I never would have known my father if I hadn't lost the child.
See, if the child had been born, I would have become a father myself, and I'd have been busy waking up at 3 in the morning to heat formula and clap out burps, busy angling for promotions on the job and then hustling off to Little League games or dance recitals, busy arguing over curfews, carving the Thanksgiving turkey and unclogging drainpipes, busy holding the family together at my father's funeral.
And one day, in a quiet moment, I would have had to suffer the cliche: My God, all that time and I never really knew him . . .
But the child was lost. And the woman I love was shaken and confused and wanted to be alone.
"Dad," I said one day, "how about taking a trip with me? Why don't you fly out West and meet me. We'll just get in a car and go."
There was silence. Two men who've violently disagreed on everything from the National League's MVP to the meaning of life, sealed in steel and glass for hours . . . and hours . . . and hours . . .
"What for?" he asked.
"Oh, I don't know. Just an idea."
"But what for?"
"Does there have to be a reason, Dad? It's just an idea . . . "
While my father woke up every morning next to the same woman, I was sambaing in Brazil, flamencoing across Spain and dancing with a table leg between my teeth in Greece. While he adjusted the shower faucets to the desired warmth, I howled under a frigid waterfall in Peru. While he stretched his chin the exact same way to best maneuver his razor, I clenched my eyes as an aged barber in Cairo twisted a piece of string and yanked my whiskers out by the roots.
While my father knotted a tie around the collar of his starched white shirt, I unhitched a rowboat and drifted into a lake in the Ozarks. While he cuffed the same Swiss watch over his left wrist, I looked to the sky to see if it was time to pick grapefruit, teach eighth graders, drive a tractor, cover the St. Louis baseball Cardinals, butcher chickens or climb aboard an ambulance. While he reached for his attache case, I slammed down a bottle of tequila -- having swallowed the worm at the bottom.
But now I fear that my father is lost. He has just retired after 27 years as a manager for IBM, and left the state he has lived in all his life to settle in the South. His job not only was his source of self-esteem, but it filled his day, his thoughts, his life. My father is 58 -- I want him to find an adventure.
My father fears that I am lost. He sees me drifting aimlessly, nothing to show for it but a passport full of funny stamps and a strap mark across my shoulder. I am 33 -- my father wants me to settle down.
I stare and stare. There's something different about my father, something I can't quite grasp, as he comes toward me at the airport. Could it be the duffel bag slung over his shoulder? My God, that's the way I travel. Where is his valise on wheels? Quickly, though, his words ground me.
"What state is this?"
"Rapid City is in South Dakota, Dad."
Eyes closed, he shakes his head and laughs through his nose. I know this laugh. It means: Why in the world would anybody go to South Dakota?
Already -- kindling for an argument. "Okay," he says, humoring me with a smile. "What's our first stop?"
"What time is it?"
"Still don't have a watch?"
Less than an hour away on a road curling through the Black Hills is Mount Rushmore. The face that impresses me most there is that of my father. Staring up at the four presidents carved in granite, his mouth and eyes open slowly, like those of a little boy.
Mount Rushmore is our Parthenon, our Sphinx, our Great Wall -- a symbol of our culture that will be worn down only by nature and time. Had my father seen it on a postcard or television screen, he'd have glanced for an instant. But now he cannot shuffle it behind a stack of envelopes or click it away with a remote control device. Here, the enormousness of the mountain, of the achievement, towers over him. Here, George Washington's nose is roughly four times his size.
"Unbelievable," he says, gazing upward. There's still hope. Maybe he'll come to see my point of view.
"How was this done?" he asks.
Grainy black-and-white footage in the information center shows us. There is sculptor Gutzon Borglum dangling from the mountaintop in a slingshot chair, surveying the results of dynamite blasts calculated to shave lips, cheeks and noses. Borglum devoted 14 years to this, then died in 1941 and left the final touches to his son.
"Look at this! Borglum was 60 when he started." I glance at my father. "Would you dedicate your life to a project at this point?"
"Sure -- if I was really interested in it."
"What would you be interested in?"
"Oh, I don't know."
So we stare up at Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln, and I feel my question to him turn back on me. Would I, at 33 or 58, ever dedicate my life to anything?
Sure, there are a million things I'd like to do -- for a little while. But for life . . . ?
No direction, no goals. No great project, nor son to inherit it. Odd, all around the world I always used to hear those words in my father's voice. Now, standing right next to him, I hear them in my own.
Miles and miles of open space and endless sky and yet my eyes are locked four feet in front of me: on that little circular ornament perched on the end of the hood.
