As we near Father’s Day, I’ve been thinking more of my dad. If he had lived until last month he would have been one hundred, and loving wordplay as he did it would have tickled him that his son had started a newspaper column called “The Common Tater.” And since I have enough of my memories, and of his stories, on tap to make for many columns—and how I wish now I had asked him for even more of his recollections—I may as well start out with a brief tale, namely, the time he laughed the hardest and longest that I ever saw. Trouble was, I was the reason for it.
Dad’s temper flared quickly but departed just as fast, or even faster. He held no grudges and in my childhood, if I could stay out of his reach for even half a minute, his temper would cool his intent down from a smack to a mere scolding. But a scolding from him was something special. He’d been a drill instructor at the beginning of World War II, and without even raising his voice he could combine just the right words to make either a mischievous kid or a smart-aleck teenager feel about two inches tall. And if he thought something I’d done was ridiculous enough to laugh at—oh Lord. There’s no describing the humiliation. The prospect of that laughter kept me out of a lot of mischief.
Anyway, nobody on the two little creeks in our community had much land, but several folks tended gardens, a few had hogs, bee stands, and what not—and the main livestock, for those interested in keeping it, was the chicken, game or domestic. My grandfather and I raised both ducks and chickens for a while. So it happened one early spring—I was about nine—that circumstances made me the foster mother of a clutch of orphaned bitties that risked freezing if I kept them in the outside pen. Grandpa let me put a big old cardboard box in the back hallway next to his room, and after outfitting it with newspaper and jar lids filled with water and starter feed, I was ready to move my orphans indoors. And so, despite the fact that I knew I was doing what Dad called “picking up a lazy man’s load,” that is, carrying too much in one trip, I decided to bring all the bitties in at once, using my front pockets as well as my hands for the transit. I didn’t lose a single bitty that way either, not even in the pockets although once I emptied them, I discovered a dividend in one that I should have expected—but hadn’t. Dad came to look at the bitties just about the time I pulled out a sizable handful of the “dividend” and muttered disgustedly: “Well, them things (expletive deleted) in my pocket!”
Mom didn’t hear me, and I was glad. Neither did Grandpa, for which I was gladder. But Dad—I don’t know how he threw back his head while simultaneously bending double and slapping his knees without rolling around on the floor, but he did it, and the laughter that emanated up and out from his belly absolutely laid it over anything I ever heard him do either before or after. As I mentioned, ridicule was the most effective discipline he ever used on me, but that time his laughter was so utterly infectious that I just had to join in or die trying not to. Now, when Mom saw the britches she’d have to wash, SHE didn’t laugh, but although Dad got lots of mileage out of that story he always deleted the expletive that I let slip. It remained the one Mom didn’t know about.
I never quite knew what made Dad tick while he was alive, but at his funeral home viewing over Memorial Day weekend 2005—he’d lived twenty-six days past his eighty-ninth birthday, and had fussed continually since that birthday about “living too long”—many of his old co-workers remarked on his saying to them that back during the worst days of World War II he’d promised himself that if he ever got out of the South Pacific alive he’d never worry about small things again. That cleared up many a mystery about him, but he took the talent for it with him to the grave and I sure wish I could have inherited it. Still missing you, Old Man.