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Summer 2000, Volume 18.0

Essay

 

Donald Andersonphoto of Donald Anderson.

Accident


Donald Anderson's fiction and essays have appeared in
The North American Review, Fiction International, Epoch, PRISM international, Weber Studies, Western Humanities Review, and elsewhere. His work has been nominated for both the Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays. In 1996, he received a Creative Writers' Fellowship Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Editor of War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities, he's editor, too, of Aftermath: An Anthology of PostVietnam Fiction (Henry Holt, 1995). Presently, he directs Creative Writing at the United States Air Force Academy.
See other work published in Weber Studies by Donald Anderson:  Vol. 12.1.

 

I'd started junior high before my father stood at full height to box me. Before that, he kneeled on folded ore bags, canvas sacking he'd brought home from the mines. He used the same two bags to stow the gloves. They were pillow gloves, maybe twenty-ouncers.

My father could have tagged me at will, but what he did was tap at me and root me on to slug him. "Belt me," he'd say. "Go on." I once managed to sneak through his guard to bloody his nose. The bloom on his face shocked me. My father tapped back before he tilted his head to walk to the sink. I stowed the boxing gloves in the ore bags for him. I was twelve years old.

When my father was a boy, he worked like a man to support his family: a father, mother, and sister. My father's father was a boxer and a gambler and a drunk. My father adored him. When my grandfather died, my father said to me, "You knew him as a drunk, but he was a god. You don't know. I should know."

By the time he was twelve, it was three years into the Great Depression. Tall for his age, my father was driving a truck in Butte, Montana, hawking firewood door-to-door. He sold the wood he'd helped his father cut. Most of my father's wood customers were unemployed. If people had money at all, he said, they were converting to coal.

My grandfather had rigged up a false-bottomed truck, so that when my father sold a "cord" of wood, he had to stack it so it wouldn't look short. "How you do that?" I asked, because we burned wood at our house and because I helped him to split the wood and to stack it. "Show me."

"No."

My father was not encouraged to attend school from the sixth grade on. "I was tired all the time and ashamed of my clothes. I wouldn't be a kid again for nothing." My father finished high school, and managed even—supporting his own new family as well as his mother and father—to complete two years at the Montana School of Mines. His dream had been to be a metallurgical engineer, the science of procedures to extract precious metals from ore. "Fancy sluicing," my father said, "that's all."

When I was admitted into a graduate English program, my father offered his briefcase. The year I'd started high school, my father quit the mines for six months to try his hand at sales, but he couldn't sell enough asphalt seal to equal what he made in the mines, so was forced back underground. The briefcase he'd used for his failed sales was the one he gave me to use. When I completed my degree, my father asked for the briefcase. I emptied it, handed it over. "It was just a lend," he said. I don't now remember the name of the sealant my father had sold, but the word "Texas" was in it. He'd had the words tooled into the side of the brief case.

My father was bewildered by my choice of English. Not that he didn't respect the art of literature, he said. He could repeat from memory long sections of "Hiawatha" or "The Courtship of Miles Standish," and the full texts of poems like "The Village Blacksmith" and "The Cremation of Sam McGee."

And he invented bedtime stories, serials he recounted about Indian boys, eagles, Eskimos, bears, gold fields, the Nez Perce, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. There were dogs in most of his stories. I remember, in particular, a story about an enchanted Hereford bull. In this story, my father invents a displaced prince who is saved by a magic bull. Large as a shed, the animal runs like the wind and talks. And: whenever Jack the Prince is hungry, he unscrews the bull's horn: a cornucopia filled with food and drink. In the story, too, is a dragon, a wicked Queen stepmother, a wicked bull, a weak King, a comely princess, a big-headed and loyal dog, and a jaunty crew of Royal cowboys. The story ran on for weeks. My friends came to hear my father's inventions as my father's pals had tagged home with him to the wood yard to watch my grandfather manhandle logs, then hand-saw them. "Arms like a god," my father reported.

When I graduated from high school, my father handed me his Faber slide rule and Dietzgen drafting set. For years he had worked to laud math and the convenience of the slide rule in my presence. He touted the profits of Powers and Hyperbolic Logarithms and Roots. Like poems, he could recite the rules and functions he'd put to memory from trigonometry and his college calculus years before.

