Elegy for My Father

In the heat of the day you could smell dust on the dashboard, dried dirt on the floor mats, black vinyl seats hot from the sun. My father was simple, but the equipment he kept in his pale, yellow Ford, was not–gauges nestled in foam-filled cases, convex lenses, rods with numbers, more mysterious numbers scratched on scraps of paper, sharp-angled 4s and elegant 8s, drawn in black ink, those ubiquitous black metal pens, silver tips tangy on my tongue.

Dad dressed in dark grey Dickies, black belt with silver buckle, crackled from wear, white short-sleeved shirt spackled with black spots along the bottom edge of the chest pocket from those pens, (my mother spritzed Spray and Wash) white undershirt, brown leather boots. I unlaced them–clam-shell hooks holding tight rough laces criss-crossing, tattooing the tongue with age and restraint–, tight heels that required a kid’s full-body yanks to remove after work as he sat in that wide green chair that rocked and spun, watched news, checked weather, noted grain prices, and I sat on his lap to twiddle thumbs and sing “one, two, buckle my shoe.” Later, when I was too big to sit on his lap, I still huddled against him while we watched The Day After, watched a mushroom cloud devour Kansas, 1983’s own War of the Worlds. No, we didn’t believe it could happen, but maybe we did. My mother would be dead in a year, our own devastation.

His metal lunchbox smelled–when flip-latches released and the dome-top was cocked back, a laughing mouth, unhinged–, like browning apple cores, crushed Old Dutch potato chips, crumbs from white bread sandwiches, plastic baggies, bologna. Our mother packed my brother and me into the car some long summer days and drove us to his office, down in the cool of the county courthouse basement. The office smelled like pencil shavings, metal desks and typewriter ink. We swiveled in rolling metal chairs, government-taupe, peered black-and-white maps, spun those black pens across black-and-white maps of roads and fields, clumps of trees, squares of houses. On those days, Dad was one of the office men, these men almost wild in their work, with beards and dirty fingernails and worn shoes, but he was as warm as his hands when he held mine.

Mostly he worked outdoors, walking miles each day, across fields, through ditches, taking measurement, noting erosion, witness to the changing land just as he worked to conserve it. His feet carrying him through the counties, his maps a testimony of time and place. He knew everyone, and everyone knew him, it seemed. I remember him this way: His forearms tan as the boots he wore, a hat from a farm implement brand pushed back on his head, dots of sweat amid the sun-lightened hairs of his forearms. He leans against the side of that yellow truck, square cab, square bed, parked at the curve of our driveway. Maybe he was listening to the voices of the neighbors whose conversations echo over the noiseless fields, who will come to his funeral when he dies in his eighty-first year.

Or maybe he was listening to his ancestors, Annie who lived in the little shanty just on the edge of the woods, or the laborers, farm hands, of whom he told stories. (“You should have seen the look on his face!”) Or maybe he could hear his Mother who kept him, her oldest son, home from war until it was nearly over, and who would remember him as a boy once she forgot herself. Or to his Father who told Dad’s brothers to take care of him, the oldest, because he knew the world would be too wide and the loses too great for my father to withstand. Maybe they all knew early on that peace would escape my father, about whom people said: he was a gentleman and a gentle man.

But I think he was just listening to the voice of God in the song of the land that still sings as the wind rushes through the corn stalks and bean bushes planted in rows in fields surrounding his family farm, the only place he ever truly belonged.

~for Obert Haldorson 1927-2008

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