The following essay of mine was originally published in the January 2007 issue of the Little Rock Free Press.
My dad doesn’t really believe that I’m employed. When, in high school, I definitively made my decision for higher education, rather than the Marine Corps, he was a bit disappointed. But he quickly recovered, seeing a bright side to all of this.
“You can be an engineer,” he told me. “Engineers make a lot of money.”
“But I want to be a writer,” I said.
“Son,” he answered in his serious voice, “writers don’t make a lot of money. What you need is a job that lets you do your writing in your spare time. Writers like Tom Clancy—that’s how they did it.”
I paid him little attention. In college, I came out of my obligatory undecided phase and announced myself to the world as an English major. My dad spent some time hounding me for my future lack of employment. It took him a long time to find the bright side of my decision, but finally he did.
“Son,” he said one day, “you know, the CIA hires these people they call ‘readers.’ What they do is peruse all sorts of literature, magazines, articles, whatnot, and write up reports on the stuff they think is dangerous.”
For just a moment, I daydreamed of someone writing a report on an article or book I had written. That, I decided, would be the pinnacle of literary achievement—to be dubbed a threat by some CIA reader in some dark basement down in Arlington.
Probably not the intention my father had in bringing up that career possibility.
Excepting my height and my propensity to sneeze in multiples of five, I wouldn’t be surprised if ever my father doubted I was his child. Here was a man who served in the Marine Corp for seven years, who was a star football player on his high school team, who worked on offshore oil rigs, who voted only Republican. And here was I, who spent most of my time reading, who was on the high school track team for all of one week, who wanted to write things full of meaning, who voted not even Democrat but Green.
“Son,” he asked me many times when I was growing up, “you don’t think you’re… funny, do you? I mean, you do like girls, right?”
Like the cuckoo in the nest I was, and at times the only thing he and I seemed to have in common was our stubbornness.
His work schedule (do I dare admit in these pages that he still works for Halliburton?) meant that he was home for one month and then overseas—Angola, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait—for a month. Those months that he was gone were familial bliss to my brother and me, but his return marked our month-long entrance into a gulag of absurdity. Dad really liked coming into our rooms and waking us up with the sounds of revile tooted on a pretend trumpet, sometimes accompanying that with a water gun. Maybe he felt that he had to make up for his absence by doubling up on everything—chores, discipline, work around the house. There was never “nothing to do,” for he could always find something.
One summer, he killed our lawn. He had bought some herbicide to take care of the weeds but realized he would be overseas when he needed to apply the second treatment and so just doubled it up. Within a day, our whole yard was brown, crispy, and dead. A few days later, he said to me, “Son, why don’t you go mow the lawn.”
“Um, why?” I asked.
“It’s on your list of chores.”
“Dad, the lawn’s dead. It’s not growing.”
“Just go knock the tops off,” he said in that insistent way he had. And I did. The lawnmower kicked up clouds of dirt so that blowing my nose afterwards was like excavating for ancient ruins.
“Fine work, son” he said, looking over our yard. “Fine work.”
Because my father, each time, had an entire month of no work, he ended up adopting some rather strange hobbies, just to fill the time, though he approached them with a perfect business manner. With the advent of the VCR, he became obsessed with taping things—he bought two just so that he could tape two anythings at once, and it really was anything he would tape. Tape—not necessarily watch. Those were two rather unrelated activities in the mind of my father.
For some reason that I never figured out, his favorite thing to tape was cooking shows off PBS: Justin Wilson, Yan Can Cook, but his favorite by far was The Frugal Gourmet. I think he imagined himself one day having the time to try all these recipes out. But he missed the part where cooking good food actually is related to enjoying good food. Maybe the smoking had killed his sense of taste, but my dad could do the most abominable things with leftovers—microwaved bratwurst covered in Velveeta and put on a hamburger bun with a dill pickle and mayonnaise. I once watched him put a block of Spam in the Cuisinart, thinking that he could thin-slice it for better frying. It was just like all those images of animals exploding in the microwave—thwwwwsssschppp!
“Well,” he said, “I’ll just have to do a hash.”
