“Peter just fell out of the car.”
What happened next is where my father suddenly becomes a perplexing puzzle to me. There was no slamming the brakes, no jolt at the news that our 6-year-old brother had just flown out of a moving automobile. Only our father’s stark blue eyes in the rearview mirror and a terse “How far back?”
The scenario was all rather lackadaisical. We retrieved the bruised and scraped 6-year-old, Dad muttering something about seat belts, and we continued on our way.
It was odd that a bigger deal wasn’t made of it, but who knows what goes on in dad’s head at any given moment, right? So I’d write it off as an aberration except for the fact that my little brother kept falling out of the car. Granted,
at that age — my four brothers and I ranged from 6 to 16 with me smack in the middle — there’s nothing funnier than your little brother flying out of a car
and bouncing off the pavement. Still, what the heck was the adult behind the wheel thinking? By the third occurrence he must have made a conscious decision. “Oh, well, the kids are going to fly out of the car now and again.”
The thing is, that shrug-it-off mentality was not my dad’s MO at all. This was a guy who went to war, came back a decorated hero and methodically went about building a life. He went to night school and became an accountant and was known for thinking through everything the world threw at him. With a natural analytical bent, he scrutinized the consequences of every action.
He put major effort into everything. He spent so much time meticulously building a salad, chopping everything so perfectly, that he wouldn’t let anyone else have any. He spent two hours every Sunday morning preparing for church — grooming and putting on his best suit. Of course, he took so long getting ready that by the time we got to Mass, there was only nine minutes left in the service, so the only thing I remember about my Catholic upbringing is “Peace be with you.” But what I want to say is he was such a mild-mannered, respected, thoughtful businessman and caring father 98.4 percent of the time. It’s that other 1.6 that’s got me baffled.
It’s only recently that I started picking up on how many times he subjected my brothers and me to real danger. The falling-out-of-the-car thing had lingered in my mind for years, but suddenly all these other instances where he had flat-out put us in jeopardy began coming to the surface. I really don’t want to be calling my dad irrational, negligent and the king of stupid decisions on Father’s Day. After all, it’s unfair to anybody to have a string of their foolish decisions listed for all the world to see, but “foolish” is too kind a word, especially when lives are at stake. Anyway, you be the judge.
The Setup: In our neighborhood our road was a complete circle, and at some point it became a racetrack for local teens. Muscle cars ruled at the time, lots of Dodge Chargers and old GTOs with “People Got to Be Free” blasting out of the windows. It all went down after midnight so, like most 9-year-olds, I slept through the real action, but the aftermath was wondrous: huge, deep-treaded tracks and muddy crevices across everybody’s lawn from wide, out-of-control turns. No sooner had my dad patched up the yard than another street race would take place, shredding a 10-foot stretch way beyond the easement and snapping the branches off our maple tree.
Calculated Decision: Dad spent his off time from being a well-respected accountant to go down into our dank, unfinished basement to build several primitive tire traps, and then to camouflage them all over our front lawn in hopes of crippling a 427 big-block Impala SS. A stratagem, for sure, except he never tipped off the wife and kids.
The Result: Instead of the screeching wheels and popping tires of some rich kid’s GTX at midnight, we got the noontime blood-curdling screams of my 7-year-old brother snared in a stretch of sabotaged grass between the maple tree and the lamppost, trapped by crooked nails that first caught his left foot and then his right hand as he fell to the ground. From the picture window in our living room there was the framed sight of this poor soul adhered to the ground — back hunched, one leg outstretched, one arm across his body — as if trapped in some sadistic version of the game Twister.
Note: Since I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s I wanted to give my dad a break and write off some of these weirdly treacherous incidents by blaming a bygone era. Use the excuse that this was just the way people naturally behaved — “back then.” No biggie.
But it gets worse.
The Setup: Going to work with Dad was a big deal and almost routine on Saturdays to give my mom a break from ... well, us. No other employees worked the weekend, so the place was totally empty, and attached to my father’s office was a giant factory. Dad’s calculated decision: “Go. I’ve got some catching up to do.”
