My dad was a man of many talents. Aside from being a hard-working father helping to raise five unruly kids, my dad could do a little bit of everything. I think it’s because he had to learn to do things on his own. We grew our own food and raised our own animals for slaughter when I was a kid. My dad knew a little bit about carpentry, masonry, electrical work and plumbing. When my sister came screaming from the outhouse after seeing a snake there, vowing never to return, my father set my brother and I to dig a pit while he went off to buy cinderblocks, pipe and a toilet. We had our first indoor bathroom in a single day.
My dad could fix things around the house, albeit unconventionally. He really wasn’t mechanically inclined, but he could fix things with a nail or a screw or a bit of duct tape. Being a draftsman, he could draw a little bit, mostly sketches. He played a little piano and loved telling jokes.
He had a quick wit. One day, frustrated by my inability to participate in many of the things my older brother did like hunting trips or sporting events, I asked my father when I would be old enough to do whatever I wanted. “Nobody lives that long,” he told me without cracking a smile.
My father was also full of malapropisms, but we never knew if he was kidding. If we let the screen door swing shut with a loud bang, he might say “Come back here and learn how to slam that door.” He might refer to someone as a “rich millionaire” or someone else as a “not so smart dummy” or someone as a “drunk wino.”
My mom used to say, “That’s your dad. Head of the redundancy department of redundancy.” I never knew what that meant until years later.
He loved telling stupid jokes. My dad had learned a bunch of Pollak jokes in the navy, but later on, he changed the roles of the Polish gentlemen to Mexicans. It just seemed funnier to him. He told me about the two Mexicans who find a good fishing hole and in order to mark the spot, they put an “X” on the boat. His favorite, however, was the Black man, the Texan and the Mexican who are standing at the pearly gates.
“Hold on there,” say St. Peter, “You can’t just waltz in here. There’s a test.”
“A test?” the men ask in unison.
“That’s right,” St Peter says. He turns to the Black man and says “Spell…..cat.”
“Wow,” the guy says, “C-A-T”
“Welcome to heaven,” says St. Peter. He turns to the Texan. “Spell…..dog.”
“That’s easy,” the Texan says, “D-A-W-G.”
“Close enough,” says St. Peter. “Welcome to heaven.” St. Peter then turns to the Mexican and says “Spell Czechoslovakia.”
My dad told jokes every chance he got. “Everything’s a joke to you,” my mom used to tell him, but my dad knew the value of laughter.
He dragged me to a Boy Scout meeting on my eleventh birthday and made me join, but he joined the troop as well. Every Thursday we would jump in the truck and drive down to the American Legion Post 69 where the meetings were held. There the senior scouts would conduct the meeting while the men would have a beer at the post bar. Win, win.
We went camping with the scout troop once a month and the men would always bring along a case of beer to help ease the pain of wrangling twenty hyperactive boys. After a few beers, my dad might hold down one of the kids and scratch the kids face with his sandpaper beard stubble. It was almost a rite of passage in our troop.
After one campout, one of the new scouts told his mother that the men were drinking beer during the camping trip and she called my father, the Assistant Scoutmaster to complain. “I don’t see your husband here every Thursday helping out with these kids,” he told her. The next meeting, there was thoroughly chastised Mr. Shaw accompanying his stepson. As the meeting went on, Mr. Shaw began to loosen up. He stayed with us as an Assistant Scoutmaster for years, was able to form a solid bond with his stepson and really developed some friendships with the other men.
My dad liked to stay busy. Every weekend, he would call me up and ask what I was doing and if I said “nothing,” he would say “Great! I’m building a fence,” or some such nonsense and I would have to spend my Saturday helping my dad build, plant, remove or improve something on his house. I had bought a new house, my first ever and had been in it less than a week when my dad called.
“What are you doing today?” he asked.
“Um….I’m actually going to do some landscaping in the front yard,” I said not wanting to work my Saturday away yet again.
“Great,” came the reply. “I don’t have anything to do. I’ll be right down.” An hour later my dad showed up, a dump truck full of gravel in tow and a couple of shovels and a wheelbarrow in the back of his truck.
As my father aged, he became less and less the superman that I admired. He could no longer split wood or wield a chainsaw with one hand. We couldn’t hike as far as we once had, climbing to the top of the Sangre de Cristos to camp at lake Katheryn. In later years when he would go camping with his grandchildren, he did so in a comfy camper with a little, blue fuzzy pillow for his head and every sort of camping gear to make things more civilized.
When my dad turned 71, he began to have problems and pain. After a time, they discovered he had liver cancer. The plan was to cut him open, tie a thread around the cancerous part of the liver denying it of blood and oxygen and then later, go in and remove the affected portion. By the time they got approval from Medicare and scheduled the operation, the cancer had spread. It was too late for my dad. They stapled him back together and told him he had less than a year to live.
My dad was back on his feet in no time. The scar on his abdomen was huge and he delighted in showing it to the grandkids. He resumed his camping schedule, going to basketball and football games.
I was working for the big sports radio station in town and we hosted a tailgate that featured a huge grill, free beer and prizes. It was by invitation only and every home game my dad would show up with a half a dozen of his cronies telling them that I was a big shot at the radio station and that they would all be my guests. He was proud of me and always managed to make me out to be more than I was. He liked mingling with the sort-of famous people like the local announcer for the games, on air personalities and sports figures. They all treated him with respect.
A week before Father’s Day in 1998, my dad decided I needed new boots and he took me to the mall to shop for some. It was a little embarrassing for me, a forty-two-year-old man shopping for shoes with his dad, but he wanted to do something nice for me and he had always told me as a kid, if someone wants to do something nice for you, you let them. That’s your gift to them. It had been six months after his operation and he was in rare form, telling jokes, making plans and generally feeling great about his life.
“I guess you’re not going to die, then,” I said to him.
“Guess not,” he said.
With the yard freshly landscaped and Father’s Day a week away, I planned a barbeque. I borrowed the big radio station tent that we used for home game tailgates, bought a small grill and a bunch of food. I bought him all new camping equipment and invited my entire family. We were going to give my dad the best Father’s Day ever. As I was setting up the tent and firing up the charcoal for the grill, my mom called. “Your dad’s in the hospital.”
He had been giving his grandson a ride to work when he had mistakenly tried to make a left turn across the median. His car ended up high centered and tuck there. It might have just been a mistake or maybe something inside of him caused him to lose consciousness, but when the cops came to investigate the minor incident, they could see he was in pain and sent him to the hospital by ambulance.
The next week was grim. My dad’s cancer had finally overtaken him. None of us kids understood. He didn’t seem sick. Had he been in pain all this time? If he was, he never let it show. They brought him home a couple of days later and brought in hospice nurses to see to his care. All of his kids took turns sitting with him as a string of old friends dropped by. “You know you’re going to die when people you haven’t seen in thirty year come to say hello,” he told me with a smile.
“I thought you weren’t going to die,” I said, reminding him of our conversation.
“Neither did I,” he laughed.
A couple of days later, they moved him to hospice. Once again, all of his kids, except for my brother, the oldest, came by to sit with him. “I don’t want to remember my dad as a sick old man,” he told me. I agreed. It all seemed so sudden.
The last time I saw my dad, he was lying in bed, just sort of staring out the window. My sister had put a rosary in his hand and placed a sacred scapular around his neck. His breathing was starting to become labored, but he was still smiling. Not wanting to show my sadness and not really knowing what to say I asked “What are you doing.”
“Learning to spell Czechoslovakia,” he said. That was my dad in a nutshell.
Copyright 2021 by Jose Antonio Ponce