It is a common enough American child’s memory of a father. He left the house before dawn, with coffee and a lunch packed by my mother, the rumblecrunch of his truck out of the driveway a vague sound crawling through my sleeping head, a reminder that the house was a little emptier. That same dry sound in reverse after five o’clock, preparing us for the arrival of a rough man weary after a wearing day, short of temper and long of criticism.
My father, his two brothers, my mother’s four brothers, and both of my grandfathers were union electricians. The way the union works when divvying up work among members is that there is a list. When a job finished, or when my father get laid off, he went to the bottom of the list, and the men at the top of the list were offered jobs as work comes up. As they moved from the top of the list to the bottom, his name moved up. When there was work, he quickly moved from job to job, with little downtime. When there was no work, the list moved slowly. Picture a proud blue collar man sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring, hoping it is the Union Hall with a job for a few days – or longer – and a paycheck so he can move off unemployment. Essentially, this meant that that when there was not enough work to go around, everyone got a little, and no one got enough. Often, my father would roam as a journeyman, going to other local unions within IBEW across the country to get on their lists. Long months on the road while my mother watched three children. Recently I found a letter he sent me from when he helped rewire some of the auto plants in Michigan. My father rarely wrote anything, much less letters – I treasure it, fingering his all-capital lettering until the torn notebook pages are withering, thin as onionskin. He also sent me letters from when he helped wire the baggage carousels at Colorado’s Mile high airport. I like to think of him as being part of the essential infrastructure of the country – it makes me smile.
At some point – I was too young to remember the year – times were tough enough that my proud father, the man who mistrusted the government and raised us on flinty Clint Eastwood, went to ask for government assistance. (I can only assume it was the food stamp program; my mother will not speak of it.) He was told that he could not receive help until my family lost the house and we were considered “poor enough.” You can imagine his response – back on the road, even more angry with the government, more of an absence from our home.
Likely because of these long absences, though I didn’t connect them at the time, routine was extraordinarily important to my father. He sat at the head of the dinner table we congregated around every evening between 5:30 and 6:30pm. We always ate dinner as a family at the kitchen table with the television off, the very few exceptions usually being the times when he worked out of state and was not home at all. Friday and Saturday nights we would gather around the television with snacks. My father would allow us to choose a movie to watch. Rocky, Rambo, all of the Eastwood westerns and the Dirty Harry series, Bronson’s Death Wish series, and a handful of Disney VHS movies made up our media library. These were the movies where he taught us his understanding of right and wrong, of his idea of justice, and morality, and what the role of law enforcement and government authority was (ineffectual and meddling).
My father was by nature a violent man – his favorite movies were action thrillers with gun- and fist-fighting, put his hand through windshields and walls on regular occasions, and even his foot through the television after the Raiders played particularly poorly in a playoff game. It was a running joke that every time the car in the driveway had a busted windshield, that “There was a bee in the car.”
It baffled me, then, that my father could not stomach violence against a woman on-screen, and would have to walk out of the room during scenes of rape or of a female character being beaten. I never did understand it, until my mother mentioned to me, when I was in my mid-twenties, that when he was a boy, he used to have to put his mother under a cold shower to sober her up before his father came home. And that his father came home with his fists and a fierce thirst for liquor. My father never raised a hand to any of us in anger, though his red face was enough to send us scurrying for cover, and he never drank anything stronger than beer – Budweiser if he was flush, Meisterbraü if times were lean, and Saint Pauli Girl if his brother was visiting.
My father may have put his workboot through the television when the raiders choked in the playoffs, but he also slept on the kitchen floor with our new puppy for the first week, because the poor thing cried so pitifully. He would get up in the dark of the morning, his joints creaking from sleeping on the floor, and go about his day.
This irreconcilable man was my father.
