Something on a wooden power pole popped and then exploded. He pressed down on my knees with his calloused hands. “We'd better go.”
Our home was spared that day, and despite the trauma, I have fond memories of the whole event. It was the first and maybe only time I was perfectly aware that my life was completely in the hands of another human. That day, my father was brave, and strong, and willing to protect me when it mattered. I felt safe and connected.
But years passed and somewhere between the big fire and adolescence, my father and I lost each other.
He liked baseball. I liked the computer. He liked real news. I liked fake wrestling. He believed in hard work. And I believed in being 10.
Now when I say hard work, I mean it. He loved it. A lot of it. For us. For him. For the whole damn world. It made boys men, and men more so. My father left the house before the sun rose, and returned right before I went to bed. He’d come in, usually in a bad mood, have an iceberg salad with “french” dressing on it, turn on pbs, and “goddamn liberal” everything they goddamn said.
His job was stressful and the hours were long. He was a chemist. At first. But that’s not really why he was gone or angry all the time. Somehow, while mixing chemicals for chemical plants, he had started a weekend plumbing company with his friend, where he made "real money". Two cowboys herding pipe in the desert, making wild money.
So when he had time off from work, he spent it working. Always. And he made sure we did, too. He bought an acre, built a house and a small farm, all by himself, just to make sure I had work to do later.
And it worked. Every weekend I was digging a trench, moving corn, or picking up oranges. Sometimes I swear we were just moving piles of dirt around.
“Dad, I think we put this dirt here last year.”
“Yeah? Well it’s a good thing I don’t pay you to think.” Obviously forgetting he didn’t pay me at all.
But I know he meant well. His dad died when he was 12, leaving his family penniless and destitute. They didn’t have things. Anything, according to him. They had to do without. And he reminded me all the time. Talking about orange juice and camping like they were silver and gold. My father was crazily determined to not be poor. And he wasn’t. His tiny plumbing company that everyone made fun of had grown into a thriving business turning plenty of money each year in state and federal contract work.
So, while I never spent a day hungry, I spent most of my youth fighting with my mother and waiting for my father to get home. My relationship with him quickly became nothing but digging, spankings, and finding the damn remote. It’s not like we hated each other. He tolerated my rock throwing, pellet gun, varying levels of vegetarianism, and teenage ideas about anarchy; but with each year that passed, this looming cloud of awkwardness settled a little deeper between us.
My mother tried to intervene. She said it was good for a father and son to spend time together. That’s what families did. They spent time. It made them normal and healthy and families.
So, anytime she got a new issue of Reader’s Digest, we’d find ourselves out on a fishing boat, or at a car show, standing around, looking at each other uncomfortably. He’d grunt. I’d roll my eyes. And then we’d both shrug and go home.
Eventually my mother’s subscription ran out and we were both very grateful. It just didn’t look like we were cut out to be father and son. And, as sad as that was, we both had to uncomfortably accept it and go our separate ways.
Then I hit my mid twenties. And suddenly, the novelty poverty I had taken on as an undergrad started to lose its charm. Free pizza from the dumpster turned into dirty pizza with ants on it. Taking the bus turned into not having a car to stuff girls in. Needless to say, I was ready to take the bait when my father dangled a tech job at me upon graduation.
Admittedly, I was excited by the prospect. Big family business. Late nights hovering over plans. Eating Chinese food from boxes. Just me and my dad figuring it all out, besting our competitors, slaying our enemies, laughing in piles of money. It was going to be big, exciting, just like the movies.
But it wasn’t. Mostly, I spent a lot of time pulling cables, figuring out why something wouldn’t print, and graphing what people were doing on the internet. He didn’t include me on any big decisions. And really only talked to me when he wanted to yell and throw pens at someone. My father was not impressed with my work. He made sure I knew he was doing me a favor, and was lucky to be getting paid what I was. Worst of all, we never had Chinese food even once.
Years have passed, and while my position in the company has grown, at 34 I’m starting to wonder if I didn’t make a bad decision by coming here. Maybe the worst decision of my life. And, no, not because I could have been a lawyer or an actor or some kind of internet asshole. I’m talking about a gross, long-term miscalculation in sacrifice vs reward, career vs quality of life, having a dad vs not having a dad.
I fear I have inadvertently orphaned myself by way of nepotism.
That guy I see at the coffee maker every morning isn’t my dad. That’s my boss. And to him I’m just the guy who came in a few days late this month. On Christmas, I’m just the bozo who could have done a better buyout on the last project. I imagine on my wedding day I’ll just be that guy that never combs his hair or changes his clothes for work.
I’m not a son. I’m an embarrassing business expense.
And, sadly, now that I’m mature enough to recognize and possibly bridge this emotional gap, with conversation or normal father-son activity outside of work, I no longer have an unadulterated environment in which it can be fixed. He spends his life worrying that I may not be working hard enough and possibly resenting me for having had it too easy; while I resent him for not allowing me the opportunity to grow and succeed on my own.
So when I’m on my way out the door and he suddenly stops and wants to talk to me about a kayak trip he has planned this summer, I listen for as long as he’ll talk. Sure, traffic is worsening by the minute, but I nod and ask him about the mileage, the details on the fiberglass/polyurethane kayak construction he’s read so much about. He tells me about a rowing machine in the garage he’s conditioning on, “I’m no spring chicken you know.” And I can’t help but picture his arms pulling against the cables, the sinews and tissues inside stretching and snapping back into place, remembering those same arms that could once lift my entire person into the sky, protecting me against the wildfires of the foothills so long ago.
As his truck pulls cautiously from the lot I lift my hand and wave. One day I’ll fire you, boss man. And get my dad back.