Conversations with my old man by
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My old man died before I was twenty. Given the chance, I would have talked to him about the times that came after he died in 1964 — three weeks before President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s warmongers fabricated their Tonkin Gulf attack charade out of wind and fog and darkened seas.

He never talked to me about girls or women or sex or marriage...

We could have talked about the resistance to the Vietnam War. He would have railed against the arrogance and hubris of the domino theory as a rationale for taking over France’s crapped-out colonial empire. Indochine Française, what bullshit, he would have said. Empire is empire.

My old man lived long enough to break the long, disgruntled silence he had held against my fingerpicking, folk-singing love affair with America. He was hysterical about the struggle to provide for his family since his own fortunes had suffered so from bad advice, manic depression, and the Blacklist. Besides he just couldn’t get from his reverence for Mark Twain and Walt Whitman to my world of Appalachian ballads, ragtime, and Mississippi blues — until Bob Dylan came along. I remember leaning up against the joined-oak Japanese table that now sits in my office but back then, carried the turntable, speakers, and amplifiers he had built, he sitting on the couch and us talking together about Dylan’s music, all protest back then.

My old man related to Bob Dylan through Woody Guthrie, sure, but more so as a writer. It was Dylan’s poetry that excited him, and how Dylan’s words connected to the times in a way that we both knew spoke to timely truths. He didn’t have to cut through the bullshit; he’d been slicing through it all his life. I remember the warm, expansive glow I felt in my gut, standing there, talking about this folk singer and his words, a person my old man and I could both admire, a poet and singer who offered a wild parallax view of the world we knew.

When I was 11, my old man taught me all I needed to know about the internal combustion engine in a single night — how a mixture of gas and air would expand when ignited and if you contained the explosion, it could drive a piston and connecting rod downward, and how the problem then became to convert this up and down explosion motion into rotating motion through a crankshaft, and how that rotation motation then turned the wheels in a gearbox that translated the revolving power through the differential and through the wheels into forward motion, while up above, intake valves opened to admit the gas and air mixture from the carburetor, and how the spark plug spit before the piston hit top dead center of the combustion chamber to allow for the exploding gas to expand just as the piston began its downward motion. All that and more in a single night.

He never talked to me about girls or women or sex or marriage, although he could crack wise about the battle of the sexes. He never explained it, but one time he brought home this young Chinese woman, a post-doctorate researcher from the laboratory. He made some surprisingly dumb and anxious explanation about her scientific prowess and how he wanted us kids to meet her, to get some inspiration for his own crusade to prove that science was wonderful, something that we already knew, my sister and me. What a jerk. I don’t remember my mother’s response to this visit, but I do recall that something felt very wrong, very dark. I later figured out that he just wanted this “colleague” to meet us, to see that he had a real family, so he couldn’t spend the night in her Back Bay apartment.

When we were little kids, my old man used to read great stuff to my sister and me. We’d sit on either side of him on the couch in our pajamas and bathrobes and he’d read from Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson, Alice in Wonderland, Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and even A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. After a while his voice would become distant and trail off. My sister and I would sneak out from either side of his snoozing warmth and go off to bed. My mother would tuck us in, and then we would turn on the radio and listen to “The Great Gildersleeve,” “The Halls of Ivy,” and “The Green Hornet” before we went to sleep.

That’s what I remember. That and the occasional grumpy admonition about how I handled an archer’s bow or a gentle request to come in out of the cold before I froze my ass off. I don’t remember any heart-to-heart, man-to-man talks, only the energetic dialogs, discussions, and soliloquies about politics, his world travels as a merchant marine radio operator, the latest astronomical discoveries, or the jokes he’d heard at work. He went fast and early, not without warning, but before he died, I had already taken in a galaxy of information, knowledge, and wisdom that still spins around me in the omnipresent universe he had drafted.

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Profile photo of Charles Degelman Charles Degelman
Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles. 

Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.

Visit Author's Website



Characterizations: moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Thanx Charles for another wonderfully crafted piece about your father, and Dylan, and the memory of the night he told you all about internal combustion, and then left you years later, much too soon but with so much more..

  2. Marian says:

    You and your father packed a lot of relationship into 20 years, Charles, and even though there were ups and downs, you could bond over politics and music. How fascinating that those worlds blended and Dylan brought you together. And, one of the most cogent explanations of an internal combustion engine I’ve read in a long time. Knowing him served you well.

    • A nice way to describe those relatively few years, Marian. It might make for a worthwhile dialog between me and my old man. As an interesting (to me) aside, It might be fun or revealing or both to continue our Dylan conversation using the power of narrative license.

  3. susanrubin says:

    As always your depiction of your relationship with your dad is a wonderful combination of sadness and joy. I feel for both of you because I think if he had chosen to survive he would’ve been so proud of your talent and smartness.

