My Dad was the best storyteller I ever heard. Bar none. The best thing about his stories was that they were all true. He didn't have to make any up, because he had lived such a long, full, and interesting life. He was also never one to give advice: he would tell a story instead, and hope that you got the moral on your own, and how that moral applied to what you were going through. Brilliant, really. You probably don't remember most of the advice that people have given you, unless it was bad...but you always remember a great story.
The best stories that my Dad told were the "No Name" stories. The hero was always, "...this guy..." or, "...some man..." or even, "...there was this bum...". I didn't find out until I was eighteen that all of the no-name stories were about my Dad. His last living friend from his youth, my "Uncle" Roy came to visit with his wife one day. My parents happened to be gone for a few hours, so I did my best to keep them entertained by retelling stories that my Dad had told me about Roy. According to my Dad, Roy was the toughest man in central California in the thirties. When I happened to mention that fact after three or four stories, Roy almost laughed himself to tears.
"Me? Tough? I was nothing compared to your old man, boy. He was the most feared man in five counties."
The rest of that story; all of the things that I learned from Roy that day, and all of the things that I learned after, particularly after my father's death, are a tale for another time. Suffice it to say, I was in shock. Here is one of my Dad's stories, as re-told to me by Roy:
When Black Friday hit in twenty-nine, your dad was going to the University of Nevada. He had a full scholarship, and they'd given him a part-time job as manager of the sports teams. Wasn't a ton of money, but more than enough to live on comfortably and go to school. But, your dad dropped out. You see, your Granddad lost his farm and couldn't get work. He had your Grandma and your Uncle Ralph to support, and they couldn't make ends meet. So, your Dad came home and found me. We started riding the rails all across the country, trying to find work. My money was just for myself, but your Dad sent almost every penny he made home to his family. Kept just enough for smokes and a little food. But, work was scarce. Lots of men fighting over the same jobs, so we were constantly on the move, hopping freights from one town to the next.
One day we stopped in this town somewhere in the south. Factory town. What I mean by that is: there was one factory in the town that supported the whole economy down there. Every day, this foreman for the factory would show up outside the factory on a buckboard. He'd call out how many jobs there were, and then pick the men that got to go in and work. There were always about fifty jobs...and about three hundred men waiting, hoping to get picked. Seemed like it was the same men got picked every day.
First day we're there, this foreman stands up on the back of that buckboard and asks if there's anybody there that thought they could whip him in a fight. Now, I know you can't really see your Dad, boy. Too blinded by familiarity. You think he's a small, old man who goes to church too much. Well, your old man didn't become a Christian until 1948. Before then, he was the meanest, scariest man I ever met. He might have only been five foot four, but there was something about him that just intimidated people. He had huge hands and forearms, and his eyes would flash from blue to green to grey in an instant. He walked like a wolverine, and he looked like he would just as soon kill you as he would look at you. In all the years I've known your Dad, I've NEVER seen him lose a fight...and every single one of them was against a man almost twice his size or better.
Anyway, this guy asks the question, and your Dad hops straight up onto that buckboard and says, "I'm your Man." Needless to say, we didn't get the job that day. Or the next...or the one after that. We found small jobs over the next week or so, chopping wood, cleaning out stables, stuff like that. Not enough to make any money to send home, but enough for a roof and three squares. About a week later, I talked your Dad into stealing a straw hat off of a scarecrow. I made him pull it low over his face so we wouldn't be recognised, and we went back out to the factory yard to wait. Sure enough, we got picked.
Your Dad was a quick learner, way quicker than me. They started him off in the factory on an assembly line. Your Dad had to pull a switch every time a part would come by. The guy to his left pushed a foot pedal for the part, and the guy to his right pushed a button. So, it went; foot pedal guy, your Dad pulling his switch, then the next guy pushing his button. Timing was everything. Your Dad got it down first time, and kept right at it. I was over at a polishing bin, hand buffing pieces as they came out. Pretty mindless work, so I could keep an eye an your Dad. They'd already told us that the guys on the line made twice as much as the ones doing what I was doing. I was hoping that maybe I'd get pulled to work over by your Dad.
About an hour and a half into the day, the foreman goes over to your Dad. Asks him if he thinks he can push the floor pedal AND pull his switch and still keep time. Your Dad tells him, "Goddamn right I can", and they pull the man off of the pedal. Your Dad starts doing both jobs, and it's just like music, he's so smooth. The foreman then takes the man that had been working the foot pedal and escorts him out of the factory. Then the foreman goes over to the big boss on a catwalk overlooking the factory. The big boss gives him some money. Your Dad is watching this as well, without missing a beat on the line. We both realize the same thing: Your Dad has just put some poor bastard back on the bread line, and made a bonus for the foreman to boot. I get this feeling in my gut when I'm looking at your Dad: this ain't going to end well.
