As much as Mom was a constant in my life; Dad was a mystery. He got up each morning, did the barn chores, ate breakfast and went off to work. When he got home, he did barn chores again, ate supper, watched Johnny Carson and went to bed. Dad liked to talk more than he liked to listen. Dad got headaches, he got embarrassed and he got angry. Perhaps in some ways, Dad was more like a kid, like me. He just went to work, instead of to school.
I liked to be around Dad, ’cause he made everything seem like an adventure. Sometimes, that adventure could turn south, for no good reason; kinda like when Loren-dee-dee-bopper had a tantrum. Except with Dad, it was scarey instead of funny, ’cause Loren-dee-dee-bopper was jut a toddler with a squeeky, whiny voice, and Dad was a big boomer. Dad was funny as all get out. Still, he hated to be teased. Once I said the blue cheese that he loved smelled just like his feet. I wasn’t even teasing; just telling the truth. That’s half the reason I hated blue cheese. He got so mad at me, it was almost as bad as when I beat him at checkers.
I knew Dad was super proud of me, ’cause he gave me a dime for every “A” I got on my report card. He said he was going broke on account of me and all my “A’s,” but he said that with those stars twinking in his blue eyes, that told he was really loved giving me those dimes. He taught me how to play checkers. Checkers was Dad’s favorite game of all time. His dad taught him how to play, way back when he was a kid. I never thought I could beat Dad, ’cause he had all those years of practice, but one day, sure enough, I won. I gloated like a puffed up rooster. Dad got so mad he tipped the board up off the table and made the checkers fly all around the kitchen. That’s the way it was with him and me, one minute he was proud as a peacock, and the next minute he was mad.
Dad did arithmetic all in his head. He loved to give me calculation problems. I could think better with a pencil in my hand and a piece of paper to scribble on. Sometimes I never even put the lead on the paper; just holding it was enough to get my mind turning in the right direction.
“We’re putting up a pole barn out back,” he said, giving me the dimensions. “How many square feet of sand do we need to fill the foundation?” I got out my pencil and paper and started multiplying width by depth by length.
“Here’s the answer,” I said. I was right, of course. I loved math problems, ’cause there’s always a right answer with math, and for another thing it’s like a whole language that makes sense every single time. You never have to look for signs of a joke or a fib, or some hidden anger. With math, it’s always the truth. Dad told me how I could work the problem in my head even faster than on paper. I tried to listen and remember how he did it. My fingers got the twitches, I wanted so bad to grab the pencil laying there right on the kitchen table, next to my calculations. I, for sure, could make some sense of what Dad was saying, if I could just write it all down, and study it for a second or two. I pushed my feet down into the linoleum and glued my eyes on Dad’s to help me resist. Some of Dad’s arithmetic stuck like glue, like “It only takes ten pennies to make a dime, and 10 dimes to make a dollar.” I was raking in a lot of dimes for my report card, so I knew pretty soon, I’d have a whole bunch of dollars. I could be rich some day.
I knew to ask Dad how to do things and to ask Mom about things. If Mom didn’t know something, she looked it up in the World Book Encyclopedia, or went to the library. She found an answer. If Dad didn’t know about something, he made up a funny story. Lots of times, I thought he was telling the truth. He told me that a rock I found was a petrified potato. I thought I had the find of the century. For sure, if a insect could turn into rock after centuries of laying around dead, a potato could. Sometimes Bonita and I found potatoes hard as rocks at the bottom of the bin in the springtime, when the bin was so empty, I had to hang onto Bonita’s feet while she went head-first to the bottom to get some potatoes for dinner. Of course sometimes those potatoes stunk to high heavens and went black and mushy. Anyways, when I showed that rock to Teacher, she looked at me with way-too-kind eyes; the kind she used when somebody wet their pants. She said that rock looked a lot like a potato, but it was made by a glacier.
Dad knew stuff without looking it up in books. He said most stuff you need to know was just good common sense, and I better get me some of that. He taught me all kinds of things, like how to drive a tractor and put in a cotter pin, and check for grounding in the electric fence, how to replace an insulator, how to stretch a wire tight as tight can be. He said cows were way smarter than horses, ’cause cows knew how to check to see if the fence was working, and horses just stayed away, ’cause they believe the fence is always working. I knew that was true, ’cause lots of times Bonita and Vickie and Deanna and I had to chase cows back into the pasture when the fence had a ground; but a horse was afraid to step over a fence, even if it’s laying lifeless on the ground. I wondered which was more aggravating: a smart cow, or a dumb horse.
Dad was crazy ga-ga in love with Mom. I knew ’cause of the way he gave her movie-star-kisses every day before he went to work, and every night as soon as he got home. Those two were all the time talking or laughing up a storm for no reason at all. Sometimes they argued about things. Still, Dad never got mad at Mom, the way he did at me. Well, almost never. Once, he got up from the breakfast table, and Mom noticed his pants zipper was down. “Your barn door’s open,” she said, and she reached over and zipped it up. All those stars in Dad’s eyes turned to flecks of steel. He whipped around with his back to us, hunched over, and checked to make sure his zipper was up. I never did understand why guys do that turning around thing when their zipper is down. Big deal, it’s just a zipper. Anyways, when Dad turned back around, the look on his face was just like when I made that blue cheese comment. I knew right then and there, just like stinky feet, zippers were off limits. Some things don’t need a pencil to figure out.