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Friday, August 18, 2017

Proxy

by Paul Juhasz

     A father is the world writ small

On a cold, clear winter weekend morning, of the kind pictured on postcards and calendars, Derrick called to see if I had any plans.
I didn’t.
          “Why don’t you come over and bring your bike. There’s a park near me with some trails and a pond. There’s usually someone playing pond hockey, so bring your skates and stick.”
          “Sounds great. See you in a bit.”
I hung up and went to ask my father for a ride.
          He was, as always, lukewarm about any plan involving Derrick. To counteract these nascent reservations, I told him we planned on playing hockey, assuming his love for the sport would trump any misgivings he might have.
This turned out to be a tactical miscalculation on my part.
          Fixing me with a piercing stare, he asked, “What are you really going to do?”
          Puzzled, I repeated the plans Derrick and I had made.
          “Yeah, right,” my father scoffed. “Try again.”
          “What?” I asked, spreading my hands in the universal sign of befuddlement.
          “I don’t think hockey is Derrick’s sport,” he dismissed.

In the summer of 1985, it was decided by whomever decides such things that it was no longer financially feasible for the small borough next to my town to operate a junior and senior high school. Thus, the borough was subsumed into the surrounding school districts and as a result, the North Haven class of 1989, as it entered its eighth-grade year, ballooned by about two dozen students.
The only ones I really interacted with was a somewhat shady triumvirate named Paul, Jason, and Derrick. All three boys hailed from a section of town that bordered on New Haven, and thus they had the exotic appeal of inner city kids to the student body, while being tainted with a suspect (for a middle class, predominantly white, demographic) urban past for the faculty.
I quickly made friends with Paul, who insisted we shared a bond as “name brothers.” Unfortunately, he was the first to confirm the fears and suspicions of the faculty. On a weekend school trip to Martha’s Vineyard, he was caught shoplifting and, in a desperate attempt to escape, punched a police officer. A rumor (later confirmed) quickly circulated amongst the rest of us that this was not his first run-in with the cops, and thus Paul faded out of my story to seek the educational merits of the Lincoln Academy for Wayward Boys. 
Jason was clearly headed down the same path. He would regale us with accounts of his half-dozen or so sexual conquests (most of them confirmed directly or indirectly by the other party), some of which I now recognize toyed with the definition of date rape. He was in no less than four fights and had been suspended twice. He narrowly avoided getting busted for selling weed in the boys’ locker room, and to impress some girls (or perhaps because word got back to him that it was my big mouth that started a chain of events that led to him nearly getting busted for selling weed in the boys’ locker room), he reenacted a scene from some horror movie by dragging his plastic unbreakable comb across my throat, drawing blood and leaving a gash that was visible for days after.
And this was all in the first two months of the school year.
Even though he had been friends with the other two since first grade, Derrick was different. He rarely got in trouble (although he was not in the least adverse to some illicit alcohol or a bag of Jason’s wares). While not terribly successful academically, he at least seemed to understand what school expected of him. Perhaps because his father and both older brothers had spent years working the night shifts at local factories, he had a matter-of-fact worldliness and maturity about him, as if he knew what his niche in life was fated to be, had accepted it, and was simply waiting until it was his time to grab a punch card and begin a life of hard labor. While most of us rode the adolescent wave of emotional turmoil and soaring dreams, Derrick kept us grounded with his stoical pragmatism. Many interpreted this as pessimism and found Derrick depressing; I found it comforting, as if when around Derrick, I was excused from having the goals and future plans adults expected me to have. With Derrick, I could just be.
My father, however, while never outright blocking me from it, preferred that I not hang out with Derrick or invite him over to our house.
“Why don’t you call someone else instead,” he would frequently respond when I would ask if Derrick could come over, “like Jason.”
“I like Jason,” he would respond to my unasked question. “He plays baseball. I remember him from last season.”
So the fact that he supplemented his income by dealing pot, that he was a burgeoning rapist, or that he tried to slit my throat with a comb, all of this, in my father’s mind, was trumped by the fact that he played baseball.
I was always confused why he would prefer the nascent criminality of Jason to the calm, placidity of Derrick.
Of course, I understand it perfectly now.
Derrick, you see, was black.

