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Rated: 13+ · Non-fiction · Biographical · #1025924
A summer with my dad, and the life lesson he taught me.
         Born to teenage parents who quickly divorced, my story is like many of my generation. In the interest of a ‘better life’, my brother and I were adopted by different families. When the family which chose me divorced, my mother took me back, figuring that if I was going to come from a broken home it might as well be hers. I saw my dad in supervised visitation a few times, but he quickly tired of having someone watching over him as he tried to interact with his first born son. His attempts at having some privacy with me were a series of abductions; two or three, I’m not sure the exact number. This all happened before my third birthday, and fortunately, my young mind didn’t retain any of it.

         The next time I heard from my dad was when I was eight. It was a hot July day, my birthday, and I had presents, cake, and partying on my mind. The telephone rang and it was for me. It was him. I protested, but it was recommended (in the way only a mother can) that I talk to him. This I don’t remember either, but I’m told I cried while on the phone. My mind, though still young, should’ve retained this momentous event-the first time I ever talked to my father. However, through the merciful ability of the human brain to censor traumatic events, I can’t even remember where I spent that birthday, what I received as gifts, which friends attended the party, or anything he said to me. It’s as though I suffered (or enjoyed) head trauma and the day was lost.

         Now in my thirties, when someone asks about my father, I say that I didn’t meet him until I was sixteen. With what you already know, that’s a false statement in the literal sense. But due to my repeated acts of cerebral self-defense, the summer I spent in Eugene, Oregon with my dad, I consider to be the first time I ever met him.

         As my sophomore year of high-school ended, and as my rebellious teenage attitude spun wildly out of my mother’s control, when she’d ‘had enough of my shit,’ as she was fond of saying, I stepped onto an Amtrak train in Auburn, California. I stepped off in Eugene, Oregon the next day for what was supposed to be the rest of my life, or at least until I turned eighteen and could decide for myself what to do.

         He was waiting for me at the outdoor station, and when I saw him, I saw myself, my genetic reflection in a Harley Davidson tee-shirt and dirty blue-jeans. I think we shook hands; I’m nearly positive that we didn’t hug. Ironically, it was Father’s Day. Fifteen years later, I still smile at that. I brought him a card. I don’t recall what it said, but I remember every word I wrote as a message. I wrote, I can’t say thanks for always being there, so I’ll just say, Happy Father’s Day. Brutal, but true, spoken with the bluntness of youth. I wonder now if those words didn’t act as a catalyst for the awful summer to come.

         We hopped in an old Ford pick up truck, worn silver in color with badly dented right front quarter-panel. Before then I didn’t know what that piece of metal sitting above an automobile’s front tire was called, but now I know that it’s called a right front quarter-panel. My dad taught me that.

         As we drove home we passed lush, seemingly endless forests of pine trees which were in the process of being cleared so as to become the state’s largest export. We traveled for some distance on a two lane road passing large fields and intermittent houses. Inside one of these houses, I met his common-law wife and her three boys, my brothers, at least for the summer. The woman’s name was Juanita. The boys were: Dennis, sixteen; Michael, fourteen; and the youngest boy, whose name has become part of what’s left behind in my mind, was ten.

         Dennis had his own room, I can’t remember where the ten year-old slept, and Michael shared a room with me. They were all good to me, as good as they could be, under the circumstances. Juanita tried her best to tuck me into the fold like a mother hen adopting an orphaned chick. She would cover for us boys when we would do what teenage boys do.

         There was a lake with a public beach about two miles from the house. It was only an hour’s walk away, though that walk was along a busy stretch of highway. You can imagine the rush when a logging truck passes, going seventy miles an hour as you’re walking on the shoulder of the road, like being pushed by Apollo.

         During one of these desperate attempts at alleviating the unbearable monotony of our school-less lives that summer, we were rewarded by finding a large baggie of marijuana on the side of the road. When we got home, Dennis , Michael, and I went to the small, unused garage behind the house, crushed a discarded soda-can, and eased the pain of our day.

         We ate a giant bunch of celery and an entire jar of generic peanut butter; the kind with the gray and black label. We turned on Sesame Street, Dennis threw up in the kitchen sink, and we fell asleep on the living room floor. When Juanita saw the kitchen sink and the empty peanut butter jar, she knew what had happened. My dad, probably high himself at the time, was clueless. She told him we must’ve taken allergy medication and fallen asleep.

