I grew up 45 minutes South of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in a small town called Washington. It’s a place not worth saying much about, however the town next to it was the birthplace of Perry Como, so…we got that.
I lived on a half acre of land with my three siblings. My parents both worked, my dad an electronic repair man, fixing tube televisions and microwaves. My mom a dance teacher for a bit, then later taking on odd jobs so she could watch all us kids and still make a buck. Remind me to write about her gig at the KOA where I sold fruit to hippies at Dead Head festivals. Or her time working concession at a skating rink while I DJ’d records like TLC – Creep and the Righteous Brothers – Unchained Melody.
My dad was a veteran. Fought in the Vietnam War. And like many of us children of the 80’s growing up with a father in that war, I didn’t know much about it. That topic was off limits and frankly, I avoided it like no other. It never ended well. I hate to this day that I don’t know his story overseas, but I’m sure he’d consider it one of his fatherly victories by not talking about it.
He taught me a lot, however most of it was lost on me until I grew older and our time together had passed. He was a man of few words. Specific about the company he kept. Liked his beer. Loved nature. Appreciated every living thing around him, except groundhogs.
That’s right, the man hated groundhogs. He once relocated a praying mantis egg sac from his garden to a glass jar that perched on the windowsill of our dining room so it could safely hatch. Wolf spiders were considered part of our family and would be captured by cup and paper, then safely let outside to roam. But groundhogs, well, there was a special place in hell for them.
They could ruin a garden in a day, and for a gardening man, there’s no greater wrong than to destroy the literal fruits of their labor. Most summers, he’d sharpen his green thumb and get to work planting all sorts of vegetables. The garden rested in the corner of our land, between our red shed and the jungle gym. It was the kind of shed that was likely to collapse if you just looked at it wrong, and the kind of jungle gym known for sending kids to the hospital every now and then, with a bucket sized hole filled with poorly mixed cement, creating an uneven jagged circle perfect for cracking heads open.
I remember a time when I was 9, maybe 10, sitting with him next to the garden. It was one of those days where the sunshine spanned across the sky in a way that you wonder how they can capture it in a painting.
We sat there, him smoking GPC cigarettes and drinking Genny Light. Me just listening, laughing at his stories. He’d tell me about the bugs and their lives. Our cat would come up and rub against him, and he’d tell me how our cat talked to him at night, giving him status reports on all our behavior. It was pretty genius, to be honest. My parents most trusted babysitter was our own cat.
My dad would puff and puff, then take a swig. Puff. Puff. Swig. And then, with another gulp of his beer, he handed it to me and told me I could have a sip. I knew I wasn’t supposed to drink alcohol, but curiosity got me. So I tipped it back, letting the lager in, and as sure as my father thought I would spit it out, I pulled the bottle back from my lips and asked ‘can I have another sip?’
If that isn’t telling of my future with booze, I don’t know what is.
Damn, that was good. That Genny Light is delicious! In effort to not make a boozehound out of his 9 year daughter (or try), in some brisk thinking, he tells me if I drink too much beer, my neck will turn black like his, as he stroked the dark hair along his unshaven neck. And as quickly as I asked for a second swig, I take that delicious second sip and race up to the house, into our bathroom, and examine my neck. Phew! I dodged a bullet, no black neck. And I thought to myself ‘If all I have to worry about is a black neck, me and this beer are going to get along just fine.’