Dad was strong and resolute, he was an honest man; he had presence. He was known far and near as a man of his word and someone who could be trusted. He was the “Big John” from Jimmy Dean’s song; Big Bad John. “Every morning at the mine you could see him arrive. He stood 6’6″ and weighed 285.” That was just who he was.
Tall, straight, barrel chested and proud; he stood 6 feet 5 inches and weighed 285 pounds. He had hair but he was beginning to go bald. He would grow the hair on the side of his head very long so he could comb it over the top and make it seem as if there was actually hair on top of his head. His hair never did turn white or gray; he may have lost some, but what he had left was as black as it was the day it first grew from his head.
Dad usually had a two or three day growth of facial hair. This was well before it became fashionable to do so. He really didn’t see a need to shave any more than once every three or four days. His beard was very harsh and thick; like little needles sticking out of his face. He would use that to his advantage when it came time to tickle, or irritate, us kids. A beard rub from him could actually leave red marks, and did.
When it was time to get cleaned up though, he would go the distance. For shaving he used a straight razor just because he liked it. He had a razor strap hanging off the wall and an old soap mug and brush. He was an artist with his straight razor. He could craft the finest Clark Gable mustache you’d ever want to see. Dad had a strong, square jaw and when it was shaved clean it only emphasized that fancy little mustache.
For everyday activities Dad wore the Sears brand, green work clothes. He would wear the same ones every day until Mom couldn’t stand it any longer. She would snatch them when he was sleeping and wash them good. He would get upset at first but it was clear he really did appreciate it.
The clearest memory I have of Dad has him sporting a two or three day beard, he’s sitting in his wooden rocking chair and he has his green Sears work shirt on. The shirt pocket is filled with pens and pencils, miscellaneous papers and his round can of Skoal, wintergreen chewing tobacco. His bottom lip is full of Skoal and he has an empty lard can on the floor beside him that he uses as a spittoon.
There is one thing missing from that description. It is something that is so memorable about Dad and at the same time so irritating to Mom. He would feel most comfortable sitting there in just his boxer shorts and Sears work shirt. He was close to 70 years old and he felt he had earned the right to wear, or not wear, what he wanted to, in his own house, when he wanted.
Dad was a presence; he was the atmosphere, my whole world. He was always there and he was everywhere. I can remember him back as far as perhaps when I was three or four years old. I can remember Mom from back that far as well but I seem to have earlier memories of Dad. He permeated the house, my life and my very existence.
From a very early age I developed a respect and admiration for Dad that would swell the heart of any little boy. He didn’t speak much; he didn’t have to. He was a justice of the Peace for our rural area and he carried his responsibility seriously. I can remember a man trying to explain that he had bought a car for only a few dollars. The less he paid for the car the less he would have to pay in sales tax. Dad just stood up looked out the window and asked the man “How much?” The man crumbled. He told the truth because Dad expected it. That’s the effect Dad usually had on people.
Feelings of gratitude and pride would overwhelm me when I realized this man’s man was allowing me to spend time with him. Not only allow, but he wanted me to be with him. He didn’t hug me, or love on me, or sugar coat me. But to remember his strong hand clamping down on my shoulder to steer me in the right direction, away from the street, or his arm slapping against my chest to make sure I didn’t fall forward, as he slammed on the brakes. That’s how Dad expressed his concern. Then he would smile, chuckle a little bit and say something calming like “You OK bub?” He always gave so much to everybody. Everyone, including myself, gave back so little.
Dad was 60 years old when I was born. I see his face yet today in my dreams. I associate him closely with his bedroom because I spent so much time there with him. When I visited I would sleep with him so I remember that time very well. His nighttime reading light was always on and the pages of his paperback western novel would flutter softly as he turned them to continue reading. His face was the face of strength and security, not Mom. Before the divorce, my memories revolved around my Dad and because of that, visiting with him meant the world to me.
In my mind, my Dad was born 60 years old! That’s the age I will always remember him. His face was creased with laugh lines. His eyes twinkled with mischief and his deep laugh filled the air like balloons. He walked in the room and everyone paid attention.
Though older, he was ageless. Energetic and vibrant, he was a force to be reckoned with. He seemed to know every answer before the question was asked. When I would falter just his presence and his expectations would be enough to stand me back on my feet. He would encourage me simply by being there. Without saying a word he could set me back on the right path.
When I was ten years old, Mom would let me go to the farm and spend overnight time with Dad. My favorite place in his house was his bedroom and his tall bed. Three individual mattresses piled high on top of one box spring made his bed very special!
The aromas of Old Spice cologne and Wintergreen Copenhagen filled my head whenever I stepped into his room. I anxiously waited time for bed because I got to climb up onto the three mattress high, single bed and scoot way over to the edge, right next to the cold wall. I would keep my eyes on him as he readied himself for the evening.
When he would get in bed, he’d turn the headboard light on and slip on his one-lens glasses. He had a well-worn pair of full-framed reading glasses that he kept right by the bed. The glasses only had one lens though. He would say that he only had trouble with one eye so he only needed one lens.
His favorite glasses only had one stem to go over his ears too. It was a sight when he’d wear them. On the side without a stem he had a string attached, which he would wrap around his ear to support the frames. He would keep his glasses on all night, even when he fell asleep. His reading light would stay on all night too. He never knew when he might wake up and start reading all over again; he wanted to be ready.
Dad really didn’t want for much, what he had was good enough for him. He did keep things supplied though. He had two drawers in the bottom of his refrigerator; one was filled with cookies and the other was filled with lunchmeat; one could depend on that. If you went to Dad’s you could always have a lunchmeat sandwich and chase it with a handful of cookies.
For a treat he would make up a pot of white beans and ham. He would wait as they sat in the refrigerator congealing. When they got cold and thick he would make bean sandwiches with them. Two thick slabs of soft white bread lathered with real butter then caked with thick gooey beans. Now that was real man food! I had many a cold bean sandwich with my Dad and they were great.
I tend to favor Dad over Mom. I insisted on living with Mom after the divorce but I could hardly wait to get to Dad’s. He had a garden with sweet corn and tomatoes, chickens for eggs and an occasional chicken dinner, and grapes and apple trees for country fruit. He kept a large patch of rhubarb for pies or just for chewing on. He had huge lilac bushes for aromas and hidden secret places to play in. All in all, Dad, being on a fixed income from social security, really didn’t have anything. But he gave of what he had and that was more than enough for this little boy.