My father was born in the States of Croatian parents—the son of immigrants who came here for a better life. I never knew my paternal grandparents, who had died years before I was born; but I imagine, knowing my father, that they were rough-hewn, strong and stubborn, having lived and fled a hard life in their homeland and then uprooted to a foreign country where they did not speak the native language but pressed on and built a life for themselves and their family.
Steve was my dad’s name, and he proudly told us the story of when he was born in Ohio–how his parents, in their thickly accented tongues, had tried to tell the hospital staff what they wanted to name their new son. “Stif” is how the birth certificate was printed. My father proudly touted to everyone that he was “born a Stif”.
My dad had a large frame and dark features. He was about six-foot-two I think, although his posture rendered him a couple inches shorter in appearance. He had a swagger that was part-tired and part-cocky. His hands were huge and rough from decades of manual labor. He wore his hair always very short—a crew cut, mostly. And his skin was leathered and permanently browned from years of working in the sun building houses. His dark eyes were menacing—intimidating and even frightening at times. He had very bushy eyebrows that framed them, and when he was telling you something—and I mean he was TELLING you something—his bushy eyebrows raised a half-inch each, and only then did you realize his dark eyes were sometimes a steely-hazel…and you knew he meant business.
Steve was a carpenter of the old-school variety. That is to say, he did not just hammer nails into wood or drywall—he knew every trade and could build a house from bottom to top, outside to in. A true craftsman he was, and a perfectionist, too. He was the consummate artisan who milled and sanded and oiled the wood of whatever project until it gleamed. He quit school after eighth grade and went to work to help support the family and himself. So he was born proud, and he lived proud, although he never put on airs for anyone or pretended to be anyone or anything he was not.
With that little introduction, I shall tell you more about this character, for that is what he was. From my earliest memories of him, he seemed old; although he was always very strong. One late summer night as he sat on the front porch smoking, a car came ripping up the road, hopping the curb and smashing into the telephone pole across the street. My father jumped up and ran to the scene, while neighbors phoned the police. The driver had got out and was throwing beers into the neighbor’s bushes—he must have been drinking—and began yelling and flailing about wildly when my dad approached. The cops were there quickly (small town and not a lot of action), and attempted to gain control of the driver who was now in the neighbor’s yard hollering and swinging punches at everyone. Six officers could not gain control of the young guy in his craze, so my father jumped in and grabbed the guy and subdued him single-handedly. It was later reported in the papers that the guy was intoxicated and under the influence of narcotics. Nothing was reported about my dad, although we and all the neighbors had seen what had happened. It was a very big deal in our small town, and we stayed out on the front porch for hours into the early morning watching the utility crews taking down that telephone pole and hearing our father telling why they were doing this and that wrong.
When I was in my teens and my father had basically retired from employment as a carpenter, he and my mother began working on the garden like they never had before. We always had a garden, but with my father’s time freed up now in retirement, it became his new unpaid occupation. In my father’s perfectionism, he had used the same concerns for gardening as he had in carpentry. “If you’re going to do it, do it right!” was one of his favorite sayings. So began the arduous process of designing and constructing the garden that became a monument on Franklin Street. The plot of land for the garden was roughly 30 feet by 40 feet. We all helped here and there, but my parents did most of the work. First, Dad tilled the ground, adding water and other soil compounds and fertilizer as he saw fit. I can remember the first time I saw him start up the gas-powered roto-tiller, how it went off into the yard on its own like some deranged mechanical monster, its multiple crooked feet alternately digging and crawling…from that moment on, I was scared of the thing and would not go near it. But my dad ran after it, grabbed it, and mastered the monster; and he would spend hours and days working with it and sending us to the gas station as he ran out of gasoline while tilling and re-tilling the soil.
Finally the soil was the perfect consistency of the black dirt he had envisioned. The next step was creating rows of mounded little hills—there were about a dozen of these long, black rows altogether, I think—and he and my mother hoed and shoveled and tossed stones and other undesirable contents out of the dirt as they worked. Then with a tool, which now I’m thinking was a narrow putty blade of some sort, they created the trenches atop the hills where the seeds would be placed. Next came the actual planting of the seeds—finally, some real progress, I remember thinking—and irrigating of the entire garden, which was done not by any fancy mechanical tool but by hand, with a garden hose. Every day they toiled in the garden, watering, weeding, breaking up clumps of dirt and throwing out rocks.
The first evidence of their efforts were the tiny green shoots of the leaf lettuces breaking through the soil. After that, things happened very quickly. Lettuce, green onions, sweet peppers, cucumbers, parsley…but the stars of the garden were the carrots and tomatoes. The tomato plants which yielded huge, delicious beefsteak tomatoes were over my head, and I was five-foot-ten at the time. My nephew yanked and pulled at one carrot in particular until it came out of the ground and he landed on his butt—this beauty was the size of a small rabbit in both length and girth. We ate fresh vegetables–raw and cooked–out of our garden every day, and that winter we enjoyed the canned goodness into which my mother had invested so much work at summer’s end.
All of these things came not with any ease—they were the results of a lot of hard work and sweat. And more sweat. And more sweat, especially in the heat and humidity of the Ohio summer. This will be important as I illustrate this little ditty.
Steve always had practical ideas and even very outlandish solutions to ordinary problems. One of these was a solution to the sweat that poured down his face and into his eyes while he worked in the garden. He had attempted to fashion a home-made sweat band that would do a better job than the commercial variety which “didn’t do nothin to keep the goddamned sweat” out of his eyes. I was surprised that the bushes that lay above his eyes didn’t catch the sweat, although I would never have said that to him. He took a sweatband and affixed a kitchen sponge to the inside that would rest on his forehead. He used this for about half a day, and then went into the bathroom to forage for a new solution.
My father came down the stairs wearing his latest invention, and we were all mortified. Unhampered by our looks of shock and terror, he excitedly marched out to the garden to continue working and try out his latest invention. When my brother-in-law came to the house, he went to the garden to visit with my dad. “Steve,” he called out. “What’s that you got on your head?”
“The most goddamned-absorbent thing I’ve ever seen!” was my father’s proud response. He had taken the kitchen sponge out from underneath the headband and had replaced it with a woman’s maxi pad—the full-blown, thick, long monstrous things that looked like something nobody should ever see in public, let alone on a man’s forehead. My brother-in-law laughed at him hysterically, but my father was unencumbered by judgment and continued working away, unfettered by any more sweat-in-the-eye problems.
There was also the incident about my dad and the hot pants…but it may be too risqué for the gentle reader.