When I was a child, kids were reared very differently than they are today– especially in Texas. My dad was “Texas” through and through. When my mom went into labor while my dad was attending Yale, he brought a jar of dirt he’d dug up before they’d moved to Connecticut and insisted on placing it under the delivery bed so that he could tell everyone his first child was born on Texas soil. My dad and I had some great– and occasionally really gross or fairly dangerous– times together.
For instance, my father was an avid hunter– because Texas, ya’ll– so I ate a lot of venison. That wasn’t the bad part- venison is actually pretty awesome when it’s not game-y (I would like to say, however, that I do not advocate hunting, even for food, because we have these great things called grocery stores now). In addition to eating a lot of recently murdered animals, I also grew up around dozens of mounted heads and hides (and one gigantic snake skin from an enormous snake my dad killed while doing a geological survey for Exxon). My dad did not believe in wasting any animal parts that could be eaten or used for home decor or given as gifts. He once gave my mother a set of taxidermied turkey feet. She thought he was doing some voodoo shit on her. He also believed in doing the “cleaning” himself.
**WARNING: This next part is super-gross, so don’t read it if you don’t have a strong stomach or get offended by descriptions of dead animals!!**
One day when I was about three years old, I wandered out the front door of my grandparents’ ranch house and was not at all surprised to discover an entire deer hanging from a tree with a giant hole cut in its side. Next to the deer stood my father, covered in deer blood and dropping the last handful of deer guts into the pile he’d made on the ground.
“Whatcha doin’?” I asked, probably very cutely.
“I’m cleaning the deer I shot,” my dad replied, no attempt to shield me from the disgusting animal carcass.
“What’s that mean?” I asked. (I was going through the ‘question everything’ phase.)
“It means I take out the guts and take the skin off, so we can eat it,” he answered matter-of-factly.
“Can I see it?” I queried.
“Sure,” he said, stepping back, giving me room to inspect the deer. So I toddled over to it and poked at it a little and very probably put my finger in its nose because I was known to violate animals’ cranial orifices when I was little. Seeing shit like this is almost certainly why. I inspected every inch of the deer until I got to the gaping hole in its side and then stuck my head inside to look at the inside of the deer. That happened, people. And do you know what my father did? Did he snatch me up in horror and try to explain how gross and potentially messy and dangerous that could be? Nooooo. My father felt the correct response to this inexplicably icky action was to lift up the deer’s tail, peek through its butthole, and happily exclaim, “Peekaboo!” To which I responded by laughing hysterically. So then and there, my father and I played a ten-minute game of peekaboo, using the asshole of a dead deer. And I know I am remembering it correctly because my dad, when he was still alive, used this story to illustrate to his friends how “Texas” his only daughter was. This explains so much…
He also proudly taught me how to clean his shotgun, and I used to look forward to it after every hunting trip. He would take out his case of tools and gun oil (I loved the smell of gun oil as a kid), and he would let me screw the pieces of the plunger-thing together (I don’t know what it’s called, but you use it to clean the barrel). Then he would thread a piece of cloth through the thing on the end that looked like a giant needle-eye. He would let me shove it into the barrel and get it all clean, and then he would let me help him polish the gun all over. Most parents wouldn’t want their small children exposed to firearms, but my dad wasn’t most people. He thought I should know all about guns so I wouldn’t try to play with them, and I thought it was the funnest thing in the world. I was not a typical little girl.
Think back to your last intestinal bug. Was it a miserable day or two of running back and forth between the bed and the toilet? Not at our house. At our house, when you had a stomach virus, you were confined to the bathroom by my mother, who would not even chance someone barfing on the carpet. She would make you a pallet and put the nine-inch, black and white TV on the bathroom counter. You would snuggle into your warm, puffy pallet, watch cartoons, and get up occasionally to puke or be force-fed Pedialyte mixed with Sprite (back then they only had one flavor of Pedialyte– sweat) or to get an anti-nausea suppository rudely poked up your backside (no joke).
On this particular occasion, because Dad and I were both sick, my mom let us camp out in the master bath to give us room to get to the toilet without tripping over each other. When we got bored with the TV and started to feel a little better, I snuck to my room and grabbed my cassette recorder. I thought one of the most hilarious forms of amusement was to record myself on a blank tape and play it back over and over. I brought the tape recorder back to the bathroom, and Dad and I spent the next two hours recording ourselves making fart sounds, singing, and making “bomb” sound effects. Nothing passes the time when you’re sick like being trapped in a bathroom with your dad, a TV, and a tape recorder. I saved that tape and played it over and over for the next two weeks, giggling behind my hand the whole time.
My dad and I had some great– and unusual– bonding moments. He liked to tell the story of the time I saved him from a snake when I was four. We were at my grandparents’ ranch again (lots of gross stories occurred there, often involving peril to life and limb), and we were getting ready to take the canoe out on the pond for a little fishing. My dad had the oars and fishing poles, and I proudly dragged the tackle box along with both hands. It was winter, so we weren’t really watching for snakes because they should have all been hiding underground or under rocks and stuff.
Dad laid the oars on the ground at the edge of the icy water and gripped the canoe on one side to flip it over. As the six-foot, metal boat turned over and exposed the hard ground beneath, I caught a glimpse of something orange-y and white in the grass. I looked closer and saw what I knew, even at age four, to be a Copperhead. It was slow-moving because of the cold, and but even so, I saw it pull its head back as though readying itself to strike at my father, who was less than two feet from it and had yet to see it.
“DAD, THERE’S A SNAKE!!!” I yelled. In one swift motion, he grabbed one of the heavy, wooden oars, looked to where I was pointing, and brought the flat end down hard on the snake’s head. Then he hugged me tight and thanked me.
“We need to get a picture!” he exclaimed. So we ran back to the cabin and told my grandpa what had happened. He followed us back to the pond with the camera. After poking at the snake a few times to make sure it was really dead, my dad scooped it up on the end of an oar and sat me on his knee while my grandpa took a couple of shots. For the next few weeks, my dad proudly told anyone who would listen about how his four-year old had surely saved him from a venomous snake bite, twenty miles from the the nearest hospital. Every time we flipped through our photo albums after that, Dad would point to the picture and say, “Remember when you saved me from Copperhead?” And I would feel proud too– and thankful.
Dad and I had some strange and sometimes idiotic adventures, and I loved them all. I also love that I have his wicked, sarcastic sense of humor. I love that I can see him in my son and my brothers. I love that I have these great memories of using my dad’s golf clubs to whack the heads off the mushrooms in the backyard every spring, and I love that he introduced me the Beach Boys when I was eight. I love that he always had a sports car and would sing “Barbara Ann” to me along with the stereo while we drove to the beach. He called me “B,” and to this day no one else is allowed to call me that.
My dad would be fifty-nine years old today, and I am currently the same age he was when he died. When I remember my dad, I smile. I can never watch a bad ’80s horror movie or a Godzilla movie without thinking of him. And how many kids can say they learned to read from the Sunday comics, while sitting on their dad’s knee? My dad was funny and incredibly intelligent and also very, very complicated. I look back on some of the very strange things we did together and– even though some of them are a little disturbing (like the deer peekaboo) or dangerous (like the snake)– I am grateful for every one of them.