Who’s That Guy?
It’s Father’s Day, and Facebook is flooded with photos of friends with their fathers. I don’t have any photos with my father. In my house, Daddy took the pictures, and no one was allowed to touch his Polaroid camera without his permission. I have a photo of my father with his Cadillac, taken on the day that he granted me the privilege of using his camera. But I don’t think that Momma ever touched it and there wasn’t anyone else around, so no family photos.
When I look at photos of my father, I find it hard to think of him as a person – with good qualities and bad, idiosyncrasies and habits. He was 57 when I entered his life, so he had many years of backstory before I showed up. He was taciturn and quiet, not the kind of person who volunteered much information about his past. I have so many questions that will never be answered.
Why did he have a motorcycle jacket? For most of my childhood, there was a black motorcycle jacket hidden in the back of his closet. Did he ride a motorcycle when he was younger? It’s hard to imagine my Daddy on a bike. Maybe he cruised the dirt roads around his hometown of Hazard, Kentucky. When he died, I gave the jacket to one of my cousins, but I wish that I still had it.
Daddy loved baseball. I have a photo of him in a baseball uniform taken during the 1920’s or 1930’s. What position did he play? I still own his Louisville Slugger, which is in Pennsylvania with my best friend, who keeps it near her bed for protection. It still sports the black tape that he wrapped around it. Daddy went to Pirate games at Forbes Field with his friends Pete Jones and Steve Patnesky and when he couldn’t be there in person, he followed the team on the radio and television.
He also went out on Saturday nights with his friends. Where did they go? What kind of adventures did they have? I only remember him coming home drunk once. It was New Year’s Eve and he went to his room, he passed out on the floor. I remember four-foot-nine Momma and I trying in vain to pick him up. Since I slept with her, we left him on the floor and went to our room. Even though he was known to hold a grudge for decades, he had a lot of friends. He hung out with the other firemen at the Fire Hall; he sat in front of Babe’s Bar with the other retired miners; he met his Improved Benevolent brothers at the Elks Club (IBPOE) on Sunday afternoons; and he went to the SNPJ Hall for union meetings, never failing to pay his UMWA dues.
I heard rumors that in his heyday, he was a ladies’ man. I only knew of one indiscretion, which he was forced to tell me about when a strange lady came to visit him when I was sixteen, three years after Momma’s death. He told me that her daughter was also supposed to be his daughter. I was shocked, but I didn’t ask any questions. There isn’t an easy way to ask your father if he used to be a player. Where did he meet these ladies? How many were there over the years? How much did Momma know about it? I assumed that she knew, since I found out from my cousin in North Carolina after Daddy died. That explains why I wasn’t allowed to date in high school. Daddy always said, “Boys are only after one thing.” I guess he knew this from personal experience.
Daddy always loved music. I don’t think that he played an instrument, anything, but he loved play his 45s and 78s. In our house, there was a radio in every room and a stereo in the living room. He had an old reel-to-reel tape machine – a heavy monstrosity that looked like a brown suitcase when closed – filled with tapes of old blues songs. Whenever he would go to Canonsburg, the nearest town, he would always stop at Goody’s Records for the latest singles. A few months after Momma died, Daddy bought me a present – the new “Jackson 5 Third Album.” The following July, he allowed me to go to see the Jackson 5 at Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena, my first concert, accompanied by Mr. Jones’ wife. He bought me a piano and paid for weekly lessons for several years. During my late teens, we shared a love of funk music, especially Graham Central Station and the Ohio Players. Even though he didn’t like rock and roll, he never stopped me from enjoying the music that made me happy. I don’t remember if I ever saw him dance, but I bet he could “cut a rug” with the best of them back in the day.
Daddy has been gone for forty years now. Sometimes I wonder what he would think of today’s world. What would he think of my motorcycle jackets and Harley tees? He would probably tell me to dress like a lady. I think he would hate today’s finless Cadillacs and SUVs. Would he like PNC Park, or would he miss Forbes Field and Three Rivers Stadium? Would he be shocked that at 59, I have never been to a baseball game? What would he think of CDs and music streaming? He would probably hate the sound quality and stick to vinyl. He would be pissed that in spite of the money he spent, I still can’t play the piano. Sometimes, when I see a restored vintage car or hear an old blues song, I think, “Daddy would have liked that.”
But I will never know the secrets of the young man that he was. I can only guess at his life in the decades before I was born. But all of those years of adventure and experience, mistakes and triumphs, made him the man that I was proud to call Father