I’m reading Warren Ellis’ novel Normal, whose theme is the troubles that arise when one looks into the future for a living. They acquire a problem known as “abyss gaze:” the difficulties of attempting to watch trends converge towards future outcomes involve seeing trouble ahead, with no comfort of the familiarity of the past. Most fictional glimpses of the future take us to dystopian settings, parables of those problems. Even when one wishes to benefit humanity with vision, the place wherein vision is created is a “safe spot,” where one has creative control (barring a partner or assignment parameters). Around that plank into the unknown, there’s much uncertainty. Yes, the past envelopes uncomfortable, even miserable troubles, but nostalgia affirms knowledge, familiarity-the choice of dwelling on what turned out to be exciting, pleasing, involving. Choose the past of your choice- it’s an exercise where we can feel confident we know the answers. With its information on occurrences good, ill, mixed, it’s a place where we can piece together a life that makes more sense, today.
Approached with curiosity, history does have its intellectual queries: what became of the Zoroastrian scrolls that influenced Judaism, Christianity, Islam? How were the pyramids and Stonehenge erected? Where was the evolutionary Missing Link? But personal history’s a place where we find roots, identity, motives of our tastes and choices, the comfort of love shown us, examples set. One’s worst days lurk in past shadows, but also, the best times of our lives.
Our society’s evolved mass rituals where we observe the importance of people in our lives, passage of seasons, thanks given, and memories. I have found myself rebelling many times at the expectation I should dwell on such and such a detail simply because American society marked a calendar date! But over time, I’ve come to see these as opportunities to connect, sometimes alongside others- not mandates towards insincere emotion, but milestones for celebration and reflection.
I’ve never had the chance in this life to know fatherhood- a paternally-oriented streak, sure, towards aiding others as a would-be sage or good person might, but no bouncing babies. My own father, for whom I’m named, died several years ago, with all the golden years he’d ever have squeezed into holidays and vacations along a lifetime of hard work. It’d be simple enough to give an indifferent nod to Father’s Day, perhaps some glancing gladness for those who observe and enjoy a holiday to which more people than not give but the barest bit of thoughtfulness. Men traditionally learn not to lean overly much on the emotional outpouring of fealty more often found on Mother’s Day. Fathers have shouldered their lot without much expectation of timely gratitude. There’s planes to catch, bills to pay.
I’m not an overly traditional guy- I fall into that category of people who, when looking towards the future, sees it more in terms of creations I attempt to bring to life. But my Dad endeavored to find his way IN to something like the mainstream- fought to get himself a bit of normalcy. He didn’t grow up very conventionally, but when he stopped partying to stand apart from a pool of confused emotions, he did aspire to convention. He wanted a business that functioned as a recognizable, friendly, reliable part of the community. He attended church and discovered a fundamentalist zeal. He joined the Masons. He went to the spa. He kept up his yard and thought up plans that might put him ahead, give him more choice over his life, but also, provide the security common sense dictated. He did his part in raising his two children with his wife, and with all else done, could be found, spit can at his side, chewing tobacco and watching America’s Team, the Atlanta Braves, in the same comfy chair, all summer long.
The one exception was another nod to familial convention and middle-class normalcy: when the chair would sit empty for a week, usually the one before or after July 4th, and the four of us would pack up and head for the mountains. We’d cross ear-popping Lookout Mountain and four hours of highways.
I let the dogs- and very nearly, the cat- out for the morning, wet grass and fresh earth smells adrift in the coolness of early morning. On the porch, I took in the atmosphere, transported to the outdoors of camping grounds we’d visit from the time I was little. I’d been reading old Tales of Suspense Iron Man stories and chewing over pop culture patriotism, after taking in an unusual amount of national politics news. Iron Man evoked vacation in 1986, in particular. I bought and saved back issues of James Rhodes taking up the Golden Avenger’s guise, along with an Annual (an old summer event) pairing Shellhead with the Man-Thing and star-crossed kids playing outside. I found the latest issue, where the Living Laser sought revenge, at a convenient store not far from Cumberland Mountain campgrounds, so that year, I had Iron Man-a-plenty to occupy my lawn-chair-borne sprawl. I grew up, attached to Iron Man- along with the armor and invention motifs, Tony Stark also was the one mustachioed super hero- like my Dad, who was, after all, my first super hero.
From near as early as my first memory- of asking for Spider-Man to be on my third birthday cake- Mom and Dad had taken Debra and I on vacation nearly every summer. They were fond of camping out, which for years involved driving out to a site in park, spending the afternoon assembling tents and stringing up a canopy, and turning Deb and I loose on our Big Wheels. The burning hot big slide at Cumberland Mountain State Park in Tennessee sticks out in memory- I wouldn’t go down it without my Mom! I recall spinning on the ...what’s that spinning thing with the handles called, not “merry go round” is it, maybe it is...until I was dizzy and nauseous. I remember my crush on Amy, the park Naturalist, and my first encounter with a grand daddy long legs spider.
As we got older and ended up squatted on sheets in the back of Dad’s camper-shell-covered truck, Deb and I had a couple of great tapes of Beatles hits and the privacy of our own silly party. Dad upgraded to a camper as he approached forty, a time-saving pop-up which offered a bit more comfort. My grandparents and Aunt Linda also camped with us a couple of times, though they favored Fall Creek Falls close to Cumberland. We’d pull out board games to play until after the plastic owl lights flicked on. We melted marshmallows, roasted hot dogs on sharpened sticks over the campfire, that ancient ritual of Man. We all smelled like Outdoors Off! At least, until Dad and I donned flip flops and walked the path to the bath house with our shower supplies and towels. We’d sit up late beneath the bug zapper, telling family stories and discussing what could fit into the budget of time and money. Nature activity? A movie up in Crossville? Swimming? We’d squeeze in lots...so long as Dad had a decent afternoon or three to fold out a chair or hammock and enjoy the woods in peace.
Occasionally it’d occur to me how much more fun Mom and Dad were when they simply had time to relax. Sandwiches guarded against flies had the special seasoning of Togetherness. Dad had never grown up with anything like this with his family, but looking back, the man knew how to make a memory. He made so many good ones for me. I think we thanked him for each one, however cursorily- we were reminded to do so, as part of good up-bringing. With the hassles of the garden, the lawn, home improvements, and at least five days a week or more of the family business, all set aside, you simply had a young man who didn’t ask for a castle- he just wanted, once a year, to go have some fun with his family.
True, it did seem like half the time was spent getting everything from the television set to the camp lights set up for a very temporary home away from home-Mom would say you needed a vacation to get over vacation. But every year, we openly wished it could last just a little bit longer. That’s what would make it all the sweeter next time, he’d say. And we’d go back to our often-bug-spray-fogged house a couple hundred miles on the other side of the mountains, unpack and take a day to set things in order, to start enjoying the fresh perspective we got, getting away. In all its phases, the family never felt closer than in that much-anticipated week. There’s something about the road, making each day new. There’s something about knowing your time together is limited, but relaxing- enjoying it. There’s something about a dad who sacrifices for the good of everyone, no need of ostentatious speech. There’s something quietly heroic about a Dad whose ambition is to create a true family- like ours.