Sunday, June 15, 2014

A special Father's Day

My dad learned a thing or two from me, too.
This Father's Day is a special one, because it is the first in which I do not have a father.

A living father at least -- although I now only see more how much he lives on in the ripples that ripple on in myself, in my kids, in the people who knew him best, and, likely, in some who knew him little.

And I felt those ripples the first time after he passed away when I was unexpectedly given an unusual task: to write my dad's obituary for the local paper, the Cibola Beacon.

I hadn't written an obituary since Reporting 101 at CU-Boulder. So I did the next best reportorial thing: I read other obits. And what I found (at least in the back issues of the Cibola Beacon that I read), was the "obituary" was that they were basically a narrative resume, bulleting the highlights of the deceased individual's work, occupation, and career.

I found this sort of odometer-reading approach to life reflected again at the mortuary where my dad's remains remained that first day. While filling out a form for the State of New Mexico (death is very well documented event), the mortician asked me what my dad's "occupation" had been. I said he was retired. I was told "retired" is not an occupation. Well, I replied, it was the way my dad did it.

So, when it came time to pen my dad's resume/obituary, here's what I came up with:

Richard "Dick" Wright was born in Marlborough, Mass., in 1938. He lived, worked, and raised his two children in New England until 1985. He, his wife, Jean, and daughter, Kim, then lived in Columbia, S.C., until 1999, when he and Jean moved to Grants to retire.

Their life in Grants was anything but "retired." Dick and Jean were active for many years in the local geology club, AARP, and the arts council. A gifted mechanic and skilled builder, he was always willing to take on projects for family, friends, and neighbors. He also was an artist who painted, built custom doll houses, and shaped walking staffs from natural materials.
Dick was a lifelong hunter, fisherman, and hiker. In the 1950s, he traveled the world as a machinist in U.S. Navy. In the 1960s, he was a two-time Massachusetts state archery champion. He also was a self-taught historian, and many of his frequent road trips were to see for himself the places he'd read about.

He was also a dedicated father and grandfather who believed in including his children and grandchildren in his travels, explorations, hobbies, and crafts.

Dick was a devoted husband to Jean, his wife of 55 years. He passed away January 23, 2014.

That was more accurate than a resume, I  know, because my dad's occupation -- his true work -- was something deeper than mere title, rank, employment, or trade. My dad's true work? It was, basically, to put it in his own New England vernacular, Do Shit. And I would add, as a front-row of observer and often co-participant over a long period of time, Learn Shit From The Shit You Do.

Because that is what I saw my dad do, and do best: Experience. And evolve. That is what he did, what he worked at, irregardless of whatever else was occupying or demanding his time at any particular time. He experienced it. He learned from it. And he applied what he learned.

Experience. Evolve. Those were my dad's skills and occupations.

That's enough to keep someone engaged for a lifetime.

And seeing that in action shaped me. So for this special Father's Day, I offer an essay I wrote several years ago about what it was like growing up with my dad.

Going Native
“We are Indian. Only part Indian, but it makes a difference.”

My father was right about one thing when he said that to me, an 8-year-old boy out hunting with his dad for the first time, ripe-to-bursting for just such a profundity from his generally a-philosophic father: We were part Indian. A genetic cocktail, for sure, and your basic Northeastern non-Blue Blood mix -- one that could have resulted from our French Canadian, English, and Algonquian ancestors partying together at some bacchic celebration of the end the French and Indian War.

As for the part about it making a difference, well, that came to be true over time, over the course of the years that followed that watershed day of walking with him and his bow through the crisp, crimson-leafed Vermont woods. But it didn’t make a difference in the way one might think -- I never became nor have I ever considered myself Native American, at least not with a capital “N.” I see the long-term effect of that statement as more like how a microscopic deflection of a spacecraft as it passed the moon might make it miss Mars by a million miles. At midlife, it seems my life missed its orbit around our nice, normal, productive, and profitable early-21st Century American lifestyle. My life was deflected by that simple statement toward a star that is much older, with a gravity field much more ancient than that has captured most folks I know.

