Feed on

Dad and I have long held a special rapport. According to family legend, he bore witness to the utterance of my first intelligible word. As the story goes, he was slicing up cheese for a customer's cheeseburger, and I was sitting in my high-chair looking on. After a period of time eyeballing the cheese, I'm said to have held my hand out and asked, “cheese?” Not too long after that, he said, there wasn't hardly any shutting me up.

I was a gregarious and active child, and could have been a real trial to my mom after my sister was born. Audrey suffered reflux as an infant, and would barf vehemently after every feeding. I was soon trained to fetch rags for cleanup and apparently took to it with great efficiency. But, in order to get me out of Mom's hair upon occasion, Dad would take me with him running errands. I'd sit beside him on the slippery, bouncy brown naugahyde seat of the panel truck and ask a million-zillion questions. What was the choke knob for, why was the wing window all cracked and yellow, who lived in the house we just passed, can we go play in that park (note, it was a schoolhouse with especially attractive playground equipment, but playground equipment equaled “park” in my childish mind). My chatter must have been a pretty consistent soundtrack for Dad whenever he was at home.

I was always fascinated by his work in the garage and would hang around clicking Vise-Grips open and closed, tightening and loosening hose clamps with a screwdriver, and asking endless questions about the use of various tools or the purpose of various engine parts. Hanging around the garage yielded many benefits, like getting front-row seating for any interesting test drives, and being the first to know about opportunities to ride in the back of the pickup down to the junkyard. Thus, I got to ride on the tractor when Dad was mowing around the outbuildings, on the back of his motorcycle whenever he was test-driving it after repairs, in a neighbor's convertible Triumph, after Dad rebuilt the carburetor, and in his rattle-trap 1965 Volkswagen, after he rebuilt its engine. I remember thinking that car was as fast as the wind…it certainly felt faster than Mom's Dodge Dart. Now, I know that it was the combination of the barely-dampened engine noise and the low-slung seating, and the large windows of the primitive little car that made it feel like it was hurtling along the road at perilous speed.

Poor Dad was subject to hearing my confessions and tales of woe, too, while he was working out in the garage. It started when I was about 6, traumatized by my first brush hypocrisy at Summer Vacation Bible School. We weren't churchgoers, but my mom agreed to let me go to SVBS with a neighbor girl. She'd gone with a friend when she was a kid, and remembered it being good fun, with crafts, snacks, and music. My experience was less rosy. Bible stories, read badly by a woman wearing stinky perfume, coloring pictures of Jesus handing out fish, and unsupervised playtime when a herd of children I didn't know made fun of the birthmark on my face. That was the first time I recall ever being teased about my hemangioma birthmark. Other children had asked about it before, which is natural, especially as it was quite significant when I was little, but nobody had made fun of me for it, acted grossed out, or said rude things…until then. I poured out my shock and frustration to Dad, telling him how much I hated bible school, hated the other kids, and how scandalized I was by their behavior. I was a simple child, and believed that people went to church to learn how to be good, but these kids were being as bad as they could manage. What was up with that?

He managed to console me, to convince me that those kids were just plain ignorant and didn't know anything, and not to put much value in what they said. I came back around pretty well and was able to go back to my usual outgoing ways, introducing myself to kids I didn't know, singing goofy songs, and trying to draw out shy kids, but a little core of distrust remained in me. I was a little quicker to take offense when teased, a little less likely to form fast friendships, and a lot more gunshy in the presence of organized religion.

He heard me out through my rough transition into highschool. By that age, he'd put me to work, tearing down old engines, preparing crank-and-rod sets to go to the machine shop, and cleaning up engine cases and cylinder heads prior to rebuilds. I would work and fuss, spilling about a friend who had betrayed me, the choir director's appalling musical selections, and the irritating catchphrases the boys in my class were wearing out.

