When dad's boat started drifting, it led to a new understanding and a new life for his son.
The Loveable Imitation Mordecai Brown
My father stopped playing the guitar when the middle three fingers on his left hand were surgically removed with one thump of a shingle-stamping machine at the old Flintkote Asphalt Roofing Company. That was in 1929, over on Chicago Heights’ grubby industrial East Side. Doctors didn’t know how to sew them back on in those days, so Flintkote gave him 600 dollars for the first finger, 525 for the index and 375 for the third. It took the end joint off his thumb, too, but as he was still considered to have ‘full’ use of it, the company looked the other way on that one. He told me once that in a way he was lucky; legally, they didn’t have to pay him anything.
But life had another little trick to play on him; the local Steger Bank folded soon after in the Great Depression, and he lost most of the money, anyway. He told me that in a way he’d been lucky about that, too…he’d gotten $500 out of a reluctant teller the night before the crash and had bought a new Ford. I used to grind my teeth and wonder what it would take to make him really angry.
He was only in his early twenties when the stamper caught him, and I think he stopped doing a lot of things besides the guitar after that, things he never took up again even long after the shock-and-blood loss melted away like a warm February’s rotten snow. Real life cut; there were a lot of blades out there, and maybe rather than face them he hunkered down to a world of limited risk and possibilities. He told me (when I was about 12) that no matter how big or good you got there was always someone bigger and better waiting to knock you down. I know he believed that, even though the thought made me furious. As long as I knew him, all he asked was to be left alone to live his life, to raise his family, and to quietly drown whatever else there was in a foamy beer or two.
To the casual observer, his recovery from the Flintkote accident was fairly complete. He went on to play semi-pro football in the years when steel mills and factories all fielded their own leather-helmeted teams, though it’s hard to imagine a guy with his pleasant disposition actually hitting anybody. He also pitched on the Steger Hoitoms, relying on a natural knuckleball that, when the wind and humidity were right, fluttered up to the plate like a drunken butterfly. In those days there actually was a pitcher with a similar handicap, Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, who threw a flutter-ball in the majors; and since that time there have been dozens of knucklers like Hoyt Wilhelm and Bert Hooten, who had to throw it the hard way, that is, with all their extra fingers tucked out of the way. But my dad never made the majors. I don’t know if he even dreamed of it. He said he played ball for fun.
Today if you’d take a glance at the Hoitoms faded old team picture, you might be tempted to wonder at the good looking guy with the shy yet friendly smile in the center of the shot, the fellow surrounded by all his buddies. You’d never think to ask about how he overcame adversity to toss that tricky ‘melon ball’ or ‘moon ball’ as they used to call it, because his missing fingers are covered by the big leather mitt on his other hand.
In the Midwest, once you’ve lived through a bitter winter cold, you unconsciously shape the rest of your life around it, because you realize sooner or later it’s going to come back…and I guess that’s the way it was with him. Life had frostbitten him, tearing away part of his hand, and he spent a lot of his time in the shadows, knowing it was going to come back and hit him up for more.
I don’t know for sure, but developing physical strength may have been his way of trying to compensate for a loss he really couldn’t understand. My Uncle Robert told me that as a young man my father Jack had been the strongest of the five brothers in the family. That was hard for me to believe, for although he muscled around sheet steel and heavy containers of welding gas and oxygen for a living, he was admittedly about thirty pounds overweight, with a chronic bad back, somewhat of a beer belly—and a cheerful, happy-go-lucky attitude about everything that came or didn’t come his way. Mostly, it didn’t come, and he didn’t seem to care. I can still hear his cheery ad-on phrase, “Besides…!”, a sort of catch-all ending that meant life had its complications, life wasn’t supposed to be easy or maybe even figured out, in spite of everything you could say or do, life was going to get you anyhow. “Besides!”
He took fathering seriously and was always telling me about life, and as I’ve said, one of his favorite themes was that there was always somebody bigger, smarter or stronger than you out there. Hunker down, youngster, and get ready to take your fall. I’m afraid I was a pretty shallow and angry kid and not understanding at all of his point of view. I wasn’t interested in where he was coming from, and I certainly couldn’t accept that things were unbeatable. Hell, back then I wanted to go out and kick the shit out of the world—for it’s own good! I had this secret dream that I was going to be a great writer, and nobody was going to stop me! I was going to help people, fix them and change them, drag them along to higher levels of understanding whether they wanted my brilliant insights or not!
