drill. My dad got out the ladder and somehow attached my birdhouse to a wooden utility pole in our backyard. I used to stare up at it during that long summer and wonder if any birds had built a nest there.
My dad had grown up in the rural community of Okla Union, TX and considered growing a few fruits and vegetables in the backyard to be a requirement even in our suburban neighborhood. He grew mostly tomatoes and okra but, I think because I told him watermelons were my favorite food, he set me up with small garden of my own and helped me grow my own watermelons. I think what I learned from some of these experiences was that almost anyone could do things for themselves if they wanted to.
My Dad gave me my first bicycle that year and taught me how to ride it. I remember getting up one morning and looking out my bedroom window to see my Dad putting a bicycle together on the front lawn. He saw me in the window, waved, and shouted to come to down and see my new bicycle. He’d put training wheels on it but by the end of the day had convinced me to take them off. Without the training wheels, he ran along behind me helping me to balance until, as some point, I realized he was just watching and I was doing it all myself.
My Dad worked for the Boy Scouts in those days and made frequent trips to scout camps as part of his job. During one of those summers before first grade, he took me with him to a scout camp. That trip was one of the coolest things I’d experienced up to that point in my life. On the way there, we stopped at a grocery store in a small town and picked up some things we needed for our stay at the camp, including the very first Pop Tarts I’d ever seen. They were strawberry with binky-covered white frosting (incidentally, that suggests this particular memory is from 1967 or 1968 based on the release date of Kellog’s frosted Pop Tarts).
After arriving at the scout camp, my Dad took me along to see everything and meet people. He also did something no one had ever done for me before – he gave me complete freedom to do what I wanted most of the day. He had to spend a lot of time in meetings. So he laid down some minimal rules on where I could and couldn’t go; I could wander anywhere along several dirt roads between the mess hall and a couple of other camp buildings; I couldn’t go swimming or even near the lake by myself and couldn’t go off the trails. That was really the first time I’d been free of adult control for any significant amount of time and it gave me a taste for freedom that I never forgot and never fully experienced again until I was old enough move out and live on my own.
I remember being allowed to drink an unusually large number of grape sodas and Mountain Dews; glass bottles of course. Those were the old Mountain Dew bottles with artwork that consisted of a hillbilly drinking from a jug and the slogan “it’ll tickle your innards!” For several days, I wandered dirt roads, drank sodas, ate Pop Tarts, and did whatever I wanted. I spent a large portion of my time out behind the camp mess hall. There I discovered empty wire milk crates left by mess hall workers. The milk crates became my LEGO blocks. I stacked them up into spaceship cockpits and climbed inside. One of men who worked in the mess hall warned me to be careful because “getting hit on the noggin by a metal milk crate is no fun”. It seemed a risk well worth taking to me.
In the evenings, my Dad took me to camp events in the outdoor amphitheater. The seating was made from cut logs. Nothing in those night time meetings made much sense to me at that age, it was all mysterious adult stuff with lots of old scout leaders saying meaningless scout things. But I was fascinated by the big fire.
At one of those evening meetings, as I sat beside my dad, I felt a strange tickle and looked down to see a daddy long legs spider crawling up my chest. For a young kiddo who’d never seen a spider like that and happened to be arachnophobic anyway, this was an apocalyptic-level emergency. I was so scared I couldn’t even speak. All I could do was grab my Dad’s hand and look terrified. He laughed and reached down with his other hand, grabbing the spider and putting it down on the grass where it could walk away. I don’t think I ever thanked him but it burned into my memory the fact that I had a father who could laugh in the face of unimaginable danger and protect me from certain death. It was hard to worry about things much after that, knowing Dad was around to take care of me.