I’ve been looking for a way to explain how I feel about my father dying. It’s as if I were born on a continent, and I played there, and I grew up falling, and getting back up, and figuring out how I fell. I went back there when I was proud. I went back there when I was miserable, and it was always home.

That continent has fallen and disappeared into the ocean. That’s how I feel.

There is a giant hole in the world shaped like my father. I can walk around it, but I can never fill it. He died this morning in his sleep, in his own bed, and without pain. Dying piles indignities on us, but he held on to more dignity than most.

At age eighty-six he liked to say, “Old age ain’t for sissies.” He grew up hunting and wandering around in the woods, and he spent most of his career outside. His favorite parts of himself didn’t thrive indoors. Past injuries and illnesses kept him inside during too much of his final twenty-nine years. During twenty-three of those years he spent most days sitting next to my mother in matching recliners, talking about a whole lot of enjoyable nothing. The next six years he sat next to her empty chair.

He built things on all scales. He managed projects that built schools, manufacturing plants, and a nice chunk of DFW Airport. One year for my mother’s birthday he built her an organ.

I have never talked to a person who knew him and didn’t think highly of him. That includes people he fired.

A few slices of my father’s life sketch him with unavoidable imperfection:

One day when he was six years old he was haranguing his mother about someplace he wanted to go with his dog, while she stood in the kitchen holding his little sister. She kept saying no. He finally said, “If you weren’t holding that baby, I’d throw this dog at you.”

At age nineteen he joined the Marine Corps, and they sent him to the war in Korea. Not long afterwards his platoon was attacked by massed waves of Chinese soldiers. At the end he was the last man standing on either side, and he blocked that memory for the next fifty years. Seven months later, his company was split up so that half could be sent home to help form a new company. He volunteered to stay, but his commander refused, saying, “No, you’ve seen enough of this shit already. You’re coming home with me.” Within a month the men who stayed were nearly wiped out.

My father never smoked, even though cigarettes came in his rations in Korea. After the war, he and my uncle would go to rough places in the river bottom to play quarter-limit poker and lose a bunch of money. Everybody smoked. Once in a while he would reach over to the ashtray and mash out all the cigarettes with his finger. Nobody objected, they all just lit up a new one.

My father only spanked me once, a single swat with a switch I cut. It didn’t hurt, but I was devastated. I don’t remember him ever yelling at me. I would have crawled over broken glass for him.

When I was about eight I was helping him with a project in our shop at home. I got distracted and let something drop. He frowned and said, “He who hesitates is lost.” Then he smiled and said, “All things come to he who waits.” Then he said, “Both of those sayings were probably made up by the same man.”

I don’t remember my father giving me much instruction on how to live life. He did what he thought was the right thing and admitted it when he did the wrong thing. He told me the Bible must have been written by a con man. The idea that you can hurt people your whole life and then profess faith on your deathbed to be forgiven was ridiculous to him.

In these past years my father has often told me he’s ready for death when it comes. He said he’d had a good life, done about everything he wanted to do, and had no regrets. He sometimes said you may as well laugh, because it does no good to cry. I saw no sign that he changed his mind at the end. Even when he became too weak to talk, he still smiled when we talked to him.

I used to have some pretty cool retirement plans. They would have required a whole lot of strenuous not doing much. I figured I’d go to movies with my wife, ride my bike around the neighborhood, play a video game or two, cruise the Danube River, and all that kind of stuff. Take it easy and appreciate life. But I was kidding myself, just like some movie producer who’s out there planning to make money on Highlander V – in 3D.

Life rubbed my face in this fact recently. A while back happened to have some time on my hands. My regular work scaled down for a while, so I found myself in a mini-retirement. I thought to myself, this will be cool. I’ll kick back and have some fun. It’s been a tough year, so look out world—the fun train is rolling!

Since nobody cared whether I accomplished anything or succeeded in any way, I gathered up my high spirits and took on a small, fun project. That was so much fun that I moved right into a big project. And while that was going on I tacked on a huge project, which was also fun but really damned huge. By now I’ve given up all the leisure activities I had before my mini-retirement started, and it’s common in the evenings to hear me say, “Sorry sweetie, I can’t watch that movie with you tonight. I need to get some work done.”

So, you can see that mini-retirement didn’t work out for me. My retirement plans were as solid as the prediction that the Lost City of Atlantis will rise, and that UFOs will tow it to Disney World while Godzilla rides a unicycle through its streets.

My dad is retired. I’m pretty close to my dad, but something has gradually separated us. When I was younger we worked closely together for thousands of hours, and we did it comfortably and with a like mind. My dad made his living in the construction business most of his life. Before construction, he climbed out of helicopters and shinnied down ropes for a living. Before that he shot at young Chinese men for a living, and their friends shot back at him, as you might expect.

