“It doesn't matter who my father was, it matters who I remember he was.”
A pair of pine trees tower over the Blue Valley Mobile Home Community in northeast Manhattan, Kansas. My father planted those trees more than 50 years ago.
There’s no more vivid milestone on the path to the precipice of middle age than the death of a parent. Pop died six months ago today. His death, while accidental, was not unexpected. It culminated three years of shared, purposeful one-on-one conversations. He saw the end and was downloading his troubled childhood.
Evergreens in a trailer park.
Those conversations led to a book I’m writing, creative non-fiction, chronicling 25 years of the lives of my father and his parents (1931-1956). My older sister, Viki, is my sounding board as I write. Our own childhoods, recollections of our father and his mother are remarkably similar. The book is currently in the hands of beta readers and I can let it go for a while.
My father grew up amid the dysfunction of alcoholism, and would consciously remove himself from the domicile du jour. As a child and adolescent, he spent hours alone outdoors, fishing, camping, hunting, exploring the places his father’s work and later, his mother’s husbands, took him, throughout the west. Figuring out how to escape. Thinking about a plan. A straight line between where he was and where he wanted to be.
Never got a chance to ask Pop about his motivation in planting those trees in Manhattan, but it’s not difficult to figure out. While he distanced himself from the people of his childhood, especially his mother, he was drawn to the places. Pop spoke with fond remembrance about the Manastash Ridge and the Cascade Mountains of Washington. The Columbia River, the Sacramento River, trooping off to the third grade in the dark in Anchorage, Alaska.
By the time he got to Kansas in 1947 at age 15, he had lived in Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Alaska and Minnesota. He and Mom got to Manhattan and K-State the autumn of ’55 after Pop’s four-year hitch in the Navy. From my father’s memories:
“The G.I. Bill (of Rights) paid $160 a month to cover everything – books, tuition, and living expenses. Trailer space rent was $20 a month, as I remember it, so I got the job dumping trash in the trailer park to pay for our rent. The trashcans were 55 gallon drums. I lifted those over my head into a trailer pulled by a jeep. I used muscles I didn’t know I had.”
I drive through the Blue Valley Trailer Park today and imagine my 23-year old mother trying desperately not to go batshit crazy chasing two little kids, two cats and a dog around a dinky-ass trailer. I visualize my 25-year old father schlepping 55-gallon trashcans, worrying about his agronomy studies and missing his beloved west.
Me and Viki in the trailer. She still helps me with books.
Planting those two pine trees reminded him of the good things from an otherwise crappy upbringing, half a lifetime and half a continent away. Pop talked often of his desire to return to the west.
I’ve been back in Manhattan since Jackie and I got married here in 1998. Our connection to this place is as strong as Pop’s was to the west. What are the odds I would wind up where I was born?
Why are those twin pine trees my old man planted more than a half century ago in a trailer court in this very community still standing? Twenty-five years after my own last drink, I’m writing a book about 25 years of the lives of my alcoholic grandparents. Mere coincidence?
I see the pieces of the puzzle coming together. Genetic predisposition, alcoholism skipping a generation, my father’s childhood pain and turmoil, his behavior as a young parent, his downloading with me at the end of his life, my sister as a sounding board, each an essential building block to right here, right now.
By standing next to a pair of evergreen trees my father planted more than a half-century ago in the town where I lived then and now, I am beginning to see why it had to happen the way it did.