Monday, October 16, 2006

Ray, a Drop of Golden [Son]

I have always considered myself one who can easily talk to anyone, despite background, education or life experience, and regardless of the topic. People are social animals, and we get no more enjoyment from life than by being around other people with similar interests and sharing stories about their lives. Most times, people love to talk about themselves, and if you’re with someone who is telling a story about something they’ve done in their past, the best conversationalist is one who just sits there and listens, adds a few encouraging nods and “and then what happened?” phrases during the pauses and ingests everything that he hears.

That’s what I do best, and I think my wife appreciates that facet of my personality; of course, the other day, she started sharing with me how much she saved on a couple of shirts she found for Matthew and I didn’t have any interest in hearing shopping lore so I ended up saying: “Did you not get to talk to any of your friends today? Why would you think that I’m remotely interested in this?”

Well, most times I’m a good listener, but remember this, nobody ever learned anything by talking. Anecdotes tend to whitewash the history of the event and convert it to quaint nostalgia for the purposes of sharing a lesson learned or a mistake paid for through inexperience, and in doing so, if you listen hard enough, you too can learn the lesson or avoid the mistake if you ever come across it in your future.

On the hunting trip I just recently returned from, I had the opportunity to exercise the basic functions of listening. Believe it or not, but I’m not good at sharing anecdotes in any way shape or form. Basically, I don’t think people are interested in a story about my life (ironic, this is, isn’t it?), at least a story in anecdotal form, so I rarely go deep into a monolog about something that happened in my life. During the times that I do, I don’t think anyone cares to hear the story, much like when you ask someone how they are doing, and when they start to answer, you dreaded the fact that you asked in the first place. I’m like that, so I rarely share. Sure, I talk a lot, but it usually doesn’t amount to much.

Sharing anecdotes boils down to who can come up with the best story, as usually one has to either top the previous one in some way—funnier, less believable, more unlikely the outcome, better point, longer or more entertaining, etc.—or it has to lead the conversation in a new way. Mine rarely do either. Surprisingly enough, I’m quite a succinct story teller and when it comes to sharing, I quickly get to the point. When I was a kid, my folks used to ask me about an event I went to—say a school dance for instance—and my response was usually, “It was fun” and nothing more. I know they were acting as caring parents only interested in my day, but my social anxiety about sharing stories was stunted at best from a young age (I know what you’re saying: There isn’t one inch of this website that even hints at the description of someone who is “succinct” at story telling as I can describe a monkey eating a banana in no less than 2500 words, but it’s true).

So, after a successful morning of hunting…well, successful from the deer’s point of view, I guess, because we didn’t see any bucks, most of the afternoon was spent talking about a wide variety of subjects from marriage, childhood, and parents to a story about witnessing a circumcision on a grown man and the difference between round saws and circular saws (that and how Indian food comes from India). Mostly, the conversation centered around firearms, either guns they had, guns that came down from the upper branches of the family tree to guns they wanted but couldn’t find or afford.

It was Greek to me. I don’t know a Mouser from a mouse, and when all four of our rifles were leaning up against a tree, side-by-side, they looked remarkably similar, aside from the different shoulder straps. Mostly, I felt they might as well have been talking about vascular surgery (and at one point, what with Uncle Tim’s heart attacks and Dad’s heart troubles during the last hunting trip, they were), so I was lost in some of the details.

I am interested in guns, don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t have delighted so much in carrying one on my hip for a week if I wasn’t, but I just don’t know that much about them. My interest is superficial at best, only because I I know trivia about guns, like Kalashnikov invented the AK-47 (you know, the gun “that has a very distinct sound when fired at you.” –Heartbreak Ridge) and a bunch of little things that I’ve picked up along the way over the years, but I can’t talk too much about them.

For three days, Uncle Tim carried his rifle around with the wrong ammunition in it, and when he discovered it, hilarious laughs were had by all. Except for me, of course, because I pictured the breech exploding when he pulled the trigger… I’m just like that. When he held up the two different shells for everyone to see the difference; even though they both looked the same to me, everyone else went “ah ha” as if one shell was a swizzle stick and the other a broom handle.