I was able to overcome my father’s myopic, stereotype-fueled sense of what sports black people could play (although I did not recognize that this was the issue at the time) through a sustained program of wheedling and cajoling. But still, as we drove over to Derrick’s house, I could tell he wasn’t thrilled.
          For all the inner-city associations Derrick had placed on him by others, his house was not actually inner city. He lived in a run-down and forgotten residential niche engulfed by an industrial complex separating North Haven from New Haven. But his neighborhood was far from the hygienic, well-maintained, and hermetically-sealed slice of suburbia most North Haven residents enjoyed. Chickens roamed the front yard at one neighbor’s place, while a screen door frantically clung to its frame by one hinge at another. In the midst of this disrepair, Derrick’s house stood out, an older home desperately struggling to maintain a noble decency amidst such advancing squalor.
          I think this also upset my father. I believe he would have much rather preferred Derrick live at the chicken house or the house with the clichéd car on cinder blocks. If he was irresolute at the beginning of the drive over to Derrick’s, he was downright grumpy as I left the car.
          “I’ll pick you up at 2:30,” he yelled as I grabbed my bike, skates, and stick from the backseat.
          I stopped for a moment and gave him a confused look. This was another strange development. He never gave me hard deadlines when he drove me to other friends’ houses. Typically, I got a cursory “Call me when you want to be picked up,” before he drove off, already mentally engaged in whatever activity he had lined up next.
          Perhaps I should have collected, pieced together, and heeded these early warning signs, but I didn’t. Instead, I rode through the brisk winter air with Derrick across backyards, service roads, and scraps of evergreen woods until we reached the park. There was indeed a pick-up hockey game, so we laced up and played. My father’s racial assumptions notwithstanding, Derrick proved a perfectly adequate hockey player. After a few games, Derrick smoked a cigarette on the pond’s frozen banks with a few other kids, then we rode over to a nearby Cumberland Farms for a post-game meal of Honey Buns, Bugles, and Mountain Dew, with the now-extinct Bubble Burger for dessert. Then we rode back to Derrick’s house.
We were so frozen by the time we got back that the tepid water with which I washed my hands was scalding. Derrick’s older brother, Donnie, insisted we have some hot chocolate to warm up. As we were alternately drinking and using the mugs as hand-warmers, Donnie turned to me and asked, “What was your name again?”
          After I responded, he continued, “I think someone was here asking for you.”
          I looked over at the clock on the kitchen range and noted that it was 3:45. Muttering a mildly annoyed “Ah, crap,” I asked to use the phone and called my father, not looking forward to the lecture I assumed was coming.
I barely got out a, “Hey, Dad,” when he cut me off with a growled “I’ll be right there.” Before I could say anything else, he hung up.
          Still, I wasn’t too concerned. I had been late before and had been forced to listen to lectures on the importance of responsibility and punctuality, so I figured that that was what was in store for me this time too.
         
          The first indication that this was something different, that what was coming my way was not a product of my father’s annoyance but of his fury, was the fact that when he arrived at Derrick’s house, he did not come to the door. Eschewing the driveway to pull up at the curb instead, he sat in the car, both hands gripping the wheel as he stared straight out the windshield. My bike was jammed in across the back seat, so he had clearly gotten out of the car, but for whatever reason, he chose not to come to the front door to get me. In fact, I don’t really know how long he was waiting there; only a serendipitous glance outside by Donnie let me know he was there at all.
          “Is that your dad?” he asked.
          After glancing over his shoulder, I confirmed it was.
          We all watched him for a few moments, expecting something, a wave or a honk, some indication that this was a normal adult picking up a normal son at a normal friend’s house. When it seemed clear that nothing of the sort was likely to happen, I headed for my shoes and then the front door.
         
The previous summer I had worked in my father’s factory. He had long since left a cushy job at a scrap metal conglomerate and, bit by the American entrepreneur spirit, used most of his retirement fund to start up his own precious metals recovery plant, and he hired me to work on the factory floor pouring various compounds of molten metals into fifty or 100-pound ingots.
The air was opaque with the fumes given off by the smelting metals, and temperatures at the furnaces frequently passed 120 degrees, making for a day of sweltering, physically-draining labor. The other factory workers were all Jamaican immigrants with varying levels of English fluency, and their amalgamated cacophony of Creole and broken English completed the picture of what I imagine one of the levels of Hell looks and feels like.
After my first day at work, my father called me into his office perched above the factory floor, which granted him a god-like view of his impish, dark-skinned factory hands. He told me to sit and I gladly did, completely used up from the day’s work, muscles aching where I did not know I had muscles. As I was trying to recover from the physical cost of the day, my father said, “I want to show you something.”
He then called out to the floor below.
“Ernie! Come up here!”
Almost before the order faded, Ernie was standing in the office. He must have run across the floor and up the stairs to get here that quickly; no easy task after a ten-hour shift on the factory floor.
“Ernie, take off your shirt,” my father directed him.
“Sir?” a confused Ernie replied.
“Take off your shirt,” my father repeated. “I want to show Paul something.”
As if suddenly in on the plan, Ernie replied with an enthusiastic “Oh, yes sir,” and complied, revealing a staggeringly developed chest, carved with canyons and mesas of muscle mass. It was as if his chest was chiseled out of the very material he spent his days pouring into ingots. The smile on Ernie’s face left little doubt that he was fully aware of the impression this muscularity had.
My father walked around Ernie, beaming with pride.
“You see this?” he asked. “Impressive, isn’t it? Ernie, tell him how old you are.”
“I’m sixty-two, sir.”
“Sixty-two, Paul! Sixty-two,” my father could barely contain the satisfaction the entire scene was giving him. “Look at those pecs,” he added, slapping his hand against the solidity of Ernie’s chest. Ernie’s smile, impossibly, grew even wider.
“OK, Ernie, that’s it. You can go.”

