Childhood memories are almost indelible, aren’t they? I can remember lying in the floorboard of our black 1951 Plymouth, sleeping cozily on the left side of the hump that ran thru to the backseats; the hum of the engine and surrounding warmth enveloping me. Our family had, no doubt, been out late somewhere, and my youthful drowsiness had taken over.
No seatbelts back then, of course. And no air conditioning either.
During the school year, when the weather got hot, the teacher would take a long pole with a special hook on the end, and open the ceiling-high set of windows that were on the outside wall of the classroom. People still cooled themselves by sitting on porches in those days. And the slap of a slamming screen door (with a wooden frame) closing was a familiar sound. When it was really warm we employed an old box fan to move the air about (the hum of that fan still lingers in my memory).
At night we would sit out on “the green porch” (as we called it, even after Dad repainted it grey), look up at the stars, and drink in the smells of flowers, grass, and the night itself. My brother and I would watch for satellites overhead, noting their slow march across the night sky. It was a magical time.
My father was a moody individual, burdened with his 3 PM to 11 PM shift at the post office, and the many concerns that go along with providing for a family of four in the 1950s. But sometimes, on the porch at night (if he was off work) we could get him to talking; then his jovial spirit emerged and we reveled in the opportunity to enjoy his playfulness . . . until the cares of his life once more took it away.
He would often quote lines of poetry (Poe’s, The Raven, was a favorite of his), or the Bible (he helped me memorize 1 Corinthians 13 that way), or just relax with me in his lap. Temporarily, of course. Because I was a young boy, full of energy, and not likely to sit in one place for long.
But the ultimate memory of good times with Dad has to be our night rides in the car. I’m not talking about going to the grocery, or visiting a neighbor across town; rather, our long road trips. Particularly those we took after we moved to Tucson, Arizona in the summer of 1963. Dad traded in the old 51 Plymouth and bought a brand new 1963 Plymouth Fury (push button automatic). Now that was some car.
Still no air conditioning, mind you! That wouldn’t become common for some time. And so, to avoid the daytime summer heat we would travel at night into the wee hours of the morning. And it was these times that are stamped indelibly in my mind.
My mother would change places with me at night time; she and my older brother would fall asleep in the backseat. That left me and Dad up front to “man the ship” (so to speak). It was in these times that we would SING!
My father had a lovely voice. Basso profundo (low bass). He could sing a B flat below low C (a half step lower than the famous Ezio Pinza, Dad would sometimes remind me). This is where I learned to harmonize, I guess. Dad would sing “Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes” and I would fumble around trying to find some higher notes that would sound good with his notes. Then I would launch out into a popular song (on the radio in those days) like “Cotton Fields Back Home” and off we would go.
Invariably I would ask Dad to sing “Asleep in the Deep” because I loved to hear his low bass voice go downward and downward with the ending phrase “So – o, beware. Be – ee -ee – ee – ware.”
It was during these times that Dad would sometimes rehearse for me his “stories.”
- The nurse in the hospital who mistakenly sent my teenage Dad a love letter directed to her fiancée, while Dad was recovering from a tonsillectomy. By the way, her fiancée got the get well card meant for Dad.
- Or the time when he was in the war, carrying the top secret Norden Bomb Site, and had to draw his 45 caliber pistol on the guard who resisted letting Dad see the “officer of the day.” Dad told me he had orders to kill anyone who tried to defeat his mission.
- Sometimes he would tell me about his older brother, the fights they had, and how his Swedish father would bring home razor strops to discipline them with; he would hang them beside the wood burning stove in the kitchen, but Dad’s brother would burn them in that same stove.
- One night a man was trying to break in their front door. Dad’s mother went and got a pistol, but Dad’s brother got a baseball bat and stood beside the doorway. Then Dad opened the door real fast and his brother smacked the intruder. No gun was needed that night.
- One day, while Dad was shouldering a 100 pound block of ice in the ice plant in Chattanooga, he struck a direct current electric cable overhead and was instantly immobilized by the electricity; another worker had to come along and knock him off of it with a 2×4.
Church hymns would make up our duet repertoire long into the night, until I fell so sleepy I could no longer continue. I’ve never thought about it before, but . . . I wonder what Dad thought of after all the rest of us were fast asleep. When he alone was left to safely traverse the open road.
These and many other memories I hold sacred now. Truthfully, I always have. Even when Dad was alive. Probably because they allowed me to see the boy and the man behind the gruff exterior, the often furrowed brow, the troubled-with-the-weight-of-the-world demeanor that so often possessed him.
My father is at peace now. No concerns are pressing on him anymore. He is free. And I hope that one day . . . we can sing together again. As he used to say, that would be a “delight.”
I can see him just now in my memory, gripping the steering wheel of our 1963 Plymouth Fury, . . . rearing back his blond head, opening his mouth, and singing:
Oh, Wing Tee Wee was a sweet Chinee, and she lived in the town of Tac.
Her eyes were blue, and her curling queue, hung dangling down her back . . . .