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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Friday, May 1, 1981 - a significant death

My stepfather died today. Carl, my half-brother called me about 9pm. He died in Salt Lake City. Cancer of the brain. I spoke with my mother the previous Sunday. She told me there was not much hope for him. He was 64. I first knew him when he was about 31. My mother just moved to Cody. That's where she met him.

I did not feel much at first. Carl's call was quite unexpected. He seemed like his usual self. Casual and a bit joking. He was never the serious type. We spoke for a few minutes. Then he told me. Simone says he called the house first and spoke to her for about 15 minutes. He said he thought she was sweet. The funeral will be next Tuesday. So we spoke about business and family for a few more moments. His wife, he calls her the smart one, is very interested to meet me.

We had no contact since 1974. I visited with Cody for a short time in November of that year. I walked from Ken's house, or was it the airport, to his gas station on the main street in town. He was there, doing something on a car, and recognized me right away. It had been ten years since we had seen each other. And now, seven years later, he has died.

I think about it again, just like after Carl and I talked, and the same lump comes to my throat, the same tears to my eyes. For the first time in my life, an important part of my growing up, is gone. I did not think of him often in the 17 years since leaving home. Now, for some time, I will often think back to those years, and the ways he influenced how I am today. An odd physical sensation comes over me at this moment. Bending me back to the past and its reliving. A flood of sensations of some memorable and stark moments. Something is lacking in my attempts at poetry. Better to just stick with the facts. He was like a poet. More like an old time bard. Always telling stories of everyday life and great adventures, all in one sitting. Mixing and weaving them into a hypnotic blanket that he would throw over all those in his reach. Was it really that way? Yes. He could really hold an audience spellbound. There were his friends and cronies and buddies. They all liked the same things. They all had the same sort of lives. They all liked the same sort of fun. He could retell and recreate the best moments as well as any of them.

So, there in the office, I began to think about what I knew of him, the things I remember about growing up with him. At first it was just a little tightness in my throat. A little dampness in my eyes. And thinking, wondering, just like I did when growing up, did he love me, did I love him? It always seemed uncertain, not a well answered question to me. There was never the same feeling as with my mother. The good and bad feelings about her were always more clear. She was also more definite with me.

He was not well educated. He grew up during the depression. It was in Missouri, I think. This lack of education caused him some difficulties. But there is one story he told me as a proud memory. In one of the early grades he attended the teacher had everyone cut out the silouette of a car from paper. The name of each student was placed on their car. The cars were then placed around the edge of the classroom to indicate who was the best student. An informative bit of competition. It would always be perfectly clear who was best and worst. He would describe how his car would often be the first. He would tell this story with great pride, but also to compensate for not having gone to school for many years. He compensated quite well in other ways. I did not know anyone more skilled in doing real, practical things, than him. While growing up he must have built the equivalent of three houses. It seems he was able to do everything necessary to build a complete house. All but digging a hole for a basement and pouring the foundation. But he could have done it. He bought everything and put it together. To me, as a child growing up, it always seemed that everything came out perfectly. And, indeed, the houses we lived in were not so bad. Life was always a struggle to improve our economic situation. Some of the houses had problems. The one near the airport was too close to the ground. There were sometimes problems with water getting in. Another house, the first one we lived in after moving to Cody from the ranch, didn't have an indoor toilet. I remember a little private celebration I had the last day we used this outhouse. It seems I made some sort of little speech to the last time. I have a memory of holding up some kind of commemorative flag and then letting it fall. Anyway, he built an addition to that house, and a brand new bathroom. I remember having fantasies about a snake coming out of the toilet or tub and not being able to kill it. It seems I may also have read some sort of science fiction story about such a thing.

And life on the farm! It was no Dick and Jane picnic. It was incredibly hard work. This is something he could outdo anyone at. I hardly ever remember him except for working or telling stories. Or just doing something. I don't remember him ever being depressed. He may have been. He probably had it sometimes. But it never seemed to show. Only once on the farm do I remember him not working. It was from an accident. He had caught his foot in a machine. The ankle was broken, or badly injured in some way. He was hospitalized for a short time. Then he worked on crutches, with a bolt in his foot to hold it together. It only slowed him a little, for awhile. Then back to work. How to work. The most important thing I ever learned from him. There is no substitute for it. Work, any kind of work, where I have a feeling of accomplishing something, still, always makes me feel good. It must have been a source of enormous pleasure for him. I don't know anyone who worked harder. Only my mother came close.

It was late in the Fall. I must have been 11 or 12. It was a cold day. Cloudy. Some sort of snow and rain was falling. A good day to stay inside. Stay warm and comfortable, I says to myself. But he had some other idea. Time to dig up the root vegetables and pack them in sand, says he. Complain, grumble, curse, foot dragging, and general piddling around, as he used to call it. So with considerable rancor, I help with the work. Why couldn't we have done this sooner, I says. Who care what the answer was. I don't remember now. We didn't do it earlier, so it has to be done now. The plants won't wait. They will freeze if its cold enough. The weather and the plants don't care if it could have been done earlier. And so we do it. It was what had to be done. All the things of this sort, the things that had to be done to guarantee that life would go on, always got done. I often resented having to do all this work. It seemed that I was being picked-on by him. Chalk it up to youthful paranoia. What does it matter. I learned how to work. Nobody has ever called me lazy. Not a bad thing to learn from anyone. But its something I got from him. The telling of stories is another. I can't do it in quite the same way. I think writing is a better way of doing this for me. But there is something very satisfying about getting the attention of others in this way. It is so unnecessary a thing. You don't need to tell or listen to stories to live. But work and stories seemed to be his whole life. I can't deny that I have some pleasure for myself when telling a story. It's a great pleasure to lead them along. Having them on the edge of their seats. Having them almost begging for more. Perhaps going off on some other little subject for just a moment, teasing them with little asides and irrelevant things, and then, suddenly, back to the story and a spectacular conclusion that has them rolling in the aisles or nodding their heads with understanding of some important idea.

On the one hand I was always very conscious of him being my stepfather. But I did not have a real father. Not in the way he was my father. He was there. My real father was far away. It seemed he avoided being my real father. It seemed he always gave more attention to his real sons. I remember the candy bar incident. He came home one day with two. This is all there were, he said. I will give them to the two little ones. That's not fair, I says. Why don't you divide them in half, and give a half to each of us? But he had a reason why not. I was not able to convince him. I don't remember what it was. I can't believe, in thinking about it now, that it was a good reason. But now, thinking about this incident, its really one of the worst. And can it have been so bad if this is the worst thing I can say about him? He didn't share a candy bar with me and my sister? Lots of people could wish things had been this good for them.

One of my favorite things was to go in trips with him. Several times I went to the thriving metropolis of Billings, Montana. We took pigs, as I remember, to a place where they were auctioned. Loading the truck, driving for several hours, over the Wyoming plains and around the mountains. The auction house was an enormous building. I would be free to wander around. Secret pleasure hiding away and watching people coming and going and talking and them not being able to see me.

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