by Christopher Johnson

Dad was of the World War II generation. The Greatest Generation. Born in 1920, came of age during the Great Depression. Dad wore his body like armor, like so many men of his generation. He was tall and thin, handsome when he was young, with blue-gray eyes of steel and an unpredictable laugh and perfectly straight teeth. He valued normalcy, and I don’t mean that in a denigrating way. After the Depression and World War II, who wouldn’t want normalcy?

In the mornings, he did what men do. He shaved, but he didn’t have to comb his hair because he kept it in a severe crew cut. He put on his crisply creased trousers and sharply ironed shirt, like a solder arming himself. He sat down at the kitchen table, and Mom served him coffee and placed two soft-boiled eggs and buttered toast gently in front of him. He raised the Cleveland Plain Dealer and disappeared behind it, and we heard nothing from him except occasional grunts when he read something about the stupidity of the Democrats.

When he finished reading the newspaper, he reappeared and finished his coffee and went off to brush his teeth. He wrapped his tie around his neck. His rituals seemed so distant to me. He said good-bye to us, but he did not kiss Mom. He was impregnable, enclosed in the armor of his skin. He disappeared through the front door, went off to his mysterious doings in the heart of the great city.
When he came home, he ate dinner, and he asked each of us how our day was at school. But he mostly talked to Mom. When he talked, I sensed something . . . something, even then. I was only eight years old. He would talk about Pottsie, his boss in the Steamship Division of U.S. Steel, where he worked. Pottsie was always doing something that made Dad angry. His last name was Potts, but Dad always called him Pottsie. I picked up something in Dad’s voice that made me afraid. It was a cloud of frustration that hung over him. Pottsie this, Pottsie that. Frustration like a gray cloud, as if Dad had dreams buried so far down, buried in a coffin deep inside.

One time Dad took me fishing, or at least he tried to take me fishing. We never quite got that far. We were walking to the lake, and as was my habit, I was following in Dad’s footsteps, going where he led. I looked around, and the woods surrounded us, and they were a deep and profound green, and I dawdled, and Dad said hurry up, and we approached the lake, and it was crystal-blue, and Dad said hurry up again.

We started to dig up worms, and I promptly plunged the pitchfork that Dad had brought into my toe, and spots of blood appeared through my Keds. “Oh, no!” I groaned. Dad groaned, too. “Oh, for God’s sake!” he said. We had to go home, and on the way home, it was silent as death in the car, and that cloud of frustration hung over him, and he didn’t speak all the way home. There was always that air, that air of disappointment in me, the unstated thing that I had let him down.

After dinner, Dad would retreat to the family room, and he disappeared behind the Plain Dealer to finish reading it, and then he watched TV. He laughed at the jokes on those situation comedies of the Fifties, at Lucy and Ralph Kramden, but otherwise he was expressionless. What was he thinking, I wondered. I knew what was going on in my brain. I was always making up little stories in my head about cowboys and Indians or pirates. But what about him? It was hard to tell.

Every Saturday, Dad mowed his mother’s lawn, in Cleveland Heights. Dad was the only child, and she was a widow. Sometimes I helped him. He seemed to love mowing the lawn. He was in the flow of it. It was a manual mower, and he pushed it up and down the lawn, making sure that every single blade of grass was conquered into submission. Then he took out the hand trimmer and trimmed the edges of the lawn. I looked at him, and I knew there was no thought or frustration behind his blue-gray eyes. All his synapses were focused on the lawn. He had achieved satori. His mother—my grandmother—looked on approvingly. But when he got home, Mom asked, “When are you going to do our lawn?” She would mutter to herself as she made dinner.  

When he wasn’t mowing Grandmother’s lawn, he was fixing something around our house—painting, wallpapering. It was so important for him to be doing, doing, doing. He loved hanging wallpaper. He told—not asked—me to help him. I, of course, resented this, but he was the father. I wanted to be outside playing. Yet, in a way, helping him forged a bond between us.

One time we were wallpapering the dining room, with this intricate pattern that was very hard to match. We turned the paper over, face down on the dining room table, and he applied the paste to the back of the paper while I held it to keep it from sliding. He was focused like an animal lasered in on its prey. He swept the brush back and forth, applying the paste, making sure that it covered each and every inch of the piece of wallpaper. His blue-gray eyes trained on the paper, his brows were knitted in concentration. His heart, his soul, were lost in the physical act.

