IT’S NOT YOUR TYPICAL FATHER’S DAY STORY: THE AUTHOR ASKS WHY HE COULDN’T HAVE HAD THE FATHER THAT HIS DAD USED TO BE
Richard M. Herd
I WAS EIGHT WHEN WE MOVED from Martinez in California to Tulsa. Dad, mom, me, my brother. But we drove back to California for three summers in a row and went to Trinity Lake with my mom’s parents, in the far northern crevices of California. We rented a houseboat and tied the ski boat to the side and drifted to various beaches. My dad skied for hours, and my grandpa drove the boat. Grandpa yelled, “Just follow along.” I sat and watched my dad carve huge rooster tail curves. Sometimes he went so fast, he caught the boat, no slack left in the rope, and sprayed us. That meant he was done. Grandpa made the huge sweeping turn to pick him up. There he was: my dad floating on his back, completely exhausted, endorphins pumping through his veins, and just staring up at the sky, his bare chest, yellow flotation belt, green swim trunks, and a wooden ski. He said, “This is the life Richie. This is the life.” I wish that guy was still my dad.
At some point, I’m not sure when, he figured he had made it back into the social class into which he felt he was born. My grandparents were from Kansas and pretty well off. My grandma was a Rosie the Riveter in Wichita. My grandpa, after returning from WW II, was a game warden. Their families were farmers who survived the Dust Bowl, way before agribusiness bought Comanche County. But just as things were going very well for them financially, they converted to Pentecostal Christianity, getting the full experience of talking in tongues and dancing in the spirit. My grandparents felt the call of God, and they sold everything they had and moved their three children to the First Mesa on the Hopi Reservation. My grandma played an accordion and grandpa preached hell-fire-and-brimstone to the down-and-out folks living there. They spread their Christian doctrine, which in the best circumstances, rehabilitated outcasts into a community. Some were abused by drunken fathers. Some were malnourished. During testimonies, the saved Hopi proclaimed how Jesus had saved them from the evil ways of the tribal elders.
A year later, the small Assembly of God mission had enough members that it reinforced my grandparents’ calling, so the family moved into town and lived in a small trailer on skid row in Holbrook, Arizona. My dad was ten years old, so he remembered it well when he told me, “Why the fuck would God move us to a wasteland? To save their souls? What about mine?” He remembered living in dire poverty with bums and drunks and whores in a brutal, barren desert. The Hopi kids at school teased him for being the weird, poor Pentecostal white boy. The other white kids were wealthy Mormons. He seethed in solitude and anger, and he dreamed of returning to the green Kansas pasture land, the rolling hills, the endless rows of wheat. Yet his hate was interrupted by music, when an old minister, Brother Popejoy, gave him a guitar rehabbed with old Levi’s jeans and lacquer. My dad was no longer alone. He had a guitar. He could play anything by ear. He played with my grandma at church twice on Sunday and once on Wednesday evening. He sang harmony, too. My grandpa’s favorite song went like this:
Come Holy Spirit, we need thee
Come Holy Spirit, we pray
Come in thy strength and thy power
Come in thine own special way
I was seventeen when I won an exciting wrestling match. We were the visiting team and crammed into tiny bleachers. I was down by four to start the second period, and my coach was telling me to stand up and go take downs, but I mouthed “Granby.” When the whistle blew, I hit the five-point move and took the lead by one—keeping my opponent in a pinning combo for the whole second period. The last two minutes, the third period, was a frenzy of action right to the closing whistle. The coaches and scorekeepers had a meeting at the head table to verify the flurry of moves. The ref came to the center of the mat. My opponent and I got ready for overtime, but he said, “Shake hands. It’s over.” Who won? The referee raised my hand. I had won by one. I turned around to shake the other coach’s hand, but my dad was in the way—still in his business suit. I didn’t realize he had come to the match, and I said “Dad, what are you doing out here?” He looked around and realized where he was. He said, “Oh. Oops.” And he walked back into the stands. I rode home with my dad, and he told me he didn’t know he was on the mat. He thought he “just jumped up to cheer, from the back row and must have landed there on accident.” We ate at Carl’s Jr.
When my dad was seventeen, he watched the civil rights movement from the middle of nowhere, that outsider’s lens, working at the truck stop on Route 66: truckers passing through with stories of a bigger world, hippies headed to nowhere, soldiers on their way to San Diego Navy installations. After he turned eighteen my dad signed up for Vietnam, but the local doctor refused to clear him for two reasons. He couldn’t see, and he couldn’t walk. His vision was terrible, legally blind and corrected by very thick glasses. He had a special pair he wore to play weekend warrior baseball. He couldn’t walk because he once wrapped his ankle around second base while sliding. Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War needed boys immediately. My dad recalled a few Hopi boys going to war. The wealthy Mormons went to college. Poor Pentecostals are anti-education because it will disrupt faith, so he was urged to work at the truck stop outside of Holbrook on Route 66, and it was a grind because my grandparents started charging him rent and groceries, and grandma refused to do his laundry now that he was a man.
He remembered his dreams of Kansas and moved there but the romance wore off quickly because the industrial farmers were buying up family farms, and my great grandparents’ farm had shrunk and my great aunts and uncles were suing each other over the remains. Great Grandma and Grandpa let their beautiful home rot and pulled a double-wide trailer in front of it. The move to Kansas turned out to be a visit. When he got home, he bought an Epiphone electric guitar. A country-and-western music producer heard him playing at the truck stop, and offered him a recording contract as a studio musician in Nashville. The south was mired in Civil Rights riots, and it was too big of a risk financially. That’s when it dawned on him.
For years he had questioned God about why the family had to move to Arizona and save souls, and his question What about mine? rang with the sound of money. He asked the admissions counselor at Northern Arizona University, “Which degree pays the most money?” She said, “Accounting.” He signed up.
He moved to Martinez in the heart of California oil industry country in 1970. My parents were married in the local Assembly of God church. I was born a little over a year later. By the time we had lived in three States and then came back to California, my dad made plenty of money. I looked back from where he started and realized he was back in the social class he belonged. That was when he started wooing the Mormon girl he had a crush on since the day he moved to Holbrook and worked for her father at the truck stop. After a couple of years, she relented to his pursuit and he divorced my mom after thirty years of marriage.
Dads always give advice. It’s part of being a dad. The best advice mine ever gave me was, “Don’t be like me. I’m a good bad example.”
Richard M. Herd is a videographer who lives in the Bay Area. As an eighth-grader in Kingwood, Texas, he was caught chewing gum (!) and chose a swat as punishment instead of getting banned from playing in the next football game. This memoir will be featured in the forthcoming edition of the Conquistador Quarterly.