Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Young Man at Play in the Surf With His Sons

"If dreams are like movies, then memories are films about ghosts..."

--  Counting Crows, "Mrs. Potter's Lullaby"


Several years ago my brothers and I decided to finally do something with all of our family's old Super-8 home movies that had been gathering dust for years. And so--as dutiful sons--we collected all of them and sent them off to be transferred to videocassette-tape to give as a present to our parents for Christmas.

[Aside: And, yes, I realize that I've just created early on in this piece a generational split with my references to such things as ludicrously archaic as "Super-8 home movies" and "videocassette-tape," so my best advice to any younger readers out there at this point would be to simply follow along, and to nod as if in knowing agreement, and to accept the fact that dinosaurs once roamed the earth, and to go along with me for however long it takes to read this essay--which is, in itself (interestingly enough) an exercise in memory and in nostalgia and in the way the past has its own way of sneaking up behind you.]

Now, I don't mean to make my childhood out to be anything other than what it was (which was pretty wonderful, all things considered), and I certainly don't mean to make it sound like one of those Horatio Alger type of "hard-luck, rags-to-riches" stories that everyone's heard ad nauseum. My growing up wasn't anything like that by any accounts. In fact, anyone who may know me or my brothers knows that ours was hardly a "scrabbling-for-scraps-under-the table" type of story.

[Aside: To be even more direct, I suppose, all it takes these days is to take one look at the four of us--in all of our "going-gray-at-the-temples-and-slowly-receding-hairlines-and-forty-year-old-disappearing-waistlines" glory--and you can pretty much tell, almost immediately, that there was never any such thing as "the lean years." But perhaps I digress....]

Growing up, one thing my brothers and I never seemed to go without, it seemed, was my dad's old Super-8 movie camera. Even though I couldn't say with any certainty today how much a little movie camera like that would have cost some forty-odd years ago, I can certainly say without a doubt that my father got his money's worth out of the thing.

Nowadays, of course, I thank my parents for their foresight in wanting to take so many home movies and to preserve the family's history on old 8-mm film. But I have to admit that at the time this important stock of film was being "documented," it wasn't much fun. Part of this could be blamed, I guess, on the huge lamp that hooked to the camera's side and that cast an intensely weird and ethereal glow over everything.

I'm not sure of this lamp's actual purpose, to be honest, other than to create shadows that Edward Hopper would have been proud of, as well as to create an almost hypnotized and agonized look on the faces of those caught in its beam. In the old home movies, we all end up looking like scared POWs as the interrogation light sweeps across the room, searching for its latest victim. I'm not sure of the actual wattage of this lamp, but I wouldn't be surprised if it could have been used in a lighthouse somewhere in upper Maine. This thing was like getting an X-ray. And God forbid you were ever foolish enough to look directly into the camera. The glow from this Klieg light could leave you seeing spots in your eyes for days. And I haven't even mentioned yet the heat this thing put off. That's what most of my family's old home movies are, really, just hours and hours of assorted people dressed in bad '70s fashions, squinting into the harsh glare of the light, and sweating.

It's very attractive.

Truth be told, most of our old home movies are made up of the kind of nonsense only a family can truly appreciate, I suppose. There are literally hours of birthday celebrations, and Christmas mornings buried beneath lights and bright wrapping paper, and wheat harvests, and sledding in the snow, and endless games of backyard football, with my brothers and me running tirelessly back and forth, back and forth, and back and forth...

Noticeably absent from most of these scenes, however, is my father, who usually was given the thankless task of filming. But even though you don't see him, you can still feel his presence, I think, in the careful, steady, and focused hand he used to hold the camera. In that way, Dad is in practically every frame of film.

Dad was always there.

He was there in the bleachers at every basketball game. He was there at home football games, sitting up in his usual spot in the announcer's booth, running the clock. He was there at track meets, whether home or away--no matter the distance or the far drive--to cheer on his sons as they ran the open-quarter, or threw the shot put, and the javelin, and the discus. He was there at school music performances, and plays, and birthdays, and graduations, and weddings, and baptisms of his grandchildren.

