Things My Old Man Taught Me
by: Max Burbank
My Old Man was a doctor, a fact that kept me out of the local emergency room on a number of occasions, as minor repairs could be affected in our kitchen with tools he kept handy. A hypodermic full of tetanus booster was never far from hand for the occasions when involved in metamorphosing a pile of pilfered construction site detritus up a tree I might put one or more rusty nails through one or more of my toes. Once I tried to teach a neighbors' Golden Retriever to waltz. He returned the favor by trying to teach me how to take a quality mauling. Neither of us did very well in our lessons, and the Old Man was required to sew portions of my ear and face back together in much the same way other people's mothers repaired stuffed bears. He was a dab hand, and the scars can only be seen today in the right light. On another occasion, the boiler that powered our forced steam heat went and we formed a hasty bucket brigade in the basement to drain it before it exploded. The water came hissing and boiling out of the spigot, but it was all hands on deck to avert disaster and I was right there with my older brother and mother hauling buckets and passing them hand over hand toward the door where they were hurled out into mid-winter New England, turning instantly to dense white fog. Inevitably I stumbled and the boiling grey water splashed up and over my entire face. Before I even felt the shock of it, the Old Man was hauling me up by the scruff of my shirt and the ass of my pants, trundling me up and out and face first into a snow bank. In the moment it seemed insult on injury, first to have been scalded, then hurled bodily into the snow by the Old Man, probably a punishment for screwing up, but he knew what he was about. The snow and ice took the heat immediately. A few hours later the top layer of skin sloughed off my face like a bad sunburn or athlete's foot and that was it. The damage was contained.
The Old Man cursed fluently, like a well-educated sailor, often, with great fervor and very specifically. It meant something to him that the word 'fucking' is a gerund, (a non-finite verb ending in 'ing'), as in "The fucking decline of western civilization!" To not fully pronounce the I-N-G ending was a disservice to the language and impolite. No one under his roof said, "fuckin", and "friggin" was for hillbillies, reprobates and white trash.
Language in general around my house could be caustic. I was in second grade before it even began to sink in that most people, particularly teachers, find the phrase 'Shut up' rude. I'd always taken it to mean, 'It's my turn to speak now'. I casually tossed around the phrase 'blow me' assuming it was short for Popeye's 'Well, Blow me Down'. At age twelve I was informed by a horrified creative writing teacher that it in fact referenced oral sex. I was briefly mortified, she being like all other women at the time, out of my league.
He could employ at any moment The Voice That Must Be Obeyed. While often delivered with healthy volume, I long ago caught up with and surpassed him in the ability to be loud. I have yet to hit on the exact tone and tenor he had such easy access to so that words spoken to children upon entering the ear attach themselves directly to the autonomic nervous system.
The Old Man procured for my brother Nick and me several large, wooden cable spools of the kind used by hippies in lieu of tables. He taught us to walk them by standing up on the spool section and steadily rolling them along with our feet. This we did in our long horseshoe-shaped driveway, and it wasn't long before we advanced this capability to its logical conclusion, chicken fights, and their natural evolutionary successor, jousting. Initially we used windfall branches but soon graduated to rusty lengths of pipe we found in our barn. I cannot recall if our father encouraged or perhaps even devised these developments of the original spool walking skills he passed on to us, but he was certainly on hand for the inevitable field side doctoring. At the time, I never wondered where he got the six or seven giant spools he gave us. In retrospect, I imagine he liberated them from construction sites, just as we stole our tree house supplies.
When I would tire of jousting and beg off, my brother would recite epic poetry while spool walking. This was something the Old Man had been required to do by the Brooklyn Public School System of his youth, and I'm told this was not an entirely uncommon practice. By the time we were in school, they contented themselves with multiplication tables and survivable levels of playground violence. Nick favored length over quality and so leaned heavily on "The Charge of the Light Brigade" and "Horatius at the Bridge", a work in which three Roman Soldiers hold off an army of 5000 that for sheer sweaty masculinity makes "300" look like a particularly violent episode of "The View". Having not heard anyone recite "Horatius" since I was eight, I don't know if my recollection that it takes in the neighborhood of nine hours is exact, but that was certainly the experience. The first demonstration of an eleven-year-old boy rhythmically chanting all 600 lines of nineteenth-century English poet, historian and noteworthy Whig, Thomas Babington Macauly from memory while spool walking is impressive in a circus sideshow sort of way. When it is immediately followed by a second performance it becomes first alarming, then tedious and finally annoying. I have often wondered whether the Old Man made similar demonstrations of near savant level talent in his youth or if this was an example of genetic funneling, where ability passes through a generation like sunlight through a magnifying glass, becoming far more focused and dangerous. However it functioned, this particular inheritance passed me by.
I was less fortunate with the crippling headaches the Old Man sometimes retired with to dark rooms when not off doctoring. Coupled with a certain specific melancholy notably characterized by sudden violent haranguing of nearby family members, the Old Man's paternity shines in me like a beacon, the Burbankian equivalent of a cleft chin or Hawk-like profile. While less flowery than the poetry with which my brother was afflicted, my legacy is not without romance. The Old Man and I have suffered a level of pain the merest whiff of which would reduce most men to motes of dust that wept as they scattered, and we have borne it with grace, dignity, shrieking and pissyness, as the occasion demanded. We share this, the knowledge that we have carried the one ring and you have not. Graciously, we keep the knowledge that this makes us better than you sheathed.
The Old Man taught me by example that reading was a high focus activity, no more to be interrupted than ping pong, oil painting or open-heart surgery. Attempts at communication when he was submerged in a book were met with a silence that was not stony so much as it forced you to question your own existence. He accumulated books the way the side of a house accumulates autumn leaves, by ones and twos and then suddenly in great drifts. He took to building bookcases of increasing intricacy and so began accumulating power tools and lumber. He took up at one time or another guitar, golf, fencing, the shooting of skeet, cold water wet suiting, ice climbing and the manufacture of harpsichords. A like-minded colleague went so far as to raise owls, but to my great disappointment, the Old Man drew the line at living things.
I could say ever so much more but won't. The Old Man is still very much with us, and while I'm glad, that's beside the point. I'm certain he'd digest whatever I put down with the appropriate number of grains of salt, sorting truth and the kind of crap he taught me to delight in foisting off on any old person once he had them listening just to see how it went down with all the rest. But as we are connected to each other so each of us is connected to many, many more and so on. Any shiny broken bit a person digs up out of the earth can be easily turned on its side by another the better to cut themselves with. There is a mystery between fathers and sons best not spoken of too much, particularly by the participants.
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