I'm not big on going to cemeteries to visit the Dead Relatives.
Since my dad's funeral, 28 years ago today, I've been to the cemetery maybe a half-dozen times. I've always gone alone to spend a short time where he is buried, next to my grandparents and my dad's only brother, who died long before I was born.
Getting there is always a pilgrimage. It's not that I get lost -- it's just so remote and I go so infrequently that I'm always fearful that I've driven past the turn to the right state highway to get me to Shamrock, OK. And if you miss seeing the two-story green building in Shamrock, you've missed the turn that goes past an old oil pumping station, out to the country road that turns and then leads to the cemetery.
That, in a nutshell, explains the geography of Shamrock, OK. One day I'll tell you stories about the people who live there. But not today. Today, we're visiting ghosts.
It's never a pleasant encounter, dealing with these ghosts. Oh, I treasured my grandparents and have great memories of them. But my dad, well, that's another story entirely.
It doesn't feel good to say that he was a mean man. But he was. Always angry, language peppered with expletives shouted in a hateful tone. His main interaction with his two children involved a whipping with his leather belt -- on a daily basis.
I do not believe that he came into this world designed to be this kind of person. I do believe I understand many factors that shaped him into this person which probably also contributed to his death at 55 years of age.
The man was brilliant. I think if he had been born later, he would have given Bill Gates a run for his money.
He was born in 1921 in the oil patches around Drumright, OK. Grandpa was a roustabout who worked and lived on several oil leases, in camp towns and boom towns like Shamrock. Life was always tough, compared to our standard of living today, but it never bothered anyone then. Somehow, they always made it work for them, even though Grandpa lost the tips of at least three fingers when he was drilling. He wasn't the only one on the Sinclair lease that was maimed and coped with it.
Dad expected to have a better life and joined the Army Air Corps during World War II to take his exit from the lease. I have all the letters he wrote while he was in the service -- thank God Grandma was a packrat. She kept every one of them in a box she gave me after his death. It's clear from the letters that war time was capricious and cruel. Dad was away when his kid brother died at 17 of appendicitis. He was away when one of his sisters lost her husband on a submarine in the Pacific. Life, with all of its pain, continued in his absence. I think it wounded him deeply that he couldn't be with his family to help hold things together. It also hurt that no one told him about many of the events until later because they thought it would be easier on him. He couldn't change anything anyway, was their thinking, so there's no sense in giving bad news.
After the war, Dad went to school on the GI bill. In 1953 he and my mother married and he started working at Conoco in Ponca City. Life looked like it would be good.
Nine months after they married, my brother was born and I came along 16 months later. Instant marriage, instant job, instant family -- a lot of changes in two years with a lot of responsibility.
The depth of responsibility wasn't fully known for a while. My brother was diagnosed with cerebral palsy after I was born. He also had strabismus -- crossed eyes -- that required surgeries when he was 5, as well as glasses. He spent a year at the Cerebral Palsy center in Norman when I was starting kindergarten, coming home only on weekends. I was probably 7 before he was home to live with us for good -- with leg braces, glasses, a speech impediment and obvious learning disabilities.
Dad was so consumed with his thoughts that he couldn't cope with normal life, much less one with problems. I have a 1959 photo of him with a computer he invented for Conoco which is about the size of a television armoire. My mom's handwriting says "Bill with 'The Monster.'" It would not surprise me a wit to discover that my Palm Pilot has more power than "The Monster." But it was groundbreaking innovation in the oil industry. It was one of many inventions for which he earned patents for the company, and for which he was paid the princely bonus of $50.
He would come home promptly at 4:35 every afternoon, his mind still filled with the thoughts of the day's discoveries and problems. Many times he would isolate himself to work on formulas or make sketches and schematics. The noise of children was torture to him. Especially the noise of an imperfect son.
So he reacted.
He would silence us by removing his belt, folding it in half and snapping it as a threat of the beating to come. So often I remember how out of control he was, especially with my brother. Too many times I stepped between him and brother to stop him and take the beating myself. I got plenty of my own, but I could not bear seeing him hurt my precious brother that I was so proud to have home, finally.
Usually after the whippings, we would go to our rooms to cry. Dad would withdraw into his silence in front of the TV. Only after it was quiet for a while was it safe for us to come back out. Later I was able to throw myself into my homework as an excuse to stay away. In many ways, I became the son he never had. Academic achievement was all that he acknowledged or praised.
That scenario pretty much sums up my daily memories of my Dad. Oh, we had big vacations every year, traveling across the country and across Canada several times. I saw things my classmates never did. It opened my eyes up to the fact that there's a huge world out there with more things than we can see in a lifetime.
But there was never joy in our house. Never.
So fast forward to Aug. 23, 1976. 10 a.m. My mom and I had been to the bank to get money and traveler's checks for me -- I was going to be returning to OU for my last semester at school, planning to graduate early in December. I was going to be the first person in my family to earn a full bachelor's degree from college.
I pulled the Datsun into the driveway, seeing the large car parked on the street in front of the house and knowing in my gut that it was bad news. I had no idea that it was two men from Dad's work who asked Mom if they could come inside for a minute.
I can see them standing in our tiny living room -- both of them pretty large. Mom sat on one couch, me on the other. Brother was sitting on the piano bench. The men's backs were to me -- I couldn't tell you now who they were by name. But I could see Mom's face as they said "Bill had a heart attack at work a few minutes ago, right after the guys finished their coffee break. The company doctor was there right away, but there was nothing anyone could do."
The days ran together after that, but I recall studying everyone's reactions to the news. Mom kind of shut down. She wanted to be the parent in charge but just couldn't be.
Brother, at some point, shocked me to my core. He turned to Mom and summarized it by snapping his fingers and saying "Gone. Just like that. Maybe now he's proud of me."
I was the one who planned the funeral. I shopped for the casket, arranged for the church, the organist, the singers and the minister -- asking the former pastor who had baptized me to return for the service. He obliged me, graciously.
The eternal joke was that Dad was an atheist. In my lifetime, I saw him in a church one time, for his dad's funeral. He didn't come to my baptism and he wouldn't go to my friends' weddings.
So now it may be clear why we accepted my grandmother's offer when she said there was an empty plot in the family space at the Shamrock cemetery. It was perfect.
He could rest in peace in the area he roamed as a child in the oil patch, forever undisturbed, perpetually isolated from the rest of us.
I try not to bother him too often.
Mom and brother have left me since. They were inseparable in life and remain so today. I had them both cremated and mingled their ashes before scattering them in a garden at the cemetery in Ponca City. Together they can always enjoy the roses.