We had been parked out at the camping spot outside our town for almost a week with our Dad in charge. The summers usually consisted of them taking turns with their holidays, her one week, him the next, back and forth like that, usually culminating in 2 weeks all of us together at the end. This plan was likely made with the idea of constant supervision during the summer break, and also with the intent to minimize the need to pay someone to watch us.
We always looked forward to the weeks with Dad, as he never bothered or nagged us, and by 4 in the afternoons, it was doubtful he even remembered he had 2 kids out rambling through the wooded areas and down by the river. By that time, he was well into his cups, and either snoozing off his uninterrupted day-drunk, or listening to his Johnny Cash 8-tracks and hazily formulating supper ideas. He was never the kind of drunk who forgot to eat, or skipped eating in order to leave more room for the rye.
All the successful professional alcoholics I have known during my life have always taken the time to eat. In their minds, it keeps them within the “normal” zone on the barometer of boozology. Dinner may be rock hard from warming in the oven, or burnt to a crisp from idling in the frying pan too long, or even served at 11 at night, but they made dinner, didn’t they?
My mother, the warden, usually kept a pretty close eye on my pops, for good reason. We loved him to death, but his irresponsibility scared her to death. He never said no to us, but always deferred to my mother if she was present, and just wanted us to be happy and free. One of my jobs was to do dishes and clean the kitchen up after dinner every night, but if it ran late, my friends would already be ringing the doorbell wanting me to go out with them. My dad would sneak down to the kitchen, and grab the towel or broom from me and whisper “go- go- be with your friends, I can finish this up for you-shhhhh.”
I am sure, looking back, that he had been doing that with me since I was a very young child. He was always so affectionate with me, always pinching my cheeks softly between his second and third fingers. Always brushing my hair out of my eyes when I was reading, and he would notice it falling forward. Always such affection and adoration from my Dad. It made me love him so much and want to “cover” for him with my mom.
I’m pretty sure that is how it started- my covering up for him and his negligence with us. My doing my damnedest to make sure anything she left for him to complete, was completed by me if he was too drunk to do it. Everything from subbing in and taking my brother for his haircuts, while my dad drank at the bar, to stealing his own wallet from him to ensure he came home with the amount of money for bills she had asked him to bring home. He was always thankful for my interventions and assistance, and loved me even more, if that was possible.
He had a pretty good system going. My mother told him what to do, or what she expected from him and he let me take care of all the pesky details and also the worry.
More time to drink.
The only phone out at the campground was by the little store- a payphone.
People didn’t need to be in constant contact back then, so it wasn’t strange to go the entire 5 day work week without talking to my mother. She knew where we were and unless we called her from the payphone, everything was assumed to be fine.
I was standing in line for a slushie with some of my friends when the man who ran the joint said to me ” Call home, kid.” I was confused, as i didn’t know he even knew who I was. I asked him if he was sure he had the right person, and he nodded, his smoke hanging off his bottom lip, and said ” yup- your mom described you perfectly, right down to the bathing suit. Call home.”
I left the line and walked toward the payphone, already feeling a twisting in my gut. I pulled a dime out of my sneaker (where all smart summer kids kept their change), and dropped it into the slot of the phone.
My mom answered immediately and told me my Uncle George had died and we needed to get home immediately.
Now, this is where this story takes a humorous turn of sorts, in spite of the spectre of death hanging over it.
I had two Uncle Georges.
One was married to my mom’s sister, and was my favourite man in the world after my Dad.
The second was married to my Mom’s best friend, my godmother.
I didn’t think to ask which one died before my mother hung up the phone.
So, off I ran to the tent trailer to tell my Dad that we had orders to get home as fast as we could, as George had died and my mom wanted us home.
As I approached the camp spot, I could hear the train whistles and Johnny Cash – Orange Blossom Special, and knew my mission might take a bad turn. The louder the music, the drunker he likely was – of that you could always be certain. I was still 4 camp spots away when i heard the music, and felt even sicker….slowed my running to a walk. I tried to calculate how many hours he had been left alone by us. It was about 4:30, and we had taken off to go swimming around 9. Even allowing him an hour for coffee, he had likely been smashing it hard since 10 A.M, secure in the thought that it was going to just be one more lazy, hazy day camping, and we wouldn’t need anything until at least 6 or 7, as we packed bologna sandwiches with us when we left.
I saw him sitting in his lawn chair, with his head slightly forward, nodding along a bit to his music. As I approached him from the trees, I could literally see him try to focus his eyes on who was walking toward him. His eyes were bleary-looking and he blinked a couple times before he smiled at me and said ” Hey shishhhh– howshh yer day going?”
I told him we had to go home and it was like it didn’t even register. Nothing.
Once again, I explained that “George” had died and that we were told to get home as soon as possible, and he looked up at me with a child’s eyes, and shook his head a bit, muttering, “can’t, can’t drive”.