On the one-month anniversary of my father's death at seventy-three, I called home. My mother was out, so my father answered the phone. During his forty years in smelters and mines in Utah and Montana, and even after he'd retired, my father had run a landscaping business for extra income from out of the home. His voice on the answering machine, he said, "I can't come to the phone now, but if you'll leave your name and number and the time you called…" I phoned back to hear the recording.

On the third Sunday following my father's death, I drove to Safeway for mozzarella for pizza. I'd started to try to do normal things, like cooking, but in the grocery—this place of reason and set exchange: everything priced—other patrons seemed to be shopping without event. For a time, I stood and watched the shoppers shop (Sprite, Lean Cuisine, Colorado Scratch Lotto—Ace in the Hole, High Roller, Barrel of Bucks, Score—cigarettes, Coors), then found the cheese, Safeway's own brand: shredded milk in resealable plastic. Heading for the registers, I came face-to-face with a display of Wells Lamont work gloves. There they were: the Handyandys, the Mules, the Tuff-Guys, the Grippers. I burst into tears. There was no helping this. I might as well have ordered my stomach valves to swing open or shut, the sponge or the press of my kidneys. I escaped Safeway, but on my way out what I craved was for someone to stop me long enough to ask what was wrong—for when this occurred, I meant to injure the person. I meant to administer a blow.

At the mortuary I'd felt this way. I disliked the funeral director even before he pitched his script. I disliked his using my mother's first name. Now he rose for the showroom tour. All the time he'd been speaking, his back had been to the casket showroom: a scaldingly lit room behind uncurtained glass. Because we faced the director, we had faced the room. It was a lot like watching welding.

Although up and ready, backing towards the overlit room, the director was dodging the topic of burial cost by discussing coffin accouterments: gaskets, liners, weather stripping, ornament, finish. Equipage, he actually said. I wanted to lay an arm about the director's taller shoulders to whisper, smiling, something raw in his ear. What I did was ask the director to please, if he would, excuse us. "Oh my," he said. "Of course," he said, then rushed from the room.

My youngest brother and I stayed at the mortuary while my mother rode home with my sisters. I'd asked my mother to entrust my brother and me with selecting the coffin. My brother and I had just closed the showroom door, when the director reappeared. I shot him a look through the glass. Without turning about, he slid off. He seemed to be gliding on ball bearings.

The coffins had names, like resort condos: Sequoia, Sierra, Cascade. Without warning, I was struck with the notion that I was not where I was, but in a Soapbox-Derby or dog-sled store—basic frames for the buyer's sequent choice of spoked wheels or steel runners. I could have been standing in an outlet for damaged goods: coffee tables, say, with warped tops, or half-assed trunks, or single-bed waterbed bargains. Everything—in a room of one-size-fits-all—seemed the designed consequence of shoddy work. Or accident: spot-lit accident.

You live long enough to learn every accident is not unfortunate. It was accident that kept my father from war. In 1940, he'd wanted to enlist in the Navy. He and a pal meant to sign up so long as they could be promised the same ship. They both signed, but after a physical, my father was refused enlistment because of a damaged eye—a childhood mishap (a flying wood chip) in my grandfather's wood yard. My father's pal died aboard ship at Pearl Harbor. My father married three years later: New Year's Day, 1944.

Now, three weeks shy of the fiftieth marking of this day, my brother and I were deciding on our father's coffin. We selected wood. My father had taught us professional tree work: to prune a tree, to top a tree, to remove one. When we removed trees, he would remark on the grain and pattern of stumps, compute a tree's age, further studying rings to disclose for us hard winters, unadvertised disease, and other untoward, now seeable hurt. My brother and I chose a dark-grained box.

 

I was a freshman in high school—1961—when Gary Cooper, my father's movie hero, died. Felled, the man who'd been, my father said, Marco Polo, Lou Gehrig, Sergeant York. My father had told me about Alvin York. A basic story of good and evil, told in simple and profound terms, was how I heard it: a conscientious objector who could shoot. Alvin York, the pacifist crack-shot, kills twenty Germans and captures one hundred thirty-two others—the largest bagging of prisoners by a single soldier in the recorded history of war. York's flanking and destruction of the German machine-gun nests had saved thousands. Ever the averse hero, York had killed to stop the killing he said. Cooper won an Oscar for the 1941 role.