Does every son want his pop to be a combination of Daddy Warbucks, Terry of Terry and the Pirates, and the Lone Ranger? I don’t know—but I did, and right up until the day he died I felt cheated by the draw. Then more so than ever, in fact, for he passed away fairly young, leaving me clutching at the evaporating trails of my own airy, elusive dreams.
What was it about him that so deeply disappointed me? Was I angry that he had so foolishly allowed himself to be maimed as a young man? Was I jealous of his popularity, of the way he lit up a room just by entering it, of the range of people who seemed happy to call him their friend? Upset because I’d never seen him really angry with anybody? Maybe all those things…but what bothered me most was that I didn’t think he ever reached for the greatness I felt was in him. I saw him as a prizefighter who refused to get up off the mat, a crashed race-car driver afraid to climb back into old number 44…maybe I could have put up with all of that, but what stuffed me full of unspeakable rage and fury was his drinking. I could stand him least when he was drunk.
The irony of this, I suppose, is that he wasn’t a vicious alcoholic at all, or even what you could call a bad drunk. He never hit my mother or spoke an unkind word to her or any of us kids. He started out cheery, he went through talkative and happily sloshed and usually quit just short of blissfully numb. “Hey…besides!” He could stop at any of the four stages, depending on when the beer ran out, and not get belligerent about it. If you’ve seen Dudley Moore’s classic performance as the happy drunk in the motion picture ARTHUR, you have some idea of the kind of drinker he was. He didn’t even think of himself as an alcoholic; and nobody else did either…nobody, that is, but me.
On the other hand, drunken cheeriness was about all he and Arthur had in common—most of the time my father didn’t have a spare dime, much less a shot at inheriting anything. And that, perhaps, was closer to my real problems with him. What in God’s name was he doing here sitting on a shiny-legged barstool on a Saturday afternoon in October, 1952, downing brandy shots and washing them away with swigs of Pabst, blowing raw, rich Camels smoke in the stale air and gabbing with the friendly guy behind the counter and two or three of the regulars? There I was, sitting on the stool beside him, munching a salt-sweet bribe of beer nuts, and at the same time stuffing myself full of dread and fury.
Didn’t he know that drinking turned off his real self and switched on some crazy sort of happy-mouth that rattled for hours about everything and nothing at all? Didn’t he know that there were dozens of things to be done around the house, that the roof was leaking so badly we got out the pots every time it rained, that plaster was falling down in the old summer kitchen? How could he not see the bathroom window was cracked, the ancient garage was sagging and should be torn down, the fence was missing pickets and needed painting, and our Chevy was barely sputtering along (It was the rusty old gray one Uncle Robert sold us dirt cheap when he got his Buick)…?
Sure he knew these things…Besides, Besides, Besides…I sat on my stool and glowered at the fake water rushing endlessly over the Hamm’s waterfall, wanting to crush the foolish, drooling dromedary on his ever-present pack of Camels, longing to pick up his sweaty beer glass and throw it in the obsequious bartender’s face, wanting most of all to stalk out of the Orchard Tavern and Jack-the-drinker’s life forever.
I actually lived most of the time on another planet than he did, which was probably why we didn’t speak the same language. All I liked to do back then was read and daydream, to lose myself in other worlds, and maybe caddy at Flossmoor Country Club. The sky, the trees and the grass, the fairways, the rough, the woods and the streams were staggeringly beautiful at Flossmoor; and you could dream as you made your way down the long green aisles, long walks in between golfer’s swings, and joy, people actually weren’t supposed to be blabbing all the time!
Way off in my own wild blue yonder, I spent hours heroing my way through incredible adventures. I was John Carter of Mars. I was Airboy, Tarzan’s Boy, Batman’s Robin. I was Tom Swift, Hopalong Cassidy, The Virginian, World War I Flying ace Rudford Riley, the horrible swamp-vegetable Heap…I rode the Santa Fe Trail, hunted water buffalo with Akeley in Africa, stalked Sioux Indians, shot varmints, trapped beaver and rescued buckskin-skirted ladies from peril. I threw long touchdown passes, built incredible flying machines and treasure-seeking subs…I was keen-witted, daring, bold, intellectual, scientific-minded, athletic, wise, true , swift and vengeful…particularly vengeful. I was anything but the eldest son in a shabby, ageing house with four pesky sisters, a brat kid brother, a stern-lipped mother and a cheery-beery father who couldn’t seem to keep us from sinking down, down, down.
