Every day is a story. I am now an adult, obligated by rules of mature and “civilized” society to accept accountability for every conscious step that I take; forward, backward, right, left, far right, far left, or stand still. It is a dance of struggle through a hectic pace to find a few precious moments of peace. But, sometimes as I retire to the threshold of sleep, and drift wearily, willingly away from the effort, into the land of imagination, all the stress of the day sifts through the flicker of an eyelash, and I am magically transported into the never-never land of little girls and boys, and mommies and daddies, into the candor of my soul.
Yes, Pappy was right. It had been a very long time since I had had the delightful experience of a bedtime story. This old man’s story was current, frail from years of neglect, but potent with the virility a father’s blood. I listened with great emotion, and then flipped the cassette with a sigh of momentary respite. The other side was lighter, more relaxed. Pappy’s stammer was less extreme as he recalled select moments of our childhood.
Hello Sonny Boy,
When I saw the photos that you boys sent, of the two of you in your cowboy hats, it reminded me of an incident a long time ago. My grandmother, your grandmother Morris – who incidentally was one person who loved you boys more than anything – was watching you after I had bought you each a large, white, ten-gallon cowboy hat. Well, Trevor was going outside one day, and you were following him. You didn’t have a stitch on. You started out with your big hat on, and grandma yelled at you,
“Mark, you can’t go out like that. You have to put clothes on!”
To which you patted that big white thing on your head and said, “Hat!” And out you went.
We had to grab you and pull you back in. That’s a story that I reminisce over so much… Hat!
I don’t remember that incident, but it was certainly not surprising for the Ringo Kid and Marshal Curley Wilcox to have been stepping out into the sunshine with their hats on. Now, Curley was just a little pistol in those early days, but he could have at least donned a pair of boots and jingly spurs.
In a way, Trevor tricked you a lot. You were always saying, “Trevor told me to.” You were frequently getting into problems that Trevor had instigated. Mark, you were so open. Of all the children you were the most open, and, I’m not sure, perhaps somewhat vulnerable, I don’t know. In fact, I want to know. I want to know a great deal about you boys.
I think the past is only a prologue. It’s like my friend and your mother’s friend, Willie Sebring. When I found out that he lived in New York. He gave a friend of mine my phone number and told him to tell me not to call if I were either bald or had white hair. Well, I’m not either bald, or have too much white hair, but I chose not to call. I remember Sebring from the past. I remember wonderful Willy, just like I remember wonderful Trevor and wonderful Mark, and wonderful Mitchell. So, I think that the past is over. We have only a limited historical perspective within the scope of all things.
Pappy seemed quite concerned with something from the past. Trevor and I had no qualifications for the years gone by. Bygone quandaries or tribulations seemed more an anchor to Pappy’s frustrations and guilt. It was up to Trevor and I to go to Florida, weigh anchor, and set sail for new, happy horizons. You see, Pappy seemed to think that we were grown men now, and he could only remember his little boys. How could he dredge up a past that had been buried so long ago and present it to two men that he did not know. The truth of the matter was that we had never grown up. Oh, we were men, living the struggle, but we were very much like Pappy as well. Part of us will never grow up. We wanted to hug him, not curse him. In our hearts, we knew that he wanted to hug and be hugged by his boys. We would just have to shanghai that old pirate and sail away from the continent of shoulda-woulda-coulda into a delightful, red sky at night – Winkin’, Blinkin’, and Nod, three little boys.
Now, I am very interested in your paintings. I have a slide projector here, although it is small. I can certainly borrow one from work. Bring the slides of your pictures. Also, bring video- cassettes. You will definitely recognize my corner of the house, as my chair is surrounded by hundreds of videos. Old movies, documentaries, histories, and music shows. It will be obvious where I work, near the karaoke machine that I use in making tapes and videos. I also use that machine to try to improve my stammer. I will tell you more about my stammer later. It was a hindrance in my life, but it was also a help at times. Sometimes I talk a lot better than others. When I am unsure of myself, as I am right now, I will stammer worse. At work it hasn’t caused any problems. They all know that I stammer, and when I get on the telephone they all know that it’s me, and say “Oh, hello Donn.”
We learned that Pappy was working in the media center of the Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute, at the University of South Florida. Over the years, as I revisited Pappy’s contemplations from the pages of Man’s Search for Himself, I had often wondered how he had managed in his disparaging conflict with alter egos. I had envisioned Pappy in a swashbuckling epic in which he had defeated the villainous Buck Star in the final reel; or as a young director shouting orders through a megaphone at the rebellious and pompous Buck Star, putting him in his place as nothing more than a bit role in Pappy’s life. I had also imagined Pappy in a more ominous role – as a schizophrenic artist struggling for his sanity, perhaps contained somewhere in a small, ghastly asylum, lost and unknown.
My initial understanding of where he was employed did little to alleviate any concerns that I might have had. Perhaps I was reading much more into the situation than was there. I would soon see that there was no ironic madness; rather the connection was with the media center – not the Mental Health Institute. Perhaps Pappy had succeeded in the painful process of murdering Buck Star. Perhaps he had finally faced up to Star, and at last he had him at his mercy. He was finally himself – an entity without this picture of perfection held up before him. On this audiotape, although he may have been apprehensive, he sounded happy and well. I eagerly continued to listen.
I remember when you were very, very young. We would get up in the mornings and you and Trevor and later Mitchell, and we would go to the Olentangy River. We lived quite close to there then. We would walk along there and see turtles and fish. One day we decided to try our hand at fishing. Now, you boys were quite young. Well, I couldn’t catch anything, and you couldn’t catch anything, but Trevor, as usual, was leading the way. I think that he caught four fish. But, thank heavens before it was all over you caught one. That is the only time in my life that I ever took anybody fishing.
