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Emaciated and bald save for wisps of white hair at his temples, my father lay with one narrow plastic tube dripping nutrients into his lower arm, another winding unseen from beneath the hospital sheets to carry off waste. He did not seem to know me. and when he tried to speak, nonsense emerged. It is not the dying who see their lives flash by, I was discovering, but those who watch them die.
There was a time when I was little and my father still lived and was able to love me. He was a wheat farmer, a midwesterner descended from generations of men close to the soil in America and before that in England, a lover of the land. I would sit on his lap in the tractor under the cloudless sky, and he would pretend to let me steer. The aroma of freshly turned soil would fill my nostrils, and the shimmering speck of a plane would drone above us. Every once in awhile, as though telling me for the first time, he would spread his arms, thick as tree trunks in my imagination, to encompass the land, his land, that reached as far as we could see. “We feed the world,” he would say. “People can do without many foods, Georgie, but not grain. The staff of life, the Bible calls it.” And he would pull in his arms and fold them around me until the tractor began to veer from its path.
Trips off the land were great occasions, glimpses of other worlds. Except when the roads were snowed in, there was church every week, an eight-mile drive over narrow and bumpy blacktop that dipped from center to shoulder. The church stood just back from the main highway, the only building in sight other than a Texaco station three hundred yards further along and a silo on the horizon. After the service, while my parents exchanged greetings with our minister and fellow-worshipers, I would drift to the highway’s edge to inhale wafting petroleum aromas from the gas station and watch for out-of-state license plates.
The best outing was the twenty-mile ride to Great Plain with its concrete sidewalks and a main street lined with offices and diners and stores and a public library. On Veterans’ Day, my father would dig out the sergeant’s uniform he had worn in jungle battles on Pacific islands he could no longer name and take us to town to attend the memorial service. And each fourth of July we would drive in for the parade and barbecue followed by orange popsicles and a fireworks display. During the parade, my sisters and I would take turns perching on his shoulders to see over the crowd. There came a year when I tapped his arm to lift me up and he told me I was too big; I worked my way to the front of the crowd so I could see for myself, but the view wasn’t the same.
I was a weak boy, introspective and withdrawn, and I did not take readily to the labor of farm life. But my father behaved as though I were as powerful and able as he. I can remember when I was smaller than the heavy sacks of fertilizer he had me drag from the storehouse and lean against the side of our decrepit flatbed truck that flaked red paint. I would inch backwards, grasping a sack with both hands as if tugging a corpse by the shoulders. When I had lined up half a dozen, he and I would hoist them onto the truck, grunting together as he took most of the weight upon himself.
When I was eleven I announced over dinner that I did not want to be a farmer when I grew up. My little sister, retarded from birth, laughed. My older sister, Sarah, was leaning an elbow on the table while pushing her fork to shape her mashed potatoes into plowed fields.
My father asked, “What do you plan to be, then?”
“An actor.” I loved the movies, especially old films starring Red Ryder or Hopalong Cassidy or Roy Rogers.
“Then who am I going to leave...”
From the sideboard where she was spooning out dessert my mother interrupted. “Stan, no quarreling at the dinner table. Sarah, how many times have I told you to sit up and eat like a lady?”
My father looked over my mother’s head, out the window behind her. He lay his fork and knife across his plate and stood up. “It looks like rain. I better get the tractor in the shed.”
“We’re in the middle of dinner,” my mother said.
“I wasn’t hungry anyway.”
At the one-room grammar school that I reached by bicycle, the other children tolerated my withdrawn ways. But when I went to the regional junior high school in Great Plain, my physical awkwardness and preference for reading rather than cars and sports made me a loner. Goading boys would surround me like gamblers at a cock fight, egging one another on until someone shoved me, or punched me in the chest or shoulder. One day I came home, lips tight and eyes glaring with misery. My father whispered with my mother while she sliced vegetables for dinner, and then he turned to me and said, “Put on a jacket and come with me, Georgie.”
He led me outdoors. It was a late fall day with the smell of snow in the air. We walked toward the fields, long since bare from the harvest. I gazed straight ahead, hands deep in my pockets against the cold.
“Your mother and I think something’s troubling you,” my father said, and proposed causes for me to choose among: teachers, grades, illness, growing up—even girls, which made me bristle in horror, for I still had nothing to do with them and could not yet see why older boys did.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” I finally said without looking at him. I sniffled against the wind that scudded the plain, and my eyes teared at the cold.
“You haven’t had any friends visit for a long time. Why don’t you invite someone over this weekend?”
“There’s nobody I want to invite.”
“What about Jack or Bob?”
“They hang out with other guys at school now.”
”Why don’t you hang out with the other guys?”
“They don’t like me. They call me names and stuff.”
“And what do you do?”
“They’re stronger than me.”
“What do you mean? You’re not scared of them, are you?” I said nothing. “Georgie, I asked you a question.”
We walked for awhile in silence. “You can’t let yourself show it. It’ll only encourage them.”
“I can’t help it.”
He stopped and jerked me by the shoulder to face him. “Don’t say that! You can do whatever you want.”
“Do you ever get into fights with these boys?”
I took a deep breath and whispered. “Sometimes.”
We started walking again. “Well, I’m sorry about that,” my father said. “But it’s part of growing up. When I was your age, I had fights, too.”
“Yeah, but you’re strong.”
“What happens when you fight?”
“Nothing. I fall down and they stop hitting me.” And I began to cry.
I waited for my father to take me in his arms and comfort me as he had when I was little and hurt myself. “No son of mine is going to let anyone push him around. Do you understand?”