We had the run of the place. I don’t know where the Occupational Safety and Health Administration posters were displayed in this business, but we explored every inch of the cavernous plant and everything you’d imagine that entails: industrial machinery, tools that looked like rayguns, crates and rafters. Oh, and one other major ingredient: mercury. The company produced blood-pressure instruments, the gold-standard thermometer style with tubes full of the quicksilver. The expanse of the factory was great for racing office chairs and whatnot, but the buckets full of mercury had us mesmerized. People put on hazmat suits now when handling it, but for us it was ... You know how Nickelodeon has that green slime that is a blast for kids? We had mercury. It was Silly Putty in our hands. Throw it on the ground and watch it splatter into a million marbles, then swish it back into a big glob with a sweep of your hand. No lie: We’d walk around with it in our pockets. We’d take it to school and ricochet it around our desks to the amazement of our classmates.
The Consequences: Short term: While Dad was going over the ledger, crunching numbers and probably finding a way to save $44 on paper supplies every quarter, his children were getting full exposure to the most fun deadly element known to man. Long term: Google “mercury poisoning.”
Note: My biggest hope by revealing this kind of personal family history is that many readers out there identify with these incidents, thereby taking my father off the hook. Like, “Oh, I always had mercury in my pants in fourth grade.” Or, “Hey, my dad had bear traps camouflaged all over the lawn so no one would mess up his sod. Lol.”
The Setup: I guess there was no Dr. Phil to turn to for advice “back then,” so when my parents were having trouble with one of my older brothers during the turbulent teen years, I overheard my dad throwing ideas at my mom, all of which sounded like the usual cliche solutions: military school? Send him to live with a great-aunt in D.C.? Tough love him out the door? The old “You can’t live by our rules, you’re out of here!”
During this period my dad was perpetually shaking his head like an accountant bobblehead in a maelstrom. Must have really been weighing on him. Then the decision came down: My brother isn’t going anywhere. We’re leaving.
We packed up and moved into my aunt’s split-level the next town over. Mom and Dad up top, three brothers and I on a single sofa bed downstairs. It was midsummer, and my aunt had no AC. I’d been in tight quarters before (we once went on an Italian cruise ship and got a cut rate by staying in the cooks’ barracks, metal cots bolted to the wall) but never four to a bed.
“We’re just taking a break until I can figure out what to do about your brother,” my dad explained. This went on for about two weeks when we got a late-night call, and my mother let out an “Oh, my God, Danny.” My father ran for his car keys. It was all a blur, and I was the only one who jumped in the car with him, wearing just a pair of gym shorts. I didn’t know what was going on, but I must have thought of it as a reprieve from sticking to my three brothers on a sweaty mattress. As soon as we rounded the corner onto our block I was taken aback. Emergency vehicles stretched around the bend. The good news: No one was hurt. The bad news: My brother had about 30 friends over, and, because he was operating from the Book of Wrong during that period and it was near the Fourth of July, they decided to shoot off fireworks. Inside. The oil burner caught, and the house blew up.
End Result: Sleeping four to a bed well into puberty while the house was repaired.
The Setup: I’m going to skip the part about my dad manning the oars and taking us out into a lightning storm in an aluminum rowboat — and jump a couple of days ahead to the airplane ride. For one, I’ve always been fascinated by the question of whom you will get in an airplane with. You know, when someone you know is going for his pilot’s license and says, “Yeah, as soon as I get it, me, you and Ronnie will rent a four-seater and hop over to the Bahamas. It’ll be awesome.” Thankfully, this friend never completes the requisite course and starts going to night school for bartending instead, but it does raise the question of whom you would allow to pilot you. My main rule is if I recognize your face, I’m not getting on a plane with you at the helm. (I once got on a flight with a captain who just looked like someone I knew, and I had to get off.)
Anyway, this wasn’t the Bahamas, but we did know this guy, who also operated the town’s propane tank/feed store, for four days before my dad decided to let him take us up into the sky.
This grizzly guy was like a pilot in one of those B movies where they meet in a bar in Paraguay, only my dad met him at the campground’s general store where he hung around asking unsuspecting vacationers, “Hey, wanna go up in a plane?”
Why would my father, who was at least the requisite mature, decision-making age of 45 at the time, say yes? This is a guy who was funny about who cut his hair, and he didn’t have any. There was nothing official about it. The feed store/propane guy had access to a plane, and for $35 (pretty reasonable) he’d give us a sightseeing tour. Why fly with a guy ’cause he took some mandatory lessons? And to see what, treetops? Even my own older brother said, “No, I’m not going in that plane.” And I still have a vivid image of his concerned mug (he later joined the Air Force) as we were heading up the runway. I never questioned such things (until now, of course). You know, if your dad is leading the way, he must know what time it is.