Deadwood, S.D., the town we just left, still gnaws at me. Once it was a place of passion, where Wild Bill Hickok was shot and killed during a card game, where miners who had scooped nuggets of gold from the Black Hills came to shoot shot glasses off the shelves of saloons. It was The West.
But stagecoaches and shootouts have given way to tourists and taffy. Main Street looks like a B movie set covered with advertisements for Buffalo Chocolate Chip Cookies. The flesh and blood are gone -- now the dreamers and gamblers and gunslingers are wax figures in a museum.
Nothing seems right today. I shake my head and send my eyes off to the prairie, but they get snagged by the barbed wire. Years ago, 70 million buffalo romped across these plains. Indians migrated with the whims of nature, and Lewis and Clark woke up each day not knowing what they'd find. Now, the buffalo are in zoos, the Indians live on reservations, the prairie itself is barricaded by strings of steel.
"How's the car driving?" my father asks.
"Fine," I say. A 1982 Buick Skylark. I had had a chance to buy an old pickup for this trip. Same price. The West in a pickup was romantic. But the corporate Skylark was dependable. I know because I bought it from my father.
"How about if I stop and get a picture of you in front of those cows munching grass?" I suggest, trying to change the mood.
That laugh again. The one through his nose. What am I doing driving the car he commuted to IBM in each day? Just sitting here next to him inside it makes me feel pinched in. Pinched in? How can this be? We are the American Dream. My grandfather came by boat from Russia after World War I. There, he was a teacher who could speak at least three languages, play the violin, swim like a fish. Here, he lived in a ghetto and sweated over a sewing machine to give his only child something better. And my father doggedly climbed above him, onto and up the corporate ladder. Financially and socially successful, he speaks one language, plays no musical instruments and can float in a swimming pool if a rubber raft is set under his back. He has a wonderful voice, yet he never sings. He loves to dance, yet he never dances. He loves to write, yet he never writes. His hours were always too long, his suburban commute wearing. He came home tired, dealt with family problems and drifted to sleep with the television on.
Could I end up that way, waking up at 3:30 in the morning to some rerun?
"Hey, Dad, open your window, would you?"
The Badlands bring back my breath and take it away. It's as if the Lord stacked layers and layers of colorful earth to be sculpted by wind and rain, then cut down the center with a knife and pushed the mounds apart for us to pass through.
We stop for a doe in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, step out and stare at the striations of furnace red, cigar-ash gray, wheat brown and cotton-candy pink that run across the buttes.
My father's silence is reverent. "I never knew . . ." he says.
A sprinkle of birds floats across the sky.
"If you could be any animal," I ask, "what would you be?"
"A horse," he says.
That's right, I'm thinking, the animal that goes to work with blinders on.
"Because if I ran fast enough," he says, "when I was done, they'd put me out
"Damn it!" My father's hands squeeze the wheel, and I see a cherry swirl of light coming from behind us.
"Quick!" he says. "The seat belts." For hours, mine has been snug against my chest. He is yanking his from its socket, fumbling. I reach down and click it into place.
A patrolman with an amused smile comes to the window. He takes my father's license, leaves and returns with two pink citations. "This one's for driving 12 miles over the limit," he says. "And this one's for driving without a seat belt."
My father is silent as he pulls onto the highway. The wind kicks sage across the empty prairie.
"It's so boring here," I finally say, "you ought to be fined for driving any less than 77 miles an hour."
I want him to smile. It's really my fault my father was driving so fast. I had squandered the morning searching for a Romanian barber who recently immigrated to North Dakota -- his goal, I had read, was to cut President Bush's hair, and I wanted him to cut mine. I never did find him, and now we probably weren't going to reach the Little Bighorn and the site of Custer's Last Stand before the museum closed at 5. The silence spreads through the car.
"Did I ever tell you about the accident I had with my first car?" my father asks, as if snapping out of a trance.
"When I was young, I worked for a caterer. One day I had to deliver food for a wedding reception. I must have been looking for a sign when I ran a full stop and got broadsided. My car was a 1950 Oldsmobile -- a real tank -- so I didn't get hurt. What I remember is the cop coming over and cracking up when he saw all that coleslaw dripping from the ceiling."
I try to imagine it, but I can't . . . my father brushing chunks of potato salad from his hair. Hey, I'm the one who gets the speeding tickets, who runs the stop signs of life. Not him.
"What time is it?" I ask.
He rolls his eyes, holds out his wrist in front of my face and grins.
They say there is a single tree somewhere out there on the prairie. A sign on it reads: East Montana National Forest.
Maybe, I'm thinking, I've hung a sign around my father, made him stand, like a single tree for a whole forest, for all that I loathe about corporate America.
