Wednesday, April 05, 2006

I Miss My Dad

In my previous post, about the indecency of the rich and privileged lecturing on excess, all the while 'grinding the faces of the poor', I discussed a bit of my feeling about killing animals. This is a bit more in that vein; you've been given fair warning.

In the earlier part of the last century, 1900 to about 1960, there was opportunity for cruelty to flourish, protected by American and Canadian society's conventions. People who might well have been classified as psychopaths, slid along in normal company unremarked for their cruelties, because they kept their acts at home. Home. That word still has special meaning for us. It's King's X, homefree, sanctuary, the place where the outside world stops. The place where society and its rules and conventions holds no sway. Our own rules apply at home. They did even more so when I was a child, in the forties and fifties. A man's property was inviolate. Trespass at your own risk. Property owners were armed and inclined to shoot invaders, evil-doers and such like. Social workers could damn well stay in the cities.

We have a sort of rose-coloured remembrance of times past, when things were nicer and simpler, but it wasn't so. Cruelty abounded. A man could beat his horse to death if it suited him. His horse, his property, his business. He could shoot his dog by inches if the dog displeased him. He could beat his son with a harness strap until he bled. Children needed discipline and fathers were there to give it to them. Wives were beaten, and in a curious way, a woman with a black eye and cut lip was almost looked down on, viewed askance, as if she shouldn't show herself in public like that. In the country and rural small towns, men did their own butchering; killing rabbits, chickens, pigs and cows, although cows were a bit of a handful and more likely to be taken to the stockyard. How you went about killing, gutting, skinning and butchering your animals was your business.

When I was a pre-schooler, we stayed a couple of times with my father's parents in High River, Alberta, a nice place. My father was a returned war vet with a Scots wife and two small kids and he was still sort of getting his feet under him, although that wasn't what my mother said. She would say, "Ach, he is nae canny". It came out sounding like "he isney canny" in her Scots accent. It meant dad was no businessman. He wasn't.

My father kept his World War II three oh three rifle above the kitchen door on pegs. Grandad and the other surviving sons called it 'that piece of shit 303'. They preferred as one uncle said, "if a man can shoot, he can put down what he wants with a 30-30, 'n if that don't do it, use the ought-six". Dad never argued much about it. He claimed it was a poor workman who blamed his tools, and in truth he was the finest shot in our family.

Grampa's next door neighbours had pigs, goats, chickens and geese and I loved the pigs and goats, and feared the geese. Geese are nasty, while pigs and goats are bright, charming and friendly; especially to small boys. One of the pigs was an escape artist, forever getting out and into trouble, as young pigs will. He'd often be found rooting for turnips or potatoes where he had no business being. I knew that pig. He would often follow me and he'd come if you called him. We spent a few afternoons in the alfalfa field and how that pig loved to roll about in the alfalfa and play hide and go seek. Pretty good pig, I thought.

My father was working on some farm or ranch nearby, I suppose. There came a time when we heard the most horrific noises coming from next door. It was a pig screaming in terror, then agony. The noise kept on for some time, then it would die out. Then we would hear it again. I suppose it was on the second day, although it seemed like weeks, my father came in at lunch time and heard what sounded like a pig being tortured next door. Dad asked Grampa, "what the hell is that?" and Grampa replied something like "that sick, sorry sombitch next door". Dad was a tall, lanky, long-legged man and he crossed the kitchen in a step, grabbed the .303 rifle from above the door and I heard the snick-snock/snick-snock sound of the rifle bolt being operated. Then nothing. Then BANG. Then nothing. Dad came back in and he was silent. The whole house was silent. Dad was that kind of quiet that does not allow any sound, and his face was mean looking and his eyes were cold and blue. It was as if none of the dozen other people in the house were there at all. He grabbed a bowl, filled it with soup and went out to sit on the back step. When I went out to see him, he said "not now son" and I went inside and cried because I thought my dad didn't love me anymore.

Much later, I was with him at a bunkhouse in a logging camp and some guy across the table decided to tell the joke about the wonderfully talented peg-legged pig. He got to the part where the farmer says the punch-line "why son, when you've got a pig that talented, ya don't want to eat him all at once" when my dad hit him. In that moment - in the instant when my dad's fist covered the guy's whole face and he shot back in the bench and tipped over all the folks on the other side of the table - the whole logging camp and sawmill fell away and in great clarity I could see that young vet and his anger, and in that instant I knew what the neighbour had done to his pig way back when I wasn't quite five years old.

My father was a gentle man and I honour him for it. I miss my dad.


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