Eleven years later, Gary Cooper was awarded a second Oscar for his role as Will Kane, the cowboy marshal of High Noon. I was six years old when this, "the first adult western," was shot, so it was later that my father explained it: on the day of his retirement from the law and his marriage to a Quaker girl, Cooper, as Kane, controls his fear and waits for four outlaws who are coming to town to kill him. In a fit of panic, Cooper had been fleeing with his new bride. My father related how Cooper, of a sudden, pulls up. There is a shot of Cooper in the buckboard with Grace Kelly. The horse stills and the dust settles in the open prairie. "I've got to go back," Cooper says, then turns the buckboard towards town.

No longer officially the law and under no sensible person's moral obligation, Cooper returns to defend the town and the rightness of his having put the honcho outlaw into prison years before. Let down by townsfolk and friends, Cooper alone faces the bully outlaw and his murderous crew. Not lost on my father is that Grace Kelly, Cooper's Quaker wife, fires a bullet just in time to kill one of the outlaws to save her new husband's life. Also not lost is that Cooper, business finished, drops his tin star in the dirt. I've learned that Cooper had been ill throughout the thirty-one days of the filming of High Noon, which was why he'd looked so convincingly haggard and drawn. It was this natural appearance on screen that as much as anything helped Cooper collect his second Academy Award.

In any case, Frank James ("Gary") Cooper—my father's senior by nineteen years—had been born in Helena, Montana, less than an hour's drive from Butte, where my father'd been raised, been wed, and his own children had been born. Gary Cooper, my father's immortal, died at sixty, an unlucky thirteen years sooner than my own father at seventy-three.

When my father died, I wrote to two friends. One wrote:

I was your age when my own father died, and my reaction must have been similar to your own. I went through the rituals of it—the funeral home, the greeting of visitors, the burial, the post-burial Jewish gathering of mourners who had to be fed as they wept. I was shepherding my children as well as my own emotions and went through it all dry-eyed. Then about two weeks later, alone with Carole in a restaurant, suddenly, like you, I began to weep. I no longer remember the cue, but doubt if it was as sensible as working gloves. Maybe the realization that so long as my father lived, I was still somebody's kid.

And the other, whose father had died two years before:

It is the time afterward that is toughest. You are hit unexpectedly by grief, with all defenses down. Suddenly you see someone who looks like your father, or someone about the same age, or you see something he would have liked, or hear someone say something he might have, and you are hit by his absence, by the fact that you can't ask him something only he would know.

I once called my father to have him walk me through on the phone the downing of a diseased elm beside my home. I knew how to remove the tree, had felled numbers of such trees with him. I'd phoned because I'd wanted my father to walk me through it, because I'd wanted him to know I was downing a tree, because I'd wanted him to know I knew who knew what to do.

"Notch it high so when you back-cut you'll be standing, not kneeling. You want to be able to move when a tree falls. Back-cut parallel to the notch, but higher—six…eight inches up—that way, the tree'll fall slow. But," he said, "you know that." He told me to call him later. "Let me know."

I arrived in Montana after my father had been removed from the hospital, so the first I saw him was at the wake. In his coffin, he looked as tall to me as he had when I was a boy, and as large-handed. I've been both a son and a father long enough to know about the reciprocal failures of parents and children, and I didn't have to wait for my father to die to know I loved him, or he me. The wake was no tallying up, but there was this: in his coffin, my father looked resourceless. Impounded. Ungloved. He looked too heavy to lift.

My mother'd been pleased my father's hands had been crossed in such a way that the right covered the left, which had been bruised by needles in the ICU, a thing she told me recently on the phone. During this call, I asked if Dad actually read things I'd published and sent home. "Oh, his one eye always bothered him," she said. I told Mom I'd called earlier, that Dad had answered the phone, that his voice was on the machine. "I know, but I'm going to wait," she said. "I'm waiting."

 

Ungiven to work, my father's father preferred to play cards, drink, box. He'd show at one of the mines in Butte on paydays, between shifts, to challenge all comers: winner-take-all. An opponent would be picked or come forth, someone would pass a hat, and, generally, my grandfather would sally home with the hat and the cash.