My dad rarely brought up our small slice of Indian-ness after that day. The reason for so little elaboration of such a portentous statement, I believe, is that he didn’t really think it was that important. My father never claimed any special cultural connection to Native America because of that trace of blood any more than he claimed to know Parisian culture because we also had a genetic French connection. Aside from a token ration of genes, we weren't in any way Indians and never pretended to be. In fact, as a kid, the closest contact I ever came with an actual Indian was my great-grandfather. He and my great grandmother were the last full-blood Indians in our family, but she had died in a car accident when my father was still a kid. My father's grandfather, though, would pop up every now and then in my childhood, making random, unscheduled visits. (“Grandpa runs on ‘Indian time’,” my dad would explain, meaning there’s nothing to explain.)

Even though my great grandfather was “Indian” to me (in a way my grandfather never was, even he was also technically full-blood Indian, because he was always just my grandfather to me) my memories of him are not very “Indian,” in any stereotypical sense.

As a kid, on many Sundays, my father and I would drive up to my grandfather’s place, a single-wide trailer set in the New Hampshire woods. I would hang out with my father and grandfather as they drank beer and listened to country music on a transistor radio under a big screened-in canopy, unzipping the door only to toss a game of horseshoes. A couple of times each summer, though, my great-grandfather would show up to join us. I still hold in my mind -- the only place a picture remains -- the image of this barely five-foot guy with skin the texture of a walnut shell, sitting silently in a cheap lawn chair and smoking rancid cigars. Or wordlessly -- he rarely spoke -- rising to throw a seemingly endless string of ringers, then returning to his chair and a can of Black Label.

We never saw him in the winter. He disappeared for the cold months, driving alone around the country in a "Mini Winnie," one of those tiny Winnebago campers. He did this until he voluntarily turned in his driver's license at 92 years old, the same year he gave up the cigars.

That’s the extent of my “Indian” résumé: a few cryptic statements, an apparition of an old man, and maybe this big Raven beak-like nose of mine. Unless I had $100 in my pocket, that wouldn’t even get me into a tribal casino, never mind onto a tribal register somewhere.

Nevertheless, we did have a tribe to aspire to, if we had wanted to. My great-grandparents were Abenaki, an Algonquian people once found (actually, getting “found” was when their problems began) from northern New England and the southern Maritimes, down to Cape Cod or so. But if I were forced to file a form about it with the government, under “tribe of origin” I’d pencil in "New England Redneck."

I mean "redneck" in its best sense, its operational definition: that uniquely American critter, the blue-collar outdoorsmen with the butt-white back and sun-fried head. That was my parents and their cronies: They worked hard during the week, then on their weekends and two-week vacations we were more often than not dragged out fishing, hunting, camping, and walking all over the New England countryside, or out playing sports -- softball, hockey, racing motorcycles. The country life. In fact, I grew up thinking country music songs were written specifically about my parents and their friends. Like this verse from Johnny Rodriguez:

Jimmy was a drinking kind of man,
he loved to hear a good hillbilly band.
The scar across his face was Jimmy’s brand,
‘cause Jimmy was a drinking kind of man.

“He had to have met Jimmy somewhere, maybe in a bar sometime, or fishing or something, but somewhere,” my dad would profess whenever that song came on. And I knew what he meant. My father’s buddy Jimmy liked to drink, and you couldn’t think about him without picturing that gory-yet-venerable scar down his face from where his head had passed, not without some difficulty, through a windshield. To a kid whose heroes were hunters and fishermen, Jimmy was absolutely someone worthy of immortalizing in song.

“Like this new jacket?” Jimmy asked me one opening day of hunting season.  We stood on the side of a dirt road somewhere in the backwoods of Vermont gathering gear from the truck in the chilly autumn predawn. This, though, was not just any morning: this was to be the first morning I was allowed to walk into the woods with my own gun. Everything sparkled, everything moved slowly. My arms and legs were heavy. Jimmy’s question broke my trance, some.

He  turned left and right, arms raised so I could get a good look at his recent purchase of plaid wool.

“I like it,” I said.

“Me too,” he agreed putting down his arms, resting one hand on my shoulder. “Don’t ruin it by blowing a fucking hole in it.”

And there were others, all of them just builders, machinists, mechanics, and sheet-metal workers during the week; and on days off, fishermen, hunters, sportsmen, habitual orienteerers, and natural naturalists. What was called back then “woodsmen.” But weekend woodsmen. What are today called Rednecks. For me, though, and for their kids who became my childhood friends, fate and circumstance decreed these men be our guides through our youth and its rites of passage. My father and his buddies had been doing this stuff together since they were kids, and now they were doing it with their kids, passing it on to us. We were Rednecks in training.

