“I wish somebody would take me out and shoot me.”
… while lying in his little narrow bed in his little narrow room in whichever rented house or apartment we were living at the time.
I was in my teens; he was retired and a decade and a half younger than I am now. It should have upset me. Somehow it didn’t.
Some marriages last and, like mine to Linda, enrich both the participants and the world. Others, like my parents’, destroy the perpetrators.
Dad hadn’t slept with Mom for many years (my mother confided that I was the accidental result of I forget which of them being drunk on the night of their last conjugal bliss – an interesting snippet of late-night news). Dad always chose the smallest room, where he’d devour a paperback mystery novel each evening. It was half a place of hiding, half pulling in the walls to shelter him.
He was an alcoholic, had been for decades, but my stupid asocial self didn’t know it. He didn’t swill from a bottle. He didn’t lurch, stagger, yell or throw things. He was a quiet drunk, saying almost nothing while seated at the dining table or sitting in a living room chair or lying all evening in his bed. Every couple years he would spend a week at a small downtown hotel which, he always noted, did not serve alcohol. I wondered why he was telling me this apparently inconsequential detail. He was drying out.
Whenever I showed him something I’d done in school, he’d say, invariably, “Very good, son.”
He’d wanted to be an architect but ended up selling pneumatic tools. At one point he’d headed a regional office for Ingersoll Rand but lost the job to drink (as near as I can tell) and was out of work during the early stages of World War II. Then he moved us to Philadelphia with a lower-level job at Chicago Pneumatic.
As local sales manager in Upper Darby, he had charge of the office car fleet, which he parked in front of our suburban house. While the rest of the country was scrounging gas rations during the war, Dad kept five company sedans in shape by driving them in turn – a green Dodge, a tan Chevy, one of those iconic blue ’40s Plymouth tanks, a beige something and one other.
Some time after the war he was out of work again, then temped for the 1950 census before becoming the country’s most honest and meticulous Naval contract inspector: He once refused a shipment of dustpans because they were formed from the wrong gauge steel. No doubt he was offered bribes, but I can tell you he reaped nothing. That was his last job before retiring.
The only traces of his artistic talent were occasional cartoon heads he’d draw in the margins of lined notepads – beautifully simple with bulbous noses and fine cross-hatching to represent five-o’clock shadow.
Dad died from a fire in his room while living his last years at my brother Rod’s. He hung on for a few days but, thankfully, not long. He had fallen asleep in his chair and his robe had drifted into the electric space heater. Rod heard him call and ran up to pull him out of the inferno, then brought him to the living room, where he sat with his skin peeling.
The one time I visited him at the hospital, he seemed to recognize me. When I called at Vic’s to say I was going to see him again, Vic’s wife, Margie, told me Dad was “gone.” I’d never heard the word used that way and it threw me: Gone? Where?
Dad had been sober for the last couple years. Rod, also alcoholic, had not, and I thought at first he was blasted at Dad’s funeral, shuffling and stumbling in a crooked clip-on bow tie. No, he was overwhelmed, ripped apart, feeling guilty beyond anything I can imagine.
Dad’s version of a skewed sense of humor came out in song parodies and oft-repeated bits of nonsense (some unique, some culturally inherited). It flourished most in the mornings and on weekends. A term of fondness for family members was “poodlefipper.” When he (or a politician) made a particularly bone-headed blunder, he’d refer to it as “wandering around like a lost fart in a hailstorm.”
I thought I should toss in a few of the things I remember of my father’s random repertoire. Weird and inexplicable, much of it, but I like it that way.
Here lie the collected oddities of Joseph Hill Rogers Davis, Sr.:
(Some of these show up in online searches, others not)
Well, well, well – How many wells make a river?
Jesus Christ almighty, A mouse ran up my nightie
A tutor who tootled the flute, Tried to tutor two tooters to toot (I’m sure there were followup lines)
Bi carbonate bi soda by gosh (ummm…)
Pity ’tis, ’tis true, Tis for sore feet. (takeoff on Hamlet?)
“How do you like your oysters?” “Raw, raw, raw!” (chanted as a sports cheer)
Okey dokey puddin’ ‘n’ okey
It isn’t the cough that carries you off, It’s the coffin they carry you off in.
I’m going crazy, do you want to go along?
Aphrodite in her nightie (said to Mom in her morning nightgown, mainly to piss her off)
Sound the Alamo! (boomed response to a loud sneeze or fart)
You never can tell by the bumpty-trell (totally mystifying)
If Dr. Jekyll died, where would Mr. Hyde? (I’d guess English music hall)
Jesus Christ … and Stonewall Jackson – two of the finest men who ever lived (not politically correct)
I’ll tell you a story of Jack Inorey, Now my story’s begun. I’ll tell you another about his brother, And now my story is done. (found versions online; I incorporated it into our local vaudeville show)
(sung) Oh hell, oh hell,
Oh Helen, I love you.
Your feet, your feet
Your features are divine (again, likely English music hall)
Gaius Julius Caesar
With his well-developed beezer
That they called his Roman sneezer
In the days that are no more.
Through the cuticle and cutus
He was stabbed by his friend Brutus…
He was sore. (Something he may – or may not – have picked up somewhere)
Why didn’t my father’s old-man requests for termination by bullet bother me?
For one thing, our family’s never been suicidal. We might think about it, but we’re not going to do it. We take what life dishes out with simple bad grace.
Still, I didn’t register it as a metaphor. I probably accepted it as a reasonable and accurate summation of a dead-end life for a man mentally confining himself to his bed after days of doing things he’d never wanted to do, being married to a woman he didn’t love (and perhaps no one could have loved), his two elder sons no longer at home to protect his sanity, speaking occasionally to a remaining child as insular and subdued as he.
How sad are such things? They’re as sad as your memory chooses to make them. But when you’re growing up, they’re just what is, like the bland, faded portraits of flowers on the walls; the framed drawing of a cockatoo in its oversized, stained matting; the white porcelain lion with one cracked leg that lived on the mantel.