My dad lived his life in a world of things, of doing things and of making things. A very smart guy, but he didn’t graduate with the rest of his high school class because he failed English. He wouldn’t read the fiction books because he hated reading about things that weren’t true. But he unofficially attended graduation so he could receive all of the sports awards. Like I said, he’s a “doing things” guy. And as I’ve gotten older I’ve dealt more with “non-things” like numbers and words, and my life has moved gradually farther away from his.

Circumstances forced my dad to retire pretty young. A bunch of broken bones from his days of jumping out of helicopters caught up with him. His ability to do things and make things dropped to almost nothing. He never displayed much emotion—when his mom died he didn’t show much grief. One day not long after he stopped working, the city was repairing streets in his neighborhood. You could hear the construction equipment moving earth around. My dad walked outside, and he stood in his front yard and wept.

I don’t understand much. But I’m getting a sliver of understanding of what my dad’s world became once the doing of things and the making of things were taken away. I hope that separates us a bit less. Also, I guess I’d better get my shit together in case the things that my life is about disappear for me someday.

My planned career in retirement – selling sites on which to build bowling alleys.

Just to let you know, this funky piece is pulled from my e-book Bring Us The Head Of The Velveteen Rabbit. All the other essays in the book are far better than this one. You’ll be shocked. I chose this one because I didn’t want to build your expectations up too much. You might particularly like”The Least Romantic Man in America,” and “Days of Wine and Mammoths.” Check it out at either Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Now I’m going to take my unapologetic, grasping, mercantile ass home and mow the yard.

It’s necessary to understand arson on the Sabbath in order to understand my father.

My father took me to Pete’s Barbershop for my first haircut. Pete owned the largest barbershop in my hometown, with ten chairs, and with mirrors running the length of both walls so you could see yourself into infinity while getting your hair cut. Pete operated a gun store out of the back end of his shop, a logical side-business for any barbershop.

Pete’s entrepreneurial spirit soared above hair and guns. He also served as the town’s only arsonist in residence. If you had money troubles and needed your warehouse or your grain silo burned down for the insurance money, Pete would make that happen for an appropriate fee. He never left enough evidence behind for the fire department or insurance investigators to call it an intentional blaze—Pete was a professional.

At that time my Southern hometown enforced the Blue Laws. These laws prohibited hundreds of items from being sold on Sundays, because Sunday was holy and should be spent it in prayer and contemplation. The Blue Law rules about what couldn’t be sold made lots of sense. For example, you could by a hammer, but you couldn’t buy nails. In moral support of the Blue Laws, all of the barbershops closed on Sundays, except Pete’s. Pete remained open, cut hair, and sold guns on the Sabbath.

Eventually the leading citizens and businessmen worked up a fair amount of outrage about Pete’s improper behavior. They began throwing around talk about boycotts, city ordinances and fines. Then one Sunday night one of the town’s barbershops burned down. The next Sunday another barbershop burned. Local businessmen, especially the barbershop owners, stopped calling for Pete’s to be shut down on Sundays. No one else ever complained about Pete.

All of this happened before I was born, so my father had to tell me this story. I could see that he looked upon Pete’s strategy with approval, and even amusement. But I realized that I didn’t care about Pete. I cared about my father’s approval of Pete, which I recognize to be singular and not an attitude adopted by everyone.

Since the time my father told me about Pete, James Bradley published a popular book called “Flags of Our Fathers.” It concerns the famous photo of the US flag being raised at Iwo Jima, one of the most iconic photos of the last century. The author’s father was one of the six flag-raisers, and the book is about his father and the five Marines who raised the flag. I liked this book. Clint Eastwood even made a movie of it.

Some of my friends enjoyed the book, but they objected to it as well. They said it was sometimes inaccurate in terms of facts and numbers. They pointed out that it seemed unfairly biased against the Japanese. They criticized it for not treating some of the flag-raisers even handedly. These are poor qualities in a history book. I don’t disagree with these criticisms, but I disagree with the conclusion. “Flags of Our Fathers” isn’t a history book, it’s a book about a man’s search for the man his father used to be.

It could seem peculiar to want to know your father before you were born. It sounds like any one of a dozen bad movies. But I know I’ve changed since I was young. Now I have fewer hangovers and more back hair. I keep my mouth shut a lot more, so when I say something stupid the results are far more catastrophic. I know what my own youth looks like, but my father’s youth is an empty place, and there’s nothing a man likes to do more than fill an empty place.