When my Prius first went silent at a stop sign, I got a little freaked out. But when an airplane motor goes numb and the nearest convenience store is 11,000 feet straight down, things get extremely eerie. In hindsight I realize the price was pretty reasonable because he didn’t put fuel in his plane.
At the first sign of a sputter and the obvious gas gauge reading, my father did say, “I guess you better turn around and take us straight back.” And the pilot said, “No, that’s not possible, Danny.”
Another Flight Rule: Never be on a first-name basis with your pilot.
The pilot kept looking down and around. It’s enough to make you sentimental for the days when you were simply in an aluminum rowboat during a lightning storm. The area was rural but mountainous, so it wasn’t as if we could just touch down anywhere. He veered toward an opening and slammed us down on a stretch of dirt along an embankment. More than anything, I remember the noise of the landing breaking the silence than I do any dangerous impact. The ground felt funny, and our pilot stepped into the clearing, pointed at a small white building about a half-mile away and said, “You have somebody you can call?”
The Setup: When we were finally able to afford a swimming pool, Dad was more enthralled with covering it up in October than he was about doing laps in June. He was most fascinated by a film we’d seen in the pool company’s showroom that depicted an all-American family romping around on the cover after the pool was sealed up. The thick, blue vinyl cover was bordered by large tubes that were to be filled with water or sand to weigh it down and hold it in place. I guess the pool company’s goal was to showcase how your pool could provide hours of fun even during the off-season. My poor father had to wait through a long, hot summer before he got the chance to put it to the test.
The Result: After the cover was in place, one of us, probably the lightest of the clan, was volunteered to go out and do an initial test. Within minutes, we were all gently clomping around. It was big fun, like walking around on a marshmallow moon. But things escalated quickly, with my dad insisting on playing a game of two-on-two touch football, with him quarterbacking each team. I don’t think anyone had even scored yet when things went wrong.
Dad was more enthralled with covering up the pool in October than he was about doing laps in June.
I knew that initial shock and sensation of a limb dropping into freezing cold water. I’d broken ice while playing hockey, but the lake near our house was shallow, and I’d have my foot out in an instant and belly my way across the thin ice. But this was a total immersion. Think vinyl quicksand, trying to grapple with water as if you can get a grip on it, and then darkness. Any hope of immediate rescue hampered by the fact that everyone else, to one degree or another, was trying to save himself. My dad and brothers all eventually found open water and scrambled out, but I had attracted most of the vinyl. Enveloped, I was the filling in an aquatic crepe. I was like, That’s enough, huh?
End Result: Grabbing clumps of vinyl, a group effort eventually brought me up to the surface, still wrapped, and heaved me on to the concrete like a dolphin snared in a rubber fishing net. Later, while I was lying on the living room floor under 40 blankets, my dad peeked in and said, “Hey, you look better already.”
I honestly set out to lead straight from my father’s stupid, deadly decisions to mine. I thought they’d all start popping into my head as I detailed these childhood incidents. I even called my wife into service to help me come up with a half-dozen of the stupidest things I’ve ever done, and she lit up like a pulsing laser light show. But when I gave her the criteria about a calculated decision leading to jeopardy, she kept going off track. I had to keep reiterating, “No, I mean stuff that could have gotten the children or you killed?”
What I found is that I make stupid decisions, but they’re not the dangerous kind. When I started to become aware of that, I felt kind of lame. That maybe I hadn’t taken my own kids to the edge enough. Maybe that’s why they’re so lame.
Then it dawned on me: To this day I am still peeling back the layers of a man I thought was just average, still reveling in those little bits of mystery that keep surfacing. It’s akin to discovering that the box of a loved one’s personal effects you found in the back of the closet years ago is now bottomless. My dad will keep surprising me. It’s a glorious realization, especially if you’re lucky enough to have survived your childhood.
T.M. Shine, a writer based in Lantana, Fla., is working on his upcoming one-man show “I Didn’t Want to Have to Do This.” His last story for the magazine was about his efforts to find a job. To comment on this story, e-mail wpmagazine@washpost.