Darwin

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Independence.  I mentioned last week that my Dad had died.  (I refuse to use a term so politically correct as "passed away", which makes it sound as though you've gone out of town.)  I also mentioned the weird way my brain deals with death.

What's a little harder to put into words, was an explanation of the man himself.  No person could ever be adequately described in one word but the one that comes closest to describing him, is "independent".

Born to farmers/coal miners in rural Illinois, (They had their own, personal coal mine right there on the farm.) he spent his entire life trying to gain independence, like a modern day Daniel Boone with no frontier left to escape to.  It was not often possible to achieve.

In high school he played drums in the band, which may be where I got some of my musical abilities.  Just out of high school he was called up in the draft for the Korean war, which to his great relief, ended before he was inducted.

His first real work was in the Caterpillar factory in Peoria Illinois.  After that he worked at a place called "Hemp's" in Macomb Illinois, (which has nothing to do with marijuana despite the humorous name).  His job there was to machine the electrical insulators that go on telephone and electric poles, on a lathe.  He described this as tedious and dangerous work, as if the insulator happened to have a bubble in it, it would explode on the lathe.

After this he worked in an auto-body shop, which he absolutely despised, firstly because he was working for his brother-in-law whom he described as a perfectionist-slave driver, and secondly because it was hard damned work that kept your hands perpetually wet and sore.

In those days, Walt Disney had made Davey Crockett famous and my parents bought me a "Davey Crockett" tent.  When I'd get sick, my Mother would rig up the steam vaporizer and Dad would set up the tent in the bedroom.  They'd place me and the vaporizer in the tent and my Dad would sleep in there with me.  Couldn't have been too comfortable.

One day I saw him walking home from work with a large boat oar.  Why he was walking home and why he was carrying an oar, I had no idea.  I later found out why he had the oar but to this day have no idea why he made the 2 mile walk home from work.

As it turned out, both my mother's side of the family and my father's, had taken to boating on the rivers and my mother wanted to join in, which required our acquiring a speed-boat of our own.  We went boating nearly every weekend during the summer months on either the Illinois river or the Mississippi, camping out overnight on the river banks.  (Lake Michigan tended to get too violent for our little speed boats.)

Living outside the city, my Dad tried a number of schemes to gain his independence.  First, he tried farming chickens.  A large area was fenced in by 6 foot chicken wire and the faces were cut out of 2 gallon oil cans to serve as water cans.  One morning I was sitting next to one of the water cans when a chicken came up and pecked me in the arm.  It was a surprise and it hurt, and I wanted nothing further to do with those chickens.

Not being any too careful about keeping their wings clipped, several of them flew out of the pen and somehow managed to lay eggs in the attic of the house.  Decades later, several long mummified eggs could still be found up there.  Chicken farming proved a failure.

Next came beekeeping.  My Dad bought an old, beat-up bee hive and mail-ordered a hive of bees.  Once he'd got the Queen bee in the hive, the others swarmed around it.  At 3 or 4 years old I already had some idea of how the world worked and before we went in for the night, I exclaimed to my Dad, "Those bees aren't going to stay there!  They'll just fly off!"  My Dad reassured me that they'd still be there the next morning.

The next morning we went out to the beehive and sure enough...they were all gone.  I didn't understand it at the time but the Queen had apparently died and the other bees simply went someplace else where this sort of thing didn't happen.  My Dad simply laughed and admitted that I was right.  The bees didn't stay.  Beekeeping also proved a failure.

He fared no better at making wine.  A large vat of grape juice turned to vinegar overnight.  Wine making was also a failure.  All through these fiascos, he kept trying, and always with a sense of undiminished optimism.

There were a number of instances where he proved himself a superior father, (if not a particularly good business man).  We had recently painted the house a weird, bluish-gray color and stored the paint in the garage.  One day, as I often did, I got into the garage and again, at 3 or 4 years old, I miraculously got the lid off the paint can, found the paint brush, and proceeded to paint everything in the garage that weird, bluish-gray, including my own fire-engine red pedal car, his lawn mower, and a few other things I can't remember.  My Mother was open-mouth shocked, but my Dad simply laughed and said, "He just thought he was helping", which indeed, I thought I was.

Upon noticing that a set of his screw drivers was missing one day, he knew I'd had something to do with their disappearance, but I was as yet, too young to be able to tell him what I'd done with them.  Some may think otherwise but I still consider it a stroke of brilliance, when he simply handed me another screw driver, whereupon I promptly carried it around to the side of the garage and without hesitation, dropped it into the 2 inch opening of a 5 gallon can of used oil.  Upon dumping out the oil, there were the missing screw drivers.

Decades later, my Dad showed me one of those old screw drivers.  It had the classic, transparent, yellow, plastic handle and inside the handle, you could clearly see...used oil.

At about 4 years old, my parents split up.  It was decidedly not my Dad's idea.  Even at that age I understood how devastated he was, although I could hardly understand the reason all this was going on.  I still don't, really.

Devastated beyond the ability to function, and losing the ability to visit my year-old brother and myself anymore, my Dad took up with a waitress and fled the state for legal reasons, for which I still don't blame him in the least.  The unfortunate result was, I didn't see him again for 15 years.

As I grew up, I began to wonder if my positive perception of my Dad was real or imagined.  Was he really the nice guy he seemed to be in my memory?  Probably, but I couldn't know for sure.  Was he that nice guy of memory, or was he a jerk to everyone else?  Was he average, brilliant, or an idiot?  He was certainly no business man.  That much I remembered for sure.

I wondered too, how much differently my life may have turned out had he been around those 15 years.  (I was already making more money playing music than my parents.)  Would life have been better for me?  Worse?  What was he really like?  I figured I'd never know for sure, and it didn't really matter that much.  You can't miss what you don't know.

I was playing music mostly in the Peoria area and living with 3 guys in what could most accurately be described as the mobile-home version of "Animal House", when one day my brother called and said that someone had called to tell him our Dad wanted to meet us.  When I asked who had called he couldn't remember for sure but it was something like "Jim Shorts".  "Dude, someone is pulling your leg.  Jim Shorts?  Are you kidding?"

Well, it turned out to be a man named "Shirts", not "Shorts", and the call was real.  I was about to meet my Dad for the first time since I was about 4 years old.  I'd find out whether he was a genius or an idiot, a nice guy or a jerk.  If he was an idiot, or particularly if he was a jerk, I could just blow it all off,  close off the past and walk away from it.

It's a weird feeling, getting to know a parent you vaguely remembered from when you were little more than a toddler, to when you're 20 years old, and I was about to find that I didn't yet have the slightest concept of the word "independent", in the sense that he personified the word.  John