–John Milton, “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent,” 1673
My dad is pre-Baby Boom by about a decade. I’ve often felt disappointed at being post-Baby Boom by two. I would have made a good hippie, I think.
When I was born, he’d already endured the humiliation and banality of military service. He joined the army after graduating as a civil engineer from the University of Kansas. The stories of his service have dribbled out over the years. I think he is saving many more for just the right time.
In 2006, we took a driving vacation with my parents and our daughters to the beach in South Carolina. As we drove across the state he decided to tell us that he’d been there once before, in the army, and had been close to the beach but never close enough to see the ocean. Instead, he said, when the bus arrived from Kentucky, the unit was forced to “double-time it” with their gear in full dress, which they’d already been wearing for hours, through the heat and humidity to their barracks. Many passed out or fell, vomiting into the dunes, on the way.
It was funny and sad when he told it, and it left me feeling soft and inadequate. I spent my early twenties chasing girls and going to grad school. It wasn’t a carefree life, but it wasn’t the army.
At that time, the late 1980s, my dad was still working as a resident engineer for the Missouri Highway Department, the same job he’d held for about twenty-five years. It was a span of time that seemed immeasurable.
I remember when I was younger going to clean his office, hoping for a peak at one of the Playboy or Penthouse magazines some of his crew kept stashed in their drafting tables. One of the guys had an ashtray shaped like a rattlesnake because it freaked out one of the other guys. The office smelled like cigarettes, because everyone in that office smoked, it seemed, except my dad.
Sometimes he’d take us out on job sites for a Sunday afternoon drive. Bulldozed stretches in the middle of nowhere, or later, along the river, where he was overseeing the project to build a double-deck interstate extension to give easier access to downtown St. Joseph.
I think: What have I built to compare to that? Books and articles, words in the wind.
Ellen had to be at the hospital at 6:45 that day. When I said I’d wear jeans because hospitals are always freezing, she said, “You’re coming with me!? That’s so sweet!”
I said, “Yeah, we may as well make the transformation into our parents complete.”
You still have to clean up after the horse.