And as I'm reading aloud about George Armstrong Custer from the book Great Plains by Ian Frazier, I wonder if that's how my father sees me. It was Custer who lived to laugh, who finished last in his West Point class, who sometimes traveled with a 16-piece Army band and a pack of staghounds, who discovered gold and once became so excited during a buffalo hunt he shot his own horse in the head, who rode with 265 cavalrymen into an ambush of Sioux and Cheyenne in the summer of 1876 at the Little Bighorn . . .
I look up from the book. I've always wanted to ask my father this. "Didn't it get boring going into the same office every day, doing the same things over and over?"
"That's not the way it was."
"C'mon . . . "
"No. It was a different challenge every day. I'd wake up thinking -- these four things must be done. Then I'd get to the office and some crisis would become top priority. It took a helluva lot of creativity to find a solution. That's where the satisfaction came from. Sometimes 6 o'clock would come before I knew it and I'd still have to do those four jobs. And some days there'd be two crises."
Miles of highways pass. On this stretch of Montana prairie, my father tells me more about his years managing for IBM than he has in a lifetime of mom's dinners and NFL Sundays together.
"People who worked for me got more awards than any other group," he says. "Yet, oddly, I always got the lowest ratings on surveys for showing appreciation."
"That doesn't surprise me."
"What do you mean?"
"Do you remember my college graduation?" It's off my lips before I can stop. "When I heard they were electing a student speaker, I figured: 'The folks are coming halfway across the country to see me graduate. Why not surprise them?' Anyway, time passed, and I didn't think much about it. Then the morning of graduation, coming home from a disco, I realized that I needed a speech. So I pulled two six-packs of Mountain Dew from the refrigerator, gulped down the caffeine and after a few hours the speech was on paper. Okay, it was no Gettysburg Address. But it was kind of sassy and nostalgic and it beat the hell out of the 1,001 cliches you usually hear. Trouble was, there was no time to rehearse.
"So I got to the podium and the first thing I said they laughed at. I relaxed and stopped looking at my notes and started talking off the top of my head. It was amazing -- people were bursting into applause. But then I ran out of ideas and had to go back to the notes -- remember, I had no idea where I was. I looked up and saw thousands of faces staring at me. That's when I apologized for being nervous. And nobody held it against me. Everybody just smiled. I stuck to my notes for the last few minutes, and when I left the podium, professors and students were smacking me on the back. Finally, I made it to where you were sitting. Mom hugged me. Do you remember your first words? 'Your eye contact should have been better at the end.' "
"I didn't say that."
"It was the first thing you said."
"C'mon, Cal, I probably said 10 good things, and the one criticism is what you bring up. Just like the people at work."
"It was the first thing you said."
"I don't believe it. That was one of the proudest moments of my life . . . "
His eyes are locked over the steering wheel, mine on the insect-splashed windshield. No eye contact at all.
I bend and twist my head to glance at his watch. It's just past 5. Up ahead are signs for the Little Bighorn. Yep, too late. I've blown it. And if I'd planned ahead, I think to myself, my speech would have been better formed, my eye contact could have been flawless.
I reach to the radio to break the silence. Static crackles out and I click it off. My father turns to me. "Did I ever tell you about the time I met my father on the front steps after staying out all night?"
"No, Dad, you never did."
A lightning bolt struck a tree in the summer of 1988, and three months later nearly half of Yellowstone National Park was scorched. I didn't know anything about it. I was herding reindeer in the Arctic Circle at the time.
Could television footage or newspaper accounts have prepared me for a walk through this hillside cemetery of charcoaled tree stumps? For these exposed roots -- massive roots that knew the earth before my great-great-grandfather -- now blasted from the ground? On a dead stump I sit in the morning quiet. My eyes move from blackened tree to blackened tree until they are far away. Funny, that's how her words struck me -- like a random bolt of lightning. "You need to be in one place to raise children. I'm not sure if you can do it. I need time alone to think."
It wasn't my father saying those words. It was someone I had chosen to love. When she lost our child, I was thousands of miles away, in the middle of the Amazon. And now I can't tell where my body ends and the charred stump begins . . .
The click of a tourist's camera snaps my thoughts. I look up and see my father standing by the car. How long have I been on this stump? I begin running to the car, fumbling in my pocket for the keys. I've already taken the Little Bighorn away from him, now I'm taking away Yellowstone.
"What are you worrying about the time for?" he says. "We've got all day here."
I stop short. It occurs to me, now that he is on my turf, that I feel responsible for him, and for planning his day; because of him I must be in control. And maybe because of me, he had to be in control all those years: Did I have a right to resent him for that?
Soon, he is leaning over a river that wrenches into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and thunders as it spills more than 100 feet into a tingling mist. "Look at this!" he calls. "Hey, get the camera!"
