Reading my dad’s stories about his father riding the trains to escape the dust bowl reminds me of some of the most treasured memories I have of childhood: my father’s stories.
Growing up, my family encouraged communcation. More often than not we’d be reading a book as a family after dinner or in the evenings. Histories, autobiographies, biographies, and fiction. These hours around the table, in the living room, on trips, at campgrounds, were always very dear to me.
We’d beg dad to tell us another story about when he was a kid. And there were many of them:
Dad grew up in Sharp Park, CA. Right on the Pacific coast just south of San Francisco. His house essentially faced the water and the city pier jutting out into the ocean, past the beach and shorewater filled with waste-water from the drains.
He told of jumping off the wall near the house at his brothers’ urging. He could never land on his feet. In seems to me now to be a twist on “no more monkeys jumping on the bed”, the doctor told him not to jump off the wall any more. But his brothers goaded him again, and he jumped. Landing didn’t work any better.
Dad would tell of hearing the Tsunami (Tidal waves, he knew them as) warning sirens and riding his bicycle up the hill behind the house to the safety point and waiting for the sirens to turn off.
His family moved to Redwood City, and he told of pressing his head against the chain-link fence until a diamond was embossed in red on his forehead from the wires.
When he was younger, he and his brothers would sit in their diapers on top of the heater vent to benefit from the direct heat. One of his older brothers was potty trained and tried sitting on the grate, and got hot crossed buns for his trouble.
He told of working in his dad’s shop, a metal work plant. My grandfather, Pop, was an inventor and businessman. He developed a track, pulley, and hoist system useful for allowing people to move large, heavy, and unweildy items around factories and processing plants. Used primarily in the meat-packing industries, my dad still sees the track systems stamped with his dad’s trademark in butcher plants where they use the track and pulley system to move the carcasses around the cutting floor.
The “Shop” had presses and furnaces aplenty, and my grandfather put his sons to work.
Dad tells of a time one of his older brothers was removing a piece from one of the furnaces. He pulled too hard and the furnace itself started tipping. Seeing the furnace falling towards him, the brilliant idea came to stick his hands out to stop it.
It was probably better than any alternative, but both of his brother’s hands were burned severely.
Stories of his sisters purposefully slamming the car door on his brothers fingers.
Stories of telling his younger brother that dad’s nickel was worth more than his brother’s dime because it was a bigger coin, and persuading him to switch.
Stealing coins from his mother’s purse in order to buy Twinkies from the store, and getting caught with his mouth full.
Dad survived childhood, amazingly enough.
He got a cat. A beautiful female long-haired calico.
While he was away, his house burned down and he returned to see only the smoldering embers and firemen putting out the final flames. He was afraid his cat had perished in the blaze. But plaintive mews from overhead and he saw his cat “Sweetheart” had escaped the house and had taken refuge in a tree near the house.
Sweetheart lived many more years and was the first pet I remember, making cameo appearances in our early home videos.
Dad told a story of when he and his siblings had grown and were taking a rafting trip. His oldest sisters husband was with them and they were at a point in the river where a small dam or man-made flood control system forced them to portage their rafts.
There were strong currents pulling towards the drain pipes which took the water through the dam and his brother-in-law was not able to get out of his raft in time.
The raft, caught in the suction, folded in half around its passenger like a clamshell and disappeared down the massive pipe.
Tense moments and panicked breaths later, the exhaust pipe on the other side of the dam disgorged the raft and his brother-in-law, safe and alive.
No doubt my dad will have a few *minor* corrections to these stories, and hopefully some additions. But the fact that the last time I heard him tell a story was probably over ten years ago and yet I can recall so many of those beloved tales indicates their importance.
Facing fatherhood myself, I want to remember the tales of my youth to tell my children.
The goal is not to be my childrens’ buddy. That job is for their peers. It is to make memories, and to encourage their own memories. I loved sharing my dad’s stories. We heard the tale of the “black diamonds” of the school-yard fence while riding up with friends to check out a cabin in the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Lake Tahoe.
Books contain memories and imaginings, and to hear memories and imaginings from my father was one of the strongest memories of childhood. No doubt it fed from and contributed to my love of books and stories.