The problem was, in real life I was a lot more careful than my daring dreamland Wonderself, and even then I knew it. If fact, the evidence kept cropping up everywhere that my secret identity was, if anything, Chicken-boy. My father, who had some buddies in a railroad yard, got us in to take a close look at a steam engine when I was only about three or four. It sat there in the dark roundhouse all shiny and evil, breathing as it crouched on its wheels, waiting for me. I was carried closer and it hissed and throbbed terrifyingly; it was monstrous, towering high over my father and mother, who didn’t even come up to its oil-dripping haunches. I screamed and made a scene until my mother took me from my disappointed father’s arms. My older sister Mary stuck her tongue out at me as she held her chubby little arms high and scrambled up the iron rail ladder. I didn’t care—nobody was going to make me get on that chuffing devil-thing. The same thing happened a few years later with a huge brown horse that waited patiently while I cowered away in terror. Of course, Mary, bane of my life, hopped right on and trotted off.
A few autumns later, Mary climbed the highest branches to shake off the hickory nuts while I made a show of shaking a few tricky ones off the lower limbs. In fact, she went out of her way to see if there were any spiders up there she could throw down on me, knowing my deathly fear of spiders. My father, who sighed a lot, finally came to accept the way I was…would that I had been able to do the same for him.
I wasn’t sure exactly how to get what I wanted out of life. Yes, I knew what I wanted, even then; and I also knew I didn’t want responsibility for HIS family. Sound fair enough? You’d be surprised how radical the idea was for a kid like me back then. Common opinion, that powerful undercurrent sweeping through all our lower middle-class lives, dictated that eldest sons went out and got a factory job to help support the family. In fact, eldest sons were lucky the state insisted they stay in school until the age of 16, or a lot more of them would have been waking up to the white hot hiss of iron running through the repeaters down at Inland Steel or the brain-numbing fumes from the mixing vats at the Desoto Paint Factory. I felt the curious, pitiless eyes of small-town Steger where we lived, of every single parishioner at St Liborius where my father was a popular tenor in the choir and my mother spent hours on her knees, the bland gaze of neighbors and town casuals, the open stares of my uncles and aunts and cousins and even my brothers and sisters…those eyes all rested on me, expecting compliance, submission, a willingness to get in the harness and help pull the heavy load through the mud. It was the decent, the human thing, to do. I couldn’t stand it.
Paradoxically, my mother didn’t feel that way at all, and my father would have been frustrated and furious if he were aware of the kind of pressures I was pumping into myself. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, his bitter experience had made him vow that none of us kids would ever have to make our livings as factory workers. But all that would have made no difference, even if he had come right out and said it, because, you see, I didn’t believe in him. How could somebody like Happy Jack The Welder possibly hold back the forces of destiny? Hell, he was always telling me to be cautious because in one way or another, the crushing blow was just around the corner. Take back this phony Smiling Jack—bring me Captain America, Captain Midnight, Captain Adventure!
I have this image of him, a somehow shy and likeable, balding and yet handsome Valentino type (if such a mixed metaphor really could exist), slowly and so damn cheerfully slipping by in a steadily sinking old rowboat. He smiles at the rest of the family and blows a smoke ring, holding the little butt of the unfiltered Camel so steadily between the thumb-stub and the little finger on his ruined hand that there is an inch-long gray ash that only falls to the bottom of the boat when he raises the can of Blatz in his other hand to take a hearty swig. Didn’t he see what everybody else saw, that the goddamn thing was sinking. He was a proud guy in his own way, and I knew he would never ask for anybody to throw a lifesaver ring—but wasn’t he at least going to row?
Part of my anger at him came from the shameful knowledge that we were poorer than almost anybody I knew. I know now that poverty is a relative thing; nobody who lived in the decaying houses in the town of Steger at that time had money to speak of. These were the wooden lunch-pail houses left over like weary debris from the old piano wars, a musical conflict fought so long ago no one even remembers the reasons why it started. All you need to know is that the Steger Piano Factory, after decades of Napoleonic conquest, eventually collapsed under changing times and the weight of its own success, and the town hadn’t had the sense to disappear with the business.