“Hey, Dad,” I began, sliding into the passenger seat.
          “Don’t you say a word!”
          Still not believing he was seriously angry, I ignored this initial piece of advice. “But Dad . . .” I countered.
          Through gritted teeth, he once again cut me off.
“Not. One. Fucking. Word.”
And so, I didn’t say a word.
He, however, said many.
“Do you know what it’s like,” he asked, “to knock on a strange door and be told by the man who answers that not only are you not there, but he doesn’t even know who you are? I had to stand there and be told ‘I don’t know your boy.’! Do you have any idea what that’s like? To be told by that kind of man that he doesn’t know my son? I had no idea where you were, if you were okay, which house you were even in.”
While I could not say so, I found these positions rather ridiculous. He knew which house I was in because he dropped me off. Why should he fear for my safety when he knew where we planned to go and what we planned to do? If he was so worried about me, why didn’t he drive over to the park and try to find us? And I could only assume “the strange man” in question was either Donnie or Derrick’s father, and since both were still sleeping when Derrick and I left, it made perfect sense that they did not know who I was. All of this, I thought, should have been quite apparent to my father.
But enjoined to silence as I was, there was no way to interrupt the diarrheic flow of logically questionable rhetoric, I did the next best thing—I zoned out, escaping into a world where I was vaguely aware that things resembling words were being spewed at me while I occupied my mind with more interesting matters. I started, inspired no doubt by the day’s pursuits, with a quick review of the current roster of my beloved Philadelphia Flyers, identifying whom I would trade if I was in control of the team. I then moved on to an impromptu list of words that sound dirty, but really aren’t (“pumpernickel,” “bumper pool,” “English muffin”), before closing with a quick assessment of what I thought some of the hotter girls in my school probably looked like naked.
I was interrupted by a particularly loaded phrase of my father’s: “So, this is what we’re going to do.”
This was a phrase he had used for years to transition from the instructional portion of a lecture to the punishment phase. I think he adopted the first-person plural to gild whatever he had in mind with an espirt de corps, as if whatever punitive measures he selected were a group decision and something, that while unpleasant and inconvenient, just had to be endured by the whole group, which, of course, was just me.

When I was six or so, my family took a trip to Disney World, and at the airport, I remained with my father after he dropped off the rest of our group at Departures, and then walked to the gate with him. As we negotiated the ever-shifting expanse of people and luggage, we were approached by a Hari Krishna. Much of what he said to my father was beyond me, but I do recall him saying he would like to present us with a flower and a gift, offering me a candy cane. Although my father did not stop, he politely slowed down his pace. “Keep the flower,” I remember him saying, but he made no objection to the man handing me the candy cane.
As we left the spiritual proselytizer, I was in high spirits, having scored some free candy early in the morning. I was admittedly a tad bit uneasy about the fact that it was late spring and thus not exactly prime Christmas-themed treat season, but if my father was not concerned about a stranger with a straggly cat tail dangling from the back of his head handing me five-month-old candy, then I sure as hell wasn’t either.
          Before we got to our gate, we were hit by another solicitor, this one a well-dressed young black male.
          “Excuse me, sir,” he began, stepping in front of my father, who had no choice but to stop. “How are you today?”
          Perhaps because we were within sight of the gate with ample time before our plane boarded, my father responded, with a slightly bemused “I am fine. Thank you.”
          “Wonderful. I am collecting donations for the United Negro College Fund today and . . .”
          “N—,” my father began.
Anticipating the coming rejection, the man quickly changed tactics. “And what a lovely young man you have with you. Here you are, young man,” he said, handing me a beautiful, inviting, red paper-wrapped, cherry-flavored Tootsie Pop.
          Two pieces of free candy, all before nine a.m.! I had no idea what to expect from the Magic Kingdom, but at this point the airport seemed magical to me.
          The man turned his attention once again to my father.
          “Now, sir, I know you want the very best for your son, and I’m sure that includes wanting the very best education he can get. And I know you feel, as so many other generous Americans do, that young boys and girls of color deserve the very same educational opportunities as your son.”
          I glanced up at my father, expecting to see him confirm what the young man so clearly took as a self-evident truth. The bemused look was gone, replaced by one of pure malice. Grabbing the lollipop from my hand, he smashed it into the man’s chest, growling “Keep your fucking candy.” Seizing my hand, he pulled me toward the gate without a backward glance at how his “donation” was received.
          Naturally, I asked why I couldn’t keep the lollipop. He grumbled something about how taking candy from strangers was dangerous.

 “So, this is what we’re going to do. When we get home, you are to go directly to your room and take down your pants. I will be in there shortly to give you a spanking.”
Ignoring his earlier injunction for silence, I blurted out “A spanking? I’m fourteen years old!”
“I don’t give a shit if you’re fourteen or forty-two,” he replied. “If I want to give you a spanking, I’m for damn sure going to give you a spanking!”
Having now passed the age of forty-two, I realize this last claim is just silly. I’m quite confident that if he tried it now, I could take him. At the time, though, I just thought this was a bizarre idea. Not bizarre in the sense that he used the phrase “If I want to give you a spanking,”—a declaration that would cause any decent Freudian to reach for a notebook while nodding knowingly—but bizarre in the sense of “How in the hell did we get here?” The punishment, from my perspective, just did not seem to fit the crime.
The remainder of the drive was spent in deafening silence. Once we pulled into the driveway, my father said, “You go directly to your room and get ready; I’ll be in there shortly.”
Gradually recognizing that he fully intended to go through with this, I went to my room and waited.
And waited.
And waited some more.
While I was waiting, my phone rang. It was Derrick, calling to see if everything was “cool.”
“Your dad seemed to be acting weird,” he explained.
“Tell me about it. Do you know what . . .”
In the very definition of “unfortunate timing,” that was the moment my father came into the room, preceded by the scent of Scotch.
“Who are you talking to?” he demanded.
I realize now that things would have been better for me if I said I had started calling the 1-900 phone sex numbers again (an issue I would really rather not discuss), but I wasn’t thinking fast enough for that at the moment.
“Derrick,” I blurted out.
His eyes seem to glaze over a bit and then he drawled, “Hang up the phone.”
I started to comply, but I feared taking my eyes off him. I wanted every nanosecond of advanced notice I could get to prepare for whatever he had in mind—for I now fully realized that this was for real. Because of this, the process of hanging up the phone was sloppy and, apparently, too slow for my father’s taste.
He helped by grabbing me by one shoulder and forcefully spinning me around, then pushing me over the edge of the bed in what is known worldwide as “assuming the position.”
And then the spanking began.
My dad only managed a few smacks before his arm got tired or his hand got too sore. Whichever the reason, he quickly decided the spanking was not going as well as he had hoped and called in the big guns. Even though he had never used it on me before, I intuited what the crackling sound of leather sliding over denim meant. And the subsequent slicing pain, followed immediately by a sharp, cracking sound, confirmed those intuitions.
                                            