Dad was just always there.

Now, in an attempt to put as much cloying sentimentality as possible to the side, I'm going to admit (as every son possibly could about his father) that while Dad's presence was much appreciated when growing up--his loving and unconditional support always welcomed--there were times when, perhaps, his presence was just a bit too much.

I'm thinking, maybe, of a time when I was a young boy, sitting at the kitchen table, my homework strewn before me, a third-grader struggling to understand the vast complexities of long-division. And who should happen along at this particular time but my dad--the clear-minded farmer; the high school math teacher and wrestling coach and cross-country coach; the man whose patience was almost always unpredictable and very often legendarily short. As my father pulled out a chair next to mine at the kitchen table and sat down to "help" me with my math homework, the last rational thought I remember passing through  my 8-year-old mind at that point was: "This is not going to be fun."

And I was right.

Though the last thing I wanted to do was to make a mistake with my math and to thereby call down the full wrath of Dad, sure enough, try as I might, sooner rather than later, I was inevitably bound to screw up. And so of course I did.

As I recall (to make a long story as short as possible) that day ended with me in tears upstairs in my room, wondering why in the world my dad had to be the way he was, and swearing that he was impossible and that I would never understand him (feelings not uncommon, at some point, between most fathers and sons, I would imagine).

And undeniably this scene would play itself out between my dad and me in countless ways over the years. Most particularly this strained and difficult sort of relationship was seen in the countless harvest fields throughout the years of my growing up. In the early days when I was first learning to drive a tractor--with  me (slightly nervous and anxious) at the wheel of the grain cart, and Dad, smoothly and effortlessly directing the combine--it could very often, at times, turn into a comedy of errors. Unfortunately, however, Dad very rarely saw the humor in it at the time. But in my defense, I must say that though my dad was brilliant in a lot of things, giving clear hand signals was not one of those things. There is a reason, I'm convinced, why he never coached baseball. And try as I might, when I was a young boy learning to drive a tractor in the harvest field under my father's strict tutelage, I could never--for the life of me--understand what in the hell he was trying to tell me with his hands. And I know, just as sure as I'm writing this now, that he could never understand why I couldn't understand him.

[Aside: It was my math homework all over again.]

As he effortlessly drove the combine next to me, with the golden flow of grain emptying from its bin and spilling into the back of my cart, I had a clear view of Dad behind the glass windows of the combine's cab, waving his hands, desperate to tell me...something. And as his frustration mounted, the hand signals grew wilder and more agitated. And I could feel the front of my shirt quivering in time to my ever-increasing heartbeat.

And though the last thing I wanted to do was to make a mistake at the tractor's controls and to thereby call down the full wrath of Dad, sure enough, try as I might, sooner rather than later, I was inevitably bound to screw up. And so I did. And grain would be spilled on the ground. And the combine would stop. And the grain cart would stop. And Dad would step out of the combine's cab and push his hat back on his head and stomp his foot once and curse a little and grow red in the face and climb down the stepladder and then walk behind the stalled machines to a small spot in the field of stubble where a little mound of wheat--unnoticeable to most eyes--would mark the scene of the accident. And he would kneel and reverently--almost tenderly--scoop the spilled grain into the palms of his calloused, work-stained hands. And he would throw the spilled kernels into the back of the grain cart, everything accounted for and in its place and nothing left to waste.

My dad was always there. Steady, dependable, sometimes unpredictable, and yet always reliable. He was there to teach us how to ride a bicycle. And how to tie a necktie. He was there to teach us wrestling holds, and how to shave, and how to plant a tree. He was there to help us move away from home when the time came, and to see us started on our own lives. And he was there to take us back in, should the need ever arise. He was there to teach us the simple joy that could be found in loving a loyal and faithful dog. He was there to wait with us in hospital rooms and in airports. He was there to help us buy our first car, and to support us financially when we needed help, or to give us emotional strength when he sensed we needed it. And toward the end of his life--his once-vigorous body and mind slowly falling prey to the steady and inexorable onslaught of Alzheimer's--my dad was there to teach us, and re-teach us, the old Vince Lombardi maxim that it doesn't matter how many times you get knocked down--because you will get knocked down--what matters most is how many times you get back up. He was there to teach us how to be a man and a husband and a father. And to teach us that every grain, every kernel of wheat, is important, and that nothing should be forgotten or left behind or left undone.

