Uncommon Ground

New York Son

Over the last half-century, Dad raised his boys to work with our hands and care for our family

By Mike Jopek

The early morning sky lit up red. A hue rolled over the valley, blanketing the cold air as the wintertime sun arose. Red sky morning as the sailor took warning rang in my head. That wasn’t exactly the saying but with dad in hospice, it felt hard to ignore the smallest of signs, especially one saturating the Montana skyline.

Dad, a retired maritime engineer, was the youngest of our five octogenarian parents. He’d spent his career voyaging cargo ships, often eight stories tall and a quarter mile long, hauling goods like grain or crude across the vast open seas to America.

Over the last half century, he’d raised his boys to work with our hands and care for family. He held strong values and worked hard, sunrise to sunset. He was vocal when necessary and routinely missed social ques. 

In his shirt pocket was a sharp-pointed pencil with a shiny metal clip holding it firmly in place. I often saw him pull out his pocket coil notebook from a proper T-shirt and write down secrets. As a kid, I peeked in that magic book and saw pages of notes and needed parts for the Willys Jeep that sat parked between the farmstead’s ageless stone fences.

In the hall closet hung the long rain coat. I asked about it the other day. He said he bought it in 1961. There was no question about the time. He often knew exact dates, time etched in a lifetime of memory.

I put on the soft-lined coat he bought years before courting mom. She lives down the street and cared for his needs over a lifetime of marriage. They made a good team. In his closet stood a row of coats dating back to the days of Elvis Presley. 

Weeks ago, he gave me his desktop in a box. In a worn-out wallet was a piece of plain-lined paper with the date he met mom. It was long ago, written in pencil, from a place and time a world away.

I put on his baseball cap. There was a box full of them, most still too good to use. Tears rolled as memories flashed. He was a good man. In the bottom of the box was his belt. He wore it throughout my teen years as we fixed cars and rebuilt that hundred-year-old farmhouse. 

We drove that Rambler as hard as we dared. The tires beat a track in the back yard. None of us boys were old enough, but dad let us drive the field. Later he bought us dirt bikes and we rode in the woods, at the hanger docks, and down the dunes.

Mom and I dressed dad, put on some favorite sharp clothes. He always liked that shirt, mom said, the lines held crisp without an iron. I hid my smile. 

It’s all memory, feels real, too raw, familiar, yet so unreal. I needed it to make sense. Memory came tearing in, piece by piece. We focused on the puzzle, together working the table. I sorted pieces by color and design. I found few edges to help moor the ship. 

One moment I’m splitting hardwood by the cord in my mind. The next digging out a basement, one bucket at a time. It’s fleeting. I need a pencil and a notebook to write it down. There’s many in one of his boxes. 

Dad talked to me about flowers, an uncharacteristic thought we’d share. He wanted me to take time, do work that mattered. I’ll grow some zinnias I said. 

The evening sky was a delight. The sunset rolled through the clouds, tumbled over the Rockies and illuminated the best of times for my dad, a New York son, who grew up with America.

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