I was excruciatingly aware we had less of every material thing than everybody around us. I was ashamed when kindly Mr. Heintz gave my father a beautiful, second-hand sled that had been hanging in his garage since his son grew up and went away, ashamed at the way kindly Ben Napoli smiled when he put the five dollars and thirty-one cents for groceries on our tab, ashamed when my father went kicking around in the empty oil cans, looking through the tossed pile of used tires at tobacco-spitting old Charley Steven’s filthy Shell Station for something with a little more tread on it than the one which had just blown again, ashamed when my mother pawed through the cheapest jeans at J.C.Penney, hopelessly trying to bridge the gap between what we could afford and something that would be acceptable to the crowd at school, ashamed of my own desires to be accepted and looked up to by my classmates and even of my own hunger to be free of this unfair burden of family responsibility he had unwittingly saddled me with. Soul burning, heart burningly ashamed of all of us and of myself and everything I was in the devil-engine real world.
Opportunity didn’t knock very often on the big sliding door in front of the Industrial Welding Ship. That’s why I got so excited when Dad came home from work one evening in the early 1950’s. Korea was heating up, and a fellow in a suit had unexpectedly popped up around noon that day carrying a real leather briefcase. He was a government fellow, and he had contracts in there for tank parts—dozens, HUNDREDS of tank parts. But there was a catch, you had to have the high grade steel stockpiled somewhere, and while everybody in town had a little bit, nobody had enough to do the job. I didn’t really know anything about his business, but the obvious solutions raced through my excited brain. He could make a few calls, get five or six people together and get some of that Uncle Sam gravy!
But my father exploded it all with one cheery little shake of his head, actually rejected everything before I could even speak. It was impossible, it couldn’t be done. Life was like that, wasn’t it, to give you this false impression of a chance to make some real dough, but it was all just an illusion, not worth chasing birds in the bush. Hey, besides!
Instead of running all over South Chicago on a treasure hunt, he had spent the rest of the afternoon finishing off a little valve for his main (and only steady) client, Nagle Pumps. My mom seemed to agree with him and nobody else said much, the discussion around the table shifting to homework and the pennant race, which didn’t have the Cubs in it again. I mashed my peas so hard I bent my fork. I couldn’t look at him. After a while I said I wasn’t feeling well, and got excused from the table.
Maybe that’s why I escaped so easily, freely and often into the adventure book worlds of others, or into my own high-flying daydreams. Reality snorted, it hissed and whistled, I couldn’t face it. I didn’t face it; I turned away, clenching my fists, pounding my thighs, all the time taking on the pressures of volcanic inward seething, and constantly conjuring up my incredible revenges.
I didn’t lose my temper; I churned, I boiled. Sulking down the echoing tiled halls at Bloom Township High School, I interpreted a casual look for derision and mentally skinned the looker alive. I stalked away from poor, kindly grocer Ben before he could dare to give me a free candy. I saw any little humor at my expense as worthy of a mental chop to the guts or an imaginary and satisfying brick-smack to the side of the head. I snap-judged, I got unpleasant reality out of the way and wrongs instantly avenged, and I went back to the cool currents above the countryside where Airboy spread his wings and coasted freely with the wind whistling in his ears.
It’s hard to bottle up so much pain and not expect it to squeeze out somewhere. I think my mother sensed something was wrong. She wanted to help, but I probably wouldn’t have explained it even if I understood, which I didn’t. She was like a rock, grounded in a broad, empty plain of religious faith, and her answer to problems of all sorts was the same—hard work and prayer. Plow that field, boy. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but I couldn’t be that way. I was the seed that fell on rocky ground, and a weed seed at that. The weed grew, looked around at all the wheat, and wanted to know why.
I looked up to what my mother was, but I couldn’t relate to her. I was so different, so out of bounds, and I was missing most of the connectives. Do you think that’s ridiculous? How do you tell an average, decent, if somewhat religious, American mother that Airboy wants to strangle stupid Joey Pilotto across the street because he has a pump-air repeater pellet rifle and I know I’ll never even have a lousy, single-shot Red Ryder? How do you say that Tarzan very well may crush saintly old Sister Dorthea’s skull because I overheard her gossiping in the choir right after my baby sister Tes was born that our family had far too many children for our means and my father just didn’t have any control or know when to quit? People aren’t supposed to be ANIMALS, you know…yes, a good skull crush was too quick and merciful for that black robed she-viper. Or that Conan is planning to catch friendly Art down at Vincente’s with a heavy spear in the guts so he can see his eyes bleed because he gave good ol’ already-tipsy Jack a free holiday boilermaker ‘for the road?’