When I remember him, his work is inextricably tied into those memories: sunburned in summer from working outside, freezing and enjoying tomato soup and grilled cheese for dinner in the winter, hands chapped and red from working in the cold, whittling the casings from copper wire retrieved from a jobsite at a campfire on the beach, turning the flames green. When my father cut himself on a stray piece of wire or jagged poke of metal, he didn’t use bandaids for his wounds. He bound his injuries with black electrical tape, despite my mother’s cries that this was not sterile. He would roughly tell her that he knew that, but the tape allowed him to continue to bend and flex his hands as he needed to so he could get wiring right and use his tools without him bleeding all over the place and hindering the progress of his work. Surprisingly, I can’t remember the constant scrapes and deep cuts from wire on his hands ever getting infected. It is likely that the germs knew better than to try.
What I do remember is the day my mother picked me up from school after the sixth grade trip to see the Statue of Liberty. She told me quietly, “Daddy got hurt at work.” After the initial stomach-drop, she explained that he was fine, but that he had been pretty banged up, and had a lot of stitches on his face. “It will upset him if you get upset or act scared, so please prepare yourself,” I remember her saying. It wasn’t enough. My father had caught the full force of a traffic light in the face, when it snapped back into place after being pulled out of the way so that he could work on the wiring up in the bucket truck. The metal awning over the traffic light, which jutted out like the bill of a baseball cap, caught him in the face. He had two black eyes, a great stitched gash over one eye, his face had been split from the side of his nose to the lip, and there were rows of other stitches in the swollen patchwork of his face.
There is no way to prepare a child for that sort of encounter, much as you may try. My father looked like Frankenstein, face swollen, ugly black threads stiff and prickling from his face. I carefully moved close to kiss an unhurt scrap of face, and came away smelling of A&D ointment. I must have looked stricken, because he said, “It’s all right, kid, I’m fine.” And he was, though I would later overhear my mother telling her friend that the plastic surgeons had said two inches to the right and it would have sliced his throat; an inch to the left and he would have lost his eye. I held my tears until all the lights were out, and my parents were in their bedroom across the house. I cried into our yellow lab’s fur, drenching Buffy with my first understanding of what it might be like to lose a parent, to have them horribly damaged before you were ready to let go of them. I hated my father’s job after that, and I hated that I contributed to his need to work at it with my need for clothes, shoes, and food. And I hated my father for working that job instead of in a nice, safe office.
That incident was likely the worst of his injuries, though there were others, like the time his hand slipped and he pulverized it with a sledgehammer. He dropped to the ground in silence, kicking his legs so that his body turned in circles like a stilted breakdancer. The foreman on the job laughed and asked if he was wrestling a squirrel. He never cried out in pain, and was always proud of that silence.
The traffic-light-to-the-face incident did not prevent my father from getting back up there and doing his job as soon as he was able, though I cannot decide if this was his natural stubborn refusal to submit, or the simple need for a paycheck. Summers, he would sometimes bring the bucket truck home and drive it back to the jobsite in the morning. In the dusk, or sunny weekends, he would give us rides in it, all the way up in the driveway to touch our neighbor’s massively tall tree. Afraid of heights, I was not interested. When I declined, I was called coward and chicken and told to get your ass in there, and he sent me snuffling up into the sky. I wish I had paid more attention; I might be able to recollect the feeling of it, and imagine how it must have been for him. But the bucket swings to adjust to your body weight as you move upward, and it pitched with every motion I made. I was gripped with terror. I remember height, the treacherous swing of the bucket, and sunlight through leaves close to my face in the brief moment I opened my eyes.
This immersion-in-fear technique was also used to get me to learn how to swim by shoving me off the high dive when I was too scared to jump, and to ride a bike, by simply pushing me forward when my tentative initial attempts were pitiful and wobbly. This resulted in my mother’s disgust at my fifth grade class picture, in which I sported a huge scrape on my chin resembling a generous dollop of raspberry jam. I am thirty years old, and have yet only mastered the dog paddle, still suffer a debilitating fear of heights, and refuse to ride anything but a stationary bicycle due to my poor balance. My cerebral learning style did not correspond well to my father’s physical teaching techniques, for the most part.
