Originally posted Wednesday, August 11, 2004
I love my dad. Even better, I know my dad loves me. The only trouble is that we are very much alike.
Oh, sure, growing up I used to hear some of the "small town chatter" that people of my grandparents' generation still believed about fathers and sons. Talk of the way Dr. Eismann's boy acted just like his old man, right down to sitting on his foot when he spoke to people. The whole "he has his eyes and her nose" game they play with newborn babies. I always blew that stuff off until I saw my own sons turning into me. Then I began to look at my dad in a whole new way.
I mentioned one time how I had noticed that I was beginning to turn into him, and he blanched in horror. "I'm so sorry," he said. We laughed about it, too, but there was no denying that sense of dread that men of our line were inescapably cursed to be...well, to be like us. Easy-going, funny, amiable, and yet, hapless. A little accident prone. Somewhat likely to say the wrong thing in public when we got nervous. Nothing flamboyantly evil or wrong, but just us. Frustratingly and unavoidably passing along some kind of dork gene.
My grandfather had a history of clumsiness. He used to restore Volkswagen Beetles - the old kind that used to come to life in movies - and no matter how careful he was, he always picked up some new and unlikely injury. The trunk lid would fall on his arm when he reached for a tool. A fender would leap off the car and crush his toe. Once a tire exploded while he filled it with air. One car was particularly creative, leaving his arms all scabbed up like a nine-year-old skateboard novice: he named it Fang and painted it a horrible shade of orange out of spite.
Dad's luck was more subtly bad, and of a more self-inflicted nature. On long car trips, when we made a rest stop, he would accidentally lock the keys in the car. At church picnics, if he was asked to carry any food into the church, he would slip and drop whatever dish or pie he held top-down on the floor. (He quickly learned to only carry unbreakable things with lids.) I recall one occasion when, after locking the keys in the car while picking my sister and I up at school, we had to cross a busy road to get to my mom and her spare set of keys. Half-way across, while cautioning us to be careful and not to run, his shoes slipped on the hot tarmac. As he went down, flat on his back, he shoved us up onto the curb with his last bit of balance. That was my dad; hapless, but always heroic.
I think it was his resistance to this haplessness that made him so careful. He always had a number of little projects going on; house repair, car repair, painting, mending, landscaping. He always focused hard on things he did around the house, and didn't like it when I came around distracting him. It's not that he didn't want me around; he was just too used to doing these things alone by the time I was old enough to take an interest in them. For my part, I was perfectly content to wander about in my little fantasy world, playing "Star Wars" or "Indiana Jones" by myself. Whenever I got too close to what he was working on, he would gently mention something else I could be doing.
After he had finished the project at hand, he would always come find me to play ball, or go swimming. I think now that he must have felt bad for excluding me, though I didn't take it that way. I never felt neglected at all. Even if I had, I really couldn't blame him; after all, I am his son. I am the Crown Prince of Accidents.
I am the kid that was playing on the frame of his pickup truck while he tied down a full load of lumber the summer he built our cabin in Colorado. Just as he cinched the last knot around the last bundle of 2X4's, there was the soft but definite *POP*Hiissssssss..... of me stepping on the valve stem of his right rear tire. I am also the kid that threw a softball to him while he wasn't looking, and popped him in the nose - this happened on the same day that his bandages came off from the surgery on his "doubly deviated septum".
I think it was my flamboyant display of haplessness that led him to seize that chance to prod me into the military. Of all of the slackers in my generation, I had shown a special talent for apathy and my shoulder muscles were overdeveloped from all of the shrugging I had done.
"What are you going to major in?" Shrug. "What school will you go to?" Shrug. "How are you going to pay for it?" Shrug. "What kind of job are you going to get?" Shrug.
Dad didn't exactly call the recruiter and tell them to come and get me, but after I signed the papers, he acted like he had. His guilt was palpable. I tried to reassure him, telling him that if I hadn't thought it was a good idea I wouldn't have signed up. We weren't at war at the time, and despite the prevailing family trait, he and grandpa had both survived the Army, hadn't they? Besides, I was going into one of the more cerebral desk jobs in the Air Force. (As we were to find out later, there was no way they were ever going to let me so much as look at a weapon.)
He still felt a pang every time we talked about it, though. It was a whole long month before I was to ship out, and while I got more and more excited about the idea of moving on, he seemed more and more concerned. Until one afternoon, when he came to me with a twinkle in his eye and invited me to go fishing.
I knew he had bought a boat. I had seen it under the tarp in the back yard. I also knew that it wasn't ready; most of his projects of late had been related to boat repair. At last, he had made it lake-worthy, and was ready to go. He wanted one last father/son event before I left, and I agreed whole-heartedly.
We dragged out of bed at 3:30 the next morning, packed a cooler full of sandwiches, sodas, and snacks. He waved me off while he hitched up the trailer, so I dozed in the cab of the truck until we were ready. It was about a 45 minute ride to the lake. There were about half a dozen other boats ahead of us at the little concrete launch slip. When our turn came, dawn was creeping over the circle of low hills (we in Arizona called them "mountains") around the lake. The lake was still steely gray and in shadow, while the hills erupted with gold rods of light. Half an hour more, and the dome overhead would already be a pale blue, and the lake would already have overflowed with glare and would have started casting shards of it back at the sun. It would have been nice to see.
However, being who we were, it wasn't meant to be. Our turn came, and I stood by the water, guiding dad as he backed the trailer down into the lake. He set the brake, came back, and we shoved it off. I held the rope as he went and parked, pulling the boat along the little rocky shore so someone else could launch. Dad came down, and we hopped in. The water was lower than either of us had ever seen it, what with the drought being in its third or fourth year. Dad wanted to row out a good distance before firing up the motor. We got out about 100 yards, almost halfway to the line of buoys marking the edge of the lake proper. Dad dropped the engine down and fired it up.
It was a small sound, like a rock off your windshield. He almost tried to start it again, but thought better of it. When he pulled the engine back up, the propeller was already ruined. It looked like a rose; all of the "petals" were folded up and in on each other. Dad looked down into the water, and saw the large, concrete block that we could see in the settling murk. He uttered the worst profanity I ever heard him use: "Crap." Then his jaw set, and he unshipped the oars.
Yeah, it was funny later. We chuckled wryly over it seven years later, in fact, after I had served my time and returned home with a growing family. He was standing on a chair, helping me put up a shelf in the laundry room. The baby-gate was up across the hallway to keep my son from getting into the nails.
"I better watch it. I'm getting to be as bad as your grandfather, clumsy-wise," he was saying.
Just then, he whacked his thumb with the hammer. Startled, I leapt forward to catch him, and only managed to upset the box of nails. Dad shook his head as they scattered everywhere.
"Well," he said, shaking his head good-naturedly and nursing his thumb, "there's still hope for the boys." The older boy chose that moment to charge around the corner, and ran headlong into the gate, which gave out. After a brief flurry, he landed on his back, blinking up at the ceiling and gripping the gate which lay on his chest.
We sat there, not wanting to laugh, and watching pained, embarrassed, or dazed expressions alternate on our strikingly similar faces. Three generations of hapless men, slowly turning into each other.
"Okay," said Dad, "There's still one more boy."