On the afternoon of the third day of our trip, Tim² and I planned to run around on the quads, hit some of the back roads, scout out a few places for the next day’s hunt. Uncle Tim asked if I was going to take along my rifle in case we saw any deer. I said no because I didn’t want to have to worry about the rifle as well master the controls of the quad, both at the same time. For someone who has never ridden a quad before in his life, it is slightly easier than a motorcycle but more difficult than a bicycle, of course. Plus, it goes like 50mph and I didn’t want to have a rifle slung across my back while flying down the back roads of some foreign forest. That’s too much responsibility for a novice at both skills.

I said no, and Uncle Tim gave me a look… it was only for a split second, as if he was shooting it out to his own son and then recalled it as quick as he let it go, but it was a look of disappointment that was strikingly similar to the one that my father could muster up upon occasion during my childhood. It wasn’t pleasant, as much as I think he tried to suppress it. To him, I’m sure my reluctance to carry the rifle was similar to me waltzing into a cafeteria, where everything is free, only to say, “no thanks, I’m full.” (I know, my analogies are usually better but you get the idea).

The rest of the afternoon was spent in torture thinking that I was someone that wasn’t measuring up to the heightened level of manliness that is expected on a trip such as this, and I wanted to ride back and get it… to save face… but I’m sure it was too late and my gesture would look stilted, two dimensional.

The quad was a blast to ride, however. And as far as manliness, I do alright…of course, I brought an air mattress and a DVD player on a hunting trip. I know I was supposed to be roughing it, but I’m too old not to have a certain measure of creature comforts, even though I didn’t use either one (the comfort was that I knew they were there). So, I just had to throttle up on the quad, suck it up and remember the first cardinal principle on every hunting trip: Don’t go anywhere unarmed lest you actually want to disappoint your fellow deer hunters, most of which are usually close relatives that will judge you for the rest of your life.

It goes without saying that there was a lot of poking fun at each other on trips such as this, and when you get a collection of men together, regardless of background or disposition, one common thread that connects all males together is the innate ability to humiliate each other through pitiful ridicule, finding one weakness—be it that you once got lost, or you’re overweight and tend to take naps under a tree, or that you work for the government, or that your wife will make you sleep on the couch for the rest of your life if you kill a deer—and exploiting it for the profit of laughter and acceptance by your fellow man. It is male bonding at its finest, a rite of passage that begins in the locker room during high school and doesn’t end until death (actually, all through high school I was able to avoid gym class because I ran track and cross country, but I’ve poked my fair share of fun in the locker room… of course, now that I wrote that, it didn’t come like I intended; forget you read it. I poked nothing in the locker room). Anyway, my brother is merciless at finding my weaknesses, and rightly so because he is probably the one person on earth other than my wife who knows me best… and he uses it to his skilled, honed-after-years-of-practice advantage.

This is the crux of the entry. Since my Dad is the younger brother to Tim, there was no question he was the focus of a lot of Uncle Tim’s jokes and rightly so. My brother probably doesn’t make fun of anyone else in the world but me, at least he doesn’t make fun of anyone in the world with the same ferocity as he does me, and when I come around he digs up the “Remember when…” stories that usually end with me getting pooped on by a bird… or a cat… or scooped up by aliens and anally probed. You get the idea. It’s easy for him to find material, and as it should be, as we shared the same room for 10 years of our lives and the same house for 20.

It probably comes as easy for Uncle Tim to make fun of Dad as it does Jason of me, and if I’ve received anything from my genetic makeup from the family tree it’s the habit of combating our ever-mounting nervousness by making jokes, poking fun at the situation and lightening the mood with a little jocularity aimed at someone nearby. From what I understand, my grandmother on my father’s side was a master of the one-liners, those quippy retorts that only the greatest sitcoms could ever get away with. I was too young to be as skilled as she, but I have always thought I would enjoy a “wit off” with her if we meet again one day.

There lies the inner turmoil. I have always been very respectful of other people. I say sorry to people when they bump into me, and I’m always very polite when I interrupt someone while they’re working… I’ll say excuse me before I ask an information desk clerk a question. That’s just the way I was raised, I guess (I wish kids these days had a fraction of my respect but that’s a subject for a different day), but most importantly, I have always subscribed to the belief that you don’t disrespect your parents, regardless, even if the comment is so obvious that you have to use every fiber of your being to refrain from saying it.