I am ashamed now to admit that I wanted no part of my parents’ sort of life. It looked like the worst kind of drudgery – the same day, every day, scraping to get by, carefully budgeting, my mother often living without her husband, both of them sublimating their lives and dreams to provide for my brother, my sister and myself. My father had wanted to be a chef. My mother had been in school to be a nurse. The result of their staying three miles from where they grew up, marrying and having a family horrified me. I went to college in a place as far from home on Long Island as I could imagine: Kentucky. I rarely called home, caught up in building an identity and a life that had nothing to do with my roots. At a small, private liberal arts college, I was one of only a handful of students who had jobs in town, and in that land of lawyers’ sons and debutante’s daughters, I felt every quilted stitch of the working class life I came from. When I decided to stay on campus for the summers to work, since it was cheaper than flying home, looking for a job, and flying back, my father believed I thought myself too good to come home. “What, too good for us now? Too big for your britches is what you are!” he yelled into the phone. I heard my mother holler back that they had raised us to be independent and learn to work, and wasn’t that what I was doing?
I brought a boyfriend home to New York for a family wedding, biting my lip the entire time. He was everything my father wasn’t – son of white collar parents, he wore a button-down shirt every day, and never, ever wore jeans. Even worse, he was a Republican. I prayed they didn’t get the chance to discuss politics. The boy sang opera, attended a Pentecostal church, and came from old money. Imagine my surprise when instead of the envisioned disaster, they spent all night making a beer can pyramid on the barbecue. I was shocked. Surprisingly, it was my mother who disliked the boy. In the way that mothers are often right about the most important things, I later found out she was right about his character. But my father liked him quite a bit. I went back to college with something more of a blessing after that.
I took to higher education well, and my academic success in high school continued through college. I planned to go to graduate school and get my PhD in political science, and become a professor. While I was at Emory University, my mother informed me that my father had some issues and they were working on it. It took her until I went home to New York for minor surgery to tell me that his issue was a cocaine habit that had destroyed their savings, kept him up nights, and resulted in her kicking him out of the house. He attacked her and my siblings, the police were called, a restraining order was issued, and my family as I knew it was never the same. Look at that: a paltry two sentences to destroy the fabric of a person’s reality, of a life, and make them question their own history.
Even chewing on this some five years later, two thoughts come. First, how does one move from drinking beer (admittedly a case every two days, likely the rate a functioning alcoholic) to snorting coke off of a bar a few blocks from home? I have no answer to this, other than to point at the family history of substance abuse on my father’s side and the generous application of beer to any issue by electricians at large. I still find this an impossible leap for a man so dedicated to providing for his family. Second, how do I reconcile all those years, all those lessons on hard work, the man I knew as my father, with the skeleton I saw a few months after the disintegration who was arrested for stealing a six-pack from a 7-Eleven, and then again arrested for possession of crack cocaine on a New York City street corner? I have no answer to this at all, other than to acknowledge that the lessons of hard work I was taught by the man my father used to be have served me well. If I saw him, I would ask him, but I have not seen my father in over four years.
As for myself, I finished college, and went on to graduate school. I hold multiple master’s degrees, and I work indoors with heat or air-conditioning, depending on the season. I am a middle manager in an academic library. I wear nice shoes to work, and it rarely rains in the bookstacks. My life looks nothing like my parents’ – at my age, they were married with three children and a mortgaged house, while I remain single, the biggest drain on my resources my basset hound, Otto. When an appliance breaks in my apartment, I call a guy who calls a guy to come fix it at no cost to me. My free time is my own, and instead of chasing toddlers with sticky faces, I write poetry.
I no longer have to work multiple jobs, though I will never be able to scrape the smell of hamburger grease from beneath my pores from those college summers, and I cannot wear food-scented perfumes because it reminds me of my years scooping ice cream for a paycheck. And every time I pass a man working high in a bucket truck, or construction workers blistering in the sun, or electricians working in a half-finished building collecting snow on their Carhartts, I remember my father with a pang of guilt. I wonder if that man has growing daughters. I wonder if they have ever seen him come home a bloody mess from a job that pays too little, too seldom. I wonder if he will wait until his children are grown before having the breakdown that will sever him completely from the people who loved him best, volatility and all.
I wonder, if I asked him, if he might know my father.