We lifted the paper from the table and carried it over to the wall as if we were carrying a dozen eggs. The paper touched the wall, and the paste grabbed hold. Dad slowly pressed the paper against the wall so there would not be any wrinkles or air bubbles. It was a war against that uncovered wall, and he was determined to be triumphant. He was lost, completely lost, totally unconscious of what he was doing. The spirit of wallpaper hanging had captured him in its grip. He carefully slid the new strip of wallpaper up a quarter of an inch to match the paper already pasted to the wall. A match! It was perfect!

He took out the plumb line from his paint-spattered toolbox. He held the end of the plumb line against the newly hung wallpaper. He dropped the weight and waited for it to stop swinging. He looked closely. The plumb line followed the line where the two strips of wallpaper met. It was perfection. Tension had crunched his forehead, but now he was relieved. He had tuned out the world and all its problems. “Harriet!” he shouted to my mother, who was in the kitchen. “Want to look at it?”

She came in from whatever she was doing in the kitchen. “Is it straight?” he asked.

She stepped back, looked. “It looks very nice, Artie,” she said, typically understated. Ebullience was not her thing. They had this kind of mutual understanding that the important thing was to get matters right. “OK,” he said, dismissing her. The wallpaper was perfect, and for a little bit of time, he had fended off the chaos of the world. Chaos had been averted. He would fix the world, one strip of wallpaper at a time.

When I turned nine, I asked for a portable record player. They were all the rage at the time. I wanted my own music. Alan Freed had broken rock ‘n’ roll in Cleveland, and I fell in love with this mysterious insistent music with the big backbeat. I wanted to own some of that music for my own, so I asked for the record player.

Mom and Dad bought it for me for my ninth birthday. They would not have bought it for me if they’d known the subversive uses to which I planned to use it. It had a beige-brown case with a tiny speaker and a simple turntable and a record changer so you could player multiple records at a time and lounge in the comfort of your bedroom without getting up to change records. The sound was as tinny as a sardine can, but the sound was mine.

I had a stash of money that I’d been saving so that I could buy records on that wondrous day—the day I knew would come—when I would get a record player. My wonderful great aunts always gave me money for Christmas and birthday. They gave me corny cards with two-dollar bills inside. When I showed the bills to my great uncles, they always cracked, “Been to the race track, eh, Herbie?” From that, I inferred that two-dollar bills were associated with racetracks, but I didn’t quite know how.

Once I had my record player in hand, I began to buy records. The first one I bought was “Sixteen Tons,” by Tennessee Ernie Ford. Loved that song. “Sixteen tons and whaddya get? Another day older and deeper in debt.” It said something fatalistic and doomed that remains with me to this day. Other kids liked “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” I liked “Sixteen Tons.”

The next one I bought was “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel,” by Elvis, the King himself. “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel” are the only sides of a single in which both songs hit #1. Even the Beatles never did that. “Hound Dog” was good, but “Don’t Be Cruel” was the one I loved. I’d been wanting Elvis records ever since we’d seen him on Ed Sullivan—the famous appearance where the cameramen didn’t show him swiveling his hips because if they had, America would have fallen apart. As we watched, I looked at Mom, and I thought she was going to faint in horror. I looked at Dad, and he just stared at the television, just stared at Elvis, in a kind of catatonic fit.

Up in my bedroom, I listened over and over to “Don’t Be Cruel.” There was some secret in it, some mystery, which kept me listening. “I don’t want no other love. Baby, it’s just you I’m thinkin’ of.” Those words. Buried in them was some mystery—some world that I knew existed but that I knew nothing of. How he pronounced “baby.” Not “baby,” like a baby that your Mom gives birth to. “Babuh.” Who was this woman he was singing to? The mystery clutched at me. “Cruel.” Not cruel like the bad guys on Roy Rogers. How was this mystery woman cruel to him? I knew it was bad—really bad—but in what way? He seemed so hurt by her cruelty. I kept listening, listening, trying to unlock the mystery.

One night Dad came home from work. He trudged up the stairs, exhausted from a day of dealing with Pottsie. I was listening to “Don’t Be Cruel” for the millionth time. He stopped just outside the bedroom. He came in slowly. “What’s that?” he muttered.

The record came to an end. I was suddenly nervous, but I didn’t know why. He stooped over the record player. He lowered his fingers and picked up the record. He read the label. “Elvis Presley,” he said, as if the name itself were contaminated. “Hm.” I was worried he was going to break the record.