When I was nine, my father and I were driving down the Merritt Parkway to a youth hockey game in some rich New York-wannabe western Connecticut town when he noticed he needed gas. He was already in a foul mood when we pulled into the next Mobil station.
I think his disgruntlement was mostly caused by the embarrassment of looking unprepared. My father liked to present (in front of me particularly) the image of complete control; he extolled the virtues of preparation and responsibility, and missing something as basic as making sure you had enough gas to get where you’re going before you set off I’m sure caused a fair amount of mortification.
Usually in these situations, he would deflect any blame onto me, transferring his self-imposed humiliation into a lecture on how I was culpable for this unfortunate and regrettable lapse in preparation. But in this case, he had no such option, for even the most self-deluding excuse cannot be founded upon the idea that when a nine-year-old borrows the car, he needs to remember to return it with a full tank of gas.
In the early 1980s, the gas stations along the Merritt were still full service, so my father was able to channel some of his frustration at the situation by ignoring the humanity of the approaching attendant. Staring straight through the windshield, he barked a terse command of “Fill it” before the attendant even cleared the rear passenger door. Forced to cut off his routine greeting, the attendant could only get out a garbled “Goo—yassir” before spinning on his heels to begin the process of feeding the car. Something in the tone or style of the voice must have caught my father’s attention, though, as he spent the filling process spying on the attendant through the side-view mirror, breaking his concentration only once to glance at the dashboard clock and complain about how long it was taking. This seemed unfair to me, as this pumping the car full of gas seemed to be taking as long as every other pumping the car full of gas, but I did not say anything, shamefully thankful that someone else was the target of his petty frustrations.
Then we heard the hollow thump indicating that the pump had shut itself off.
Then we heard it again.
And then, a few seconds later, again.
And then one more time.
I had had enough experience at gas stations to know what the attendant was doing; he was playing the game “Hit the number,” when you try to coax the pump to stop on the bill amount you prefer, usually an even dollar amount, but sometimes to match the exact amount of cash you had on you at the time. My father played this game quite frequently and I can recall vividly one time when he was caught without his wallet and euphorically matched the gas total to the $3.27 he had in the change compartment.
So I was as surprised as the attendant when my father growled “Don’t ever fucking top-off my tank again” as he handed his credit card through the window.
 “I didn’t mean anything by it, sir. I was just trying . . .”
“I know what you ‘were trying,’” my father cut him off, the last two words offered in a mocking impression of the halting speech pattern the attendant had.
“You were trying to run up the bill on me,” my father accused.
My father then violently shoved the clipboard and completed paperwork back at the attendant, adding, in lieu of gratuity, these parting words:
“You fucking nigger!”
          As he peeled out of the station in either anger or with the bravado that often masks fear, I looked through the rear-view mirror in time to see the attendant throw the clipboard down onto the pavement, sending the paperwork he would need to submit so the station’s owner could collect on the sale twirling out across the highway to be churned into irrelevance by an endless stream of automobiles.

