Dad, a Dolphin, and Being Tough

I sat in the parent/teacher's meeting. The meeting was because of me. It wasn't funny at this point. All eyes were on me. "I don't know how you teach a class with him in there," said one of the substitutes to my teacher, Mrs. Livengood. It wasn't a pretty moment, not now. I always thought it was cool to get in trouble, but you can only go down that road so far until the good graces of your authority figures runs out. My lying and carrying on and causing scenes was finally catching up with me.

I was only now regretting it, sitting in that very quiet meeting with the uneven hum of the air conditioner blowing. I wanted to get a zero the day before and get busted. That way, I would stay popular with the worse behaved students in the class. Oddly enough, I never got a butt-whipping for getting suspended, only threatened with them. But if I recall correctly, I never gave Mrs. Livengood problems anymore, not major ones.

That summer, we were in Corpus Christi on a week-long vacation. There was a cracked, bright yellow Igloo we took on every vacation we ever went on. We must have bought it in the 70s and we still have it. And there it sat, full of cold cokes, Hi-Cs, and hotdogs, which we ate cold in cheap hotel rooms and on the beach.

This was a relaxing but trying vacation. I got the worst sunburn of my life then. I turned red-purple. Sleeping was agony. The whole vacation was a sort of agony. It was four days of sand getting tracked onto our clean clothes and luggage and not being able to get it out--and it got into dad's '81 Ford F-150 with a camper. He had just bought it new not long before. It was a column-shift standard transmission, 3-speed, with a straight six. The air conditioner would always spit cold water on us.

We were forced to sleep in the back of it one night, like sardines, as dad snored. He can wake up sleepers on the second floor of a two-story house, I kid you not. At least two nights we were there. The cheap hotels were a relief. Sis wasn't born yet. It was just bro and I enjoying life in the summer of '82.

Dad wanted to throw Frisbee. I couldn't catch it, just like I couldn't a football. I once spent two hours trying to make one basket. I never could. Dad wanted me to get involved in sports at school. I tried. Failed miserably to the scorn of my competitors. Every failure was a visibly noticeable disappointment to dad. You could see it in his eyes. I would sit out as bro and he threw the Frisbee or play-fight while I went shopping with mom.

We were nearly broke in those days, and though I had no idea what that was like, I knew it had to be like being told, "No, you can't buy a Gobot." I would still tread along with mom, asking if I could buy something on the off-chance I would get lucky. Sometimes she would give in.

On the trip, I wanted this dolphin, this grayish-blue and white, dolphin toy that squeaked. Mom said, "We'll ask dad." I wanted it so badly, but I knew what dad would say if I asked. We get ready to go, head back to the gift shop inside this one hotel-restaurant where we were staying where mom was grabbing a few things, and I muster up the courage to ask dad: "I want this dolphin. Can I have it?"

Dad gave me this long stare: "That’s a baby toy! You fucking baby!" he said, obviously still irked that I wasn't a natural athlete like my baby brother of four years old. Then we got in the car and waited for mom. Dad kept this long frown on his face the whole way home, but we were all ready to be back.

You had to understand dad. He wasn't abusive, but he wasn't refined either…or civil as often as he should have been. Getting a swift kick in the behind for acting like a jack-ass could happen right in front of your friends. Refuse to get a haircut and dad would sit you down in that chair and make a scene--the end result being, you'd be getting a haircut! Dad was a simple man. I still don't know what mom saw in him. She was very intellectual, high-functioning, articulate. She remains one of the fastest readers I have ever known.

She always wanted a college man, a professor, a charmer. Dad was an athlete though, and there were things she liked about him. But it was never what he said. Dad was the type of guy who would come home eating a banana and step into our room as bro and I were playing action figures and say: "You kids playing with toys?" Uh...yeah! Looks that way!

