Last Sunday was Father’s Day. I had a great Father’s Day. Both of my sons were home. We drove over to nearby Eaton Canyon Nature Park. On the hike I led through the myriad trails there I spotted a California king snake. Besides just being together and enjoying nature, that was the highlight of our hike. I hadn’t see one in the wild since I was a Boy Scout (about a hundred years ago). These snakes are endangered and incredibly beautiful with their ivory yellow and dark chocolate rings.
Back at home my wife made me one of my favorite dinners, filet mignon with Manchego cheese and chipotle pepper sauce (on a lightly fried tortilla). Accompanying my steak was an Indian (from India) salad with tomatoes, onion, ginger (lots!), jícama (my wife’s own clever addition), cilantro, lemons and serrano chiles. Yum!
Afterward we drove over to Bulgarini Gelato, proclaimed by food scribe Jonathan Gold as one of the five best gelato makers in the United States. I had a triple threat gelato of yogurt & oil (It doesn’t sound good but it was incredible, tasting a lot like my mom’s cheesecake), peach sorbet and an incredible nectarine gelato. I sampled a rich strawberry with hot peppers gelato, too. Incredible! My favorite, still, is Bulgarini’s grapefruit sorbet. It magically captures all of the best essences of grapefruit flavor and concentrates that flavor a hundred fold into each bite. The blood orange flavor is darn nice, too, as is their pomegranate.
But that’s not what I wanted to write about.
Being Father’s Day and all, I wanted to write a little bit about my dad.
My dad and I had a rocky (when it wasn’t non-existent) relationship for the last thirty years of his life (he was a heavy smoker & died a horrible death from emphysema). I won’t go into that stupid mess. Instead, I’ve set myself the challenge of only saying nice things about my dad. Here goes.
It was my dad who fed and nurtured my great love of nature and wildlife. Although we both loved nature, we came at it from different points of view. My father, who grew up on an Idaho farm, was an avid fisherman and hunter. I never went on his hunting trips (he shot deer and stocked our freezer with venison each season) nor on his deep sea fishing trips (we enjoyed fresh bonita, halibut, barracuda and shark from those ventures). Every summer, however, he took my brothers and me (and occasionally my mom — but only if the trip ended in Reno) trout fishing in the High Sierras, specifically the area around June Lake.
We fished using bait and lures. The goal of my brothers and myself was to out-fish my dad. We loved watching him fly into a genuine rage when this occurred (and it occurred often). In hindsight, it was pure luck on our part when we beat him but he thought it all had to do with skill. That made him more determined than ever to redouble his efforts to out-fish us — which made it even funnier to us boys when he didn’t. By the time we arrived home with our catch he was laughing at himself and was expressing great pride in regards to our fishing skills. In the right mood, my dad had a great sense of humor.
I liked fishing but I had a pretty short attention span. If the trout were biting I was fine. If not, I liked to put down my pole and wander, hoping to catch a glimpse of some marvel of nature. I was overjoyed to find a dead porcupine on the trail one afternoon, as well as the rotting carcass of a deer. I tried to identify each bird I encountered and was ever on the lookout for snakes and lizards.
On the five hour drive home I would identify and remark on each roadkill. Once, driving at night, we saw a coyote pursuing a jackrabbit. I loved those two week trips. Often, we would end them with a trip to Bodie, a ghost town not terribly far from Mono Lake. My dad, you see, was a big history buff and a western fan. Back then Bodie was not protected nor operated by the state as a historical park. We had the run of the place. We entered the ancient abandoned dwellings at our own risk. It was exciting. We never knew what page from the past would be revealed in our explorations. We found old square nails, one hundred year old bottles turned purple by the sun, and signage from a bygone era. In the mining quarries I found rocks flecked with minute amounts of silver (Bodie was a gold and silver mining town). We read all of the tombstones on Boot Hill, laughing together at the humor possessed by some of those old westerners, even in moments of adversity. We were silent when we calculated the brief lives led by so many of the buried when we did the math and calculated their sad, early death ages.
Over the years I noticed that the roadkill count grew disappointingly less and less. This wasn’t because the wild animals were getting better at dodging cars and trucks. It was because humans were encroaching on animal territory as well as killing the critters they encountered for the sheer fun of it. A lot of wildlife was shot or poisoned to protect livestock or crops.
My dad was not big on apologies. On those rare occasions when he did apologize, I always listened carefully. I’ll never forget one apology.
I was in my first year at art school. Because of his proximity to my college, I began living with him upon my graduation from high school (my parents divorced when I was fourteen). Out of the blue he got very melancholy and contemplative.
He turned to me and said, “I really want to apologize for the way my generation has left this country for your generation. We have not been good stewards of our wild lands. I hope that you and your generation will not make the same mistakes that we have made.”
I mentioned my father loved westerns. He passed on his great love of westerns to me. I was thrilled and proud to return the favor when I took him to see his first spaghetti western, “For a Few Dollars More.” I was tickled to see he was knocked out by that film (as was I) and by the other Eastwood/Leone collaborations.
The other film genre he loved was science fiction. I think he really liked the “science” part of it, the “what if” possibility that what we were watching could possibly happen some day. He had his own wacky theory that the visitors and flying saucers from other worlds either came from cloud-shrouded Venus or from an Earth doppleganger that rotated around the sun in our exact orbit but always on the opposite side of the sun (which is why we couldn’t see it but why it was convenient for the aliens, travel-wise).
When it came to business dealings my father was one of the most honest people I ever met. I recall one time we were selling my car so that I could upgrade. He thoroughly checked out my vehicle (he was a pretty darn good car mechanic; I still have barely a clue. I once watched my dad completely take my car apart down its nuts and bolts and put it all back together again), determined what was wrong with it and had it completely repaired.
I noticed he spent some substantial money doing this and asked him why he went to the trouble and didn’t just sell the car “as is.” His reply was simple. “What if I sold this car to a friend and his son was killed in an auto accident because of some defect I hadn’t bothered to fix?”
Although he didn’t express it very often, my dad was proud of my work as an artist and I appreciate the few bashful (the men in my dad’s generation were not comfortable with expressing their feelings) words of praise that came my way on occasion.
Perhaps the greatest gift my dad gave me was giving me a love of books and reading. He taught me to read (phonetically) when I was three. I think that made a profound difference in my life. He always made the lessons fun — and funny. He did drawings to represent the words I was learning. We would both laugh at his meager graphic attempts. I ended up teaching both of my sons using the same method (with only slightly better drawings; the crappyness of the depictions was part of the charm). I know that learning to read early in life made a huge difference in their lives, too. I was happy to pass that on.
So Dad, here’s to you. I have tried to pass on all of your best qualities to your grandkids. I think you’d be proud.