During the `30s, Dixie LaHood visited Butte where my grandfather boxed him. Kid Dixie was a local, but also, at the time, a regarded regional tough who'd held his own against name fighters in San Francisco, Reno, Ogden, Salt Lake. He'd had a spot, my father claimed, on the fight card in Shelby, Montana, the day Jack Dempsey managed finally to control an impertinent Tommy Gibbons.

My grandfather and LaHood were light-heavies. In a ring in the City Civic Center, my grandfather stepped through the ropes in his work shoes and stripped off his shirt. He wore long pants and a belt. Gloved-up, he took more than he gave, then one-eyed—one eye punched shut—rared back and jockeyed a right that knocked Kid Dixie LaHood senseless. In the center of the Depression, my grandfather stepped out of the ring, bare-chested, took his shirt and earnings, then walked home with my father, his son. How many chances like that does a father have?

The year I was twelve—the year I bloodied his nose—I accompanied my father to the mine on weekends. Saturdays, he and his crew worked half-days above ground to write up their reports. Dad and I'd pack lunches and head for the Lexington together. One Friday night, my father talked about this mining engineer who, coming off shift, had taken to sitting in the sampling office at my father's desk. My father was head sampler at the Lexington mine, boss of a day crew that collected ore for assaying. As I understood it, the mining engineer and his night crew, on their way to the showers, would track up the sampling office in the mornings before my father and his day crew arrived. The engineer had gone so far as to prop his grimed boots on the top of my father's desk.

The engineer was a good-sized man, I heard my father tell my mother. I heard him tell her, too, that he'd told the engineer if he caught him in his chair with his boots up, he'd knock him right to the floor. My father had announced this in front of both crews. I understood that the beef was about the two crews—the samplers and engineers, the day and night crews—though I understood, too, that if the drama played out, it would play out between only two from the crews: my father and the engineer.

My ears popped on the ascent in the car up the hill to the mine. We drove, then parked, then walked to my father's office. I sped ahead, saw the engineer first. He was tilted back in my father's castored chair, dirty boots on the desk. His back to us, he was laughing and talking. I stopped. My father's stride neither quickened nor slowed. He walked past me into the office, kicked the chair. The engineer crashed to the floor. He sprang up, almost tear-eyed, but howling and ready. My father turned to his locker, extracted a set of red boxing gloves—where had those come from?—handed a pair to the engineer. These gloves were not twenty-ouncers. They looked like mittens you could wear ice fishing, though my father and the engineer donned them to box. In the mine yard, in front of two crews, my father conducted a clinic in fisticuffs.

That Saturday we left the Lexington before we ate lunch. We stopped at Clark Park. From here I could see the Civic Center where my grandfather had decked Dixie LaHood, and I could see the hoist frame of the Lexington mine on the hill. My father and I sat on a bench and ate our lunches in the open air. An X-ray was to show torn cartilage and cracked ribs, but my father, head sampler, missed no work.

Diagnosed with cancer, my father decided to refuse chemo then died in less than a day: four heart attacks in fourteen hours. A real worker, waiting of any sort, for my father, if not unvirtuous, was no virtue. A few years back, following prostate surgery—one day out of the hospital—he climbed a tree to trim it. He fell from the tree, broke a leg.

What I know of my grandfather I know mostly from the stories my father told me. It's true I remember my father's father as a savaged drunk, but I should trust my father's stories as my sons should trust mine, for when I die and take my memories of my grandfather's son, who will be left to love him?

I've not wanted to tell this story until I dreamed of my dead father. I'd written already what you've read about my father falling, after surgery, from a tree, and, in dream he falls too, and it's the same tree, but instead of work gloves, he sports boxing mitts. In the dream, he grins, waves his oxblood fists. He speaks to me for the first time since the answering machine. I expect, "I can't come to the phone," but what he says is, "If you want to call me that, smile," Gary Cooper's response to Walter Huston in The Virginian after Huston calls him an SOB. I don't call my father a name, or by name, but I smile. For his part, he falls and falls, ready to break a leg. More often than not my father was in just such a rush, an accident waiting to happen.

 

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