“How much was that?”
“F-fifty cents.”

“Fifty cents?” He paused, turned the record back and forth in his hands. “Waste of money,” he growled. He handed it back to me and trudged back into the hall, and continued on to his bedroom, where he would shed the clothes that he had worn all day to fend off the attacks from Pottsie.

I was crushed, yet at the same time I felt defiant. I stared after Dad and blinked back a tear. I looked at the record. It had those narrow wavy black lines that somehow turned magically into sound, into music. I lowered “Don’t Be Cruel back onto the spindle, turned the music-making machine back on. “Let’s walk up to the preacher, and let him say I do. Then you know you’ll have me, and I know that I’ll have you.” Once again I was lost in the mystery of Elvis’s words. The word “have”—it intrigued me. It added to the mystery. What did it mean? What were the secrets behind “have”? The words, Elvis’s voice—they were balm for my psychic wounds.

As I grew toward adolescence, my relationship with my father did not really change. He remained at U.S. Steel, but in 1959, he was transferred to Chicago and was promoted into middle management. He was the traffic manager for the iron ore ships coming in and out of Chicago and Gary, which meant he was on the phone all the time, even on weekends, telling them what port to go to and what time and everything like that. His hair was growing gray, but his eyes were still the same steely blue-gray.

In 1961, he moved his mother from Cleveland to Chicago because her health was declining. “Sonny,” I heard her say to him, “I can’t take care of a house any more.” Dad rented her an apartment on Touhy Avenue in Park Ridge, where we lived. Grandmother had two passions: watching soap operas like The Guiding Light and going to Methodist services. Grandmother’s name was Gertrude—not Trudy, but Gertrude. I would occasionally go to services with her. Having been raised Catholic with all its pomp and glory, I was amazed by the simplicity of the church and the naked gold cross. Where was Jesus? Where was the bleeding heart? Where was the colorful agony of Jesus’ last hours? Where was Mary?

After the service, I filed out with Grandmother, who had already become fast friends with the other ladies in the congregation who had been born in the 1890s. “Gertrude, how are you?” they’d exclaim as if she’d been lost in the Amazon jungle for the last ten years and had just returned to the safety of Chicago. “How are you?” her friends said, and they all had names like Hilda and Clara and Hermione. It’s hard to believe I knew someone who’d been born when Benjamin Harrison was President.

Now Dad didn’t have to mow Grandmother’s lawn, but he helped her out with various tasks at her apartment like fixing the drip, drip in the bathroom faucet or painting the bedroom. Sometimes I helped him, and then afterward we sat out on the little patio outside her kitchen, and she served us coffeecake with cherries and prattled on about the handsome minister at the Methodist church and about her friends Hilda and Clara and Hermione. Dad sat next to her and murmured, “I know, I know,” as she talked, and he nodded and blinked his steely blue-gray eyes and looked dispassionately at the courtyard of the apartment building that spread out below Grandmother’s patio.

Grandmother died only a year later. We went to her funeral and then to the graveside. Mom and Dad didn’t want us kids to go to the graveside, but I pleaded with them, and finally they relented. Of course, I was sad that Grandmother had died, but I was also curious to see what it was like to bury someone. Mom held Dad’s hand, and his eyes were sad and distant at the same time, and his face was like a statue’s. We were out under God’s enormous azure sky, and the handsome Methodist minister talked about what a wonderful woman Gertrude had been, and Dad just kept staring at the casket that cradled Grandmother’s body, and his eyes misted up, and I wanted more than anything to ask him if he was OK, but I was afraid to.

I went into eighth grade, and Dad worked harder and harder. When I came home from school, I hung around in the kitchen, and Mom asked me about my day as she cooked or folded clothes. Dad had a lot of phone work in connection with his job, because iron ore ships sailed into the ports in Chicago and Gary with the inexorability of time. Dad was the conduit, the means by which the captains of the ships communicated with the ports. When the phone calls came, he said, “Damned phone calls!” It was as if he lived in this place, this separate place, a place I didn’t know. Dad, where are you, I wanted to ask.