         She did other things to help, to make me feel like part of the ‘family’. I tried out for the Willamette High School football team. It was my junior year and I’d never played organized football before, but I still made the team. It was the junior varsity, so I was playing with underclassmen, but I was happy to be playing at all.

         My dad told me I couldn’t go to the practices on Sunday because our family was religious. He wouldn’t have been able to find the nearest church, and didn’t own a bible. We weren’t very religious. I somehow managed to be able to go anyway. I don’t remember how, but it was probably Juanita. The only caveat was that I had to find transportation to and from practice. Gas, in the summer of 1991 when it was still under a dollar a gallon, was too expensive to be driving me back and forth to football practice.

         I guess he wanted to do something nice for me because I was his real kid and the rest of them were the old lady’s, so he stole someone’s mountain bike for me. A child’s heart doesn’t want much though; I was happy my transportation problems were solved. I never asked him how he thought Jesus felt about his theft.

         It was ten miles each way to the school, ten miles down that two-lane logging highway, ten miles being shoved by Apollo while trying to balance on two wheels. But coming home was the worst. There were fewer big trucks, but after two intense football practices in ninety degree weather, after running miles upon miles in full pads, after losing quarts of water as perspiration, pedaling another ten miles was excruciating.

         The summer ended and I was elated to be starting school, and my first real football game. Juanita and the boys were there, my dad wasn’t. It’s okay, though. I only played three before I climbed out my bedroom window with Dennis and left forever.

         Late one night, probably after eleven o’clock, a fight erupted between Dennis and my dad. I wasn’t concerned by the fight, they did it all the time. I just wanted to get some sleep, so I got out of bed and went into the living room to negotiate a truce.

         It was pitiful what my eye beheld as I walked into the living room. My dad was face to face with Dennis, face to chest really. Dennis was about six foot-one, my dad was about five-seven. Undeterred, by the size difference, my dad had his bare chest thrust out with his arms pulled back to make him look bigger, stronger; it was about as useless as a lion's mane, or a peacock's feathers.

         I don’t remember what I said exactly, but I remember his response to me, his first born son, the child he hadn’t seen grow up, the one who would carry on the family name. He said, “Get back to your room, bitch.” I tried to be witty because I was hurt. I wanted to be a smart-ass, and give him a piece of my mind, drop a real zinger on him that would let him know that I wasn’t someone to be messed with, that I wasn’t anybody’s bitch. But I was sixteen and scared of fighting. I said, “I’m not your bitch.” Then turned to go back to my room and hope my dad would pass out and the fight would be over and we could get some sleep.

         Before I took three steps I felt his hand on my shoulder. Before I took the fourth I was on the floor, looking up at him. The left side of my face felt warm from where he punched me, my right ribs hurt from where he kicked me as a bonus I Love You.

         What happened next was surprising, but living in harsh conditions, where phone calls to my family in California were prohibited because my dad didn’t like them, and long-distance charges were too much to pay, where the four of us kids would have to lay on our stomachs in front of the television so we had light to do our homework because the electric bill was to high, these things, endured and shared by two people, often times serve as a point of unity. Dennis and I had grown close in our hatred of the old man. That night I saw how close.

         Dennis ran across the living room and left his feet like a linebacker. In an instant, the two of them were on the floor next to me. Dennis had his arms pinned under my dad and he was laying on top of him. He began screaming, “Don’t you ever hit my brother!” while he repeatedly head-butted my drunken father. Brother. I admit I hadn’t seen us that close, but he did, and he came to help. Maybe he thought I was coming to help him earlier, which I guess I was.

         Dennis and I went to our rooms, packed our stuff, and climbed out my bedroom window. We walked down the now quiet two-lane road I’d traveled so many times before. Dennis told that he knew of a homeless shelter in Eugene, and that he’d been there before. He and my dad fought often. Juanita chose the bread-winner and a place to live over her oldest son during these innumerable fights, self-preservation over family.

         As Dennis and I walked down that long road on that chilly September night, I silently ruminated on my summer in Oregon, my experience with my dad, and what I’d learned. It was clear that I would never have a dad, never have a man to give me paternal love, never have anyone to teach me how to be a man. But I’d still grow up and be a man eventually, it was inevitable. I made a commitment to myself that night that my future children would know their father.

         The past doesn’t have to repeat itself. I have children of my own now, and they have a dad and a father. My dad taught me two things during my trip: what a right front quarter panel is, and the importance of a father in a child’s life. Thanks Dad.
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