When I think of my father I see a cowboy hat. He had a really nice Stetson one he wore for special occasions but mostly he wore a battered straw one for working out in the fields. It was sweat stain through the crown and misshapen. When he took it off, his bald head was white compared to his sun tanned face. He never went anywhere without a cowboy hat and a pair of cowboy boots.
I didn’t know my dad well. He was a man of few words. His childhood was marred by poverty and his parents’ mental illnesses. There is a single picture of him from elementary school. He was rail thin with a stock of black hair which fell over his forehead. All the other kids in the picture were holding the gifts they received for Christmas. Whenever Dad would look at that photo, he would point to himself and say, “See. All I got for Christmas that year was a handful of marbles.” It was the most he would ever say about the past.
My dad worked hard to make sure we never went without. In the summer he worked from dawn until dusk on our family farm. There were always crops to sow and harvest, alfalfa to cut and bail, and animals to be tended to. He was a frugal and thoughtful farm manager. He planted and worked the cattle by the almanac and listened to the farm report on the radio every morning. I never knew where money came from but we always seemed to have what we needed.
Dad didn’t think too highly of women and farm work. Mom and I were rarely called upon to help out in the fields. One summer, however, we were short-handed and Dad needed someone to help with the haying. He let me get behind of the wheel of his huge old rusted John Deere tractor. I had to use both feet to put on the brakes. I did pretty well for a while but at the end of one field I turned too sharply and got the trailer bed stuck on one of the back wheels. The hay teetered ominously behind me and I couldn’t go forward and I certainly dare not go back. Dad ran up beside me and put the tractor in neutral. “Get off and go to the house,” he said. He never asked me to help with anything ever again.
On our farm we raised Black Angus cattle and in the spring the new calves were delightful as they scampered and cavorted around the fields, but I wasn’t allowed to work with them either. Dad said they could smell I was female and my presence would stampede them. That confused me because I found the cattle to be calm and patient in my presence. When his back was turned I would sneak down to the corrals and sit in the manger while they ate. I loved to scratch the bull’s curly head; his slick black nose nearly resting in my lap.
When I was a freshman in high school I joined the local 4-H group. I wanted to work with the animals and I wanted to be a part of something. I told Dad I needed a calf to raise for the fair. He picked out a steer calf for me and put it in a separate paddock from the rest. Every weekend I asked him to help me get a halter on the calf so I could start working with it for fitting and showing, and every weekend he said he was too busy.
Soon spring was coming and the calf was getting larger. I went to the monthly meeting of the 4-H group and they announced they would be coming to everyone’s homes to see how well we were getting along with our calves. I hadn’t even had a halter on mine. I told Dad the following night at dinner that I really had to work with my calf.
He looked at me over his mashed potatoes. “That calf is too big for you to tame now,” he said and went back to eating.
I was dumbstruck. I was angry. I had asked for his help and he never had time for me. I swallowed back my feelings and after dinner I called the 4-H leader. I gave him no explanation when I told him I was quitting.
When it comes right down to it, my dad never was much of a teacher. He did however teach me was that guns were dangerous. One day he took me out to teach me to fire a shotgun. He put my heels against a bale of straw and when I fired the gun the kick knocked me backwards over the bale and I landed on my butt. I don’t think his intention was to scare me but even now I can’t stand the sight of a gun.
One winter night, I woke up with the feeling something was wrong in our house. I found my mother at the back door in her nighty. A cold wind whipped through the open door. “What’s going on?” I asked.
“Nothing, the dog went out and won’t come in. Go back to bed,” she said, but there was something wrong in the way she said it. Then I saw the flash of the butcher knife she held in her hand. I inched my way back to the living room. She and I stayed like that for an eternity until car lights flashed in the driveway and my dad came through the door. He had been out in the snow, barefoot and bare-chested, carrying his shotgun. “He got away,” was all he said. He picked up the phone.
He told the sheriff my mother had seen a man looking through the bedroom windows. She had reached back and shook my father awake, telling him, “Bob, there is a man out there.” My dad jumped out of bed, grabbed his jeans and the shotgun from the closet and took off into the night after the Peeping Tom. He had followed the man’s tail lights and tracks in the snow until they came to the main road where he lost him.
When Dad hung up the phone, he asked Mom what she was doing with the knife she still had in her hand. “I was worried he would loop around and come back. If any part of him came back through that door, I was going to cut it off,” she said giggling nervously. She handed the knife to my Dad. “What did the sheriff say?”
“He will be out in the morning to look around,” Dad said. “Let’s all go to back to bed.” I lay awake all night thinking about guns and evil doers in the darkness.
Years past and I went away to college. I graduated, got married and then month after my dad walked me down the aisle he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He had several surgeries the last of which was to remove a tumor from his spine. He became paralyzed and spent the last few months of his life in a bed at the VA hospital. His last day was spent in agonizing pain. When he begged to go home, I did what my mother could not. I gave him permission to do so. He passed away that night. He was 54 years old.
I will never know his motivations for the things he did. He could be stern, and there were times I thought he should have whipped me raw, like the time I drove the car into the root cellar, but he didn’t. Sometimes he did things I thought were cruel, like drowning a litter of sick kittens, but he was tendered hearted, too. He cried when our Australian shepherd was hit by a car. He cried the day his mother died.
Silent Bob was a good man. He worked hard so I could have more than he did. He protected my mom and me from that stranger in the night. He loved the land, and his cowboy hat and boots were his connection with that Western heritage. He had a soft side which he protected with a wall of silence. His reserve left an emptiness deep inside me which echoes with the pain of a million unanswered questions.