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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Father Far and Away: Part VII (the end)

I slipped below the water and a pushed off the pool wall, torpedoing back and forth five times before coming up for air on the far side. Jim was already there, arms perched again on the rough but rounded concrete edge of the pool. After catching my breath, I mumbled some lines out of the blue:

"But Mousie, thou art no thy lane, [not alone]
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!"

"Say what?" Jim said opening only one eye in the bright sun.

"It's part of a poem by Robert Burns I learned in Freshman Speech class. You asked why Dad is pumping gas, and it reminded me of that poem, "To a Mouse."

His other eye opened. "Some guy wrote a poem about pumpin' gas... to a mouse?"

"No, that's the poem's name--but come to think of it--yes, he wrote it to a mouse that he accidently dug up with a plow. It was nesting underground like that little one we found when we were laying the sewer pipe with Dad. Were you with us the day that happened?"

"Nope. I'da remembered a thing like that. Was it dead?"

"We thought so at first. He was curled up in a ball. Dave picked it up and it scared us when it moved--real slow like it was coming out of a coma. Then Dad explained that it had been hibernating in its little nest below the frost line. It was still groggy when Dave put it back down on the ground."

"What happened to it?"

"We kept digging the sewer line, and it crawled off into the trees like it was sleep walkin'."

"Seems like you should have killed it. What if that same mouse gets in the house some day. Mom hates mice."

"Then we would kill it because it would be in our space, but at that moment we had broken his space. It was just like in that poem. That's why I liked it first time I read it, but then at the end it's like something hits Burns about life while he's talking to the mouse. 'The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft agley.'"

"What's 'Gang aft agley'?" Jim asked.

"It's Scottish. Burns was Scottish," I said, a bit surprised to enjoy teaching a 7-year-old about a poem--a thing I'd never done before."'Gang aft agley' means 'Often go wrong'--or 'don't turn out as planned'." I quoted the six lines again and added, "There's a book by John Steinbeck called Of Mice and Men, and the title comes from that poem. I'm not sure why. [It would be another two years before I would actually read Of Mice and Men and know why the title was perfect.] Anyway, I guess I thought of the poem because this trip has not gone the way Dad planned."

I backstroked across the pool and looked over at the station. Another car had pulled up and as Dad began filling the tank, Dave walked over to the Country Squire and looked underneath. Dad ran in and out of the station--to make change I guess--and the customer's car rolled away. Then he and Dave were talking again. We could hear nothing but a song sparrow chirping on the chain link fence, a sound that seemed out of place for a silent movie flickering on a far away screen.
Jim sighed again, "I wonder why Dad's pumping gas," and at that moment, Dad turned to wave at us in the pool. Had he heard us talking? Could he see us? Our heads were barely above the pool wall and our voices barely above a whisper. We felt 'caught.' We'd gone swimming hundreds of times while Dad was at work--far away at work... at his job, but we'd never been swimming so indifferently while he worked and could see us. What if his suggestion to swim had faded in the heat of the day? Such things can happen after hours of knuckle-busting wrench work. But he sent Dave back our way with a pat on his shoulder and waved again. We waved back blankly.

"What did he say," I asked as Dave approached the fence.

“The owner had to go back to the junk yard to get Dad one more part so he asked Dad if he minded tending the station 'til he got back. There’s nothing we can do on the car until then."

"So he's still okay with us swimming?" I asked.

Dave shrugged. "I guess. I offered to pump gas, but he said he'd better stick to what Clee set up. It's kind of weird... I mean... the guy left Dad in charge of the place. There's nobody else there right now, but Dad told me to come back and tell Mom it will be another hour or so."

"What time is it?" I asked. None of us had on a watch. It felt like eleven o'clock but was actually well past noon.

We thought Mom had spent the entire morning propped up on the bed in front of a cold rush of "air conditioning" billowing from the wall unit. Like most Americans, we had never lived in a house that had the luxury of air conditioning, and to sit directly in such a sensation was a pastime all its own. We figured all morning she'd been flipping channels with a remote control, which was another touch of modernity unfamiliar to our family. "Would you look at that!" she had said that morning as we left for the pool. "I can turn the channels and everything from right here." So naturally, we hadn't given Mom much thought after leaving the room.