Of course, as a teenaged girl, I didn't tell my Dad (or Mom, for that matter) everything. I was having pretty big troubles in highschool stemming from persistent rumors that I was queer. To be queer, or even perceived as queer in a small town in northwestern Nebraska in the early 1990s was a one-way ticked to constant torment. I was mocked loudly and openly in the halls. More than once other students got into my locker and scrawled in my notebooks and stole and hid various possessions of mine. I was assaulted by a girl in the locker room who accused me of checking her out. It was a bad, bad, bad scene. I had no fewer than three derogatory nicknames based on my putative Sapphic drives, and they were all broadly known and used. One day, this one kid, Josh, pushed things too far. He got too crude in his comments, too personal in his inquiries, got right up in my face, and I snapped. I roared out swear words and obscenities. I tried to bash him in the head with my backpack. I succeeded in planting a lumberjack boot squarely on the seat of his pants. I raised several levels of hell, right there in the school lobby, cursing Josh, and denouncing pretty much everyone around me, certainly anyone who'd engaged in badgering me those long three-plus years. After the fireworks burned out, I shoved and punched my way out of the center of the crowd that had formed around me, and locked myself in a bathroom stall, where I continued swearing, shuddering, weeping, and slamming my bag against the stall walls. Eventually the school librarian, who was the mother of one of my friends came in and talked me down, and I went on with the day. After my explosion, a lot of the kids who used to bug me stayed away out of Fear of The Crazy, though tongues still wagged. I treated it as though it had blown over, and told my parents the detention I had garnered for my swearing and violence was an enforced study hall for a poor Math grade.

About a month after my big blow-out, the story trickled back to my dad. He worked with the father of another of my friends, and heard via Derek's dad that Derek had been pretty impressed with my display of berserker bravado in the school lobby. Dad hadn't known anything about that scene, of course, and so he asked Derek's dad to elucidate. That night after he got home, he confabbed with Mom, then they came and hailed me out of my bedroom, where I'd been dubbing tapes and working on my Jonathan Swift paper. They wanted to know about the incident. Dad had enough pertinent details from Derek's dad's story to let me know that the jig was up and they wanted to know what had been going down. Over the next hour or so, I told them, as calmly as I could (which is to say hesitantly, slowly, with a great effort not to cry, though limited success in this area) about the gauntlet of torment I'd been going through since the middle of my Freshman year, the vandalism, the threats, the rumors, the insulting names, the ostracism. They drew from me the names of my chief tormenters; intelligence which I gave up most hesitatingly, knowing that it can come back to you much worse if you rat people like that off. After my story was out, Dad was livid Not with me for cussing and fighting and raising he ll, but with the school, for turning a blind eye to the bullying for over three years, with the kids who'd spearheaded the campaign of harassment, and the parents who'd allowed their children to grow up to be such unrelenting assholes. He got on the phone and started calling around to several of the families, but drew blanks…no answer, answering machine, busy signal, no answer…

The next day, on his way home from work, it occurred to him to stop by a couple of the families' houses, hoping to catch one of the parents in and have a talk with them. The first stop was the ringleader, Josh's family. His folks weren't in, but he was. Josh answered the door, and dad said Josh's eyes flew open so wide they looked ready to fall out, and his expression clearly read, “I'm in hot water.”

“I suppose you know why I'm here,” he stated

Josh allowed as how he might have an idea.

“You're going to be going off to college in the fall, aren't you?” Dad asked him.

Josh nodded.

“How would you feel about it, if I called down to Lincoln and found your roommate, gave him a warning to watch out for that Josh kid—word is he's a homo”

Apparently, Josh stated he wouldn't like that much at all.

Dad told him to think about how rumors and accusations might affect other people and put himself in the other person's position once in a while.

About a week later, Josh cornered me on the way back from track practice and offered the World's Lamest and Most Awkward apology. I didn't accept his apology—”I'm sorry” doesn't wipe away three and a half years of anxiety and insult. I was a little impressed that he could muster a tiny bit of human empathy, and I was a lot impressed that my dad was the one who had applied the shock-treatment that evoked that tentative spark of remorse in that young barbarian.

It was a little drastic, but it is dad's way.

Leave a Reply