November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Category — Edmond Rinnooy-Kan

From the Edge/Bill Dixon

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Bill Dixon drawing. Felt pen. 2014.

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Review and Revision:

A Distant Relationship Revisited

By Bill Dixon

I was lying in a sweaty hospital bed, feverish and largely out of my head: 102 point something on the thermometer. I had no idea where I was, or why, and no dividing line between delusion and reality. I couldn’t make heads or tails out of the situation, but that didn’t seem particularly important to me. Bags of liquids hung above me and below me, and taped-down needles were inserted in the veins of my arm. A catheter had been poked into me, and all of these things were busily adding or subtracting bodily fluids. There were people around me I didn’t recognize, looking at me from time to time, chatting with one another, or with someone out of my field of view. None of this seemed at all odd to me. It was like driving down an unfamiliar stretch of road, with nothing much of importance to look at through the windshield.

As it turned out, I was hospitalized in the Florida Keys, about seven hours away from home, and almost anyone that I knew. Although I’d gotten my flu shot two months earlier, I still had contracted influenza B. Somehow, I’d also simultaneously come down with pneumonia. To top it off, a wardrobe malfunction, in the form of a twenty-year-old sandal disintegrating, caused me to take a spill in a Key West street. I’d broken a toe or two, had bleeding scrapes in several places, and bent my left thumb backwards to my wrist. It’s still in a brace.

My long-suffering “significant other,” Susan, was flying in that same day from Ohio, en route to Key West, for our Christmas vacation. I went back to my timeshare, got the bleeding stopped, and kind of cleaned up. An hour later, I took a cab to the airport to meet her. Susan is an RN. She looked me over, and immediately told the cabbie to take us to the closest emergency room. I was glad that someone was able to make a rational decision, since I certainly couldn’t. The hospital was my home for the next eleven days. We celebrated Christmas there, more or less, although I have almost no recollection of most of my hospital stay. I was out of it. Way out of it.

All sorts of odd things percolated through my semi-conscious mind, both real things and imaginary things. There were distant memories and totally imaginary occurrences, in no particular order. I couldn’t tell which were which. Very little of these visions stayed with me, but one, a real or imaginary memory of my father, did, and it grew and expanded afterward. In that vision, he looked at me, and said, “Well, at least I did teach you how to play poker.”

My father and I were never very close. He was a mostly intermittent authority figure, and I was mostly raising myself, and to some degree, my younger brother. My mom was sick during most of my early childhood, in and out of the hospital. I was shuttled around between my numerous aunts and periodically, my grandmother. As a result, I had pretty much put myself in charge of my own affairs by the time I entered elementary school and I resisted all other forms of authority. No one seemed to have much interest in taking on that particular responsibility, so I handled it.

My Dad was drafted into the army in 1940, and outside of a few brief rotations back to the States, was in Europe until late Spring, 1946. I was two years old by the time he came home. When I saw him for the first time, I decided that I didn’t like him much and I was afraid of him. We managed to get along most of the time, but I was a headstrong, loose cannon of a kid. That pretty much summed up our relationship until I graduated from high school. I put myself through Ohio State, doing anything that I could to earn the money to do so. I worked at the Columbus Zoo, tended bar, bounced, made pizzas and sandwiches as a short-order cook, and worked as a bookstore clerk. I did iron work, mostly on swing-stage scaffolding, on microwave towers and way up in the air. That paid a lot of money, because people with good sense wanted no part of it. On a work/study program, I edited a social studies book for one of my professors. I sold my oil paintings in campus gift shops, carried out groceries, managed pet shops, and more. I was a self-sufficient kid. I lived at home until I graduated from high school, but I managed my own expenses and income from about tenth grade on. I bought my own car and paid all the expenses associated with it, bought all my own clothing, and put money aside for college. I moved into an apartment with two upper classmen, near the University, as soon as I graduated from high school. I was pretty much impossible to control, since I worked evenings, almost every day. “Grounding” wasn’t an option, obviously, nor was refusing to let me drive my own car. I had to get to work or I’d lose my job. My father quit trying by about eleventh grade. I played guitar in University-area coffee houses at night in my spare time, and in the process, discovered that I preferred dating college girls to the high school alternatives. My roommate and I started getting paid to play and sing folk music, although not very much and not very often, in the local bars. I thought I was “all grown up.”

While I was still at home, I learned some things from my father. I learned how to fish, hunt, and be a man. I learned how to play poker: five-card stud and draw poker, mostly and how to evaluate the hands I was dealt, both literally and figuratively. It had been drilled into me as a small child that I would get a college education. When I was about thirteen, I learned that it would also be my responsibility to pay for it. There was no money at home. These were all valuable lessons in retrospect, and I never resented any aspect of it. It was just how it was.