And if we had the nerve to watch, my dad was even there to teach us how to die.

[Aside: And he did this all with the same steady hand that he used all those years to hold the movie camera, taking in the pictures of his family, charting and recording our growth in clear focus, so that in years to come we could watch again and learn from him one more time.]

As it turns out, my daughters never really "knew" my dad. Of course they knew the man who was their grandfather, but at the time of his death they were young enough to know only what they saw of him in his decline. And so--no fault of their own--they never really knew the man the way I did. They never got a haircut from him, for example. And they never really saw his smile or heard his laugh. And they never heard him sing, either; Dad had an incredibly soulful tenor voice, and he loved to sing.

[Aside: One of my dad's closest friends from his teaching days, Jerry Hall--band teacher, blind, who interestingly allowed Dad to give him driving lessons one time--said on more than one occasion that my father's voice reminded him of David Clayton-Thomas, the lead singer for the late-1960s fusion-rock band, Blood, Sweat, and Tears. And personally I love that comparison. When my Dad was a young man, he really did sound like that when he sang...]

My daughters love to watch my family's old home movies. And it is from these films that they have been able, in their own way, to learn something about the man I knew as "Dad." For every now and then, when the mood obviously struck him, my father actually handed the camera over to someone else for a moment or two--possibly my mother--to take over the important job of filming.

In one such scene, he is a young man--probably in his late 20s--driving an old, red International tractor, with an infant son standing next to him behind the wheel. There is a chain attached to the back of the tractor, with the other end wrapped firmly around felled trees and large limbs and branches. Dad is pulling them behind, dragging the fallen timber to a nearby burn-pile. He is working. And his son is watching and learning. Dad is a young man in the scene, lean and vibrant and healthy and strong. There is a pipe clenched between his teeth as he casually looks behind him over his shoulder, slipping the tractor once more into gear and easing it slowly forward, pulling its heavy load fully out of frame.

And there is another such scene from my family's sepia-toned home movies, another one of those rare times when my father actually handed the camera over and made an appearance. I don't know what year the film was shot, but I was just a baby, too young to even remember. We were in Houston, visiting my grandfather, and one afternoon we took an outing to the coast, to swim and play in the Gulf of Mexico. The whole family was there (except my younger brother, Dan, who wasn't born yet). One of my older brothers, Darin, is sitting on the beach, stuffing seaweed in his mouth, while my mom rushes to the rescue to stop him from swallowing it.

It's a beautiful day. The gulls are circling about, casting shadows in the sun, and everyone is smiling and laughing and playing in the waves that come rolling in on the beach. And then from out of the corner of the frame walks my dad. He's a young man in the film, probably in his early 20s. His shirt is off. His blue jeans are rolled up to his knees. He is lean and vibrant and healthy and strong. He is a young husband and father, with his whole life spread out before him like the vast, blue ocean he is seeing for the first time. He wades into the water to play with his boys in the surf.

"Who is that, Daddy?" my younger daughter asked me one time when we were watching the old movies together at home. The three of us were on the couch together, both of the girls nestled comfortably under my arms. "Is that you?" she asked, pointing at the lithe, athletic young man on the TV screen.

I looked to where she was pointing, and I smiled down at her. "No, that's not me," I said. "That's your grandpa."

It was my other daughter--the older of the two--to take up the question this time, and the sound of astonishment and delight was hard to hide in her voice. "That's Grandpa?" she asked me.

I looked at both of my daughters, and I smiled. And then I turned back to the old home movie and the faded image of the young man at play in the surf with his sons. "Yes," I said, smiling, fighting back a knot in my throat so they wouldn't hear the faintest catch in my voice. "Yes, honey... That's my dad."