I’ve been thinking a lot about my father lately. More of an enigma to me than an open book, he did have a way of speaking his mind, especially when expressing his opinion on men driven by what he termed, “shadowed ambition.”
I can hear his voice now, dismissing our new commander-in-chief as a swindler. Sitting in his favorite living room chair, two or three drinks under his belt, a non-filtered Camel smoldering in the ashtray next to him, he would find, in the New York billionaire’s TV image, every fat cat who’d ever made a quick buck off a common-man’s sweat.
“This blowhard,” he’d say, “needs to be checked” (as in Joe Louis checked the German Reich’s champion Max Schmeling in the first round of their 1938 heavyweight championship bout).
“He’s cheated every subcontractor who’s ever lifted a hammer for him, and he’s been against a living wage since the day his father sent him into Manhattan with a fistful of blank checks to be a young landlord.”
Yes, Daddy knew one when he saw one. Born in 1900, he’d grown up in Coal Hill, Arkansas, a town having, in the beginning of this century, a number of heartless swindlers of its own.
“Go back far enough,” a family friend once told me when I was a youngster, “and you’ll find out how the big oil corporations greased enough palms to rustle away every mineral right your granddaddy ever possessed.”
The devastating years caused by the first World War and the Great Depression that followed were dealt to me in small doses. Years passed before I put together how my father migrated to Fresno, a 20-year-old who had once owned the first assembly-line-produced automobile in Coal Hill, attended a college his father helped build and for a short time, was put in charge of three family-owned coal mines.
Once here in the center of California, he married a vivacious redhead who’d immigrated to America as an infant from Denmark, and then called for his mother and father, his six brothers, his seven sisters and a couple of his closest friends to join him. As the first son in this batch of Arkies, he put the entire “outfit” on his back.
Like many men without an ounce of savings and a ton of responsibility, my father took on any work he could find. Somehow he ended up a plumber, a union man, a working stiff who despised corporate money-grabbers and loved labor leader John L. Lewis and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In my early teens, I met a plumber who was doing a job at a schoolmate’s house. Hoping to gain knowledge of my dad’s reputation, I asked the man if he knew my father.
The man gazed off, as if he might find my father behind a nearby tree.
“Well, I worked with him on a couple of jobs,” he said. “A no B.S. type is how I’d describe him.” He stroked his chin and squinted at a further thought. “And one hell of a stickler for ethics.”
As I write this, I see him, all those years ago, his workday’s sweat still dark on the band of his fedora and in the armpits of his Montgomery Ward work shirt. He guides my sister and me out into the back yard of our Iowa Street house and says he wants to read to the two of us, Regina starting junior high and me in kindergarten.
Regina is curious. “What book is that?”
And Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold Bug” begins, word for word in the balmy warmth of a Fresno evening, sounding to me as mysterious as the holy rollers’ salvo of tongues that often reached us from a nearby Tulare Street tabernacle.
There we are: Daddy in his garden chair, open book in one hand, can of Rainier Ale in the other; Regina, seated Indian fashion on the angled door to the cellar; little Larimore perched above in the grape arbor, and Mom watching us from the kitchen window, wondering what kind of world her husband had felt he never made.
Born Theophilous Brown Larimore Hill, my father was named after a cross-the-river, Church of Christ evangelist. Both of his great grandfathers had survived mini ball wounds as officers in the Civil War. His lineage included or had lived among nearly every species of outlaw named in Western civilization.
I once came close to telling him, in a moment long after I’d seen him as a giant standing against all other men, that he was bred, born and baptized under the two most blood-spilling evils on earth: the cross, and the sword. Why I did not is simple to me now. He was closing in on death. I was 42 years old, and had made all the mistakes he had made, plus a few of my own invention.
Instead, we reminisced back to our old neighborhood, to when as a small boy, I would borrow a few of his less savage hand tools and perform, under his amused glance, my version of a plumber, a pipe fitter, a real union man – all this honest day’s work stuff, it strikes me now, when the two of us were at our very best with each other.