Unspoken Acknowledgment

Victor tended to do his most critical thinking on his drives home from Plainville. It was only five miles, but he had disciplined himself to move whatever problem he was working into solution phase by the time he pulled into Spring Hill Ranch.

As he drove south out of town, Victor cranked open his vent window and lit up. He saw a pickup approaching, immediately recognized it as Orv Carmichael’s and they exchanged a single index finger-off-the-steering wheel wave as they passed one another.

                                                                    --From Chapter 25 of Spifflicated: A Family Memoir


When I made the decision to narrow the scope of Spifflicated to a 25-year period (1931-1956), among my priorities was to be as culturally accurate as possible. Creative non-fiction, emphasis on the latter.

When my father, Champ, and his mother, Victoria, moved to Rooks County, Kansas in the autumn of 1948, that part got a little easier. Writing the book rekindled memories of my early childhood in rural Kansas, a generation later. By then, it was the 1960s and while Champ was drilling wheat or fixin’ fence, Mom would often pile us kids in the ’65 Pontiac Catalina station wagon and we’d go to town, where she’d spend time with her cronies. We knew this as “visiting.”

A donut and a cup of coffee were just “fine and dandy…” for breakfast at Plainville’s Corral Café. Neighbors oohing and aahing over their first encounter with an automatic transmission. Drinking a beer through triangular holes poked in the top of a can with a church key. The notion of four-lane divided highways as brand new, state-of-the-art infrastructure. That’s what I hoped to capture. I’m not convinced they were simpler times. The very subject matter of the book -- addiction and dysfunction, lead me to that conclusion.

I first witnessed the single index finger-off-the-steering wheel wave as a child, perched in the passenger seat of Victor’s aircraft carrier-sized Chryslers (sans seat belt). I wondered then and still wonder today, why just the one finger? Why not a couple of fingers? Why not lift your hand off the wheel and offer the whole enchilada?  

Unpack it. It’s a friendly, unspoken acknowledgment during a chance encounter. I recognize you and likewise. For a fleeting moment, we share a feeling of community, or at the very least, humanity. It’s not like Victor and Orv stopped in the middle of the public thoroughfare, got out, shook hands, made direct eye contact, “visited,” then climbed back in their respective vehicles and continued on their merry way.

Victor was “tickled to death…” to have Champ Matson, his daughter’s boyfriend in high school, out to the farm for Sunday dinner. When Champ became Victor‘s son-in-law, their relationship deepened, even though they were polar opposites. Victor, outgoing and gregarious. Champ, the loner son of alcoholics. Things like trust and emotion were an undiscover’d country for him.

 Champ's relationship with his father-in-law was strange, new territory for him. Mutual trust and respect, for the first time.

Champ's relationship with his father-in-law was strange, new territory for him. Mutual trust and respect, for the first time.

During his last three years, when he was downloading data that would eventually become the book, Champ would tell me he interacted with his father-in-law, in a way he had never done with anyone else. Listening. Watching. Learning. Hoping to emulate.

“I learned a lot from that man,” is my father’s quote that sticks with me.

Because of the circumstances surrounding his upbringing, it was hard for Champ to talk about feelings, in fact, most of his life it was hard for him to feel. As he aged and sensed the end drawing nigh, he felt more, but still would not verbalize it. So, I did what he'd done. Watched his actions and learned.

During my father's last three years, when the time came for me to leave his Wichita home, invariably, Champ would walk me to the door, we’d shake hands and then he’d stand on his front porch, watching his oldest son’s every move as I stowed my overnight gear, backpack and assorted personal flotsam/jetsam into my 2012 Ford Escape.

Then I’d back out of his driveway, roll down the window, extend my left arm and we'd exchange goodbye waves.