I had always prided myself for the noble, if not heroic, manner in which I met the few, more age-appropriate, spankings I had received as a younger child, stoically accepting each whack of the hand while denying my father the satisfaction of seeing me try to squirm out of the way of the next blow.
But against the belt, no such stoicism was possible.
After the first two strikes, my father had to use his off-hand to hold down my thrashing body as he continued to lash out with the belt. My reptilian brain was on full-fledged escape mode and eventually I slid off the foot of the bed. My dad, consumed within the moment, used a foot to pin me down by the shoulder before continuing to strike. As I rolled about on the floor, I caught a glimpse of him in the floor length mirror I had hanging behind my bedroom door. He was twirling the belt above his head like some demented do Indiana Jones.
With me on the floor, the arrangement of the room furnishings now made my ass a more difficult target; that or my father was not satisfied with the force he could generate with the altered arm angle necessary to whip the belt past the corner of the bed. After one last attempt, he tossed aside the belt.
But this did not mean my beating was over.
It just meant the kicking began.
          As I desperately tried to find an orientation of the fetal position that would protect my battered ribs while not unduly exposing my impossibly sore ass to the unrelenting assault of my father’s work boot, a most incongruous series of thoughts occurred to me.
          I thought once again about the scene with Ernie.
Once he was dismissed from my father’s office, an insinuation of an object lesson haunted the silence. Only, there didn’t seem to be a clear lesson. My father didn’t seem to be trying to make a point, or if he was, he was being far too subtle. In fact, the scene did not really even have the father-imparting-wisdom-to-his-son feel. The display didn’t seem designed to imply, “Here’s what happens when you work hard” nor did it seem a more generic lesson on the merits of physical exercise and its connection to aging well.
Instead, the whole episode was like a man proudly showing off one of his more prized possessions. Re-situating the principle characters into the 1850s, it would not have seemed out of place in the least if my father had me inspect Ernie’s teeth.
As the blows continued, I thought of that gas station attendant and the lost credit card receipt.
I, of course, have no idea what, if anything, happened to him because of this (although, with the arbitrary significance that children frequently attach to random events, I did worry about it from time to time in the years that followed) but I do know what happened to me because of it:
Approximately four years later, while my father was savagely beating me, I would recall this moment and have an epiphany:
          I think my father may be racist.
          Of course, I realize now that the evidence was conclusive, but it hadn’t registered until that moment. When my father had excused his bigotry by asserting that he “wasn’t prejudiced against black people but against lazy people; it just happens that in my experience blacks tend to be lazy,” or by insisting that “some of his friends were black,” I had accepted this as sage refutation of any charge of racism offered against him. It was only as I grew older, and gained a greater depth of life experience, that I realized just how pathetically cliché he was being with these feeble attempts to gild his intolerance.
Finally, I thought once again of that young man at the airport, and of my father grabbing the lollipop from my hands and forcibly slamming it into the man’s chest.
The mistake the man made was, I think, similar to the one Ralph Ellison depicts in Invisible Man, where the narrator runs afoul of a group of white men when he dares suggest the goal for blacks is not just “social responsibility” (an idea with which his white audience does not seemingly have a problem) but “social equality” (an idea to which his white audience responds with much hostility). When the young man was simply asking for donations to help black students pay for college, my father found this a charmingly amusing topic; but as soon as he made the implication that there should be equal rights to equal opportunities, my father’s sense of racial propriety was offended, and the young man’s petition was dead on arrival.
          I think something similar was driving my beating. My friendship with Derrick represented a threat to my father. By ignoring his passive aggressive efforts to steer me toward alternate friends, I was unknowingly rejecting the fundamental assumptions upon which he built a portion of his world. Since he styled himself a decent man (and his bigotry aside, he was), he did not outright forbid me from playing with him, nor did he directly challenge my innate view of Derrick as an equal.
Yet over the months of my friendship with Derrick, the tension was building. Whatever internal checks his basic goodness provided ultimately proved insufficient when he had to go humiliate himself in front of Derrick’s father, for I have no doubt that to humble himself by asking a strange black man—a poor, working class black man at that—for help with something so personal as finding his son must have been a humiliation for him.
His internal checks overwhelmed, he had to have some type of release, and while, as a functioning member of a civilized society he couldn’t get his release by beating Derrick or Derrick’s father, he could find it by beating me in the privacy of my own bedroom.

I say in the privacy of my own bedroom, but that turned out not to be the case. Although neither of us noticed it at the time, when my father forcefully spun me around and pushed me down over the bed, I was unable to fully comply with his previous demand to hang up the phone; I only got the handset partially on the receiver.
As a result, Derrick heard the entire attack. At some point, he got his brother Donnie on the phone to listen in as well. I found this out a few moments after my father, his sense of ethnic hierarchy satisfied, had left the room. As I lay on the floor trying to catch my breath, wheezing  through my bruised ribs, I heard Derrick’s muffled voice call out, “Paul?”
          He had to call out a couple more times before I was able to understand what was happening and pick up the receiver.
          “Are you ok? Do you want me to call someone?”
          “No, I’ll be all right.”
          There followed a silence, as neither one of us knew how to address what had just happened. 
Fortunately for us, Donnie did.
Piercing through our collective awkward silence, he did an impromptu impression of what he just heard.
          “O, God, Dad, please stop beating me! I swear I’ll hate the darkies, too, just please stop hitting me.”
          Using an exaggerated squawking voice for my role, Donnie went on. “O, dear Jesus, stop kicking me. I won’t be friends wit da niggas; I swears I won’t be friends wit da niggas.”
          Despite ourselves, and despite the pain it caused, both Derrick and I were soon rolling with laughter.

