Before anyone knew about my trouble, my dad was the person I most feared facing. I was scared of how it would disgrace our family but mostly I was scared of his anger and what he would think of me because it crushed me when I got on the wrong side of Dad.
I didn’t particularly like hanging around home when I was a teen. Most kids are like that, but our house gradually took on an air of gloom after Mom got sick. She was in and out of the hospital with side effects from the drugs she took for her rheumatoid arthritis and my brother Jeff had gone away to college. Sometimes it was just me and Dad at the dinner table. There was a code of acceptable conversation; if you had a good score on a test or got some kind of an award, that brought nods of enthusiastic approval, but if you were worried about a big paper coming up, or didn’t feel so hot, or were sad, you would hold that to yourself. I don’t think Dad’s radar picked up on emotional needs. If you accidentally steered the conversation in the direction of negative feelings, Dad’s lips would get thin and you knew you had struck a wrong note.
Dad’s emotional makeup had two extremes. On the one end he was jovial and excited– the life of the party. If friends dropped by he would spurt with genuine exuberance and make a fuss; asking mom to set an extra place at the table, saying how good it was to see you. He had a way of swelling you up like a puff bird.
On the other end, he had a fiery temper. When something set him off, his body stiffened and his face got red and rigid. His voice could shatter glass. I never knew what was coming when his anger flared, but to me, it had the ominous potential of a hairline crack in a river dam. When I was very small he took me over his knee and spanked my bareness. I don’t know what nasty thing I did to invoke this treatment but it might have been the time I pocketed some candy from the drug store. He didn’t hit me after I was school aged. This was the ‘spare the rod spoil the child era’ and parents thought it was their duty to give a whipping to keep us in line. I tried desperately to refrain from invoking Dad’s anger. The best way to do that was to do what I was told. During most of my young years I succeeded, but as a teen I veered off into combustible territory.
Mom and Dad had some bombastic fights that shook the marrow in my bones. Maybe it’s just a natural reaction or maybe I’m special, but I still quiver inside when someone around me yells or spouts anger directed at me. My words get stuck in my throat. If I talk the tears flow, so I hold it in. Then my silence makes me feel invisible, insignificant. This happens infrequently nowadays because most of the people around me control their anger or maybe it’s because I don’t piss them off as much.
My dad was over six feet tall and although he had a pot belly, his legs were quite thin, but you didn’t see that because he wore khaki pants that hung tight at the waist and then loose from there on down. Also, the commonly seen rounded buttocks that serves as a trouser stabilizer was absent in Dad. His body shape proved to be a hazard. I remember him working in the garage with both hands occupied when the pants would go. Like a roller coaster rounding the top, there was no turning back. He’d puff out, ‘sonofabitch’, stop what he was doing and with disgust, yank the khaki’s back up to cover his exposed boxers and beanpole legs. In his later life, suspenders saved Dad from this pesky embarrassment.
I found the pants falling amusing because in most areas Dad dripped with dignity and charisma. He could light up any party with his joke telling; a Pied Piper of sorts. His charismatic skills worked for him in business, at social events, and on the lake. He could charm a northern pike right onto his hook while others in the same boat were just swatting flies.