Another hour or so goes by. The foreman comes back to your Dad. Asks him if he thinks he can push the button on his right too. Your Dad just nods. The foreman pulls the man off of the button, and your Dad starts doing all three jobs like a conductor of a symphony: Stomp on the foot pedal, pull the switch with his left hand, and then push the button with his right. The three stations are about five feet apart, so your Dad has to really scoot back and forth to keep up. But, your Dad was quick like a cat, so he had no problems. The foreman walks the guy out, and heads back up the catwalk for bonus number two. Your Dad watches him coming down, and now I know things are going to turn south: your Dad's neck is slowly getting redder by the minute, and the red is inching its way up. If it hits the top of his head...well, let's just say I'm scared about more things than just losing my new job.
Finally, the lunch horn blows. We all walk outside to eat box lunches that the factory provides. That foreman is walking up and down through all of the men like a barnyard rooster. I'm trying to get your old man to talk to me, but he won't. Doesn't eat the box lunch either. Just sits there. And that red on his neck I was telling you about? It's still inching its way up and it's almost to the top of his bald head. The horn sounds again, and back into the factory we go. Everyone is lining up at their spots, and the only sound is the shuffling of feet. Next thing I know, I here your Dad calling out to the foreman:
"Boss? Hey Boss?"
The foreman, a big, fat man, looks over.
"Yeah, what do ya want?"
"You gotta broom?"
The foreman looks puzzled.
"Yeah, sure. Why?"
"Well, you better get it over here...hurry."
The foreman can hear the urgency in your Dad's voice, so he starts running, if you want to call it that. The fat rolls on his body undulate like waves on the beach by the time he finds a broom and rushes it over to your Dad.
"Well, here it is...what do you want me to do with it?"
The factory is dead quiet. Not a sound. Everyone, including the big boss on the catwalk, is watching and listening as your Dad says...
"Why don't you shove it up my ass...and then, besides doing the work of three men, I can sweep the floor for you while I'm at it."
The factory erupted in laughter. Everyone was laughing, except for the foreman...and your Dad...and me. The foreman walked away, and came back with five men. Told your Dad, and me, to hit the road. Your Dad told him he wasn't leaving until he got paid. That's when they called the cops. They were the ones that escorted us out. I figured, once we got outside, that we would leave town. Not your old man. He just stood there and waited. A few hours later, the factory whistle blew, and the men came filing out. We followed that foreman to the bar up the street. I watched your Dad beat that man half senseless, then empty his pockets. The fat bastard had over two hundred dollars in cash. Bonus money for the month for eliminating jobs. I would have taken all of it. Back in the Depression, that was a King's Ransom, boy. Not your Dad. He took eight dollars. Gave me two. Then he made me spend the night in a barn with him. Next morning, we were back out in front of that factory. Your Dad found the two men he'd put out of work the day before, and gave each one of them two dollars. Then we went to the rail yards, hopped a train, and headed east.
The story was a lot shorter when my Dad told it to me growing up. No mention of him being the hero, no mention of cops, putting men out of work, let alone beating some guy half to death. The moral for me when I was young: If you're feeling overwhelmed by the circumstances in your life, just remember that things could always be worse. My lovely wife, Cherish, and I still look at each other, from time to time, and say...Gotta broom? Makes us laugh and remember that we aren't as overworked as we might think, and things aren't as bad as they seem.
The second moral I got was one that my Dad made clear in other stories as well: if you know that you're going to go out anyway; it's better to go out with a bang instead of a whimper. "Gotta broom?" also means taking your lumps with pride, standing up for what you know is right, even when you are sure it's going to cost you.
The third moral I learned from the story is very basic. It's Biblical in its concepts, and one of the truest things I know: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. My Dad couldn't live with the thought of having two men...and their families, go hungry just so he could eat...and line some fat bastard's pockets by being quiet. There was no Disney ending to that story for my Dad. No being carried off on every body's shoulders...no parades. In fact, he probably went hungry longer than he needed to for having done it. But, my Father's words come back to me today as I write this as if he were standing in front of me:
You don't do what's right so people will notice. You do what's right...because it's the right thing to do."
I've always wished that I could be even half the man that my Dad was. It'll never happen. But, something better has. My son, Chance. He's every bit the man that my Dad was...maybe more.
So, if you're ever feeling over-run by life, just ask yourself a question:
I hope if you do...it brings a smile to your face...and peace to your heart.
I love you, Dad. You taught Chance well on those fishing trips in Heaven...
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