And now he is inhaling fully the fragrance of lodgepole pine in an area untouched by the great fire. "Smell that," he says. "I can't describe it. It's . . . it's . . . it's a smell that makes you hungry for pancakes. Geez, I haven't eaten pancakes in years. You hungry?"
Most of me is still on that dead stump. "Sure, Dad, we can stop on the way to Old Faithful."
Amid a beehive of tourists we sit at a picnic table and rip the plastic wrapping from sandwiches. I've no appetite. Suddenly, I look up and smile. A fat paesano is madly slamming hunks of sausage and cheese on the next table while a dozen of his amici joke and laugh. Stefano, I hear one of them call him. Now he is feverishly uncorking bottles of wine. Five, six, seven. What a party! Their voices are song; their gestures, theater.
I begin to rise, to walk over, slap the old man on the back and say: "Stefano, guarda chi s'incontra." (Stefano, imagine meeting you here.) There will be wide eyes, laughter and toasts at the table, like I've known so many times before, of this I am sure.
But I stop. I am here to spend this time with my father. So I remain seated, watch my father quietly eat a sandwich, drink from a tiny carton of milk, read about the Yellowstone fire. I am happy just to be with my father.
"Did you ever take a trip with your dad?" I ask as we drive to Old Faithful.
"Only once," he says. "When I was a boy, he took me to Yankee Stadium. All I remember is that he kept asking if I wanted a hot dog or soda. There was nothing else for him to do. Because he didn't understand baseball.
"I never spoke much with my father. Maybe it was because he was Russian, because of the difference in cultures. We loved each other -- but never said it. I'm sure he would have spoken to me about Russia. But I didn't ask. Only after they died did I realize what good parents I had. My father was a very good-natured man. Whatever he could give me, he gave."
That last sentence -- it's probably the same thing I'd say about my father. And what I'd want my child to say about me.
I try to imagine what my child would have looked like at age 13. All I can see is a vast wasteland of charred trees.
"This must have been some blaze," my father says.
"Yeah, sure was."
"You know, I was reading that it will all grow back," he says. "It just takes time."
Yes, this is the place to spend time with a parent, I think, on the road through Glacier National Park. Fresh horizons. All that we've spoken about during the trip -- it couldn't have happened at home. Because at home we sit in the same chairs, say the same words in the same tones, are drawn into the same arguments. Here, a week has passed without any real confrontation.
Hell, we've complemented each other. We are a team: I drive back roads, he drives highways. On the back roads we've seen a grandma and grandpa team hand-saw through a log of ponderosa pine in less than 12 seconds, been invited by an Indian to cleanse our spirits in a steam bath fueled by baked stones, and tasted the world's greatest homemade potato soup. And it was his highway driving that enabled us to cover quickly the distances between national parks.
"First I thought Roosevelt Park was the best," he says. "Then that waterfall at Yellowstone. But there's no comparison. Glacier's the best of all."
Orange dandelions, golden mushrooms, mountainsides beaming with spruce, the winding Going-to-the-Sun Road, distant glaciers, hypnotic lakes . . .
"I've never seen water so blue," he says.
I have -- in the fjords of Norway. And the falls at Yellowstone reminded me of the ones at Iguazu in South America. I can keep traveling and traveling, I think, but maybe a regular job won't be as repetitive as I feared.
"It's a shame I've got to go back so soon," he says. "I think I could do this forever. But I don't want to miss more than a week of school."
"That's right, you told me you'd enrolled. What classes are you taking?"
"Music appreciation. Investment portfolio. Italian -- "
"What's wrong with Italian?"
"If you want to learn Italian, why didn't you go over to the table of paesanos eating at Yellowstone and say hello. That's the best way to practice."
"You expect me to walk over to a bunch of strangers and just start talking?"
"Are you crazy?"
I laugh. "Each man to his own road."
It's been weeks since I left him at the airport. I want to talk with my father -- to tell him I've decided to settle.
When there is no response after four rings, I feel a little flutter in my belly.
My father answers, the flutter dis- appears.
"The photos from the trip are sensational. Your mother couldn't believe how beautiful Glacier Park is."
"That's great, Dad. I called to -- "
"You know," he says, "we've got to take another trip like that sometime. Maybe when the school year ends. Not only that, but your mother wants to travel with you too."
Epilogue: The son was on the phone not long ago with the woman he loves, describing his search with real estate agents for a home. Though intrigued, the woman is not certain the son can change his wandering ways.
The father is wearing new clothes these days, having lost nearly 50 pounds since retirement by playing tennis daily and learning to swim. Though he still can't speak Italian, he's got the neighbors fooled. His voice is often heard from the shower booming the baritone parts of operas he's studied in music appreciation class.