I think this is a prologue.
My dad and I aren’t close. There’s no big reason for this, we just don’t have much to say to each other. I grew up in southern Illinois living with my single mom, with Dad five minutes away in the same town. I stayed at his house every other weekend. It was fun — I had a sleeping bag there and would eat cheese curls and hot dogs on the floor in front of the TV. My dad is mellow and good-natured. A guy who likes to tell long jokes with big setups, he covers his mouth when he laughs because he’s self-conscious about his teeth. One of my California friends met him and exclaimed, “Aw, your dad is so salt-of-the-earth!,” which I’m pretty sure is code for something condescending, but I let it slide. Behind Dad’s Midwestern, BBQ-grillin’, simple-folk affect, he’s a still-waters-run-deep kind of a guy — that’s probably where the beer comes in.
When I was a kid, weekends with my dad tended to involve me going to dive bars and bowling alleys. I was provided with bottomless orange sodas and an ample supply of quarters to play pinball, video poker, and the claw machine. This mostly occupied me while Dad watched baseball and shot the shit with the other day-drinkers. I mastered that claw machine — in retrospect, it’s telling that the American Legion Post 214 in Bethalto, Illinois, had installed a machine full of stuffed animals. In Southern California, taking your little girl to a bar as a weekend activity would be frowned upon. In the amount of time I’d spend in bars on any given Saturday, a California kid would be late for two practices, a play date, and a mani-pedi. You hear the phrase “helicopter parents” a lot. I was more free-range.
“Daaaaaddddddd...can we go now?”
“After I drink this beer.”
But he’d always have another one. He wasn’t trying to hide it, and he’d give me another handful of quarters to get me off his case. Deal.
I don’t mean to tell you this in that sad-music, lonely, ignored-child-of-an-alcoholic way. Hanging out at the bar was boring, but the drinking didn’t bother me — it just was. I had other adults and family members around, so I wasn’t depending on my father alone for guidance. He was my dad, he was nice to me, and he just happened to be drinking beer all the time.
Sometimes I’d bring him a beer. I’d try to pop open the aluminum tab. It looked so easy when he did it — k-chhk! fizz — but my little fingers ended up twisting it off. No big deal. He’d get a can opener to make a hole in the top. He never got mad at me. I can see him sitting late at night in the flashing blue glow of the TV screen, a can in one of his many beer cozies balanced on the faux-wood TV-tray next to his plate of leftovers. He’d drink one beer after another, and long after I was asleep, he was up laughing at Three Stooges episodes. He’d probably seen every one of those shows 20 times before, and he still watches them today. And still laughs hysterically at them. I’ve never understood what was funny about the Three Stooges.
The Big Picture
A few years ago (I was 29 at the time) I was in Illinois, visiting for the holidays. By that time, I’d lived away from home for over ten years. I’d joined the Air Force right out of high school; after that, I took my GI Bill to college. In San Diego, I’d been working as a graphic designer for two years and had already become unused to the nosehair-freezing Midwestern winter.
After an evening hanging at the bar with my dad and various of my half-siblings and their spouses, we moved the party back to Dad’s house. I was sitting on the couch with my Coors Light when I noticed a large photo of me on the living room wall. It was my Air Force portrait — the one they make you take at the end of basic training. You’ve seen them: the baby-faced deer-in-headlights pose in uniform with a flag background. This was not when I looked my best. It was after weeks of being yelled at and herded like cattle, me screaming. “Sir, Airman Mitchell reports as ordered!” before everything that I said. Days consisted of folding socks and shirts into impossibly perfect stacks of sock-and-shirt bricks and cleaning lots of things that were already clean. There’s not much time to think or talk or be a human being — you’re just going through the motions, trying not to get yelled at. The photos are taken quickly. Single-file lines, no talking. I was 18, and my cheeks were chubby. Even through boot camp, though, I managed to maintain impressively over-plucked eyebrows.
Past-me staring back at present-me looked very serious, and very young — standing nearly eyebrowless in my blue uniform with the American flag draped behind me. It wasn’t my favorite photo. It represented a phase in my life I hadn’t quite dealt with yet.
The military years were not great for me, mostly, I assume, because of issues everyone faces in early adulthood:
What am I good at? Am I good at anything?
I am not happy doing this, and I don’t know why.
I can’t help that it sounds sarcastic when I call you, “Sir.”
Why am I wearing camouflage and combat boots in an office?
There were no other photos of me on my dad’s living room wall, no signs of my existence anywhere else. I pointed to the picture and said, “Come on, Dad, why that photo? Don’t you have any better ones? Something cuter?” I was thinking maybe a freckle-faced grade-school shot, or even one of my baby pictures, with the fake Kmart outdoor background that has over the years turned orange. Something nostalgic, or at least cute. This photo wasn’t old enough to be nostalgic. It wasn’t cute, and it certainly wasn’t representative of what I was doing then. It made me uncomfortable.