I doubt he would have cared either way, but I found myself equalizing my station to that of my uncle and father, something that I equated to shameful. Sons are sons and fathers are fathers, and a good son doesn’t jump on the bandwagon to make fun of his father, regardless of the innocence of the comment. There were many times I held my tongue from throwing out a zinger that would have brought down the house at his expense because I just felt that I was too easy a target. I know too much about the man to make it fair, and I’m sure he feels the same way about me. I’ve told him things that I’ve shared with nobody else and I wouldn’t appreciate it those things were used against me for the sake of a quick laugh. If I gave you examples, you’d know what I meant, but it would be doing what I didn’t want to do. To make it worse, not once to my memory do I remember him leveling a joke at me the whole week, at least nothing like what everyone else was shooting back and forth. He’s known me all my life and I’m sure he could come out with some good jokes about things concerning me that I didn’t even know about myself.

We’ve done a bunch of things together, but this is the longest stretch of time I spent alone with him, and after the first couple of days I found myself oddly comfortable at joining everyone in making fun of each other. It was easy, as I have a pretty sharp tongue, and if family is anything, they’re easy targets when it comes to ridicule.

There were a few times even that I felt like I was pushing the boundaries of our relationship, as father and son, and I was treating him more like a friend than a father. I don’t want that ever. The older I get the less friends I want to have, but the last thing I want to do is make a friend out of my Dad. It’s hard to explain, but I’d rather have him as a father, as having a father is like having a gold coin over a friend, which would be an old bottle cap, and I felt that every time I would push those self-imposed limits I was trampling my own needs, as if I was being disrespectful of his authority and experience (like when I was a kid) and he didn’t want to say anything…Despite what you may read here, men don’t share their feelings to other men, especially on a hunting trip with rifles loaded and knives sharpened. It’s akin to a catcher joining the pitcher on the mound to share that he felt like his feelings were a little bruised from that last fast ball pitch. Internalize it like a man and vent it at an appropriate time (chopping wood, skinning a deer… you get the idea).

Very few incidences in my life have I spent this much time with my dad alone, just the two of us with nothing else distracting our time together but a couple of deer, and it was strangely comforting, unexplainably warm and genuine, like that feeling you get after he shows you how to ride a bike or tie a tie (something he still does… I wear a tie maybe once a year if someone dies or gets married, so I’m always forgetting… I actually have to look it up on the Internet under the “idiot’s guide to being in civilized society”). This time, it started with him showing me how to load the rifle, and he kept correcting me, passive aggressively, but correcting me nonetheless, that it was a “rifle” and not a gun.

It was a great feeling sharing something with my father that I know he enjoys, and the longer I spent with him the more I realized how much we really have in common and how similar we really are. Remember the other day I shared that I was fantasizing that I was a soldier with my rifle in the Ardennes during World War II? Well, so was he at the same time; I just said it first. They say that an acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree, and that’s a good thing sometimes. Of course, I don’t share his views and opinions on everything, but that’s what makes being around people all worth the while, and if you listen enough—even after 33 years—I still might learn a few things about life, guns and hunting for deer (well, guns and life anyway).

Maybe one day, Matthew will be on a hunting trip with me, Jason and his son Alex, and Jason will bring up the time he punched me in the gut because I bought the Indiana Jones fedora at Miller’s Outpost when he wanted to buy the hat for himself, and Matthew will look at me with a gleeful twinkle in his eye and bring up the time I threw down a super ball in the garage as hard as I possibly could, and when we all looked up to watch it bounce, it hit the ceiling of the garage in the rafters and knocked me square in the forehead.

No, that didn’t happen to Matthew’s father, but to mine. And it’s a funny story that left a big round red mark on Dad’s forehead for the rest of the day. Maybe I’ll tell it to you sometime for a good laugh… at Dad’s expense of course.

If by the time you got to the end of this and you’re humming “Cat’s in the Cradle,” just go click somewhere else. Then again, maybe Harry Chapin was on to something there.

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