EDITOR’S NOTE: Welcome to the A to Z Challenge, an exercise in self-flagellation we bloggers inflict upon ourselves to teach us discipline as writers and to build audience. During the month of April, I’ll be posting 26 times, once for every letter in the alphabet. Looking on the bright side, we can each be thankful this is an English language exercise and not Khmer, the language of Cambodia, which sets the world record with a 74-character alphabet! After some misgivings, I’ve decided to proceed with my initial idea of blogging about the special people in my life whose names begin with the appropriate letter. There will be difficulties, like having more than one special person whose names begin with the same letter, forcing me to choose. And then there are those letters — O, Q and X among them — where no name springs readily to mind. What will I do then? We’ll have to wait and see!
O is for Otis
Sometimes I’m disgusted by my own writing. That should come as no surprise for readers who are disgusted by it, too, but my reasons are likely different from yours.
My disgust stems from looking back at things I’ve written about my dad. What I wrote was always true, and certainly heartfelt, but my efforts at therapy through writing did nothing more than make me feel like a conflicted, whiney little bitch-boy.
That’s why I’m taking a new tack with this post about Daddy. My previous efforts referred to him as William — in fact he was called Bill — but today I’ll refer to him as Otis, which was his middle name. Not only does that help satisfy my A-to-Z Challenge requirement, it also draws back the curtain on a new window into my father’s life, allowing me to cast him in a different light.
I don’t think Daddy liked his middle name. While he’d sign his name William O. readily enough, I think he realized that Otis had long ago lost any association with noble origins, and had taken on a decidedly rustic flair.
In fact, the only time I can remember Daddy using that name was in relating an old story from when he was a boy. He’d say that when his mother was rocking his baby brother, she’d sometimes call to him in a singsong voice to run an errand, so as not to awaken the sleeping infant. It went like this:
“Bill Otey, Bill Otey
Go fetch me some cobs.”
Well, Daddy was right, it doesn’t get much more rustic than that. My grandmother was referring to corn cobs, which were used as fuel for the fire. Whether they were also used in the outhouse once the Sears & Roebuck catalog was all used up is unclear, but the story is a good one for illustrating my father’s humble roots.
So what’s my point? Just that it was that cob-fetching country boy who shaped me into the man I am today, and while I have both good and bad qualities like anyone else, I’ve been wrong to focus on the negative where my dad is concerned. The truth was that “Bill Otey” could be a lot of fun.
We didn’t have many electronics when I was a kid, not because we were poor, but because that shit didn’t exist. There were no smartphones, no personal computers, no video games, no music videos, no DVRs with hours of recorded shows. What we did back in the olden days was go outside, and it was there that my father reigned supreme.
I’ve written before about playing side-lot football with my dad like it was a bad thing, and while he did make me feel inadequate sometimes, we also had fun. And football wasn’t our only sport. We wore out the basketball court in front of the garage, the backboard constructed from sawn 2-by-6s that guaranteed an easy bank shot when you hit the loose board.
I know now what it’s like to come home tired from work, but Bill Otey never failed to play with me after he came home. It wasn’t rare for us to still be out there shooting hoops even after it was too dark to see.
But I don’t want you to get the impression that it was all play and no work, because there was plenty of the latter. We had a vegetable patch that was probably bigger than your vegetable patch, and Daddy had me out there working like a field hand most of the time. We grew corn, beans, squash, onions, tomatoes, you name it, and I learned early how to use a rake, shovel and hoe.
I put particularly good use to a shovel one time when Daddy had me use it to hold back the branches of a low-hanging shrub so he could get on his hands and knees and rake out the dead leaves. Well, the shovel slipped somehow, and, propelled by the rapidly straightening branches, smacked Bill Otey right in the back of the head, nearly knocking him out. Even years later he was still accusing me of doing it on purpose, though I swear by everything holy that I did not.
Not long after that, Daddy was hurling peaches at me. You might think it was revenge, but no, it was just his ability to make a game out of anything, even gardening. Daddy could grow any vegetable, but he always had trouble with fruit, and it must have broken his heart when his beloved tree produced a bumper crop of rotten peaches.
Still, he got the bright idea of using those peaches to pitch batting practice to me as a way of working out his aggression. See, he wanted the rotten fruit pulverized so it would compost into the soil, but instead of making it a chore, he made it a game. Making something out of nothing was what he did, and it came naturally to a guy who had grown up on a farm with 14 brothers and sisters during the Great Depression.
If he grew exasperated with me, it was because he saw me as soft, like one of his rotten peaches. Maybe I was soft, at least in his eyes. I had so much compared to what he had, and I think he felt it his duty to make sure I appreciated it. He wanted me to understand the value of hard work, and he pounded home that message even long after I had moved out of his house and had a family of my own.
Maybe that’s why he got so excited when, in the last years of his life, I agreed to take him with me to work one night when I was still a newspaper editor. He’d always been curious about exactly what it was that I did, and he seemed impressed afterward, even though he couldn’t have understood much of what he saw.
He sat there by my side most of the night (when he wasn’t up, running around the newsroom, harassing my friends and flirting with the women). I don’t know what he thought he was going to see, because by the latter stages of my journalism career, all the wonderful, clattering machines had been removed, and the ambiance was more like a mausoleum than anything else. But according to him, the experience was the highlight of his trip.
Nowadays, my father is gone, but you can still find me tapping on a keyboard, just like I did that night with him by my side. Of course now I’m doing it on the sofa in my empty living room rather than at a desk in the newsroom of a major metropolitan newspaper, but other than that, writing and editing still look the same, which is to say, not very exciting.
But even if it’s not thrilling, at the very least I don’t want to be disgusted by my own words. If he were alive, I’d want my dad to sit beside me and not be ashamed of what I write about him. I don’t want to be that whiney little bitch-boy, always complaining about what his father did or didn’t do.
Bill Otey has been my personal struggle, but he was a good dad, and although my struggle isn’t over, at last I’m trying, really trying, to focus on the sweetness of the kernel rather than the roughness of the cob.