Friday, June 17, 2011

A Tribute To My Father

I was 13 and very much looking forward to summer. Early May was already hot in the afternoon so I was cutting the grass without a shirt at 10 o’clock in the morning. Just one more month of school and I would be free. As I made the long sweeping turn from the front yard toward the garden I saw him. He was walking across the back yard in a v-neck tee-shirt and overalls and my heart sank at the sight. I knew that the minute I finished the grass he and I would get into an argument over working in the garden. I would object on the grounds that I had already spent 2 hours mowing the yard. He would point out that when he was my age he had already put in 2 hours of work before breakfast and besides he couldn’t do it alone. He needed my help so I had better stop with the crying and get on with it.

My Dad didn’t have my gifts of logic and reason, my skills at debate, or my winning charm but even so I never once won an argument with him. He would look at me with a half-smile and patiently listen to my brilliantly argued and flawlessly reasoned positions and when I was through he would say something like,”Ok, well, pick up that bag of fertilizer and lets get started.”

Although I could tell I was his son, he was much bigger than I would ever be. He was in his late forties and very strong and straight. His big arms hung down to his sides when he was in his suit on Sundays, down practically to his knees. Out of those dark jacket sleeves would emerge two enormous and powerful hands that were calloused from hard work and genetics. Even though Dad was a minister and a man of thought and learning, he never lost his taste for demanding physical labor. He was a man of toil. In the fall and winter it was carpentry work , building junk in our cramped pit and the pendulum basement. He would stay down there for hours sawing and drilling and sanding and emerge covered with sweat and sawdust. In the spring and summer it was the garden. As soon as the ground thawed in March he would get someone to plow it up since we didn’t own a tractor. Then he would crank up the old orange roto-tiller that he bought at Western Auto and stored under the back porch all winter since we had no shed. He would go back and forth over the molded-smelling dirt over and over again for days until the ground was all the same sandy color and fine as rice. I had actually looked forward to my big chance to run the roto-tiller after watching Dad all those years. The thing was loud and I liked the way it ground up weeds and clods with such violence. When my chance finally came when I was 10, the unwieldy beast practically ripped my arms out of their sockets. After I suffered through 3 passes down a single 6o foot row I wrestled the monster into neutral and then made the mistake of holding on to the kill switch too long once it made contact with the spark plug. The shocking jolt knocked me flat on my backside. Dad helped me up and said, “ You’ll get better son”.

It was then that I first became aware of just how strong he was. He stood around 6’2” and weighed 210 or so with broad shoulders , a big head and dark jet-black hair. All the ladies and half of the men in our church accused him of using Grecian formula, but I knew that he didn’t. The only health and beauty aids in his medicine cabinet were a Schick injector system razor, a can of Barbasol and a bottle of Aqua Velva. There never lived a man with less vanity than my father. When he worked in the garden he always wore this ridiculous floppy straw hat with a green eye shade thing built in to the front brim. It was huge and sitting on top of his enormous head towering over 6 feet in the air he looked like a menacing extra in the prison yard from the set of Cool Hand Luke. The odd thing was that he was as gentle as a lamb. The only time he raised his voice in anything approaching anger was when he was in the pulpit holding forth on the dangers of sin. His face was handsome with unruly eyebrows, a prominent nose that I had inherited and kind, tender eyes which I had not.

“OK son,” he began slowly. “ Today we are going to lay down some corn and potatoes and if we’re lucky maybe some pole beans.”

“What’s so lucky about pole beans?” I mumbled under my breath.

“ I know you’d be happier playing ball or riding your bike, but when we finish today you’ll be able to look back proudly on what you’ve accomplished. A job well done need not be done again, my daddy used to say.”

“Then how come I have to cut the grass every week?”
“ Well, almost every job. I think that this year you need to learn to use the push plow”

I could hardly believe what I was hearing. Me? Me, getting to use the push plow?? This was not going to end well. I had been preparing myself for the yearly lesson about the importance, nay, the cosmically crucial to the survival of mankind importance of laying down straight rows. How it was a matter of family pride that rows be perfectly straight, any crook in the line an indication of sloth and inattention at best and darkness or even madness at worst. How it was ok to set a stick in the ground at the end of the row but unsporting and somehow cheating to tie a string to it to guide your work. A virtual encyclopedia of information about a man’s character could be revealed by an inspection of his garden. And now my father wanted me to do the honors, our family reputation in the community riding on my slim teenaged shoulders.

“ Dad, you can’t be serious” I pleaded.