Fishing. Once again, I choose not to embarrass myself by revealing my bungling aptitude as a fisherman. After all, what can one expect from a naked cowboy, wearing nothing except his hat. When the shadow of that big hat looms over the river, those fish know immediately that this cowboy is no fisherman. You may never have heard fish laugh, but I can assure you that I have. I can also assure you that that was the only fish that I have ever caught in my life. I remember that it was a small catfish, and I was quite in awe as to what to do with it after Trevor helped me haul it ashore. I don’t remember if it was Pappy or Trevor that took the hook out – probably Trevor, as Pappy was as inept at the art of angling as I. So, if one wants to go fishing some sunny day for stripers or bass, it would be best to contact Trevor. Me, I’ll just bask in the sunshine, while the fish chortle in the river nearby.
I suppose that you don’t remember much of this, although I am surprised that you remember as much as you do – especially about Stagecoach. You seem to remember a lot about all the movies, Moby Dick, The Moon in Sixpence, and many others, and Stagecoach, of course. You probably don’t remember, but you boys both asked for Stagecoach for your birthdays. You boys remember the things that are so important to you.
Pappy was speaking in a soft, almost soothing voice by this time in the tape. His stammer had lessened. It was as if he had gone back many years and was telling a story to his little boys. He surely did not have any idea how keenly we remembered those days of Stagecoach; as the Ringo Kidd and Marshal Curley Wilcox sat at his side and he loaded those large reels of film on the projector, turned out the lights, and “rolled ‘em.”
I remember small things like “Hat,” or the puppet Don Quixote, who had to put you to sleep. I think that it was just a ruse to stay awake longer, but hey, you had that right.
I guess I’m just a cockeyed optimist, as they said in South Pacific. I always have been. I’ve always tried to live up to that. I am looking so forward to you boys being here, so I can get to know you as men. I’m not going to ever completely think of you as men, because you are my boys, and that’s a father’s prerogative.
So, Mark, I’m anxious to see you. You and Trevor get down here so we can talk.
I love you,
It had been many, many years since I had heard anyone refer to himself as my dad. I really couldn’t remember how he had identified himself to us as little boys, but that one word may well have been the most powerful in that entire audio message. Dad. I played the word back several times. Dad. Dad. I love you, Dad. It felt good to hear him say it. It would not have staying power, however. Several days later he began a telephone conversation to Trevor and I with “This is your Pappy.” It stuck like genealogical glue. Our reunion with Dad was a brief flicker in space. Our reunion with our father – with Pappy – was a grand and wonderful nova.
The next several months passed quickly, as Trevor and I prepared for our visit to Florida. As it worked out, we were able to arrange to meet Pappy on the third Sunday in June – Father’s Day! For as long as we could remember Father’s Day had been just another day to Trevor and I – a day for others, such as Sonora Dodd, but nothing important to us.
Sonora Dodd’s mother died while giving birth. Her father was left with the difficult commission of raising her and five siblings. As an adult, Sonora realized how selfless and committed Henry Jackson Smart, her father, had been. He had raised six children as a single parent on a rural farm outside of Spokane, Washington.
While sitting in church during a Mother’s Day sermon in 1909, Sonora realized that she wanted her father to know how grateful she was for his effort and sacrifice. As her father’s birthday was in June, Sonora planned for a June day to become known as a day of recognition for fathers everywhere. She held the first Father’s Day celebration on June 19th, 1910.
In 1924 President Calvin Coolidge declared his recognition by announcing the third Sunday in June as the observance date for Father’s Day. By this time folks all across the nation had begun to recognize their fathers on this day. A tradition soon came to pass for loving children to wear a red rose for a living father, or a white rose for a father that had passed away. President Lyndon Johnson signed a presidential proclamation in 1966 that officially established the third Sunday of June as Father’s Day.
This day of observance for a dad’s patriarchal love and devotion was nigh. For most, it is a day to recognize past deeds. For Trevor and I, and Pappy, it was the reunion of years of distant, missing love – an unraveled bloodline retied. Little wonder that we were all rather anxious. The airplane was crowded, and for two cowboys standing over six feet high, weighing in at two hundred pounds, and wearing hats and boots, it was a cramped, uncomfortable flight from Dallas to St. Petersburg. We were not going to the mountains, however, and we packed light; sandals, shorts, swimsuits, t-shirts, and a flowery, Erect Heliconia print, Hawaiian shirt for effect. We were not going to the mountains this time. We were going to the beach, and not only were we anxious to see Pappy, we were eager to stroll the boardwalks and do some girl watching.
Mountain women are undeniably good, dependable lasses. They can keep a mountaineer warm during the long, snowy winters; or they can hike into the high country in the summer and join a cowboy in some skinny-dipping in a brisk alpine lake, with nothing on except “Hat.” I certainly prefer the fresh, cool air of the quiet, pristine “high and lonesome,” but I don’t ever recall a mountain woman wearing a T-back bikini while strolling along in the sun like a goddess from Ipanema. Our purpose for this visit to Florida was to see Pappy, that is true, but we could not deny our heritage. Yes, we were Pappy’s little boys, but hey, we were also a couple of guys going on a vacation to the beach. We boarded the plane with wide, nervous grins beneath the broad brims of out hats.
By the way, I do not recommend wearing a cowboy hat while traveling by air. There is just no place to put one. A fellow can become exhausted from countless experimental contortions experienced while maneuvering around one as it sits on his lap for two or three hours. Drive the pick-up. It may take longer, but your hat will ride nicely either on your head, on the seat beside you, or in the extended cab. If you are going overseas – they like Texans more than Americans in many locations, so obtain a Texas passport – go by ship.
Continue to part 18
Mark T.K. Fought