  4. Betsy Pfau says:

    How interesting that Dylan was a way into a shared narrative for you, Charles. How blown away your father would be to know that that same folk singer is now a Nobel laureate. How the world turns…

    He taught you much, but to teach you about internal combustion in one evening is remarkable. From earlier writings, we know he was brilliant, though beset by demons. Yet he passed along what he could. The scene of reading to you and your sister, snuggled against his warm body, while reading childhood classics, is warm and inviting, even if he fell asleep before you did.

    As you just commented, you’ve had a long time to process your loss and what might have been. Yet, here, you’ve shared some wonderful moments that you had together. Thank you for those.

    • Claro, Betsy. I have had years to relate to this ghost, this spirit, this memory, long gone from the bardo, and I feel as if I have entered a new chapter of conversations with him that are, in contrast to the rage and grief I felt at his departure, warm and full of the universe he helped me construct.

  5. John Shutkin says:

    Just a beautifully written piece, Charles. Somehow I feel now I know your very complicated father — and, more importantly, that you knew him well, even in only twenty years of being with him (and the first few don’t really count).

    The Guthrie/Dtylan connection is fantastic and terrifically described. But, even more, I don’ tthink I’ve ever read a more perfect description of the workings of an internal combustion engine. Your father may have explained it in just one night, but you explained it in just one paragraph.

    • Thanks, John. I have taken the option to continue the relationship with my father over the decades since he left us so abruptly. Part of my process was dictated by necessity, by a realization that my survival depended on my ability to see him clearly, even in shadow form. For a while now, I’ve been able to appreciate the worlds I’ve been able to construct in the galaxy we spin in, as we expand at the speed of light, love, and recognition. I suppose I could have done it without him. I suppose I did do it without him. But still, here he is, materialized in such a clear and amicable form. And…

      As you know, I only described one half of the workings of a four-cycle combustion engine. The exhaust valves, guided by a camshaft, have to open and as the piston repeats its up cycle to force the exhausted gases out into our delicate, overborne atmosphere, a consideration neither he nor I made in those mid years of the previous century.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    So sorry you lost your father far too soon. He sounds like a remarkable man, a man ahead of his times.

    • So true, Laurie. He was a bohemian before the term ‘beatnik’ made the scene, part of a timeless succession of misfits who cast their impressions on the centuries.

      • Khati Hendry says:

        Seems like the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree. Clearly your dad was smart, engaged and aware, with a unique view of the world. I loved the description of him reading you bedtime stories and putting himself to sleep. He has not left you even if he seemed to have done so way too early.

        • Thanks for reading, Khati. I’m glad I’ve got him across to folks. It took me decades to fully embrace him again, after such an early departure. It’s a tough job, wandering around in the bardo, trying to interview an absent-minded spirit!

  7. Suzy says:

    We have heard about your amazing father before, including about how he left life way too soon. But you have added so much here, including the fact that he taught you about the internal combusion engine in one night when you were 11, and you still remember it, and could explain it to us! Incredible! Love that he read great books to you and your sister at bedtime, and he was the one who fell asleep! (I have done that with my kids too.) And listening to Bob Dylan with him! Altogether a wonderful portrait!

    • Thanks, Suzy. My father was a fine ad hoc teacher although the student, as always had his quirks. When he tried to teach me the fundamentals of electronics, I balked, went deaf AND dumb. That was his territory and wanted nothing to do with it. It would have been a pleasure to have spent more time with him. He was a good man, a kind man.

  8. Dave Ventre says:

    This essay is simultaneously sad, joyous and poetic. Very nice.

    My Dad also did not tend to discuss feelings or emotions. He was that rara avis, a taciturn Italian. I think it was a common trait of their generation.

    • The taciturn Italian. A great title! I agree, the psychology of human existence wasn’t in common parlance among that generation although most of them could have used a bit of consciousness in that domain. My old man, for example, was clinically quite ill, but would only talk politics with his shrink. Not very productive when it came to facing his own demons.

  9. Susan Bennet says:

    It sounds that, before he died. your father relayed to you the intensity of life force we see in your writing, Charles. What a legacy, so few of us have that. I am sorry you lost him so soon. And so far as Bob Dylan is concerned, your father’s early affection for Twain and Whitman makes perfect sense to me: consciously or unconsciously, it looks like your dad identified with iconoclasts!

    • You read my father, well, Susan! He did identify with — and personify — iconoclasty, although he was never without hope for justice and equity. He was a bit too gnarly (an apt new word) to get there himself, but at core, he was certainly NOT a cynic. He gave me a great deal, although its taken decades for me to embrace him. Ghosts are difficult entities to grapple with!

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