Since I was a youngin’ I have been believed to be anything from mildly retarded to the Antichrist, and those competing theories came from my immediate family. It all started when I was but a mere 4 years old. I was impatiently waiting for my Dad to finish taking his bath because I had to pee. You see as a four-year old hyperactive, possibly developmentally challenged kid with a lazy eye and Alfalfa’s cowlick, I needed to go, and the big guy needed to:
a) hurry up,
b) unlock the door and close the curtain or
c) give me permission to pee in the kitty litter box.
Personally I wasn’t emotionally invested in any of the options. I just needed Dear Old Dad’s input. Although I didn’t believe it at the time, Dad was merely a kid himself at the tender age of 22, and and for some really strange reason he enjoyed taking a bath with the portable black and white TV on the edge of the tub. In any event, Pops decided to get out of his bath, open the bathroom door, and then closed the curtain so I could relieve myself. And then it happened….the lights flashed in our apartment, there was a blood curdling scream and a massive crash as my father was literally propelled through the shower wall into a closet in the adjacent bedroom. You see he somehow managed to knock the television into the tub and then became the world’s biggest bottle rocket. It nearly killed the big guy.
Fortunately he survived, but it was right about then that my family members started to stare at me as if looking for some sign that I might have the number “666” emblazoned on the side of my curiously large melon of a head. You all can imagine how a story like this can get away from a guy. The rumors were rampant, and included one that had me walking in on Dad and simply tossing a radio into the tub. Even I had to admit that it made sense because surely no one in their right mind would take a bath with a television on the edge of the bathtub.
After a while my old man started to “misremember”. Perhaps it was the fact that he’d had his memory all but wiped out by the current that coursed through his body. For ten years or so I was convinced that when Mom wasn’t looking he kept running his finger across his throat at me. Geez, I thought, what the hell did I do…maybe if he worked a fourth job we could’ve afforded a house with two bathrooms.
Let’s just say that from the day of the “Great 1962 Electrification of Charles Wilcox” forward my relationship with my father changed from one of unyielding love to a sadistic game of “You’re gonna get yours one day Sonny boy”….
Dad was a Teamster, a big union guy who drove a concrete mixer, owned taxi cabs as his second job, and eventually owned a restaurant. He managed to rise in the Teamster ranks to President of a large local of men with names like Jack Brogan and Biff Hartnett; hard men who grew up in Roxbury and were tough beyond what most people today could imagine. As for my dad, like many men of his generation, it was a sign of weakness to call a plumber or to take an automobile to a mechanic no matter what the problem. I can only assume that it was part of his grand scheme to get me back because I was the designated assistant on all of his home repairs. When I was 9 years old or so he somehow managed to damage one of his taxis and decided in the middle of one of the rainiest and rawest New England Novembers that WE would replace the entire front end of the car. Of course we didn’t have a garage or much more than a socket set and the tire jack that came with the car. My job was to stand there as he cussed his way through major body work calling for tools that I didn’t know the name of. What in the name of all that is holy is a 7/16ths socket I recall thinking? My other reason for life in his eyes was to hold an electric drop light because this silly son of a gun worked days and could only do the work at night. Didn’t he know I was missing homework? I couldn’t but wonder if he’d been waiting for the opportunity to put me, rain, and a tattered electrical cord together. Who could hold a grudge that long was the prevailing thought as I wondered what Benjamin Franklin must have been thinking as he held that kite string in a lightning storm.
The truth is there were so many incidents like this, at the time it never occurred to me that he just couldn’t afford to hire others to do the work and he couldn’t take a day off to do the work during the day. Like the time dad decided that he would take two days off so that he and I would replace the roof on our first house in the middle of July. I nearly killed our dog when I dropped a bundle of shingles due to sheer fatigue. I can still recall dear old Dad’s advice…. “this’ll go a lot quicker if you carried them up two at a time kid”. I’ve had a lot of guilt issues to deal with over the years and I can’t help thinking that they may just stem from my silent prayers that God just sprain the old man’s wrist for a couple of days. In reality I couldn’t help but thinking I should have just pissed in that damned litter box.
I became fully convinced that there was a plot afoot to kill me when my friend Bart McAulliffe and I were playing chicken with a garden rake. You know the game. You are a chicken if you pull your foot away as your buddy swings the rake down toward your foot. Well the good news is that I managed to win the game right about the time that Bart put the 3 inch steel tines of the garden rake directly into, and through, my right foot. The bad news was that I had a garden rake through my foot and stuck into the ground as my good friend Bart screamed, simultaneously started to cry, and then hightailed it home. Now the mind-numbing pain may have clouded my memory of this event to some degree but, I’ll guarantee you that you won’t find any record of my wound being treated by a medical doctor, or me being seen at an emergency room. “They won’t be able to do anything and we’ll end up sitting there all night” is what I think he said to my mom, or maybe it was “I’ve finally got the little bastard now and they can’t pin it on me” I really can’t remember because I was slipping into shock and a pharmacologically induced coma. You see “self help” extended to emergency medical care for Dad who over the decades has become a pretty fair trauma surgeon with the strange hobby of collecting and properly cataloging a vast collection of medications. As the waves of pain overtook me that night I could actually feel myself deciding to fight back, my last conscious thought was “Is this all you got…?” This guy really was trying to kill my ass….but thank God he had been stockpiling pain medication for most of his life.
All kidding aside, the stories about the tub, the car repair, the foot and the roofing job were completely true except the part about my Dad holding a grudge. I can still remember him coming home after the bathtub incident and gently kissing me on the forehead as I tried to sob myself to sleep as if to say it was O.K. that I’d nearly killed him. I remember that because he was still glowing like Patrick Swayze in Ghost…o.k., o.k. he wasn’t glowing but the story is still sort of funny…I mean how many of you can say you nearly killed your dad when you were a toddler?
The truth is that my Dad has worked so hard for his entire life, he didn’t have the opportunity for college and a professional career because from the age of 12 he worked and he’s done it all: truck driver, fruit man, car salesman, cab driver, Teamster official, restaurateur and of course auto body and emergency medical hobbyist. As the years have rolled by my father has been a constant in my life….a call to him gets me squared away immediately. It was my dad who encouraged me to start college and to become a lawyer. He knew it was going to happen for me years before I had a clue what I wanted to do with my life. He is my closest friend and my safety net. When I’m feeling some doubt or I’ve just had a bad day, one call to Chuck and I find myself laughing right through my petty problem. You see…my dad overcame all of the odds and built a family and a life out of nothing. The fact that some judge gave me a hard time or some case was lost is nothing when considered in its proper perspective. His greatest gift to me has been to show me that we all have tremendous capacity to work as hard as we need to, and he has taught me to appreciate how lucky I am that I get to do what I love. He is “Old School” in every positive way one can be old school. Life is about work and play and little else. \
My father is retired now and despite the fact that he isn’t in the best of health, a call to the house will often go unanswered because he and my mom have loaded up the family truckster and headed to Nashville or the Gulf Coast of Florida. He and my mother have been married for 55 years and their devotion to one another is inspiring. He cares for her now and will not allow even the thought that she will ever be placed into the hands of strangers. My father has always been the mark I have strived to reach. He is a man who embodies a spirit that cannot be beaten. He is compassionate and yet as tough as they come. On this coming Father’s Day do what I’m going to do: tell your dad how much he means to you before it’s too late.
Thanks Dad, happy Father’s Day.