Father's Day: The Long Journey Home
June 8, 2012
The grey-haired man and his son rode together down a highway that rose up and disappeared beyond the rim of the caprock, leading them on toward an endless stretch of miles that turned into years and finally memories. It was open country, awesome, too stubborn to change, to rugged to ever hold any footprints that seemed out of place or civilized.
The grey-haired man smiled. It was his country. He had left his sweat but not his roots in the sand and shinnery that crawled across the foothills, and the land had always been too temperamental to be a friend. It had burnt him during those summers when the sky swallowed up the clouds and refused to rain. It had chilled him to the bone when those blue northers gathered over Amarillo and came barreling across the prairie with neither hill nor tree to slow them down. Yet he missed the country that held the ghosts of his childhood. It may never be his friend. But it would never really be a stranger either.
And for a time, he was coming home.
Father and son rode for miles in silence. Thirty-four years separated their ages, but the country drew them closer together, and the grey-haired man began unlocking the secrets that had been buried for so long inside him. Maybe he had forgotten until now. After all, they did happen so long ago. Maybe he had never bothered to speak of them because he figured no one cared about his early years and the hard times that trailed him like a shadow.
For the first time, I began to know and understand the man whose blood flowed in my own veins. Sons seldom have that opportunity. For them, fathers are merely stern, even austere figures of authority, and the grey-haired man had never believed in spoiling the child by sparing the rod.
He was just someone who worked hard for long hours and little pay. He kept food on the table and love in the house. But he had always spent too much time being a provider and a father to ever be a companion.
The homecoming changed all of that.
My father became just a man, full of good humor and human foibles, nothing more than a little boy who grew up and had one of his own. He had been amongst the poor and didn’t know it. So had I, and I didn’t know it either. He was the reason. I thought my father rose early every morning, packed a lunch pail and went to work. I found out years later that he rose early every morning, packed a lunch pail and went out to look for a job. He usually found one but never knew how long the job would last. He didn’t mind. He could always find another.
At Stamford, he had slept at night in the wagon yards, lying on the ground, using his belly for cover. The horses bedded down in warm, comfortable pens and had oats to eat. The grey-haired man had nothing. He had spent his last fifteen cents to make sure the horses were well taken care of. He understood if he had to go hungry. The horses didn’t, so they never did.
He had once driven an old Model T from Dickens to Lubbock, and it took him all day. The car wasn’t slow. The roads were. And the rocks kept pinching the tires. The grey-haired man hadn’t been worried about his gas mileage. Gas was as plentiful as mesquite beans and almost as cheap. But he did run short of rubber that day. He could hardly drive for stopping to patch the inner tubes and fix flats.
“How many did you have?” I asked.
“That must have been bad.”
My father shrugged. “It was better than fourteen,” he said, I guessed that it was.
As we crossed the Salt Fork of the Brazos River, the father looked back at an old sandbar, and he wondered if it could have been the same one that hid in the creek water fifty-five years ago. He doubted it, but it sure looked familiar.
His brother had been drinking that night when he eased his Model T up to the muddy banks of the Brazos. There was no bridge, so he decided he would make one. After all, the bottle that he emptied could turn just about anybody into a pretty good engineer. The car literally flew off the banks, and the tires hit into the sandbar and clawed their way straight to the bottom. By morning, only the windshield was peeking out of the quicksand.
“Did your brother lose the car?” I asked
“He sold it for ten dollars.”
“What did the buyer do when he found it in the sand.”
“He borrowed a shovel and dug it out.”
That was probably the first car the young man had ever owned. It was probably the first ten-dollar bill he had ever seen, much less spent in one place.
Father and son drove slowly into downtown Aspermont. One felt like he was home. I knew I was a stranger. Before us loomed an old red brick courthouse, one that had seen better days but couldn’t remember when.
“I spent a little time in jail right there,” the grey-haired man said.
I was stunned. I had never imagined my good, honest, God-fearing father in a cell, and somehow the thought of him behind bars struck me as funny. I laughed. My father was human after all.
“I was thirteen years old at the time,” he confessed.
“The sheriff picked me up and kept me until I could testify to the grand jury about a man he had arrested for making whiskey in the backyard.”
“Did you know anything about it?”
“I helped him make it.”
“What did you tell the grand jury?”
“Did the sheriff know it?”
“Sure he did.’
“What did he do?”
“Nothing,” he said. My father grinned and ran his crooked fingers through a patch of grey hair. “The sheriff was the best-paying moonshine customer we had.”
“Then why did he arrest the man?”
My father grinned again. “Election year,” he said.
For father and son both, it had indeed been a homecoming. The grey-haired man trekked across a land that hadn’t felt his footsteps for a long time. And the boy, on the rim of the caprock, met a father he had never known quite so well before. It was a trip one would remember and one would forever cherish.
The winds have long since blown the footprints away.
Now only the caprock remains.