I don’t think I ever told my mother about any dream or flight of fancy of mine (and surely none of my gore-filled orgies of revenge). I was fairly certain the merciful baby Jesus didn’t have a standard recipe for my further-out problems in his cookbook of Mid-western parochial soul remedies, and I knew that was where Mom got her best ideas.
Talking to my father, on the other hand, was easier than falling off a log. Snap the cap off a sweaty-cold Schlitz and give him a warped door to plane down or an old oak table to re-varnish and he would talk for hours, that warm and friendly voice going on and on and on and on. My personal problem was that the beer didn’t help him listen too well, and his drinking brought out the hot wall of anger in me. I practiced inscrutability, an oriental art that allowed me to be agreeable all the way from the outside down to the tiny white-hot core in my center. I wanted him to be so much more…and drinking somehow made him less, and I couldn’t even get past my own anger to tell him the smallest bit about how I felt.
Somehow all through the long high school years I never did actually explode, though there were times I was so confused and unhappy and alone I felt sure I would. I’m sitting on the rim of the universe, I used to tell myself. I’m unique. I’m an observer, I’m looking down, I’m looking in from afar. What does the disassociated, alien monster see? I put off driving as long as I could, not wanting to be seen in our battered old car. Dating girls was a hopeless mess. I got crummy grades, further jeopardizing what minute chances I had of ever getting out of Laborsville. I stayed aloof to my father and cool to my mother. I nipped and barked at my sisters, I avoided little brother Tommy like the plague. I read my books, I soured over town and country, plains and sea, across entire continents, winging in and out of towering black-bellied thunderheads, avenging wrongs and seeking my miraculous escape.
When it came I was as stunned as everybody else—everybody, that is, except my parents. My father told me simply that I had graduated Bloom in the upper half of my senior class; I had a good mind and deserved a shot at college. Never mind the D’s in Algebra, Trig, Geometry and Latin and all the C’s, there had been B’s in English and History, and even an A or two. If I wanted to, I was to go off to school and not worry about the money; it would come from somewhere. If I wanted to?! Thunderstruck, you could have knocked me over with a hickory nut.
It was about a year after that when his rowboat took a sudden little lurch and began drifting swiftly into more violent waters. He was forty-nine, and it was the fly-buzzing middle of summer vacation. I was back home from St.Joe’s College, 9-to-5ing it at the paint factory to squirrel away some tuition money for the fall. He took me down the steep and rickety wooden steps to check over the old furnace in the basement.
He had aged fast the year I’d been away, the hair in front of his ears going white and his fact taking on an unhealthy pink-paste look. Sometimes a muscle in his neck twitched and he couldn’t stop it. He wasn’t going to bed until late, usually falling asleep in the kitchen with a half-empty glass of beer and a cigarette smoldering where he’d dropped it on the linoleum table cloth or the tile floor.
As we turned to the furnace, he wiped the cold sweat from his torch-reddened forehead with an old blue workman’s handkerchief. I could see things weren’t going good with him. I had only completed my Freshman year at college, and he could have laid the whole heavy number on me, broken my airy, silly dreams then and there and put me in the harness down at Inland Steel…a lesser man would have, but he didn’t. He just showed me how to add water to the furnace.
It was a leaky steam system, with radiators throughout the house, and it was tricky, too, because infrequently, maybe once a month or so in winter, somebody had to check it and add a bit of water by opening valves until a gauge filled back up just so to the pencil marking on the clay behind it. That was pretty much all there was to it.
Besides. The old catch phrase rang forlorn and uncertain in the cobwebby dampness, so like a grave itself there under the house. There wasn’t a beer in sight, and we stood together under the shadowy illumination from the bare 60-watt light bulb for a long time, not really saying anything. The realization came to me slowly and surely that he knew the shingle-stamping machine was in motion again, and this time it wouldn’t be content with a few fingers. And in that moment I was filled with dread and loneliness for him.
And there was more; I recognized his raw courage that he could know he was going to die and still hold back all the darkness and the evil and the uncertainty enough to give me that little gift of freedom that was everything to me.
I knew in that moment that you didn’t have to run around shooting silver bullets or swinging heavy swords in a cursing fury to make a difference in the world. And I couldn’t touch him, couldn’t reach out and hug him or even find the words to say I understood—but he was my hero then, as he is today, standing thunderous across the bridge from real to magic like no mere Tarzan or Captain Marvel ever could.