I remember, seems from the day I was born, I remember my dad was short and black.
Well, no, not quite. Let’s say not ‘short’ short, but vertically challenged. And not ‘black’ black, but how about he was, uh, colored? Yes. Better. He was colored. Yes. Vertically challenged and colored. Better. Much better. He was four colors, actually.
Being I was, and still am at this writing, a certifiable Caucasian, an explanation would be in order.
You see, for many years, long before I was born and long after, my dad worked in a foundry. An iron foundry. Know what they make in iron foundries? They make, along with many other iron works, reindeer. Those cast iron ‘Rudolph’ reindeer which set posed on rich people’s front lawns.
Over time, dust, minute particles of dark, rust-orange airborne iron dust, collects in fine layers on the skin and well into the skin’s pores, causing deep, dark discoloration. A change in pigmentation. All exposed skin, if not vigorously scoured and showered clean daily, will begin discoloring in a short period of time. If foundry work is what one chooses to do for an extended period, the change in skin color will be deep, dark, and long lasting.
Even though a communal shower area was available at the foundry, my dad depended on the goodwill of his fellow workers for rides to and from work and abided by their schedule. He never had a license to drive. I never knew why.
On the surface, what seemed the typical end to a typical workday: get home, take a shower, eat dinner, etc., was, unfortunately, wishful thinking, as our ‘year-round’ summer house did not come with a shower. Using the foundry’s shower facilities a handful of times a month over a twenty-five, thirty year work span, was just not enough.
So, from the day I was born to the age of nine, I assumed, accepted as given fact, without question, with wide-eyed youthful innocence, I was the God-given son to a short black man.
Hey, I was nine and a half. If you’re never told, whattya know?
No one, not a soul, said a word about adoption. The thought never even occurred to me. Why should it? I wasn’t. Even if I were, I suspect the idea would’ve passed quickly, for I had more important things on my mind: Howdy Doody, The Lone Ranger, Hop-A-Long-Cassidy, The Cisco Kid, Abbott and Costello, and The Three Stooges. I could only watch the Stooges when he and I were home alone. We thought they were funny. My mother thought they were a bad influence.
Oh, all right, I watched Big Brother Bob Emery, too. But, only because my sisters liked to drink their milk and salute the flag, with kind, white-haired, Big Brother Bob, once a day, every day. Until the day he thought his microphone was off and Big Brother Bob announced to all the little tykes in TV land: “That ought to hold the little bastards!” Shocked, my sisters choked on their milk, my mother dropped her cookies.
Where was I?
Oh, so, no one ever mentioned, made an issue of, or questioned his color. Nobody, not a soul, ever pointed out any glaring errors in my family tree. Or, ‘the family bush’ as my li’l black dad so often referred to it.
Nobody ever said a thing to me! I repeat, if you’re never told, whattya know?
Forty-seven dwellings dotted the right and left of my dead-end street. The East Lake, with its surplus of sunfish, snapping turtles, and an occasional water snake, ran along the edge of nineteen properties on the right, the rest in a haphazard, helter-skelter manner on the left, in and along the wood-line.
Of the forty-seven sites, thirty-three were definitive summer cottages. All of them no better or worse than can be found in any low-to-mid-cost cabin campground. Thirty-three drab, lifeless, forgotten shells sprang to life three months a year, when their owners fled the sizzling city heat for the cool, sultry breezes of lakeside Shangri-Las. A veritable utopia in suburbia.
Over the years, of the fourteen other dwellings, twelve were converted to realistically proportioned, storm windowed, Owens-Corning wrapped, furnace fired, foundationed, four season, year-round homes. The last two stayed exactly the same as if frozen in time. Over-sized, wind-driven, un-insulated, no heating system, cellar less, shower less, aged dinosaurs.
Though weather-beaten and battered, both year-round summer houses still stood, deformed yet defiant, after umpteen harsh, lonely New England winters, and as many raucous lakeside summers. They stood testament to the cosmetic cover-up capabilities of gallons upon gallons of interior and exterior paint and the holding power of Spackle, troweled on layer upon layer by decades of many past owners.
Summer-loving do-it-yourselfers, home handy-men all, and just what could be done if the spirit was willing, even though the wallet was weak, on a few off-season week-ends, and three months in the summer, with a collection of sorted nails, a couple of two-by-fours, a handful of shingles, half a roll of tar-paper, a bucket of black tar, and a roll of duct tape!
Unfortunately, over the many years, and the many do-it-yourselfers’ trial and errors, no two handymen shared the same idea as to what either house should end up looking like.
The ‘Great Gray Monster’ had stood empty and spooky-looking for a very long time, sitting three house lots behind us. We lived in the other pauper’s palace. The ‘Great White Elephant’ towered in monumental tribute to the vast legion of do-it-yourselfers over many decades’ past.
Whenever either house was sold it went for pennies on the dollar. Both needed major work. Major extensive structural work. Major expensive structural work. This, along with repairing, replacing, gutting, and finishing years of half-baked projects and half-assed outcomes by many past well-intentioned summer owners, would have cost a pretty penny to correct.