“ I’ll help you every step of the way son. You’re 12 years old boy, its time you learned”

“ I’m 13 Dad!” I was always indignant with him when he would forget my age or what grade I was in. The man could recite entire chapters of the Bible, tell you every detail of the life of every Christian from Martin Luther to Vance Havner but half the time he couldn’t remember my middle name.

“ Well, of course you are. What did I say.. 12? I tell ya son the older I get the more that happens. I’ll be thinking one thing in my head and something else will come flying out of my mouth!”

“ Good thing that doesn’t happen in the pulpit , huh dad?”

“ Don’t be so sure “, he answered with a smile.

We both laughed a little at the joke, which actually was funny unlike most of his jokes, the kind of jokes that he would get out of those dreadful “500 Clean Jokes” paperbacks somebody was always giving him. Stupid church people.

Dad walked down to the end of the garden closest to the road and drove a tomato pole into the ground with a 10 pound ball peen hammer. Three licks and it was stiff and straight.

“ Ok son , keep your eyes right here on this stick and walk slow and steady!”

The dirt rolled up and over the plow in soft clumps to my right and I tried my best to straddle the row with my feet trying not to look down too much, keeping my eyes on the stick. The more I stared at the stick the dizzier I became. When I made it to the end of the row I was light headed from the stress and my heart was beating loud in my ears. I was afraid to look back. Dad put his hand on my shoulder as we both inspected my work. After an uncomfortable moment of silence he finally spoke up.

“ Son, that’s about the worst looking first attempt at plowing a row I’ve ever seen. Which means that it can’t get anything but better. Let’s try her again.”

My father was not a parent in the modern sense in that he was incapable of coddling. When I did stupid things he let me know about it. He didn’t buy in to the notion that every kid should get a trophy, that all kids were wonderful. He never seemed to be very concerned with the level of my self esteem, figuring that my self esteem would rise when I learned to do something well. But because he never lied to me about how great I was, I learned that I could believe him. Always. My dad could be depended on to tell me the truth.

Dad ran the roto-tiller over my hideous s-shaped row until all evidence had been erased and then I tried again. This process was repeated 5 more times until finally he was positively beaming.

“ Look at that !!!” he yelled, clapping his big hands together. “ Its beautiful!”

It really was beautiful. With this triumph behind me I warmed to the work. Now it was time to line the furrow with fertilizer, horrible smelling nitrogen fertilizer that came in a big 25 pound burlap bag with a paper lining. I would drag the thing behind me as I dug down and grabbed a handful of the blue crystals and scattered them along the furrow. I never wore gloves so by the end of a day of this my hands would be on fire and all of the hair on my fingers had been burned off. Such were the appalling conditions under which I toiled in clear violation of numerous child labor laws. But by this time I was thoroughly into it and eager for what was next. I would drop the seeds a foot apart then flood the row with water from the garden hose, then cover up the row with the push plow and then rake up the foot prints so it looked perfect. I would spend hours out there with him during the summer, first plowing and planting then hoeing and weeding and finally the harvest would come. We would walk back to the house with a bucket of potatoes or a grocery bag full of string beans and always a half dozen bright red tomatoes. I always felt grown up when bringing those vegetables to the house. There was yellow squash, black-eyed peas, lima beans, English peas,corn…although Dad always had something negative to say about the corn. The stuff never suited him for some reason. It was either too puny or too wormy.

Dad doesn’t keep a garden anymore. He’s 86 now and finally gave it up 6 years ago. I miss those hot miserable days, the stinging flies, the dirt, the smell of the soil. Mostly, I miss seeing my Dad in control of that little piece of ground. I miss hearing him tell stories of when he was 12 years old and was given an entire field by my Grandfather to grow whatever he wanted. He chose tomatoes and made 200 dollars in 1936. I couldn’t even imagine such a thing. He would stand in the shade towards the end of the day, lean on a hoe and tell me how God loved a hard worker. How important it was that a man learn how to provide for himself and how out of God’s rich blessings we could know the unspeakable joy of giving to others.

“ Why is it so hard, Dad?” I asked late one afternoon. “Why is keeping a garden so hard? It’s non stop sweat from March to September.”

“ Because nothing in this life that’s worth anything is easy. Gardening is hard, work of any kind is hard. Preaching is hard. Going to school is hard. Jesus had a pretty hard time up on that cross, don’t ya think? But everything that’s hard produces something wonderful.”

“ I guess so,” I said absently.

“ Besides, gardening might be hard, but it sure is easier than starving”

We smiled at each other and walked back to the house as I admired the calluses on my hands in the dying light of the day.