My father was a very bright man. He graduated from high school at age sixteen and was given a full scholarship to Notre Dame. He didn’t take it, for reasons known only to him. He told me that he had to work to help his family. Since he had five brothers and sisters, I thought that one or two of them ought to be able to do that, in his absence. In his mid-twenties, he was drafted into the US Army. That was in 1940 and he was immediately sent off to an army post in Kentucky for basic training. After his preliminary evaluation, they put him into MP school. In 1942, he was shipped off to North Africa, to fight the Germans. He was rotated back to the US in 1943, where he sired yours truly. I was born in 1944. By then, he’d gone back across the Atlantic to North Africa and up through Italy, then into France. He stayed in Europe until 1946, with a short trip or two back home. He’d been promoted to First Lieutenant, with a “field commission” of Captain and by the end of the war, he was put in charge of transporting some of the trainloads of POW’s, hauling them back from central Germany, and then to Western Europe to sort them out. He was mostly away from home for about six years, before, during and after the War’s end. Somehow, all that turned up in my fever-wracked visions in the hospital, and for the first time, I began to put myself in his shoes, a little at a time.

My Dad never talked much about the war. When he did, he spoke about it mostly in generalities. He always dodged direct questions like, “Did you ever shoot anyone?” Questions like that were promptly redirected to responses about his dislike of the food, or the arbitrary treatment of the soldiers by the Army. He was particularly unhappy about having to eat mutton (shipped into North Africa from Australia) on a regular basis.

As I grew up, I felt he didn’t seem to have ever developed much in the way of any personal ambition. He never earned much money and we were always pretty poor with him as the breadwinner. The hardest I ever saw him work was when he was fishing. He’d fish from dawn to dark, if the fish were biting. It now gradually occurred to me that what I saw as his taking the easiest course in life might have been a reaction to having had no ability to choose his own course for about six years. This was mostly worked out during my semi-delirious hospital stay. Furthermore, why was I judging him at all? Like every person, I’ve had triumphs and failures both. Perhaps I wasn’t cutting the old man any slack, as we said in the sixties. I finally started to look at how he played the cards that he was dealt. It slowly occurred to me that maybe he hadn’t done such a bad job, after all.

He was shipped off to fight in World War II in his mid-twenties. In my mid-twenties, I was teaching high school and finishing my Masters’ at Ohio State. I was never drafted, because I had been asthmatic as a kid. It had only lasted until I was about thirteen. Any way you look at it, I’d been given a pass on compulsive military service, he hadn’t. He got jerked out of civilian life and put into a stressful, dangerous assignment for six years. I didn’t much like hanging onto a scaffold swinging in the breeze four hundred feet in the air, but at least it had been my choice to do it. It was almost fifty years ago, but it paid almost ten dollars an hour. If I could work three months a summer at it, I could pay for a whole year’s tuition and books, and tend bar at night during the school year, to earn more money toward the next quarter at school. I was motivated to do things like that, and he just wasn’t. Even if he was somewhat motivated to “get ahead”, he’d gone through both the Great Depression, and the Second World War. I don’t know just what he faced during those two catastrophic events, but it couldn’t have been very pleasant. All these things occurred to me as I flopped in that sweaty hospital bed in Key West.

Prior to my hospital stay, I had kind of stuck with the familiar idea that I had developed as a high school kid of my father not being either ambitious or hard-working. My illness, and perhaps my high fever, gave me another point of view of that long-held opinion. How it came up, I have no idea, but it certainly had some value. It reminded me of an old Ukrainian neighbor’s remark that I’d heard a long time ago. He said, “Ain’t nothin’ so bad that it don’t do someone a little good.” Perhaps my illness had actually benefited me in some ways. I’ve given my father’s situation a lot of thought since I got out of the hospital. I can do that with an unclouded mind, now. My dad had never been out of Ohio before he went overseas and never away from his family and friends. He had to have been in fear for his life, crossing the Atlantic in military transport ships several times and vulnerable to German submarines. He had to have been in harm’s way any number of times in the course of his military service in Europe. It couldn’t have been any other way, even if he wouldn’t talk about it. He had to have been lonely, he had to have found military life disagreeable and he had to have suffered from PTSD. I never had to contend with any of these things, mostly as a result of my uncommonly good luck. It was time to rethink things.

As a result, and after considerable review, I’ve given the Old Man a full pardon. Here you are, First Lieutenant Paul Edward Dixon: you are hereby awarded full exoneration, this pardon and my profound apologies. I want you to know that I’ve taken your good advice numerous times, too, and never drawn to an inside straight. You were a good guy, and I misjudged you. I’m sorry, Dad.

Sincerely,

Your son, Bill

 

About the author:

Bill Dixon is a contributing columnist to Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in About Us.

 

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Gou-gou Paddy

Gou-gou in Dandong. Edmond Rinnooy-Kan

March 1, 2014   Comments Off on From the Edge/Bill Dixon