We were 20 miles from home, with direct orders from the warden to get our asses home, there’s been a death, and he was sitting there, like an errant toddler, shaking his head back and forth and telling me “can’t.”
It took me about 4 minutes to assess what would be our worst case scenario – my little brother and myself dying in the car on the way home cus he was seeing double already, or dealing with my mother, who gave us a direct order.
I chose death for all of us, and quickly rounded up my brother, packed anything outside the trailer into the trailer, turned off Johnny, and threw water on the campfire he had been half-assed playing with all day. All while he sat in the lawn chair blearily watching me. He almost looked like he was pouting- sulky. Like I was also pouring water all over HIS party by making us leave.
I got my brother to help me drag our father to the station wagon on his wobbly legs and stuff him inside the driver’s door. I remember my brother giggling during all of it. He thought it was like a game- an adventure- something that plopped itself into a boring summer day that ran into all the other boring endless summer days. The idea of his sister “bossing” his dad around seemed to really amuse him a lot, in retrospect.
I got myself and my brother into the car and we sat there. Sat there for what seemed like years, waiting for him to focus- to come back to his senses- to open his eyes to the fact that he was behind the wheel of his car, us waiting for him to turn the key in the ignition.
He didn’t move a muscle, just slumped back in his seat and started snoring quietly- he was sleeping. Passed out. Blotto.
I suddenly felt more anger than I had ever felt in my life up to that point. My chest felt like it was going to explode and blow my heart right out the windshield and into the trees beyond the car. My head hurt, my chest hurt, I was seeing stars.
I jerked my door open and ran around to his side of the car and opened the door. Then I started hitting him in the shoulders and chest and yelling at him to wake up. He jerked awake and looked so startled and then sad that his little angel, his little girl, his little co-conspirator was striking him and yelling at him.
I told him to shove over to the passenger side of the car and then grabbed my mom’s little pillow she kept in the back for when she was driving and put it on the driver’s seat.
I slid in and shut the door. With my brother’s help, I got the car started and adjusted the rear view mirror. He talked me through finding the lever to pull the seat forward and even helped by pushing with his little legs from the back seat. It was a good thing he had paid attention to how the car worked, as I never had. I must have been secure in my belief that there would always be an adult around to take care of that sort of thing.
In that way, my brother was much more of a survivor than I was. His eyes and ears never missed a thing, whereas I was always doing my best to not see or hear most of what was going on around me.
As I attempted backing out of the narrow parking spot, I nicked a corner of a tree. I remember twisting the wheel back and forth, as I didn’t understand how to move it to reverse in a different direction, so it took us some time to get the nose pointed in the direction we needed to be in. In fairness to my young self, I highly doubt after driving almost 40 years, I could reverse that big old countrysquire station wagon out of that narrow spot!
As we drove along the bumpy gravel road towards the exit, I remember panicking a bit about the directions, as I never paid any attention in a car. I had my nose in an Archie comic, waiting for the car to stop at my destination. Luckily, my brother knew where we needed to turn and how to get us out of the country and back to town.
I remember driving us, my dad snoring beside me in the passenger seat, my brother leaning into the front seat in the center, telling me when to turn left or right, when to slow down, where the “coppers” hid in the trees to nail the speeders. I told myself that if I saw any “coppers” I would just run us all to our deaths straight into the nearest tree, as that would be better than them showing up to embarrass my mother at our home. (The neighbours!!!!!)
Someone was watching over my brother and I that day and it most certainly was not either of our parents. After what seemed like forever, I turned that big old car into our driveway at home, took the keys out and threw them in my father’s lap.
My brother and I went into the house and met our mother in the kitchen, where she was waiting. I remember falling into her arms and sobbing. She believed it was from grief, I suppose. She never asked me why, just held me while I cried and shook.
She asked where my dad was, and I told her he was still in the car, but that was all. I had already sworn my brother to secrecy on the way home, promising him all the money I had saved and also any candy I had stashed in my bedroom.
I don’t know if she ever went out to the car and figured out what had happened.
More likely, he just woke up and came inside and nothing came of it, as there was a funeral to attend, and people coming and going, which gave her no time to question any of it, and he certainly wasn’t going to open that Pandora’s box on his own.
I remember when I finally found out which George it was that died, I felt very guilty as there was a sense of relief it wasn’t my favourite Uncle George. The guilt came because the George who DID die, had a daughter the same age as me, and was a drinker like my dad.
I remember feeling so confused about my anger towards my dad, all mixed up with a sudden fear that HE could die, too. It all became very real to me that people can die any day, from any number of ways.
Kids could wake up on a lazy summer Tuesday with a dad and by the time they went to bed at night, he could be gone.
Cold and dead and maybe the last thing his daughter said to him was “I hate you!”
Or perhaps she really let loose and uttered her first curse word directly at him…something like ” you fucking DRUNK, give me those fucking keys, RIGHT NOW!”
It could happen. ( It wouldn’t for a few more years, but not many.)
So better to just shove it deep down inside and forget about it.
I was 12.