“Makes no sense throwing good money after bad. Don’t much matter, we don’t have either one,” my dad would say. Then he’d grin, chuckle, cough, huck a louie, fart, and walk away. All at the same time.
I tried it once when I was seven and sprained my ankle.
So, we owned the Great White Elephant but lived like renters. We did nothing to it but keep a nice lawn. This was my job. Mow the large lawn, rake the large lawn, water the large lawn, keep off the large lawn, worship the large lawn, things like that.
To make structural oddities just a bit stranger, Roger, a rugged, good-looking, red-headed Irishman, a former neighbor, occasional painting contractor, and seemingly capable jack-of-all-trades, stopped by one day, while my sisters and I were in school and my dad was at work, to visit with my mother.
You could have knocked my li’l black dad over with a feather when one Saturday, while taking the rubbish out, he discovered a good size hole dug out, along, and under the side of the house.
For two weeks, during daylight hours, Roger had been coming around and had begun digging a cellar. Nobody could quite understand why but, suddenly, out of the blue, my mother just had to have a cellar.
My dad left for work in the morning darkness, returning in the evening darkness. He saw nothing. Heard less. He never had a chance. He was ambushed. Sideswiped. Hoodwinked. Bamboozled. Everybody knew. Even I knew!
“Surprise!” said my mother to my slack-jawed dad, as we stood looking down into the pit.
“Nobody ever said anything to me,” he hollered.
‘Like father, like son,’ I thought. “If you’re never told, whattya know?” I offered.
“If I want any shit outta you, boy, I’ll squeeze your head.”
He had such a way with words.
I rarely saw Roger. When he came around to dig I was in school, so I really didn’t know much about him. Then again he was my mother’s friend, my dad’s curiosity, not mine.
One thing I did know, Roger must’ve loved working with dirt, because he certainly wasn’t being paid to do it. Unfortunately, his customers requested most painting jobs be done on the weekends. This meant Roger wasn’t around when my li’l black dad was. So, on weekdays, Roger tended the hole all by himself. On the week-ends, my dad would crawl in the hole alone. Not exactly sure why, or even how, he got involved in the first place.
They had to crawl under the house on their bellies and work in that position until they had dug out, and lugged out, enough dirt to work on their knees, bent over. And then until they had dug a deep enough hole to squat, bent over. Then until they had dug out a pit deep enough to semi-stand, bent over. And then a crater dug deep enough to stand, bent over. All the while dragging back in logs, rocks, bricks and blocks, to shore up the aged, rotting house beams.
This went on and off, off and on, for the better part of a year. Finally, came the day when Roger had dug down deep enough to stand upright, I’ll be damned if the hole didn’t begin filling with water!
This was the first time I heard the term ‘water table’ used.
I couldn’t tell whether my mother didn’t want to tell or didn’t know how to tell my dad the “Surprise!” had sunk, because Roger kept coming around anyway. He’d clear away the leaves and re-arrange the plywood covering the entrance to the pit, along with moving around the blocks and rocks holding the plywood in place.
It appeared all was normal and Roger was taking care of business in the hole just fine.
My li'l black dad, after putting in forty to fifty hours a week at the foundry, had tired months before of digging alone, of working at all, on his week-ends off. So, as all talk of the cellar pretty much stopped, he figured he was off the hook and Roger would rather be in the hole alone anyway. He also figured Roger must like what he’s doing: he’s coming around three, four, sometimes five days a week, and my mother’s not complaining. So, everybody was happy.
They kept their little secret to themselves for some time.
Then late one afternoon, while in my room doing my homework, I overheard my mother talking on the phone to Roger. She was laying the law down. “I can’t do this anymore. He’s acting funny. I know he suspects. He’s not stupid. Well, goddamn it, if you don’t tell him I will! What’s-a-matter, lose your fucking nerve? I’m sorry, sorry, sorry! I am. I know. I do too. I will. Soon? Promise? If you do, I’ll love you forever.”
She never used language like, “love you forever”. This is how I knew she was afraid to break the news of the flood, alone, to my li'l black dad.
Well, wouldn’t you know, out of the blue, within days of that phone call, they opened Roger up, looked in, shook their heads, closed him up, and weeks later, Roger drops dead of cancer of the whatever.
My mother cried when she told my dad. I wouldn’t think a high-water table and not having a cellar would make anybody cry so much. It was clear to me she was upset because she had been so close to having what she wanted, then it was snatched away. She wanted it so bad.
Damn water table!
Oddly enough, my li’l black dad seemed to walk with a spring in his step. He even seemed chipper when he heard the news. And I know why. Obviously, he wouldn’t be digging a cellar, so he wouldn’t be missing any of his Sox games.
This was the good news.
