Years later, facing a mid-afternoon geometry of Dakota highways, I remember my father telling us about how he would sit on the deck of his ship and turn sharks inside-out. My younger sister and I on his lap -- one perched on each thigh -- vied for the privilege of blowing out the match that he'd used to light his cigarette. And then the story continued.
My father told storied like no one else we knew. My mother, who fancied herself quite a wag, favored the precise and mundane, recitations firmly grounded in reality. Her fables were easily understood, predictable and prosaic and maybe even a little boring, although we'd never confront her with our impatience: even at that tender age, we knew the value of a diversion.
But Dad was different: he took us onto edgy, unfamiliar terrain, places that we as kids were unsure of. Our world experience was too narrow to distinguish between reality and whatever one labels its opposite. We were always confused: in Dad's stories the Great Depression was a slapstick cat and mouse chase when his boss ("the old man") realized that his young henchman had been using a dirty sock to filter the morning's coffee. World War II became a farcical collection of escapades as the enlisted men sought to outsmart the officers, including the captain ("the old man") of the good ship Bismarck Sea.
"But wait a minute: I thought the Bismarck was the boat that we were trying to sink!" I’d worn grooves into "Johnny Horton’s Greatest Hits" replaying ballads like "The Battle of New Orleans," "North to Alaska," and "Sink the Bismarck."
"That was a German ship, the Bismarck. Ours was the USS Bismarck Sea, a destroyer."
"And you used to sit on the deck and turn sharks inside-out."
"Only when we could find them. Sharks aren't easy to catch. One time we snuck into the old man's cabin and borrowed his dress whites to use as bait. That brought in the sharks from all over -- one even had an Australian postmark on his forehead."
A coyote, dead on the side of the road. Not a drop of blood: the body lies on its side as if in sleep. Our last dog, Ivy, was hit by a car during one black night. In the morning when I stepped outside she was lying on her side like that next to the road. She twisted her head to greet my eyes and I assumed she'd just fallen asleep there, but then I realized that her tail wasn't wagging. The collision had broken her back. She survived the trip to the vet but an instant before he would have injected the poison that would put her to sleep forever, Ivy gave up her life.
My old dog Otter lies on the bench seat of the truck with her grayed chin on my thigh. I put my hand on her side, on the tumor swelling her chest behind her front leg. Otter was two years old when Ivy died, a rowdy pup whose main purpose in life seemed to be to bedevil the older dog. When we left for Ivy's final trip to the vet, Otter crawled into Ivy's dog house. She emerged two days later, leaving her puppy hood among the blankets and rugs and remembered scent of her lost friend.
That was nine years ago. Dad's been gone a lot longer: at least twenty. Of course, I'd lost him years before that anyway. In my rush to establish my own identity I abandoned everything: my home, my parents, my family. Every vestige of my old life.
Only one of us kids inherited Dad's twist on reality: my brother Tom. I got together with him last year: the first time since my mother's funeral. As soon as he began talking, I was transfixed: listening to my father's stories coming out of an entirely different mouth. Maybe some would call what Tom talked about bullshit, but I'm sure that even the most skeptical doubter would hang on every word he said. Tom's stories started real -- as firm and believable as North Dakota asphalt -- but gradually, imperceptibly they morphed into something else: something counter-intuitive, something foreign and uncomfortable and maybe even dangerous. Something magical.
My sister tries -- oh how she tries! -- to capture this magic in her narratives. Probably she tries too hard, like those Americans who go down to Mexico, their Spanish conspicuous with its flat, overdrawn "aih" sounds. Margaret hyperbolizes to an extreme, like a magician who over embellishes every flourish until the entire act seems cheap, artificial, and obvious.
On the radio, they're featuring yet another tribute to Father's Day. I flick it off. I wish I had some Colombian vallenero music to liven up this boring afternoon but the eject button on the truck's CD player is broken. Even Carlos Vives becomes redundant on the fourth consecutive listening.
Dad gave us all the gift of magic in his stories, and maybe the magic of his stories became incorporated into his private reality. The rest of his reality -- a teenager forced to support his mother during the Great Depression, the USS Bismarck Sea sunk by a Japanese kamikaze pilot, a schizophrenic son who committed suicide -- never entered into the tales that he shared with his two youngest children, who sat transfixed by the smoke rings that hovered in the air above us for a second -- no more -- and then dissolved into memory.
I exit the highway in Dickinson, driven by hunger to a fast food joint. A busload of people waits ahead of me. Dressed with the affected carelessness of tourists striving to not look like tourists -- t-shirts, jeans, one or two even decked out in plaid flannel shirts -- they're in town, I assume, for the annual "Rough Rider Days." Not one woman among them. I eavesdrop: they're all speaking Spanish but it's a funny Spanish with odd accents and liberal use of the vos form. Europeans, I think at first, but then by the nasal lilt I recognize them as Argentines. Gauchos maybe, here in the US to observe North American cowboys in their native habitat. Or maybe "rough rider" in Spanish sounded seductive to a gay travel promoter.
I order my value meal -- the counter worker grateful for my command of the English language -- and after eating head back onto the interstate. By the time I arrive at the Montana border, I've concocted a tale about an elderly Argentine woman whose dying wish was to find a final resting place beside Buffalo Bill Cody on boot hill in Deadwood. Her grandson, carrying the old woman's ashes in an emu-skin cowboy boot, joins this group of gay gauchos because he knows that sooner or later all cowboys -- gay or straight, North American or South, mounted on horses or motorcycles or riding tour buses -- all true cowboys eventually end up in Deadwood.
My father would have been proud.
Causes Louise Young Supports
articulation of indigenous rights (organization: Cultural Survival)
sustainable, renewable, and independent energy sources