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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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.