Tuesday, November 08, 2005

This Normal Life, Chapter One - Okies, part 1

A person's life is often defined by his ancestors before him. Therefore, it is important to understand a bit of my parent's life. Of course, a person's knowledge of their parents before his own existence is limited only to what those parents and others near him have described. Therefore, the picture that gets painted in one's head about their parents is probably not completely accurate. It will be colored by memory, the good times will glow brighter and the bad times will be minimized. That said, as I mature, my understanding of my parents’ early life increases each day, especially as they become more comfortable divulging their own lives to me.

For instance, until high school, I absolutely thought my father was the perfect human being. I realize this sounds extremely naïve, but I still believe it. This can probably be explained in some Freudian way, probably stemming from a boy's need to identify with his father. I'm probably programmed to think that way from my genes and my own Y chromosome.

Understanding that intellectually, I still cannot divorce the emotional thought that my father is the perfect human male. My list of his good qualities is very long: he doesn't smoke; he’s a faithful father; he pays his bills; he’s very responsible, intelligent, and honorable. This list could go on and on, but I don't feel the need to bore you with details. You get the point.

Yet, in high school, I saw for the first time a chink in his armor. I was watching an 8mm film of my father in Vietnam. I was digging through old boxes we kept in storage, and I came across a box that contained a bunch of old 8mm film canisters. The box was full of store-bought titles like “Mr. Magoo,” and many home movies from Dad’s time in Vietnam. I looked for and found the rarely-used projector.

At fifteen, I was quite the techno-junkie. Finding this technologically ancient curiosity, I couldn’t help myself. Within minutes, I had the projector set up, had figured out the intricate feed mechanism, and had the film threaded through the projector.

Dad had taken the movies on a handheld portable camera with his Army buddies while in the Vietnam War in the late sixties. The scene unfolded, which was enhanced by the fact that there was no sound, showing my father enjoying time with a bunch of his G.I. buddies. They were having a barbecue. Here’s my father, young, handsome, very blond, and with quite a lot more hair than he ever had since then.

But I was dumbstruck. He was smoking a cigarette. Now, by my teens, I already knew that he had smoked cigarettes—he always told me he had done it before I was born. But seeing him do it was difficult. It deflated a tiny bit of that perfect ideal I had been keeping.

Yet my need to keep him entrenched as the perfect human male rushed in to save the day. I defended my father’s reputation with the fact that he had quit his habit cold turkey. Showing utter self-control and restraint, he quite simply decided one day that he would never smoke again, and never did.

Once in college, I learned more of my father's behavior, particularly while he was in high school. My ideal of him in high school was one of a person who got top grades in his classes, graduated with honors, volunteered for the Vietnam draft when nobody was volunteering for war, and later, while still in the Army, got a bachelor’s and a master's degree through correspondence courses. All of this is true. Yet, in college I learned from my mother that he also enjoyed getting drunk on weekends and driving down dusty Oklahoma country roads with his brother Dale and my mother, shooting at rabbits from the windows of their speeding car.

The story is certainly amusing, and my mother claims her utter and complete disapproval for the sophomoric activity. She still clicks her tongue in disapproval. As she tells it, they were pulled over, and she was forced to cover for the two malevolent teens by hiding the poached rabbit bounty from the sheriff. In fact, the sheriff had only pulled them over for driving with just one headlight.

This story as told is probably only somewhat accurate. However, the accuracy of this story isn't really as relevant as the fact that this is how I remember the story, and how this affected my perception of my father. What this story highlights is another time when it was brought to my attention that my father, the Perfect Man, was just a little bit more like me than I had thought. And I find this totally comforting today.

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