The bad news? The water filled the hole and kept rising, not stopping until the crawl space was full, spilling over the rim of the crater. Come winter, the muddy ice rink froze, the rag-wrapped water pipes burst, and the rotted center carry beam, weakened by all the moisture, cracked.
His step was less springy, more squishy. His once chipper mood replaced by the chip on his shoulder.
“He did it, the phuck! Go ’n wreck my house. Phucker crawl up your arse, phucker want something. Shoes on the other foot, where’s the phucker now?”
“Um, he’s dead, dad.”
“Funny, boy. Real funny.”
And, the Great White Elephant now sagged in the middle.
Downstairs was the kitchen sink, and upstairs a bathroom hand sink and an old “iron-claw” tub. Sunday night was bath night. This was the only night the tub was used, and even then never ever filled, because when filled to normal the water’s weight made the old warped floorboards “pop” and “tic.” My mother was convinced one day the tub would come crashing down into the living room and we would all drown. Not to mention the luckless soul sitting on the sofa, located directly beneath the tub, would be crushed.
Getting ready for school on cool New England spring mornings, chilly falls, and bitterly cold winters, I would fill up the hand sink with hot water, fold my arms, immerse them, then plunge my face in. Not having a proper heating system in my year-round summer house, this was not so much to wash-up as it was to get warm.
“Freeze the brass off a bald monkey!” my dad would say on chilly mornings.
“Freeze the balls off a brass monkey!” he’d say in the winters deep-freeze.
I thought of this as blue-collar meteorology.
I did not have any feelings one way or another, good or bad, right or wrong, towards my friends and their Caucasian Dads. I did harbor just a little resentment though when I realized not only did all of my friends have everyday usable tubs, but their houses all came with showers.
“Dad, are we too poor to have a shower?”
“You can never be too poor, boy.”
“Then, are we broke?”
“Broke? I wouldn’t say broke, boy. Badly bent, but not broke.”
I was now positively convinced I am the son of a hardworking, well intentioned, but poor black man, because we, because my house, not only did not have a shower, we didn’t even have an everyday usable bathtub.
My dad worked, drank, followed the Red Sox, slept, and called upon a rather crude sort of child rearing. The only conversation anyone was able to get out of him was: “Shut-up, the game’s on.” “Get me another beer.” “Wake me so I can go to work.” Or, his all time signature favorite: “Pull my finger!” But somehow, thanks to baseball, thanks to the Red Sox, we bonded.
When the need arose, he was able, and did not hesitate to call on a rather unique form of dual discipline and parental affection. This ability consisted of melding the five fingers of his right hand together to create a firm flab of functional flesh. Holding the fleshy slab at an angle favoring the point of impact, he would thrust and flick. This two-part motion had a far better end all when delivered in one, smooth, fluid stroke, taking full advantage of the strikers 3-R factor: rage, reach, and random reason.
The third “R” was also known as the surprise “R” because the reason for said blow could well be a passing moment of forgotten discipline. Surprise! Or a disguised attempt at fatherly affection. Surprise! Then again it might not have anything to do with either discipline or affection but immediate availability and convenience for release of passing momentary frustration. Surprise! Such as a Red Sox loss. Surprise! Waking him two minutes too soon. Surprise! Two minutes too late. Surprise! Or a sudden “0” level beer inventory and no one of legal age available in the home at the time to accommodate the purchasing, the replenishing, of aforementioned potable spirits. Surprise!
When the Sox were on, providing no one was in the tub, I would take my older sister’s ‘spot’ on the sofa. Come game time, this was ‘my’ spot. My dad decreed it. My older sister hated us. My younger sister just fell in line and went along with whatever rules my mother and older sister made up in getting through another day with him and me. It seemed like it was them against us. This was just the way it was.
His weekends never varied. Watch Sox, drink beer, scratch privates, doze off.
He would sit in ‘his’ chair. An old, worn, black, brown, red, rust orange, blue upholstered easy chair. At the ready to his right, a metal folding tray table, holding all his worldly weekend needs. A very large, soon to be overflowing, clear glass ashtray. Three beer bottles. One empty, one full and uncapped, one half-full and in use. A metal bottle opener. Two books of matches, one unused, the other half lit. Two packs of Pall Malls®. One unopened, the other in use. Two sharpened No. 2 pencils. And a blank score sheet the old Boston Herald-Record American printed for hardcore Red Sox fans to pencil in complete games. He would score every televised game, including both games of a double-header, recording all stats, RBI’s, ERA’s, etc., with the acute proficiency of a sports analyst.
When the Red Sox got a hit, we’d grin. When they made an out, we’d nod and grunt. When they scored, we’d hoot. And when they hit a homer, I’d get him another beer. When the game ended, the last pitch thrown, the last out made, he’d wad the scorecard into a ball and attempt a strike at my head. If he missed, he’d grin. If I caught it, he’d nod and grunt. If he hit my head he’d hoot, and I’d get him more beer. Thinking back, whether he hit me, missed me, or I caught it, he still got beer. Surprise factor - zero.
We were bonding. Male bonding. The early years.