My father is not a gruff man… not a hard man with harsh words or ways. My father is a man of opinions and fixed ideas. A man who believes he knows what is right in things he has experience in. His unending advice and parenting has been a thing I have carried throughout my life… take responsibility for your actions… simple, plain words with a heavy mantel that sits on my shoulders. He wasn’t lax in his parenting… his preferred discipline was the measured tone of expressing disappointment instead of his leather belt. As he has aged, I have noticed that his moments of anger or disappointment are more silent scowl than vocalized ire. Oddly, my first real memory of my father is one of where he was gruff… of course this is a memory that I have thought of for decades, in reality, my memory of his voice and gruff directions may be nothing more than a mental interpretation… potentially a memory that is more of how I would react than his actual actions.
We had a German Shepard… Ralph… Ralph was my father’s dog. We lived at Fort Riley, Kansas. Ft. Riley is an old cavalry outpost that sits on the Kansas plains… Custer and the other blue woolen soldiers had traipsed across this territory hunting the ultimate guerilla fighter… the Native American warrior from Ft. Riley. By the early 1970s, Ft. Riley was home to the 1st Infantry Division… bloodied and bruised from years of jungle fighting in Vietnam and in the midst of the transition from draft Army to all-volunteer force. My father was an Army sergeant, he was no draftee… he had joined before Vietnam, his early service days were ones of preparing for potential invasion of Cuba and watching a small corner of the world… Vietnam… loom on the horizon. Like the 1st Infantry Division, Ft. Riley in the early 1970s was where my father was recovering from his second combat tour in Vietnam. For his service, the Army had established him and our family in a squat light brown duplex on post.
This memory of this color may be utterly incorrect… but in my mind this duplex is light brown… we lived in the one on the left when facing the front. Covered parking spaces separated the two homes where they met in the middle. The front of this duplex, however, is not what sticks out in my memory. The thing I remember most… the memory that settles at the top of my memory list is a creosote soaked telephone pole. It was in our backyard… specifically, it set as the boundary where our backyard ended and the common area of our housing area (neighborhood for you civilian types) began.
This first memory is warm, fresh-cut grass floats in the air as lightly as the smell. The only way you don’t know this smell is if you were born on the moon or raised in the desert. It is that sweet… almost sugary wet… smell of growth… even the texture of cut grass resonates with this smell. For some the color green is immediately connected to this smell because of the distinct flavor it leaves in the air and upon the tongue. This first memory is that sweet green smell of cut grass twirling in warm summer air.
Punctuating the smell is the sound of a lawnmower. The heavy vibrating beat of a gas-powered lawnmower. The gasoline exhaust of the lawnmower mixes with the grass smell… imaginary fuel slickness adds to the fresh-cut grass clippings… a coating that is both real and felt. This is the smell of summer… the warmth of the plains’ sun and cut grass… if a video was made it would have a sound track of the a lawnmower moving to and fro. As the video begins the mower sound would be moving closer… then a slight change in pitch… as the mower moves away. Grass would be tossed from the side and caught in a slight summer breeze… summers in Kansas are notoriously still… amber waves of grain only happen when the fall winds work their dance when a chill begins to come down from Canada. This imagined video is my first memory.
The gruff voice of my father finally breaks in… the mower stops. Ralph and I are playing… not sure what sort of play an under 4 boy with no fear and a large German Shepard may be engaged in… but we are playing. I am probably bugging the shit out the dog… it is my style to poke and prod… to explore and push boundaries. These are qualities that were not only foundations in my little child self, but they are characteristics that guide me through my adult life. Yes… I am probably bugging Ralph. My father has had enough… he is probably… at that moment… not only responsible for cutting the grass but also responsible for making sure his pugnacious son and dog aren’t permanently injured. The mower goes silently… my father firmly instructs… again I imagine it is a gruff instruction… Ralph and me to go sit by the telephone pole… go sit as far away from his mowing yet still within the boundaries he has established as his domain… his yard. His son, his dog, his yard… these are things my father sees before him.
Ralph and I obey… Ralph probably moves quicker and more obediently… I’m sure I dawdled… I am sure I stopped to pick some freshly cut dandelion or scoop a handful of grass to bug Ralph with. Finally, the two of us are seated by the telephone pole and my father returns to his mowing. It is a cloudless sky… skies on the plains are always cloudless in my mind. Later, when I was in Kansas during my own military service, I remember standing outside on a fall day and marveling at how amazingly pure and clear the sky was… harkening back to the day of my childhood when I had gazed at that same sky as I sat by a telephone pole and my father’s dog.
That telephone pole was pure creosote. Creosote is chemical that is basically watered-down tar that is used to keep wooden telephone poles from rotting. Creosote, like fresh-cut grass, has a distinct smell… that smell filled my lungs it isn’t chemical but it doesn’t seem natural either… maybe a dark and earthy smell… joining lawnmower exhaust, grass, and the dusty air of a Kansas plain. The darkness of the creosote… thick gobs of creosote… tar… push out from the pole’s cracks. I touched the tar… it submitted to my short stubby finger. My fingerprint left an impression in the tar. This creosote telephone pole towers… looms… above me. Ralph lies down and assumes the position of a guard dog… casually eyeing me and his owner, my father. In my child’s mind I think about the tar, contemplate the smell of creosote… it is a completely new smell… and I watch my father cut grass. This is my first memory… I try now as an adult to figure out if this is some analogy for life… my life specifically. Nothing comes, yet I know this is a significant moment.
Later, as a teenager on my family’s farm… my father has retired from the Army and settled in Tennessee… we build a catch pen for our cattle (polled Herefords). A catch pen is a circular or square fenced in area that farmers use to round-up their cattle. Here is wear you worm and cut bull-calf balls. Here is where you count heads, tag ears, and provide medical attention. Here is where you look at a living and breathing investment. After the Army, my father turned to animals and gardening… years of military services and constant human interaction had pushed him back to a time when he was young and growing up a sharecropper’s son. His father, my grandfather, had never been in a position to count heads in a catch pen… now my father could do what he had wished for his father. I don’t know this as a teenager… I know it now as a man… but it is a presumption on my part… my father doesn’t speak much of his thoughts or dreams. His horses hear his whispers though and I imagine he tells them tales of growing up poor and making a world for himself.
We had to place creosote posts in the ground to anchor the catch pen. The creosote is necessary so the wood doesn’t prematurely rot. What I didn’t know as a toddler is that creosote can sting and burn the skin when mixed with sweat. As a teenager, assisting in the building of the pen that summer on the farm, I got a red nasty rash from man-handling the poles into the ground… fruits of my labor… the rash shined and burned on my skin.
I don’t know if our duplex at Fort Riley still stands… Fort Riley is still nursing men and equipment as they return from war though. I doubt the telephone pole still marks my father’s former domain. I do know that the catch pen still stands… it is grey and weathered nearly 30 years later. Today, my father keeps his horses in it… he feeds there and in the winter the ground is a nasty mixture of mud and horse shit… a muck that my father tracks in the house… my mother has scolded him for 30 years about tracking mud and shit in… for 30 years he continues to do it.
Creosote poles have become an unexpected icon in my life. I imagine princes have looked at thrones and crowns and pictured their fathers. I imagine men have looked at a lot of common things and thought of memories of fathers. Me… I look at creosote telephone poles as they tick by on the roadside and muddy… broken down… catch pens and think of my father. I guess I imagine there is a bit of creosote in him, slowing down the aging process and ensuring that he isn’t rotting as fast… Fuck who tears up about creosote?