I was nine years old when my father decided to leave this world.
Of course, he left my mother and I at the same time. At first we thought he had just inhaled too much smoke from working on his car. He’d be OK in a couple of days.
When I saw a couple of uniform police and an ambulance in the back yard, I began to suspect something more was afoot. But, death? No. Couldn’t be that.
Neither my mother nor I knew anything about the deathly nature of carbon monoxide.
I’d heard the car running as soon as my mother and I got home around 9:00 P.M. from a rally for Wyoming Senator Joseph O’Mahoney at the Plains Hotel. I told my mom that Daddy must be out back working on the car, and I was headed out there.
When I got there I saw a length of garden hose protruding from the tail pipe and extending into the back side window. The car was running. The interior of the car seemed to be full of smoke. I immediately opened the driver’s side door when I saw what looked like my father’s head against the glass.
He rolled out of the car as I opened the door. My hands were holding his body up as I tried to speak to him. He did not respond. A policemen lead me back to the house as the ambulance left with sirens on.
My mother and I got into her car and headed to the hospital. As we waited for some news from the doctor, my mother warned me to be careful when he comes home because, she warned, he will be embarrassed.
In a little bit the doctor came out to talk to us. Probably, I thought he would say my father must stay over night and would be able to go home tomorrow.
That’s not what the doctor said. He said he and his assistants had done everything they could to save his life. The cold reality was that when he slid out of the car into my lap, he was already dead. From that night onward, I remember how deadly lethal carbon monoxide is. To this day I have carbon monoxide detectors all over the house.
My mother and I went on with our lives. Seeing how deeply she was embedded in Democratic politics, she easily got a job with the top brass of the party. [The Democrats of 1954 were nothing like the Democrats of today. Were she alive today I’m pretty sure she would be Republican, or at least an independent] Anyway, her job earned her enough for us to life moderately. I hadn’t known it but my father had always given my mother each pay check as he rec’d it. That was to keep him from spending it on alcohol, he said. Yes, he was a drunk. Not sure if the word “alcoholic” had been invented then. I had never heard it.
My father was not the usual sort of drunk. None of the money he earned went to booze. He did’t need it. He was a pool shark. He could always earn enough money on a pool table to supply his drunken life style.
He either did not drink on the job or was a genius of hiding it because his drinking never interfered with his work. It never got him in trouble. He never lost a job over it. He never wrecked a car. I got a good scolding for wrecking my bicycle.
There were a lot of government projects going on in the West during the 1940s. That kept my father in permanent employment because so much road building required dynamite to remove obstacles in the path of a road to be built. My father just happened to be an expert with dynamite. He knew how to place it just right with the correct number of sticks to remove just the rock (and nothing else) that was blocking the way for a new road. [Why dynamite? Why not a bull dozer? A bull dozer can’t do much with solid rock the size of a house. A bull dozer can’t cut away half of a house-size rock without cutting more away. That’s why, I guess]
My father was a complicated man. I had always looked up to him. I always adorded him. I always loved him. I knew my love was not going to be reciprocated. His motto was “I’m hard but I’m fair.” Actually, I first heard that phrase said by a Second Class Boatswain’s Mate when I went on board a Fletcher Class Destroyer for my first sea duty after joining the Navy in 1963. If my father had ever heard that phrase I’’m sure he would have adopted it as his own.
My father mostly loved his whisky over anything as fickle and obtuse as another human being, including me.
Nothing would ever have stopped me from my worship of him. My admiration of him was always in spite of his drinking. He never got drunk, as least never so anyone would notice. He handled it better than most men of that era. He was born and raised a hillbilly in West Virginia. It’s what he knew.
He always said you must do the best you can with what you’ve got.