The pool hall in Lockhart, a gritty speck of a town straddling Florida's Highway 441 outside Orlando, was a hangout eons ago for kids who would swarm there on blistering afternoons for ice-cold, sweating bottles of RC Cola and air conditioning.
Nestled among vast orange groves, the community boasted only two things of note: the Rimar Drive-in Theatre, which played a steamy, pivotal role in many young lives, and the pool hall.
Entering the town's billiards sanctum sanctorum meant having to listen to crusty, old guys who smoked and spit and knew everything and had been everywhere. They would rail about this, sputter about that. My memory is they all wore stretched-out suspenders holding up baggy pants, and dirty white shirts.
One of them, a Gus or Ben, I think, liked to hold forth -- fueled by a small flask from his trousers pocket -- on what it was to be a man. A rheumy-eyed veteran of something or other, he had been a cop, even had a gun, a scar and a tattoo he liked to show off, and knew about being a man. You cannot, he solemnly told us, be a man until your daddy dies. "Till your daddy dies," he said, poking at the air with his finger.
Why that particular bit of home-spun, Deep South malarkey stuck with me, I do not know. But it did. You cannot be a man till your daddy dies A few days ago, I, unfortunately, became one.
My father died peacefully in Placerville, California, at 93. It was not unexpected. My brothers and I got to say goodbye.
I have yet to come to grips with his passing. He had always been there. There is a sense of mournful loss, of being alone, although I am not. There are discombobulating moments when I look at my watch and think, "Well, I should call." Then, it hits me again.
Fathers make men. Mothers polish them, smooth the rough edges, make them human -- but fathers make them. They are our first role models, the guys we emulate -- until, as teens, we decide they are stupid -- the guys who imprint upon us, in ways good and bad, a roadmap for our lives. Men love their mothers, but spend their lives trying to win their fathers' approval.
Mine was perhaps the proudest, hardest man I have known. He knew the Depression's hunger, the Dust Bowl's calamity. He lived a life of personal honor. He would never lie. Never cheat. Never take advantage. There was right; there was wrong. He was an absolute stickler for personal responsibility and accountability, grim death on tardiness. It was the military in him, I suppose. "3 p.m. does not mean 3:01," he would growl. "It means 2:55."
A stern-looking man, even in his last years he could freeze people with a piercing look I have seen a million times. An imposing figure not to be trifled with, at 93 he still was tall and thin. He walked with his back ramrod-straight, and, this always amazed me, still squared his corners when he turned. He hated slouching and had very old-fashioned ideas about punishment.
A free spirit, I rebelled early and we got along like a sackful of cats. He was, I was certain, quite insane. By my late teens, we were estranged. I escaped into the Army and we rarely communicated. I was sure he and Mom were glad to be rid of me. I was glad to be gone.
It got better over the years. My wife insisted. When Mom died in 2007, we all figured Dad would quickly follow. Mom was the love of his life for 63 years, and he was alone. That was about the time he and I started talking on the telephone regularly.
He opened up for the first time, about his early years, about the military, about how he met Mom. Fresh from World War II, he was riding in a car with a friend along a Sapulpa, Oklahoma, street when they spied the guy's girlfriend. She was walking with a young woman wearing, Dad remembered, a striking purple ribbon. "She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen," he said, his voice trailing off.
Dads leave imprints. I am who I am largely because of my father. The good and the bad. I wish I had known him better. I wish I knew whether he approved.
In a few days, my brothers and I will gather at my mom's crypt in California, to place the urn with Dad's ashes next to hers.
We will, as he wished, say a short prayer and tie the two urns together with a striking purple ribbon.
Being a man is not all it is cracked up to be.
Paul Jenkins is editor of the AnchorageDailyPlanet.com, a division of Porcaro Communications.
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