But what we didn't know was that about an hour before noon, Mom had gotten nervous about checking out on time and went to visit with the lady at the front desk who told her we could keep the room until we were ready to leave. Mom had a way of making fast friends with total strangers, and the two women had kept right on talking for nearly an hour 'til Mom remembered she needed to make Dad lunch. On the way out the door, the lady said, "Here. Take him a bucket of ice. Your husband's over there workin' in the heat. Poor man's going to want a shower before you hit the road, and the boys look like they're enjoying the pool. Just keep the room key. No hurry. We're mostly empty anyhow."

Swimming has a way of making you forget to eat until suddenly you're so hungry you could eat a whole bag of potato chips. And just as our stomach alarms were about to go off, Mom came walking across the parking lot with a stack of sandwiches and glasses of ice water on the little plastic tray from the room.

"Lunch time," she announced as if approaching her own pool behind the kind of house she'd never dreamed of owning. We had, in fact, been the only ones swimming all morning as well as the night before, and it did feel like 'our pool.' She put the food on a round metal table that wobbled as it straddled a huge crack in the cement deck. "I'm going to take some sandwiches over to Dad and then come back to put my feet in. What did you find out over there, Dave. Is he almost done? I feel bad. Us over here and him working out in this heat."

"We do, too..." I'd started to explain our guilt but Jim said at the same time, "Dad's pumping gas. He's runnin' the station." And Dave squashed Jim's line with "It's okay, Mom. He's just keeping an eye on things 'til Clee gets back" I added, "We were goint to go help, but..." Jim blurted,"I thought maybe it was like washing dishes..." "It's nothin', Mom," Dave said, but Jim continued, "I was only trying to say that..." "Nothing," Dave said firmly. The exchange felt like that slap happy game we sometimes played with our stacked hands on the table. Dave's hand was on top since he was the one who'd actually been with dad, so Jim and I got the hint he wanted us to shut up.

He was trying to keep Mom calm, from jumping to conclusions and tumbling into the very kind of panic that Dad did not need brought with his lunch.

"It's' nothing to worry about," Dave calmly continued, "Clee just went to get one more part Dad needs. It's not even gunna cost us because Clee says it should have been attached when they bought it. Dad's almost done. I was just over there, and he sent me back. Let me take the lunch over to him. You just wade your feet. Really, Mom, everything's just perfect... just perfect."
Dave was right. Mom sometimes needed help navigating the unseen aberrations in her mind. Hadn't she, after all, just a few years before when we were digging the well in what would be thebasement of our house, gotten all worried when a man stepped out of the woods, just crossing through our land. He was curious about the concrete culvert pressing down in the earth, puzzled by us pulling up five-gallon buckets of dirt from a hole twenty-five feet deep, shocked to hear Mom talking to a man way down in the hole.

We'd been digging the well for six long Saturday's in a row. If all went well from dawn to dusk, we could sink a crock a day. The stranger laughed and said, "A well? You're digging a cistern well?--all you'll get is salt water 'round here. Why do you think they call it the Salt River?" He was referring to the river just east of our land, and on that ominous note, the man walked away not knowing he'd just picked a scab from my mother's nervous skin.

"Don't tell your father what that man said," she whispered to Dave and Paul as they lowered the extension ladder down the well to Dad. But all throughout lunch, she was uneasy. So much so that on her way back home she momentarily thought her '65 Plymouth was the old '39 Ford with a column stick shift and put it into "R" (as in "reverse") while driving 50 MPH down the road... but that's another story. I allude to it here only to say that Dave was right, it was best for him to take the sandwiches to Dad. Mom ate with Jim and I, and then went back to the air-conditioned room.
Sometime after 2:00 PM, we heard the latch of the pool gate lift. There was Dad in his filthy clothes, arms black to the elbows, but a smile shone through the grime. “Wow! You guys are brown as berries,” he laughed. [Dad always said that when we were tan.] “Well, she’s ready to go!” he announced pointing at the Country Squire, which we had driven unnoticed from the station to the motel.

“You never called for help,” I said, still feeling bad about the way this day had gone.

