Don't mind him, He's just my Dad
by Jim Knipfel
"He kept playing that damned guitar in the barracks," he told me more than once, whenever a Boxcar Willie commercial came on the television, "and singing these awful songs. We threw everything we had at him--shoes, whatever we could find. Now look at him. That man never rode a train in his whole goddam life!" All of it in good humor, mind you. Besides, now whenever Boxcar plays in Green Bay, my Dad gets in for free, and gets to hang out backstage afterwards.
All this comes to mind because I got a letter from my Dad today. About once a month, I get a little collection of things he's clipped from the local papers that he thinks I'd appreciate--"Man Beats Wife to Death With Banjos," "Woman Assaulted with Donut Holes," that sort of thing. And obituaries. Lots of obituaries. He sent me an obituary for Ronald McDonald once. Even sent me an obituary someone had sent to the paper for their pet rabbit. The obit not only included a picture of the creature, but a little poem, too, which began: "He may have only been a bunny/But he was very cute and funny..."
There was another obituary in today's letter. One "Lucy Gusey" had passed on, at the age of 93. The enclosed note reads: "I don't know about Ducky Lucky or Wacky Qwacky, but Goosey Lucy has died!" That's all it said.
When I was wee, I didn't much understand what he was up to. I didn't get why he took such glee in giving me my monthly crewcut on the front steps of our house, while all his friends drove by, honking, waving, pointing and laughing. It made no sense to me that he would respond to my little temper tantrums by trying, and always failing, to control his laughter.
Yet at the same time, he seemed to understand perfectly how I could spend hour after hour on bright summer days riding my third hand-me-down tricycle (they never dared get me a new one) around and around on our driveway until I had built up enough speed to slam it headlong into the brick wall next to the garage door. Afterwards I'd pick myself up off the ground, right the trike, get back on and do it again.
We were far from what the contemporary lexicon would refer to as a "dysfunctional family." We were very functional. And we all got along, up to a point. Sure, my older sister kept pushing me down when I was learning how to walk (while I was wearing leg braces, mind you), but I eventually learned anyway. And maybe she would regularly present me with a big bowl of tartar sauce, telling me that it was vanilla pudding that she'd made "just for me." No, we were more just what you'd call plain wierd. I grew up with a very stable, Midwestern, suburban existence. We just had a different outlook about things, that's all.
My folks never locked me in closets (I did that myself) or beat my head against the wall (I did that myself, too). My Dad woke me up at ungodly hours to watch violent thunderstorms and the first moon landing. They delighted in taking me to see terrible movies and let me read anything in the world with the exception of Helter Skelter--forcing me to drag my morbid nine-year old butt to the local bookstore to read it, chapter by chapter, over a period of several months.
The only real, loud, violent, alert-the-neighbors arguments we ever had were about religion and politics. I was about 13 when I first started bringing home heavy-duty Marxist literature, which is not the thing to bring into the house of a 26-year Air Force vet. Thing is, he was the one who prompted most of the arguments. We'd be driving along, and he'd say something like, "Marxism's really stupid" just to get my dander up. Looking back on it now, I can see that I took these fights much more seriously than he did, being the serious hardcore MaxRocknRoll reading punk rock kid that I was.
It really wasn't until I'd left home, moved around awhile and found myself in Minneapolis that I came to realize how funny everything really had been--like the fact that, whenever my Dad wanted a new American flag to fly outside, he'd put on an album of patriotic music, then stand at attention, all by himself in the basement or the living room, until someone wandered by and asked him just what the hell he was doing.
Nor was it until Minneapolis that I finally realized--consciously at least--that the fundamental mode of communication throughout the extended Knipfel clan was the insult. It absolutely horrified Laura first time she came to their house with me.
Just before the big family dinner, I had run into the hard edge of a door in the basement, giving myself a ragged cut and a black eye.
"Oh, you dumbass," my Dad laughed. "Janice! C'mere! Look at what your son's done this time!" Laura didn't have a clue how to handle this--she thought she was witnessing some vicious kind of psychological abuse.
"Naw," I told her later, "That's just my folks." I went on to tell her about a few other tricks my folks played on me--like the time I was four or five, and we were all taking a ride on a neighbor's speedboat, and my Dad lifted me over the side and dangled me over the waves as we bounced along, screaming "This is it! You're goin' in!"
Over the past few years, my Dad's developed a brand new game that he likes to play.
As it turns out, he looks exactly like Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy's. Oh, I know, people say that someone "looks just like so-and-so" all the time, but the resemblance here is frightening. So much so that he's actually made contact and gets birthday cards from Mr. Thomas every year.
So anyway, my folks travel a lot. The new game goes like this. He and my Mom will go into a Wendy's and not say a word. He doesn't claim to be Dave Thomas or anything. They just order their food, sit down and eat it. When they're finished, he'll just wander back into the kitchen and look at what people are doing, maybe making a little comment here, a little comment there. My Mom, who keeps watch around the restaurant proper, reports nothing but utter pandemonium and wild panic amongst the employees. Before they leave, my Dad stops by the front counter and asks for the manager's name, which he dutifully writes down. Then they leave, without saying another word. They have a mighty good time doing this.
I decided to help them out some a short while ago by sending them a copy of Penn & Teller's How to Play With Your Food. Now they leave Wendy's with all the employees convinced that Dave Thomas is out of his goddamn mind.
This isn't a weepy story or anything--I'm not leading up to saying that my Mom has terminal liver cancer or that my Dad has Alzheimer's (though we have wondered about that for some time). It's just that people who read my silly little stories tend to draw all sorts of erroneous conclusions about me. Because I'm kind of a bum, Dan Radosh writes a letter claiming that I was some sort of high school rebel/dropout, even though I've talked more than once about my time in graduate school. Because I'm cranky and a mess and don't like much of anybody, people assume that I must've had some sort of horrible childhood. No, if anything soured me on the whole damned human race, it wasn't my folks--it was the people I started dealing with when I stepped outside of the house.
My folks were great and still are--I wanted to be a physicist, they encouraged me to be a physicist. I changed my mind and decided I wanted to study philosophy, they made fun of me for a little while but never discouraged me. It was dealing with kids in school, clerks in department stores, fools on the street that made me angry and bitter.
Maybe it's the fact that I did and do get along with my folks so well that made me such a freak. My friend Linda is the only other huiman being I know who can say the same thing. Everybody else either had alcoholic parents, didn't know their fathers, were abused, came from broken homes, cut off all ties when they left the house, is full of rage towards one parent or the other.
Maybe that's why all the shrinks I've been to see over the years refuse to believe me when I tell them that I love my parents dearly and stay in close contact with them. It's people like the shrinks who make me sick.
Maybe liking one's folks isn't very literary--that certainly would give me an excuse and plenty of fodder, as it's done for so many others. No, I'm a mess, a wreck, a fuckup--and I'm proud to say that I've accomplished it all on my own, thank you.
Copyright Jim Knipfel. Published originally in the Welcomat. All rights reserved.
Buy Jim Knipfel's books from Amazon.com with the links on the Slackjaw books page.