A numbness not of the wind was settling on me. “Yes, sir.”
“You’re going to learn to fight. Do you hear me?”
”You’re not coming home again beaten up unless you’ve tried to fight back, do you understand me?”
And in a tone and volume as though he were talking to himself, he proceeded to show me how to box—how to hold my feet and arms and fists, how to keep my chin tucked in, how to jab and parry. He would thrust his own fists through my meager defense and jar my body until fear of pain made me maintain my guard. Each time I fell down, he would stand back and wait for me to get up. I was miserable, but desperate to please him. It took a long time on that hard, cold plain before he stood back and said, “All right. That’s enough for now. Let’s go back to the house.”
I pulled out my handkerchief and wiped it back and forth across my nose. We began to walk home, and he coached me in a low voice that was sometimes lost in the wind. “When you hit, hit hard as you can. I know you may get hurt. But they only keep it up because they think you’re an easy target. Promise me you’ll fight back.”
I promised. What choice did I have? It was fight or not come home.
The house was warm and redolent with beef stew, yet I couldn’t stop shivering. My mother gave us a quizzical look as we passed silently through the kitchen. I went to my room, and when my body finally stopped trembling, I started composing a book report for school.
The next day during recess, Carl Vandergast pushed me and whacked my shoulder with the side of his hand. I could remember nothing from my father’s instructions-how to stand, how to jab, how to defend myself—nothing except his threat and my promise, and I closed my eyes, lowered my head, charged forward and flailed my arms in front of me. I could feel Carl retreat as I pressed forward. Most of my blind blows missed, but a few caught his chest. Perhaps he was only surprised, for after several moments he stopped giving ground, and I felt two sharp punches to my shoulders. I wanted to cry, but I swung out and my fist, as if of its own accord, landed in his stomach. His blow, aimed at my chest, went wild, crashing against my cheek, jerking my head to one side. I fell to my knees but no further, while he doubled over, gasping.
When I got home, my father was waiting. “Did you do what we talked about?”
“Good,” he said. “Keep it up. They’ll leave you alone soon enough.” I waited, thinking he would demand details, but he turned to his newspaper and let me escape.
There were several more fights in the coming days, and I performed no better than the first—worse, in fact, because now the other boys were expecting it. Each day I would give my father a brief report and receive a silent nod.
One day a teacher caught me fighting and sent the ether boy and me to the principal’s office. I was ashamed and terrified; I was always the good boy at school. The principal lectured us and gave us notes to bring home to our parents. Full of dread, I sought out my father after school to hand him the note in private; I couldn’t bear to have my mother know what was happening, and I was grateful that she had been accepting, however hesitantly, the accidents I was inventing to explain the occasional bruise that appeared on my face.
When he finished reading, my father folded the note and tapped it in his palm. “I’ll have a talk with Mrs. Goodwin. She’s right to do this; it’s her job, and she’ll have to punish you. But you’re not to stop fighting back, do you understand?”
As my father had predicted, the fights began to tail off. When several days had passed without a fight, he left me alone, and we never spoke about them again. Kids still teased me, but their insults came casually, almost like greetings when passing in the hall or jostling in the lunch line.
Yet if I was freed from oppression at school, I now bore a new weight—two new weights. For though I did not tell my father, in my heart I felt tainted by the way I won my liberation, and in feeling tainted, I knew I fell short of his expectations of me. As an adult, I came to understand that his behavior grew from love, that he suffered while he taught me to become what the world had told him a man must be. But no understanding could displace my secret guilt, and now, as his shrivelled body finally gave up the ghost, I felt release amid my grief, and I lamented the price of my freedom. I cried at the funeral, but whether for him or myself, I do not know.
I have a son, Steve, fourteen now. It seemed fitting that not long after his grandfather’s death, Steve was suspended from school for fighting. It was the first time he’d been caught, though not the first time he’d fought. Suspension is automatic in this Chicago suburb, in a time when kids have learned to carry knives or even guns, and a fight of punches to the shoulders and chest looks as archaic as a sepia publicity photograph of Gene Tunney.
Steve came home early, with a black eye and blood caked on his nose. He handed me the note that announced his suspension. I read and asked, “What happened?”
“Some jock shoved me against my locker.”
“Do you have to fight over every little thing? It could have been an accident.”
“I don’t fight all the time. And it wasn’t any accident. The jocks think they own the goddamned school.”
“I wish you could find other ways of dealing with aggression.”
“This isn’t the sixties, Dad. I mean, I respect the way you went down South and sat in at draft boards and all that non-violent stuff, but the world isn’t made up of hippies. Going against everybody’s grain is out of date.”
“Are you going to jump off...”
“...the Sears Tower because the rest of the world tells me to?”
“I can’t tell you not to defend yourself, son, but I don’t believe anything gets solved by violence.”
”That’s your opinion.”
“Let me have a look at your eye.” He leaned close and I studied the blue-and-purple skin.” I don’t think you need to see the doctor. Go clean up. When your mother gets home from work, let her have a look.” I handed back his note from school so he could show Rachel. and I returned to the brief I had to argue in a few days.
Steve was with me in the kitchen, basting the meatloaf, when we heard Rachel close the front door. He shut the oven and went to talk to her. She joined me a few minutes later, swiped a slice of carrot from the salad I was tossing and kissed me hello. “I hear you already had a talk with our Rocky. The eye doesn’t look too bad to me.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“What are we going to do about him?”
A picture came into my head, of my father towering above me on the tractor and spreading his arms to embrace the seemingly unlimited horizons of our world. “Hang in while he finds his way, I guess. What else is there?”