          While Donnie used humor to address my pain and embarrassment, Derrick ultimately opted for a different tactic.
The next day seemed normal between us. He gave me a big smile when he saw me in homeroom, then told me that Donnie had decided, in light of my sacrifice for the cause, to make me an honorary black man.
Derrick said he planned to make up at T-shirt for me indicating such, but nothing ever came of that.
But in the days, weeks, and months that followed, Derrick subtly and gradually began to talk to me less and less until one day I discovered an unbridgeable divide had been constructed and that I had lost my friend.
For years, I assumed that Derrick rejected my friendship out of disgust or fear of my father’s explosive form of racism.
But then, years later, re-enacting the traditional pilgrimage of all freshman in college, I ran into him at our high school’s Thanksgiving’s Day football game. After the scripted—and therefore comfortable—exchange of greetings and pleasantries, there was once again an awkward pause.
I decided to fill it by plunging right in.
          “Hey, Derrick, I’m sorry my old man scared you off. But you know, just because he is what he is, that doesn’t make me him.”
          Derrick looked away, staring at the horizon silently for a few moments, before slightly shaking his head and responding,
          “That’s not what happened. I didn’t stop talking to you because I thought you were like that too. But what I heard on the phone . . . .,” he trailed off, was silent again for a beat or two, before finishing “I didn’t want you to ever go through that again. And I was afraid if I was your friend, you would.”
          Life is funny; even when Derrick was no longer my friend, he was one of the best I ever had.
And he didn’t even play baseball.


Paul Juhasz has presented at dozens of academic conferences before turning his hand to creative writing. His mock journal, Fulfillment: Diary of an Amazonian Picker, chronicling his seven-month term as a Picker at an Amazon Fulfillment Center, has been published in abridged form in The Langdon Review of the Arts in Texas and is currently being serialized in Voices de la Luna. Currently, he is working on Daddy Issues, a collection of short stories, and has just completed his first novel, Junk, based on his experiences riding a truck for 1-800-GOT-JUNK the last eighteen months.

Friday, August 11, 2017

On Hitchhiking, Horses, and Heroes

by Joshua H. Baker
“Here come cowboys, here to save us all.” –Psychedelic Furs

My wife and I were attending the western-themed annual banquet for the local fire department when a fellow firefighter greeted me and assessed my outfit, head to toe.  
“Those aren’t cowboy boots!” He said as he took a gander at my second-hand boots. I knew what he meant, even as I felt defensive. The boots have somewhat rounded toes and low heels befitting a western work boot or Wellington, rather than the steep-heeled style so unpleasant for walking many associate with the vocation of cowboys. Having grown up in a small western town, Ron had redneck credibility as I did not, and his gibe crept under my skin. My defensive reaction  may have been rooted in my history.
As a young man ready to graduate high school, I had made no plans for college or career. I’d pored over college information books, but nothing fit. I did not want to be a doctor, lawyer, or biologist. My dream had been more outlandish. I wanted to be a cowboy.

In one of my mother’s yellowing photo albums, there is a photo in which I wear a cowboy outfit given to me by Grandfather Baker. In retrospect, the tan vest and hat seem more Roy Rogers western dandy than Larry Mahan rodeo badass. At age eight, however, I loved it.
My first ranch visit was a highlight of the Baker clan’s seventies version of the Oregon Trail migration, our wagon not a Conestoga but a green Chevy. Visiting the Klondike Ranch on the east slope of Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains brought home the reality of the Rocky Mountain West in all its scrubby beauty. The genial owner of the spread took us on a horseback ride to a pretty waterfall. In a group photo, my hair was seventies-shaggy and my grin was huge. This was definitely better than stuffy New York.  
The next summer, I attended summer camp on a Montana ranch. Big sky country.  Campers spent time riding horses, hiking, and rafting. We learned basic wilderness survival skills, from picking edible plants to building shelters and starting fires. I returned for the next three years. At fourteen, I spent two nights by myself in the Montana wilderness carrying only a knife and three matches. I ate glacier lilies and huckleberries and tried unsuccessfully to find frogs. I had to swat flies on my head and pick them out of my grungy, smoke-infused hair.
Under the sway of Montana folk, I started chewing tobacco. I began listening to country music like Don Williams and Eddie Rabbitt as a guilty pleasure. At home, I fell asleep reading Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour, in love with the manifest destiny dream notion of the American West, its wide open dusty landscapes and hypothetical freedoms. Saturday afternoons spent with John Wayne and Clint Eastwood contributed to the appeal.
Much had changed across the American West since the cattle drives of the 1870s brought tens of thousands of cattle to Dodge City and Abilene. Still, I wanted to be a cowboy. To hell with realism. Reality meant microwaved dinners, zit cream, cubicle work, and cul-de-sac living. No thanks.
A few days after my eighteenth birthday, I arrived in Bozeman, Montana, the end point of a 1500-mile hitchhiking epic. It was the second week of September and snow was already painting the Montana pavement white. In short order, I sported a yellow baseball cap reading, “Rodeo, America’s #1 Sport featuring the outline of a rider on a bucking bronco. Instant Montana credibility.
After a few fruitless days of halfheartedly looking for work near West Yellowstone and sleeping in a spartan bunk room for a few bucks a night, I contacted a friend and arranged to stay and work on his family’s small ranch outside Darby, Montana. I fed chickens and horses at the crack of dawn, moved irrigation pipes, bucked hay bales, gathered firewood, and did other chores. I slept in a spare bedroom and almost became a part of the family. Almost.  
A big chunk of the ranch income came from their outfitting business. That meant setting up hunting camps deep in the wilderness of the Bitterroot Range for deer, elk, and bighorn sheep hunters. Tom had stashed small potbellied stoves in the woods and brought a chainsaw to cut poles from downed timber to support big canvas wall tents. The saws were illegal in a designated wilderness, as were the stashed stoves, but this was his livelihood. A ranger could have written Tom an expensive citation, so I stood watch on a rockslide half a mile away with a .357, instructed to fire a warning shot if necessary. Luckily, I didn’t have to fire the weapon. I enjoyed being in the camps. The canyons were well timbered and lush down low, craggy up high, with wide meadows and small lakes dotting the upper ends of drainages. Deer and elk were common sights. When we were packing out of one canyon, two bears lumbered through huckleberry bushes thirty yards off the trail. I was glad we were on horseback.
Montana turned bitter cold by November, and I grew lonely. The extent of my social life was one visit to church, one school dance where the best songs were by .38 Special and April Wine, and one movie at which I secretly held hands with a girl I barely knew. Then weeks of nothing. Maybe I was wrong about the whole cowboy thing. I loved riding horses and being in the mountains, but I didn’t feel at home. I decided to leave. I hitched west with $240 in my pocket and more than a few lessons learned about horses and humans.