My father’s role in the tribe was historian. Self-taught, of course. The only tangible product of his studies of New England history was the many, many afternoons, days, weekends, and weeks our family spent driving around Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, and New Brunswick in our family’s camper. When I was a kid, my personal “Magic School Bus” was a 1967 blue Ford Pickup with an Open Road camper on its back, and Buck Owens or Tom T. Hall or Johnny Cash drawling from an 8-track player. Friday evenings my sister and I would fall asleep in the back and wake up in some other part of  New England. For two days we’d traipse around rivers, mountains, marshes, and lakes looking for animals, fish, and whatever else New England was and is.

And for something else, something a bit more elusive, but, ultimately, just as important.

We were, as I said, usually fishing or hunting or just walking, but those were also often just an excuse for my father's arm-chair academic agenda: finding ‑- usually with a lot of map interpreting, trial‑and‑error driving, and backcountry bushwhacking ‑- the places where the Northeast's history took place. These places were so hard to find because my dad generally wasn't concerned with the standard, big events of history. This meant that New England's classic and quaint inns and fishing towns and overgrown post roads and battlefields and townsites were often on our program, but they were just sojourns on the way to our real destination. All of us followed along as my father followed his eyes, searching for his real obsession: the Indians.

Unlike in the Southwest, in the Northeast there is little sign of Native life left. Their organic handiworks were ephemeral in the wet and verdant hills and valleys and seashores of the Northeast. And to ye olde English/nouveau New Englanders, whose priorities were spreading their own divinely sanctioned culture and saving savage souls, the ways of the wayward heathens were not worth preserving. This didn't deter my dad, though. What had been overgrown and reclaimed in terms of dwellings, artifacts, tools, and village sites, what had been killed off in terms of surviving traditions, skills, knowledge, and cultural remnants, what was now buried under pavement and cleared pasture and red-brick and white-clapboard towns, he made up for with educated deduction.

With information from books field-tested with first-hand observation, we drew lines of both reasoning and feeling from what we'd read through what we saw. Continuing on, extrapolating outward (or inward, into our genetic memories, via our inherited intuition) toward what it must have been like to live then and there. Although we never did find a single arrowhead, petroglyph, or rotting wickiup, I nonetheless would leave those trips having seen birchbark canoes running rapids, having eaten lunch in summer fishing villages, having stalked whitetails with a hand-made bow and quiver-full of arrows. I tasted, at least a little, what it must have taken to live there, on that land, off that land.

I couldn't and wouldn't even dare estimate how many Saturdays we spent on these forays into the past with my parents, often accompanied by their gang of like-minded friends and their kids, driving winding blacktop or four wheeling in our two-wheel-drive pickup (I learned to drive by taking the helm of that mud-sunk truck while my dad was out pushing), or walking along languid and redolent rivers and rocky brooks, or orienteering our way through soggy second-growth forests, or climbing forested ridgelines and bald granite monadnocks, all the while striving to perceive the New England landscape as the Indians must have seen it, trying to see it as they would perceive it today.  

This was our study, although it, of course, never felt like studying. It was just what we did, it was just what we were doing. It was just fun. It was just a bunch of Redneck weekends. But something insidious was being birthed in all this. The changes were under way: My eyes were being trained to see the land, even under the inevitable festering of highways and towns and subdivisions that spilled across New England in the 1960s and ‘70s. I was learning how to go native.

Let me make this clear: I don't believe, of course, my parents or their friends had any real plan, blueprint, strategy, educational outline, or guiding vision they were following here. It is only in retrospect that I can set all this up neatly and coherently in the lucid terms of hindsight. I wasn't be lectured to about this whole loopy view I’m today calling “going native.” I was doing it.

Yet I must say, that in this hind-sight view it makes perfect sense that my parents’ ramblings around New England would have such a profound impact on me: isn’t that what tribes of parents and kids, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters have done for the past million and a half years or so? Not just passing on that day’s social skills, but also bestowing on the next generation that deeper knowledge and those timeless experiences that humans living on the land need to survive: skills for self-reliance, awareness of an historical connection with the landscape, kinship with some greater bonded group of people, and the honing of  those things in the field through risk, adventure, trial and test.

Now isn’t that “native”?

Isn’t that human?

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I'd like to acknowledge physicist and author Thomas Campbell for that particular summation of the human endeavor -- "experience and evolve" -- that I shameless employ here.

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