“I didn’t need it. Clee had some free time toward the end, and it went fast with his help.I‘m going to take a quick shower and change out of this shirt. Unfortunately I didn‘t bring another pair of pants, but we‘ll be home before you know it.” [It was no less than an eight-hour drive at the 55 MPH national speed limit, but he was feeling a second wind.]

Dad and Mom stopped by the motel office to make sure we were square, and then we stopped by to get gas at the station. “It’s the least I can do,” Dad explained, “He won’t take a penny for everything he did for us--not even the tow.” Mom’s jaw dropped, “What? But he did so much. What about the parts?” “I paid for the junk-yard parts, of course, but that wasn’t bad at all. I tried to put the money in his pocket, but he wouldn’t hear of it.”

Clee approached the car as if we were regulars. “Fill ‘er, up, Don?”

“Yes. It ought to take us pert near home,” Dad said.

I smiled to hear Dad say “Pert near.” I'd heard Clee say it the night before. Somehow in their long day together, Dad had picked up the phrase from a man who had shared his truck, his tools, and his time with a family in need.

So went our first time ever in a motel, and so began my first “college summer.” Less than a month later, my sister Kathy got married on June 28th. It was the beginning of the kind of change all families go through. Two years later, Paul got married. The year after that it was Dave, and in 1980 it was me. Jim was twelve as he walked down the aisle as my "Junior Best Man." He and my parents still had a whole lifetime ahead of them, one that included many stays at motels, but Jim’s favorite memories were the ones with us all still under one roof. The seven of us crowded in a three-bedroom brick ranch, or the old canvas tent, or stuffed into that Country Squire station wagon.

The next fall (the beginning of my sophomore year), we again packed the station wagon to head back down to school. The day before, Mom baked one of her famous Banana Cakes with Butter Cream Frosting, her specialty, the magnum opus of her culinary arts, but the cake was not for us. Dad planned it so we'd stop for gas at the Berea, Kentucky exit. He was glad to see Clee at the station, glad that he recognized us and the car right away. Mom got out and and gave him the cake she'd been tending by her side for nearly eight hours. He was very moved by the sweet gesture of remembered kindness and insisted that we all sit in the garage stall and have a piece with him. He and Dad joked and talked like old friends. Mom added her pleasant two cents. We boys, having never spent more than a minute with him before, just smiled and ate Mom's cake.

As the others visited, Jim and I walked outside across the vacant lot to the pool where we'd spent the day just three months before.

“The best laid schemes o' mice an' men Gang aft agley...” he said.

Surprised that he remembered, I couldn't help but finish out the poem clear through to the end...
"An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!
Still thou are blest, compared wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!"
I dreaded the thought of another year so far from home.

End note: A week ago, when my brother Jim (now 40) reminded me this story took place in Berea, Kentucky, I Google-mapped the exit. To my surprise, the pool (or one like it) was still there. Clee's* station has been replaced by a huge Speedway Gas Station and convenience store. There is no garage for car repair. [*Clee was my freshman roommate's name and not the garage owner's. My brothers and I can't remember his name. Dad and Mom would know it... if they were here.]

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Blogger Nancy said...

"If they were here"... it's sad that they aren't but it also makes heaven a richer place for us to look forward to.

I'm like your mom- forget the mice. I even dreamed about them last night for some odd reason and probably will tonight too because of your picture of one today. Thanks Tom :(

The kind of trust Clee demonstrated in your dad is rare these days. Plus the motel managers kindness by letting you stay late and swim too... that's rare indeed. I think your family was truly blessed that day and God was watching over you. I loved the story- thanks for sharing.

(My younger sister was 12 on my wedding day too and she was a junior bridesmaids.)

17/7/08 8:57 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Oh, how my mother hated mice. Julie hates them,too. We've caught three in traps this summer. She'll have no part of that process, and I've gotten where I can read the inflection in her voice when she needs me to empty a trap. She doesn't want to say what it is (for fear the girls will start screaming). She just calls my name a certain way and I know we got one.

It was a remarkable show of trust in my father, but Dad had somehow earned in by his actions in the crisis.

Mom took the owner of the garage a cake each fall right up until the year I graduated.

17/7/08 11:03 PM  
Blogger Dr.John said...