I’ve seen my father work a lot of nights, outsmart executives who thought they were smooth, and design tools to handle strange, pain-in-the-ass problems. He nearly killed a clerk with shock once by giving back money he got by mistake. He crushed a fellow who admired him but who kept making mistakes, and when a stranger close by puked all over himself and the vicinity, my father cleaned the man up. He never told a joke, but he made people laugh. That’s how I’ve known him personally. But of course, it’s only through incidents I’ve been told about that I can know the man he was before I was born.

I do know a lot of the dates and places of my father’s life. But that doesn’t help me understand him, just like knowing the factory and manufacture date won’t help me understand a chainsaw. People do things, and that’s how we know them. My hometown was a rural place when my father was a small boy, but the roads were dangerous enough that his dog kept knocking him into the ditch whenever he tried to walk on the shoulder. His pet raccoon slept in the pocket of an old overcoat hanging on the porch. My five year old father got infuriated when he wasn’t allowed to do what his brothers did, but they were much older—in fact, old enough to fight in the war, and for one of them to die in it.

But the quintessential detail I have from my father’s childhood is of him standing in the kitchen with his dog, and his mother at the stove holding her baby girl. His mother had just refused to let my father do something he wanted to do, and he responded, “If you weren’t holding that baby, I’d throw this dog at you.” Obviously my father was a willful child and not to be trusted, so his parents gave him a .22 rifle and turned him loose in the local woods for the rest of his childhood.

Another war had begun in Korea when my father turned 19, and he thought joining the Marine Corps would be smart. He was a big, strong kid who could hit about anything he shot at, so the Corps slapped a uniform on him, gave him a rifle, and sent him to Korea. My father never told me many light-hearted stories about Korea. He served with the first helicopter unit ever used in combat. That’s less glamorous than it might sound, since his job was to climb down from helicopters on flapping ropes, use axes and explosives to clear a half acre of woods, and watch the damned Navy pilots land those helicopters.

On one occasion, my father’s platoon guarded a small valley, and the Chinese Army decided to send an outrageous number of soldiers through it. Over the next quarter hour the Chinese frothed through the valley killing Marines, who in return killed them in job lots. My father recalled having “the biggest gun that fired the fastest,” and he killed a lot of Chinese kids about his own age. Most were so close he could easily see their faces when he killed them. By the time the Chinese decided that this was a pointless exercise, my father and his sergeant were the only Marines alive. My father told me about this incident with no pride and no pleasure when I was a grown man. In fact, he had blotted out the memory of it and only recalled it 50 years after it happened.

After Korea, my father went to college and played football for a while. Later on one of his friends from college called him for advice. The friend had gotten a job as a P.E. teacher, and he wasn’t sure how to handle his upcoming duties. My father had never taught P.E., but his friend asked his advice anyway. My father told him to “go in the first day, pick out the two toughest guys in the class, and beat the shit out of both of them at the same time.” Then he wouldn’t have any problems the rest of the year.

My journey to understand who my father was before I knew him must necessarily end at the moment I become a nasty, bellowing newborn. So this last incident involves how my father and mother put themselves in a position to create such a repellent creature as the newly-minted me. When my father was 23, he noticed my mom and found he wanted her to be aware of his existence, and also to consider it a good thing. But my father suffered from incredible shyness, and he couldn’t think of anything to do that would make this happen.

My father’s younger sister was my mom’s best friend. He asked his sister if she could help him, and she said, “You bet!” His sister asked my mom to go out Saturday night, as they often did, and my mom said sure. On Saturday my father and his sister arrived at my mom’s house in his car. My mom thought it odd that my father was there, but she shrugged and got in the car. Then my father’s sister said, “Oh, I forgot I have something to do!” and she buggered off, leaving my father and mom alone on what had just become a date.

They went to the local establishment where everyone in town gathered on Saturday nights. My mom knew everybody, and she laughed, and danced, and had a great time with her friends. My father, rather less outgoing, sat in the corner all night drinking beer and said nothing to anyone—including my mom.

The evening ended, and the time to go home arrived. In the parking lot my parents found that someone had parked their car behind my father’s car, and he couldn’t get out. He solved this problem by picking up the back end of the offending car and dragging it out of the way so he could leave. My mom thought, “Huh.” That is exactly what she later told me she thought, word for word. During the ride back to my mom’s house, my father still said nothing. He let her out at the curb and drove away. My mom went into the house and thought that this was the strangest thing that had ever happened to her.

On Sunday evening, with no planning or discussion, my father pulled up in front of my mom’s house. As my mom looked out the window, she felt perplexed and unsure of what to do. She didn’t see many options, so she went outside and got in my father’s car, and they drove away on their second date.

Six months later they were married.

Unfortunately, none of these incidents include anything about my father’s hangovers or his back hair. My picture of him as a young man remains a fuzzy sketch. But it’s a start. After all, any kid who threatens to throw a dog at his mom has to grow into a father to be proud of.