He wasn't stupid. He was (is) an accountant for a well-known cement plant. But he wasn't a complex man and he had so little to say. That Primitive Baptist mother of his we loved, but she raised him, saying: "Be pertty at school today!" Grandma told us that too when we stayed over. We asked her what it meant. She could only hold up her hands as though imitating driving down the road and say: " pertty." We loved grandma, but the intellectual level of the household was "pertty" low.

Grandma thought that dad always had bad teeth because when pregnant with him, she once stared too long at a man who had bad teeth. No joke. She got this belief from the Bible (see Genesis 30:25-43). Only other thing I can say is, she more than made up for it by allowing us to stay two and three weeks out at the ranch and have loads of fun every summer, which we always did, gorging, feeding farm animals, playing with our cousins from dad's side of the family, and tiring ourselves out in crazy play. Those were some of the best times of our lives. When we meet up, we still spend time talking about our escapades from back then.

So, we got on the road. The sand was everywhere, bothering the hell out of us. We got home and we were carried inside. Kids sleep so soundly. They can sleep through a fire alarm. Not adults. They wake up, sit up in bed, talk and laugh about things we kids did in the day, and a hundred other things we didn't understand the same way or at all.

I remember popping my eyes open in bed that very night, turning the TV on, and watching some Star Trek, and then some Million Dollar Man. I turned the TV down when I started to hear arguing from the other room: "Gollee, I can't even get a piece of ass anymore!" That was a curious statement! I had never heard it before. I knew there were some troubles, some pots and pans that got tossed around, some marital "waves," but that was all a blur to us.

Bro and I just wanted to wake up in the morning and continue with the next exciting saga of "Jack and Steve," our homemade characters of two bad-asses always in the middle of some earth-shattering problem that needed to be solved. We grabbed the play Uzis grandma got us and left behind the boring adult world for the adults. But mom and dad were fighting more often. That scared us. 

By the next school year, I seemed to be regressing into a Dukes of Hazard and Starsky and Hutch phase. Mom kept getting calls about how I never played sports in PE. I didn't socialize well and I kept getting picked on. There was a concerned school counselor who expressed his concerns and a lady counselor who said the same. They both found me fascinating, said I was gifted. Wanted to launch me into advanced classes, but I "wasn't ready emotionally just yet." They were right. But at times, they had me wondering.

I remember Mrs. Condra and Mrs. Livengood pulling me aside and saying: "This is easy stuff for you! You can do this and more! It's you who's holding you back!" Maybe they were right. Maybe I just needed a swift kick...but I was getting those.

Their saying that meant nothing to me. I honestly didn't care. I wanted to ride my bike home (which took a cool 15 minutes from Crestview Elementary School to our small one-story house in Live Oak) and then play with my incredible hulk action figures--one of three I hadn't yet snapped the arms off of. I wouldn't do anything constructive, just retreat into my world of fantasies, of superheroes and monsters, and extraneous sounds of space aliens and dimensional beings of godlike power.

It was time for an intervention, so decided dad. I was a dinky, wimpy kid who cried too easily. Dad couldn't have me turn out to be a sissy. He tried like hell to play-fight with Karate and wrestle, even stick fight. I cried almost all the way through. I would drop the gloves/sticks and he would pick them up and put them back in my hands. Dad tried, carrying me around the house and yard with the boxing gloves on, saying: "I'm going to box you until you put yours on and box me back! It's time to get tough!" I begged for mom to intervene, but she gave dad his space to try it his way. Never worked. I pulled away from him and began to hate him.

Gotta feel for dad. He always wanted an athletic son, a football boy like he was, one who wore those funny v-neck sweaters and did a thousand sit-ups on his high school steps one afternoon, like he did back in '65. He really was an athlete. Bro was his. He learned to swim at age 3 without any prompting and was the star of the Water Babies program in Live Oak, Texas. I screamed, but dad made me participate. I was mom's. I took after the German side of the family. Mother was a Special Ed teacher and her dad a high school principal and New Testament scholar.

