©2014 By Bob Litton
Whenever anyone, usually a stranger, wishes me a “Happy Fathers’ Day”, I feel just a wee bit guilty. But I do not feel much guilt, because it’s a day it seems that many people do not pay much attention to, not like they do Mother’s Day anyway. Also, I have read many accounts of famous persons, especially of literary and theater notables, whose fathers deserted their families or abused them.
However, I am of the old school who believe that fathers who remain and perform their paternal duties, particularly as positive role models, at least tolerably well are beneficial to society as a whole. For, as much as we might hate this world and dread the endless oncoming catastrophes, we need well-developed, intelligent leaders to help us cope with it all. The logical conclusion to that dilemmatic condition is that children must be generated to grow into those leadership roles as well as into the hardy followership roles.
I have never been married, never fathered children. Therefore, I have not done my duty. Most of my life that lack has not bothered me, although there was a brief period, in my fifties, when I felt a strong paternal instinct driving me to ask a couple of young ladies to give me a baby: they refused.
I sincerely doubt, though, that I would have been a good father. The requisite qualities are absent from my genes; as attested to by my own father, who must have been warped by his own impoverished childhood. He reportedly never attended school beyond the second grade; yet he nonetheless read a lot as an adult, the only part of his life when I knew him.
What did he do? He painted signs for many years, built at least one house, worked on the Dallas Ford plant assembly line, and managed a small night club for a while. In his late years he sold mail order shoes and fireworks, operated a small hamburger joint, and played at being a night watchman at one of the large Dallas banks. He also gambled and hustled rich women, I was told.
He kept several chicken coops in the yard behind our apartment. One interesting aspect of this enterprise of his, that I did not learn about until Internet search engines came along, was that the day-to-day problem of chickens pecking at each other’s butts spurred him into inventing an “anti-picking device”. That was the way he spelled it on his patent application in 1944, granted in 1946; I think he meant “anti-pecking device”, but don’t forget: he never got beyond second grade. Here, for any who might be curious enough, is the URL for that patent: http://www.google.com/patents/US2398316.
For many years he dressed like a dandy whenever the opportunity to do so occurred. He was tall and slender, had an aquiline nose, and intensely dark brown eyes (which my two brothers and I inherited). I have a black-and-white portrait photo of him dressed in a dark, double-breasted suit with a handkerchief stuck in the breast pocket, and a dark fedora: a regular “man-about-town”. However, late in life, during the “hippie” era, he let his hair grow out a small way and fastened it at the back of his head with a rubber band.
Since my parents divorced when I was still a toddler — due mostly to Pappy’s philandering, although I think his slaps also had something to do with it — I never got to know him as well as “normal” children come to know their fathers. He would come over to the small duplex apartment where Mother and I lived and play pitch with me; he even bought me a fielder’s glove, which was a disappointment to me because I would have preferred a first baseman’s glove, which has the finger parts connected, but I never expressed my disappointment. Also, knowing I venerated cowboys and wanted to be one, he gave me some spurs; however, there again he had gotten the wrong type, for they were cavalry spurs (no rowels). With my artistic talent and inclination in mind, he built a large plywood easel, which Mother ended up using as a drying stand for washed clothes. (I had given up on the easel as far as art equipment was concerned because it had no base to hold canvases or drawing pads; it never occurred to me that I might have secured water color paper on the board’s large surface with masking tape: I was not even aware of such tape.) In addition to such gifts, Pappy’s contributions to my development were his teaching me, over the telephone, to tell time, and his instructing me not to push food toward a fork with my finger but to use either bread or a knife. A major education there!
One of Mother’s sisters told me that Pappy “was a brutal husband and a brutal father”. However, he never laid a hand on me; I suppose that was at least partly due to the fact that I was the last child and after my baby years he never had to be responsible for me on a daily basis. I believe, though, that he probably had come to realize, after the experience of my three older siblings, that brutality was not acceptable behavior.
My elder brother apparently got the worst of it, at least judging by his own account. Several times, my brother related an incident to me in which he begged Pappy not to speak harshly to our sister, who had inadvertently locked the outhouse door. Pappy, my brother recalled, kicked him in the chin. My aunt told me that my brother took up weight-lifting after that, swearing that Pappy would never be able to treat him that way again.
Pappy was not a religious person. Once, when I tried to talk to him about God, he responded, “And before God created the world, who created him?” That is a rather antiquated atheistic argument, but I was very young then and stumped. Nevertheless, late in life he began to read paranormal psychology books. He apparently even got to the point where he thought he could command other-worldly beings, for, one day, I noticed a piece of paper on his table where he had written a demand that some spirit must bring him a small fortune…now! How peculiar that one can be so rationalistic about a deity and yet so superstitious about genies and gremlins!
I have already written about his death and funeral back in 1985. I posted it here with the title “Ashes” last May 31.
Like the other members of my immediate family, Pappy was a conundrum I will never understand. Like us, he had his few virtues and his many faults. And like us, he fought with and yet clung like glue to us. Like Mother and my brothers, he is a continual presence in my brain that will never disappear.