In Portland, I fell back in with groups of old friends. I went skiing and climbing with some and partied with others. The cowboy dream still bubbled beneath the surface of my days. I bought cowboy boots at the Portland Outdoor Store. Outside a Baskin Robbins where my sister worked, someone laughed at my boots and western shirt and made a snide reference to Urban Cowboy. The comment stung a little, as if I was a simple poseur. My outfit was not stylish in Southwest Portland, yet I’d ridden a horse deep into the Montana wilderness and bucked many a hay bale. I understood I wasn’t a cowboy from 1881, yet still I debated becoming one, albeit in a simplistic way. Cowboys were American icons. They were tough guys who rode horseback with no patience for weakness or foolish rules. Right? So, I partied.
After Christmas, my mother gave me a polite but firm ultimatum to get a job or leave her house. Fair enough. I headed south, thumb out, more resolve in my belly. I was more prepared, yet I ran into more problems. Rides were harder to come by. I got harassed by a car full of people slowing down at the I-5 entrance ramp in Redding. When their car neared, a guy stuck his head out the window and yelled “Get a job!” Charming.
I spent a glorious open-air, sleeping-bag night in the sagebrush outside Tehachapi. The next day, a speeding stoner almost got me arrested. When a cop pulled him over for driving eighty-five, he pretended the pot and the beer bottles in his truck were mine. Luckily, the cop saw through the act. I’ve never been a good liar. When I hit Phoenix, I spent a couple nights on my cousin Kate’s couch and soon found that without a car, it was difficult to look for ranch work. After a few false starts, I landed a job as a dishwasher on Rancho de la Osa, a guest ranch on the Mexican border. The ranch’s history included visits from Jesuits priests in the eighteenth century and an attack by Pancho Villa. The older buildings had two-foot-thick adobe walls, the desert landscape was fascinating, and there were plenty of horses. It was a start to a cowboy life, a glorious start.
 The ranch owners were refurbishing some of the property’s older adobe structures. A group of Mexican men crossed the border daily to do the bulk of the work. The two horse wranglers were a nomadic weather-beaten couple. The man wore a dark vest over long sleeve shirts and a silk bandana at his throat. His wife had badly bleached hair and jeans tucked in her boots. They looked the part, yet they were fired a month after my arrival when they were caught mistreating the horses. The owners promoted Tavo, one of the construction workers, to be the head wrangler. They asked me to assist him. I felt an elation almost like young love, but this was a love of life. Everything was finally matching up with the dream.
 I had grown up hiking in mossy woods and scaling glaciated peaks, not riding horses in the desert. Tavo had to teach me a lot in the tack room and corral as well as on the trail. I shoveled a lot of horse manure and moved a lot of hay bales. I saddled horses and learned some Spanish. It was no Zane Grey tale. There was no huge drama, no fighting for a girl’s honor, no dealing with evil land barons, and in the kitchen, Blue Oyster Cult was on the radio. But the rides, oh, the horseback rides through the magical desert that promised freedom in its distances!
Monday through Saturday, I woke at six a.m. to feed the horses in the corral behind our bunkhouse, then headed to the kitchen to help with breakfast. After the meal, I washed dishes, then returned to the corral to prep for morning rides. Depending on the number of guests, one or two of us would go with them. Tavo always rode. If there were enough guests, I would ride too. The rides were an hour or two long. Around noon, everybody had lunch in the hacienda. Afterward, there might be another ride if there was demand. Working in both the kitchen and corrals, I worked long days, six days a week. I snatched free time when I could. I was usually exhausted when I headed back to the bunkhouse at the end of the day.
Tavo didn’t show up after St. Patrick’s Day. Apparently, he’d gone on a bender, and not for the first time. Suddenly the wrangling was all on me. This was a big step. I received a token raise to bring my salary to a stellar $350 a month plus room and board. I had no car, and the ranch was sixty miles from Tucson, so I had little on which to spend my hard-earned money but sodas and stamps when I walked the half mile to town. I had to catch a ride into Tucson to buy more clothes. Although it was frequently hot, I preferred long sleeve shirts as protection from sun-scorch. I bought a real cowboy hat too. I wanted to look the part.  Along the way, I observed the landscape, the steep and rocky Baboquivari Peak and the slopes covered in majestic saguaro cacti. The desert looked very different than my green Oregon.
My wrangling learning curve was steep. In addition to memorizing the geography of arroyos and hills, gates and trails, I needed to learn how to care for horses. That meant feeding them, brushing them, and cooling them down properly after rides. I learned to work with the farrier. I saw a stud horse at work. That was eye opening for an eighteen-year-old virgin.
The nuts and bolts of being a wrangler meant learning the different types of bridles and saddles. Each horse responded differently, and one might require a curb bit while another needed a hackamore. I broke a few reins along the way when I forgot to use a lead rope to tie up a horse, and they easily broke the leather if they jerked their heads away from the hitching post. Saddles had variations too, and I learned how snug each horse needed to be cinched. Some would try to fool you by puffing up their chest. I spent time adjusting stirrup heights for different riders, and keeping inexperienced riders away from tough horses like Velvet, Casino, and Princess.
A few months of working with horses went to my head. I thought I was a real cowboy. Real cowboys wore spurs, or at least the tough guys did in movies when they entered a saloon knowing a showdown was in their future. One day I borrowed spurs from the owner’s ten-year-old son. I thought I looked and sounded cool. After I got the small group of guests on their horses, I mounted the gray and white dappled mare, Princess. As soon as I was seated, she began to buck. After a few jumps, she managed to throw me like a rag into the dirt, right in front of customers. Earlier, listening to jangling spurs, I’d thought I was a badass. Now I felt a fool.
After my humiliation, I worked harder at becoming a good rider, soliciting tips from more experienced riders. Soon, I was tackling the horses even the owners wouldn’t ride, like Casino. I rode on my own time in the sandy wash south of the corrals, challenging the horses as they challenged me. Stop, start, fast, slow, turn, turn, turn. I learned to ride bucking horses and control them when they didn’t want to mind me. It was hard work, and it was rewarding. My confidence level climbed.
Much of my job was being a tour guide, leading the way on the trail, but also pointing out key features of the landscape to guests. My favorite trail dropped into a grove of holly trees, its smattering of dark green and bright red glorious in that otherwise brown world. A great contrast was a difficult trail that headed up a steep rocky ridge to a peak with a view far into the purple-brown immensity of Mexico.  
I thought I’d arrived when a customer gave me a six pack of beer as a tip. He was a nice guy with a fifteen-year-old daughter I’d chatted with more than most customers. I was the closest thing she had to a peer while they visited the ranch for a week. Everyone else was under twelve or over thirty. Just when I was getting comfortable, however, I saw someone who was obviously wrangler material headed to the corrals on one of my days off. I was confused. Then I heard that the boss wanted to talk to me.
I met Bill in his office behind the hacienda kitchen. He was blunt but kind at first, calling me smart. He told me I seemed cut out for college, not ranch work. He probably meant it to be a compliment. I didn’t take it that way. The litany of my mistakes followed, most of which had occurred more than a month earlier: the spurs incident, the broken reins, not cooling a horse down enough. I pointed out how much I’d learned, but I also got too defensive. At one point, I said “I bust my ass for you for twelve hours a day” or words to that effect. Good move, Sherlock. Bill disagreed. I was crushed. I was also fired.
The next day, I stepped onto a bus in Tucson wearing my boots, western cut jeans, western shirt, and cowboy hat. I was so tan, some people thought I was Mexican. My wispy dark mustache may have contributed to the illusion. A stoner girl made out with me on the way to L.A. She liked the cowboy look. The dream was deferred, but I could milk the benefits of pursuing that dream for a while. When I got home, suburban friends wanted to hear stories of hitchhiking and horses. It seemed more interesting than their academic pursuits even as it led nowhere. To them, I was a cowboy. Image is everything.