And yet he taped The Frugal Gourmet religiously and made a catalogue of all the shows he had recorded. He bought a computer database just so he could catalogue his shows. Like so—
Tape #135: Cooking shows
0000 Frugal Gourmet—Yugoslavian stews
0987 Frugal Gourmet—fruit pies
1872 Yan Can Cook—soups
2509 Frugal Gourmet—fruit pies pt. 2
And so on, all stored on this database, which you could look through according to tape numbers or alphabetically according to show titles.
Do you remember when VCRs switched over from the counter format to the time signature? This threw my dad for a loop. His video catalogue had all its reference points were in counter numbers, and there seemed to be no way to make his database serviceable for his old and new VCRs without watching everything all over again. Finally, he hit upon the brilliant notion to tape an eight-hour tape (T-160) and a six-hour tape (T-120) on the counter machine with the numbers displayed, and then play them both on the other machine and see what minutes matched up to what counter numbers and thus make himself a conversion table. All it required was sitting there and fast-forwarding a minute and writing down the corresponding counter number.
“Great idea, dad,” I told him, genuinely impressed.
“Your old man’s smarter than you think,” he said. “Now, make yourself comfortable, because you’re going to be doing this for a while.”
I really would like that day of my life back, please.
There were times when I genuinely thought I hated my dad: his breath that smelled like pickle and his short temper and his hounding me about my future and all these pointless chores and how he just didn’t understand me. But oddly enough, it was the Frugal Gourmet that vanquished all those thoughts.
I forget why, but I was having to hitch a ride from him to one of my classes. He was quiet while we drove, for which I was thankful, but when we got close to campus, he veered away down some back street, and the way he was exhaling heavily through his nose and the way he wasn’t looking at me told me that we were about to have a talk.
“Son,” he began, “there’s something I need to talk to you about.”
Uh-oh, I thought.
He went on. “You know me. There are just some things I don’t approve of. Never have. Don’t think I ever will. Like there being two men being together. Thought of that turns my stomach. Don’t care that some people think they’re born that way—it’s just unnatural.”
I wondered what he was getting at. I’d been dating a girl for some time by that point, so it seemed a bit strange that I should get the gay talk once again.
But I really wasn’t prepared for what he said next. After a moment’s reflection, he began again: “Now, you know that I like cooking shows. Ol’ Yan Can Cook and Justin Wilson, they’re pretty good. But ol’ Frugal Gourmet is the best. See, the thing about Frugal is that he likes going into the history of whatever he’s cooking. You know—when people started making it and how the recipe has changed over time. All that stuff. It was just a top-notch show. Best there ever was.”
Okay, I was lost.
Then he got really quiet as we drove around the streets of Jonesboro at random. I didn’t dare speak. I didn’t know what on earth he was trying to get at.
Finally, he started speaking again. “Now, you know they pulled ol’ Frugal off the air, right?”
“No,” I said.
“Yep,” he said. “Couple of guys said Frugal had made advances on them. And the way they cancelled his show and settled up, I have to think it’s probably true. There was a big scandal about it because he was a minister, too—Methodist, I think.
“Now, you know I don’t approve of that. I think it’s sick, and I think it’s unnatural. But you know, Frugal really had the best show going. And I think maybe… maybe if he ever gets another show going again, I might watch it. I might even tape it.”
Right then, I knew that I loved my dad. I almost said those words, “I love you, dad,” but then we pulled into a spot on campus, and he said, “There you go. Be good, study hard,” like he had said each morning he was there when I was heading off to school. So I got out of the car with my words unspoken and watched him drive away, my heart swelling.
Later that evening, he showed me the latest version of his database—after all, he was up to some 300 tapes and had to print a new one out. For some reason, he always liked showing them off, even though I tended to say something like, “And how many of these shows have you actually watched?” But that night, I flipped through the pages, through all the meticulous detail: Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes taped in broadcast order with the commercials paused out, old films from American Movie Classics, and yes, the page after page of The Frugal Gourmet, all lovingly arranged by the meal du jour. I looked over this and saw what no stranger could see—a grudging testament of tolerance, a realization that we might find revelation and insight in the strangest quarters. I looked over it and felt proud of the man who had created it.
“Fine work, dad,” I said, looking up at him. “Fine work.”