February of eighth grade came, and that meant St. Valentine’s Day. It was of course a tradition, as it is in all schools, that the kids in a class would exchange Valentine’s Day cards. Miss Bartholomew was our homeroom teacher and our language arts teacher. Miss Bartholomew was 108 years old and so thin that she disappeared when she turned sideways, and she had wire-rim spectacles before they became popular in the Sixties and spoke with very precise diction. The day before Valentine’s Day, she warned us that the nice thing to do was to give everyone in the class a Valentine’s Day car. So, we ran out to Walgreen’s that night and bought bags of factory-made Valentine’s Day cards and wrote them out carefully while we watched TV, trying to remember the name of every kid who was in our class.

Then, the next day, during homeroom period in Miss Bartholomew’s class, we passed out our Valentine’s Day cards, walking up and down the aisles and dutifully placing a card on each kid’s desk. It was the very definition of a ritual. When I got back to my own desk, I had a whole clump of cards, which I opened and read, just as the other kids in the class were dutifully reading their Valentine’s Day cards. My buddies—they wrote stupid stuff like “I’ll remember you forever.”

One, though, was from Carol. I opened it, and it read, “Dear Herb, I hope you have the most beautiful Valentine’s Day ever,” and she underlined  “beautiful” and “ever” three times. Then she signed it “Carol,” and she completed the “l” in her name with this triple spiral that seemed so incredibly beautiful to me. I immediately turned red, and I glanced at Carol, and she was smiling at me, and I felt ashamed that I had only written, “Have a great Valentine’s Day!” on her card rather than writing something meaningful and poetic. For the rest of the day, I felt as if a warm liquid had somehow gotten into my veins.

I went home, and I put my Valentine’s Day cards on the hutch in our dining room, which was a kind of catchall for all the junk that us kids brought home from school. My sister, Maureen, did the same thing, so we had about 50 Valentine’s Day cards spread out on the hutch.

We sat down for dinner. But first, before he sat down, Dad looked at all the Valentine’s Day cards. “Why are all these things scattered around here?” he asked. He wasn’t mean about it. It was more like he was curious about them.

Mom piped in right away. “Oh, Artie, those are the Valentine’s Day cards that the children received today at school. They’ll put them away after dinner.”

“Hm,” he said, as he bent to his dinner. But there was something that I picked up. He was unusually quiet at dinner that evening. He didn’t tell any stories about Pottsie. After dinner, he said to Maureen and me, “Be sure to put those cards away.”

We did as we were told. I took them upstairs to my bedroom. I didn’t care about most of them, but I treasured the one I’d received from Carol. I read it over and over again. “Dear Herb, I hope you have the most beautiful Valentine’s Day ever,” with the triple underlining beneath “beautiful” and “ever.” Her handwriting was so elegant. I felt my heart speed up as I read it over and over.

I heard steps and looked up. It was Maureen, standing at the entrance to the bedroom. She knew she needed permission to enter the bedroom. “What are you looking at?” she said, as she saw me hide Carol’s card out of sight.

“Mind your own business,” I said.
“Have you got an eraser?” she asked.
I got one and handed it to her. “What were youlooking at? A Valentine’s Day card?”
“Mind your own business if you know what’s good for you.”
“Hm,” she said and left.

I went downstairs. Dad was in the family room, watching TV. Mom was in the living room, reading. Mom generally thought that watching TV was a waste of time. I sat down next to her on the sofa. I said, “Dad seemed annoyed at dinner. Did we do something wrong?”

She looked at me and paused. “He doesn’t much like St. Valentine’s Day.”

“Why?” I asked.

She paused, longer this time. “Well, I’m going to tell you something. And you mustn’t ever let him know that I told you. Do you promise?”

I nodded.

She looked me in the eyes as if I were an adult. “One time, when he was in third or fourth grade, he was the only child in his class not to receive a Valentine’s Day card.”

It took a few seconds for her words to sink in. “How do you know?” I asked.

“When we were very young, when we had just gotten married, he told me.”  The room felt very cold to me. I was silent, and she was silent. “Remember your promise,” she said.

“I’ll remember.”

I went back upstairs to our bedroom and stared again at the Valentine’s Day cards scattered on the top of my dresser—at Carol’s and at the other ones that I’d received. Then I went back down to the family room, and I sat on the sofa, and I watched TV with my Dad.

About the Author:

Christopher Johnson is a writer based in the Chicago area. He is the author of This Grand and Magnificent Place: The Wilderness Heritage of the White Mountains (University of New Hampshire Press, 2006) and the co-author of Forests for the People: The Story of America’s Eastern National Forests (Island Press, 2013).