And so the story ends or this part of it. I have enjoyed it all. A story of family as family ought to be. You are a first rate story teller.

18/7/08 4:08 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Thanks Dr. John,
The seed of this story came from sitting in at motel pool back in June . I was taken back by how little the experience meant to me and typically how "forgettable" staying at a motel has become for me and my family. Then I remembered my own family's first stay in '75 and why it happened. It's been fun to write it.

As time allows, I hope to write the story of the cistern well in the weeks ahead this summer.

18/7/08 5:16 PM  
Blogger the walking man said...

Pops must have been a lion among mice Tom. Through out this, even when being short with you boys I get the sense that he always was able to back track and correct most things within the family. That is a rare commodity indeed. Well done; another chapter in the PoI saga.

19/7/08 3:47 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

You paint an accurate portrait based on the many snapshots you've seen here. I think if there is one thing that motivates me to "relive" and write about these things in so many of my posts, it is the realization that we are all blessed with different experiences and that the most ordinary aspects of life are extraordinary if we take time to see them unfold.

One other thing I realized in writing this is that my brothers (and Kathy) and I never "outgrew" our father-son relationship. Even when we were married and "out on our own," we typically deferred to Dad's advice and direction even from afar. Things were more patriarchal back then (like Jimmy Stewart as Charlie Anderson in "Shenandoah"). Because of this strong sense of "sonship," a part of us felt young, boyish, and secure no matter how old we became. You are right. I now understand that is a rare gift.

I'm driving over to the homestead today. We're having a bonfire back by the barn with all five of the siblings and their kids--like the old days. It may be the last time we ever do this. We don't know what the future holds for the house and "the property" as we called the land before we lived there.

19/7/08 6:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Finally...took the time to read this! Again, it was enjoyable! The mouse part...eeeuuwwwww!!! I hate mice! But maybe part of it is they always appear so unexpectedly...then they skitter!

I have several "mouse stories" I could share here as well. Some pretty gross!!!!

The "pert near" expression brought back memories as that was said in my family of origin as well. I wonder lately, on the source of words and expressions!! This is added to that.


19/7/08 9:17 AM  
Blogger JR's Thumbprints said...

... and to think I use mice to fish for pike.

not real ones of course.

Nice added touch with the google map. A bit of research to see how much has changed since then.

19/7/08 10:14 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Mice are kind of cute, but I know what you mean. I hate them in the house--there's a good lesson in Burn's poem, though.

"Pert near" comes from "pretty near" meaning "quite close" or "about."

Hope you're getting some good fishing in.
Isn't Google an amazing tool. You can probably find your house on it.

19/7/08 9:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I knew the meaning of "pert near"...just wondered on the inflection or whatever it's called. Those "expressions" on hears--wondering if they're regional, or have "ethnic" sources or what. Suppose one could google them and the Internet now would provide answers! :-) Now...I have to "hit the hay"!!

19/7/08 10:30 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

I knew you probably knew that.
Funny thing is Dad did not have any regional dialect that I ever noticed. When I'm out in Kansas, I notice a "prairie accent," (Julie's mom has that) and if I'm down south (like in NC where "Daily Blessings" Nancy lives), I hear that southern accent. Kentucky is sort of Appalachian/southern.
By the way, "Hit the hay" is an expression Dad used regularly. Another thing he said was "How's your ol' straw hat?" meaning "How are things going?" (usually after not seeing someone for a while).

20/7/08 11:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having been born in Minnesota and living first there, then in Wisconsin...I'd always thought my "accent" non-existant. BUT..in college I was told by someone who grew up in another part of the country that I did indeed have an accent...quite "nasal" she said. I'm not sure about THAT!!!
Now in Wisconsin people really do have a "dialect" a bit different than MN and I think it rubs off. I watched a special on PBS some years ago on language patterns in the U.S. and there is definately something to all of that. There are experts that can tell where a person is from just by listening...down to the exact region!! This topic really has digressed from your story-line...but it's still interesting! :-)

21/7/08 9:51 AM  
Anonymous quilly said...

Your prose is incredibly visual. I am with you in the pool, can smell the gas station scents, and see your mom's anxiety ... reading your work is pure indulgence.

23/7/08 7:31 PM  

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