Dad was an English/Scotch-Irish man, a guy who grew up in the English/Dutch-ish town of Nixon, Texas where you visit Brewster Brown and old Sally Caraway on the corner for watermelons..and  get to hear things like "Be pertty." Nixon is a dying town. Hap's Handy Store was the closest thing to a Wal-Mart even back in the day.

I don't blame dad for being hard, but I almost do. I often think of all the ways he could have done things better, and not done the things that alienated me from him and made me hate him--but to expect those things would have been to expect a different dad. I couldn't expect too much of him anymore than he could of me. The only thing I ever did that he liked was learn to play the guitar at his feet and hit the weights freshmen year of high school. Finally, he was pleased. He felt so honored to teach me guitar. I've never seen him light up like that--and, lo and behold, it was now clear that I wasn't a homo!

I didn't really hate dad, but I thought I did. I came to the conclusion some time ago that it wasn't all dad. I still can't bring up the subject of dad’s parenting to mom. She stresses: "Don't blame dad. You were a very difficult child." I believe her. Three doctors told my mother shortly after I was born that I was an Autistic Savant. I memorized the planets in the solar system, the name of the galaxy, and could recite the alphabet. I could also sing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star by a year and two months. But I would also scream like a banshee if I didn't get to play in a frying pan under the sink cabinets and throw ice cubes in them for about three hours at a time.

I would smear Vaseline all over every mirror in our house and prop everything up on green rulers. I loved green yardsticks. Got spanked for it, but it didn't stop me. My favorite color was green. I had a set of green keys I carried around, and when I lost them, they tell me they thought the world was going to end. And I had to have rice, lots of it. Only for a while could they placate me by sitting me out in the car and turning on the windshield wipers on sunny days. I was not an easy child. 

But it's so easy to look back and judge dad. It's so easy to "fix" things in my mind, but who knows if those things would have taken root with the "me" back then. It's pointless, anyway. We are where we are in life - parent and child - and we can't go back. What people will be the way they will be.

Many years later, it's 2003. I'm walking around a hospital gift shop. I'm a minister visiting a congregant who is about to come out of surgery and I see this...could that be it? Yes, it is! It's a dolphin, the same one I wanted so many years ago. A flood of emotions hit me. I was nearly dizzy. I almost bought it. I pick it up and hold it, as though to play with it. I squeeze it and it squeaks. There's nothing there now, just a memory.



  1. Think we do all parent the best we can, and often model after our own parenting.

    I can certainly look back, and see things that I should have done differently. Kids don't come with an instruction book, and we don't get to do test runs.

    Joe, are you able to talk with you dad about some of this stuff, and how you feel?

    I'm sure he did not intentionally mean to be, but I think some of the things that you describe really do border on child abuse.

    When you become a dad, I think you'll love, and accept your son for who he is.

  2. Weird in a way. I often think the only reason I played sports was for my dad? And like you, I was always in trouble. I think Mr. Holman is cool, he's a good ole Texas boy who don't care for little wussies who want to play with toys. And would like to get some every now and then. I bet he had a red neck wore white socks and drank blue ribbon beer?

    I love my dad very much. (although I was adopted by him when I was about 11). But he was from perfect as well. I also know I'm not a perfect dad either, but I got lucky with some good kids and they have a great mom.

    Thanks for this article, It got me counting some memories as well.

    Peace squared, feeno

  3. Dad and I talk, but not about the past much. He is a man of generally few words. He has a lot of regret for some of those things. We get along great now.

    Occasionally, I do bring them up and he totally doesn't remember. These days, we spend our time on certain hobbies, like cars and flashlights.

    He's become so complacent in recent years. His health is declining and he recently got full denchers. He gets on and off of health kicks. No real good they do him. We both have mouthsoars, like cankers, and head and scalp issues, and a few colon complications. But mostly, it's mom I take after.

    And actually, feeno, he drank Coors, but very little. And yes, bald with a red neck and 18-and-a-half inch arms. He was (and somewhat still is) a burly tough guy.


  4. Hey, that's cool you get along now.

    Your kids have a good dad, Feeno.


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