It was an earlier time, many decades ago, when the love between my father and I first appeared. My parents had ended their dysfunctional marriage, leaving my older brother, Keith, to live with our father while I was sent away with my mother and a dog named Nippy. Keith was 13 and I was 7. I was later told that Keith and I had to be separated; he did bad things to me.
Two months later, after the spring plow and the crops had been planted, I returned to the two-story farmhouse for a one-week visit with Keith and my father. On this summer day, my grandfather and mother were in the front seat of his 1951 Chevy while I peered over the back seat looking for the house where I had spent my earlier years. No sooner had we turned off highway 16 and headed north on the DeLand blacktop than I saw my father driving our way. The two cars pulled over to the side of the road and stopped. I cautiously stepped out of the car while my grandfather opened the trunk of his car and, without looking up, quietly passed the suitcase to my father. There was no, “How are you doing?” “Think it will rain?” “Your beans look good.” in the exchange. My mother opened her door, stood up, and faced my father. The car stood between the two of them. “We’ll be back in a week to pick him up,” she said.
“I’ll have him ready,” my father replied.
As we drove to the farm, I wondered what was next. My father and I had never spent much time together. He was either working in the fields or nowhere to be found. We turned right on the lane leading to the house which sported a chilling look on a 90 degree day. The front screen door swung open and slammed shut as Keith swaggered across the porch, stood at the edge, looked to the left, to the right, and focused his eyes on me. Fear surged through me, causing me to wonder if coming here was a mistake. Without speaking, Keith conveyed the feeling that this was his house and that I was not welcome.
While my father and I walked up the steps, I latched onto my father’s right hip, keeping my father between Keith and I. While Keith never said a word, his eyes made contact with mine. After dropping the suitcase, my father said, “Hey, Larry, how about you and me go to town for a cold bottle of soda pop?” It all seemed so strange, since I didn’t remember being asked before. Keith was the one my father took to town. But this time, Keith stayed home.
We climbed into the pickup and headed south toward the local bar and grill. My right arm hung out the window as the wind blew hard against my skin causing the tiny hairs to stand upward. Minutes later we arrived at the bar and grill where farmers hung out when it was raining or the crops were all in, or to watch the winter months pass by. There was a long bar with several stools that swiveled each time a butt moved from side to side. Dad rested his feet on a long silver pipe at the base of the bar. Mine hung in the air like Monday’s wash. Behind us were a few booths with bright-red plastic seats and silver-gray tabletops spotted with the occasional cigarette burns. My father ordered a tall, dark bottle of beer and a half-frozen bottle of Coke for me. Sitting next to the Coke was a saucer holding two cake donuts covered with white powdered sugar that stuck to my lips each time I took a bite. Men stopped by the table to talk with my Dad about the need for a slow-summer rain, his stock car racing last Friday night, and asked if this was his boy. My father drove in stock-car races at the fairgrounds on Friday nights. He knew how to drive a car fast, especially around the corners.
Sue, the woman my Dad was dating, was a waitresses at the bar and grill. She dried off her wet hands with a dish towel and walked our way. She was a good ten years younger than my father and, unlike my mother, brought an excitement to a conversation even if it was meant just to pass the time of day. Sue was of the opinion that there was more to life than cooking, sewing, and doing the chores. It was no secret that my father liked her.
“This is Larry, my younger boy,” my father said as he looked my way. Sue commented on how cute I was, and how I looked like my father. All I could managed was a “hi” and my biggest smile while I swung side to side on the metal stool. Sue had an easiness about her; the way she moved, her soft but steady voice, and the way she looked at me, not passed me. She had rich auburn hair, soft eyes, and a shapely figure. It was obvious why a man would be taken by her. My father and Sue talked in near-whispered tones like most couples do. I turned, listened to the farmers laugh, and watched them drink coffee and then sit back and take deep pulls from their cigarettes. Tall tales, politics, and farming consumed their conversation.
On this particular day, or any day for that matter, a farmer might have talked about the long winter months and how he looked forward to the spring plow. The tractor seemed rested, he probably said, when he drove into the field pulling a four-bottom plow. He drew back the hydraulic lever, steel blades cut in the rich, black soil; just the right amount of moisture, not so wet as to be like mud, or so dry as to be like cement. The temperature was 70 degrees with a slight southwesterly breeze coming in at 10 miles per hour. Looking over his shoulder, he saw the soil turn and churn like freshly kneaded bread. Worms awoke from their long winter’s nap, and robins flew down from the sky, looking to be fed. The aroma of freshly turned soil mixed with gasoline fumes, and the puffs of smoke exhaled when the tractor pulled through a patch of wet soil, produced scents of spring. Taking another sip of coffee, the farmer probably gazed out the window with a smile across his face. “That’s when life is pretty much near perfect,” he said.
Decades later, I remember the one-week visit with my father, a time like no other I ever recalled. Maybe it was an illusion, a hint of how life should be between a father and his son. It remains as my most treasured memory, that one-week visit when life was pretty much near perfect, the day my father loved me.
A few months later when my mother and I were living with my grandparents and I was returning from school, my grandmother and mother were sitting at the kitchen table, gripping their coffee cups hard. Whispered words stopped as I entered the room. My mother rose from the table and led me into the bedroom. “Keith and your father were in a car wreck,” she said. “They were going to the Illinois state fair. Your father was driving fast and ran into a truck pulling a horse trailer. Your father and Keith were both killed but they didn’t feel a thing.”