Over time, I became a soldier, firefighter, and teacher. I no longer wanted to be a cowboy, yet the cultural perception of a cowboy remained fascinating. Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush were both labeled cowboys at times, and they played up to that tag, wearing cowboy hats at home while talking tough in Washington, as if they were actually going into the street to shoot it out with an enemy rather than sending working class men and women as their proxies. The cowboy lone wolf archetype is still widely disseminated through pop culture. Consider traits that run from ancient characters like Sir Gawain through Rooster Cogburn to Tony Stark. When we expect people to be as tough, witty, strong, and independent as such characters, failed expectations follow.
 I will never become a cowboy, but I still appreciate the romantic myth of the hero riding across the miles, defending the little people. It’s nice to believe.
I like the feel of the leather snugging around my heel as I pull on my black boots. I won’t pretend my boots are the coolest, and I don’t wear them ironically in hipster Portland. The boots are comfortable, they are easy to don, and they are good for working outside if the streets are not icy. The scrollwork on the uppers is lovely, but the leather encasing the foot itself, the insole, the sole, those parts have a simplicity calling to mind sage, dust, sun, and wind. The distance of dreams.
I never told Ron about my work on ranches. It probably wouldn’t have mattered.
He probably would not have understood if I had. The cowboy references with which we are most familiar often distort, misunderstand, or trivialize the historical reality of the job. No matter. If trends continue, the curious cultural influence of the cowboy will last for centuries, long after all our beef comes from a test tube and robots do the herding.


Joshua H. Baker lives with his wife and pets in Oregon, where he works for the U.S. Postal Service and enjoys visiting desolate wilderness areas. His writing has appeared in publications like Latitude, No Depression, Adirondack Review, and Foliate Oak. Photography is his newest passion.