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Blessed Father

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And so come the higher restrictions and the lower expectations and they twine around you 'til you're covered, like a kudzu cocoon covers a Southern treeline and leaves it with some recognizable form but an inner, earlier life that is indecipherable to passersby -- even family strangers.

In the other room, my father sits a foot away from the television set turned up loud, loud. Watching 30-year-old reruns of the Lawrence Welk show and from time to time praising some banal solo of trumpet or accordion.

When the champagne musicmakers go off TV, we talk. Loud, loud. He repeats himself and tells some of the same stories he has told for as long as I can remember.

Now on the eve of his 88th birthday, he gets me to read the card I'd brought. So I read about how God had blessed the card receiver's life. When I'm done, he sits with his head down and his hands in the lap of his bathrobe.

Finally he says yes, he had been blessed, that in 1938, he had squeaked by on some test and had gotten the job that he'd carried for the next 40 years and whose pension had carried him for the next quarter-century after that.

"That was a very bad decade. The thirties. An evil decade. Lots of fellas had to kiss a lot of ass for just some chuckee little job. So yeah, I was very blessed."

Between the two of us, this is a twice-told tale, full of familiar fear of the Great Depression and the uncertainty it had etched on his soul. But what he says next is new.

"But it was the generation before mine that really had it rough. And the women had it rougher than anybody. Kids all over the place and plenty of 'em dying before they even went to school. Washing every piece of clothes on a scrubboard."

He flutters his fingers around the top of his bathrobe, making some meaningless adjustment. Most of the time now, he really feels the cold. He thinks more and then says, "Of course, it wasn't too good for the men, either. Wasn't no six-hour days then. You went off to work early and didn't get home 'til seven at night. Then there was nothing to do but get ready to go to work the next day. And there was nothing and I mean nothing to look forward to."

He is in a mood to talk and anything that comes to his head comes to his lips. Now it's about a guy he worked with, name of Morrissey. This guy had thick black hair and blue eyes you couldn't forget, but women didn't get his attention. He was too busy drinking.

"Greatest drinker I ever saw. He'd drink seven or eight highballs during the day to get ready for serious drinking after work. And it'd never show up in his work."

More information about Morrissey is sought, but given with far more relish. "Well, he died when he was 52." Pause. "But it was a stroke. Didn't have anything to do with his drinking. Greatest drinker I ever saw."

We go on to talk of other things. One minute he's telling of how he and plenty of his buddies in those Huck Finn days had learned to swim in some catch-as-catch-can fashion in the bayou or New Basin Canal because they didn't have the piddling fare for the City Park pool. A minute later, with no irony, he is telling of all the drowned bodies that were pulled out of the bayou or New Basin Canal, almost a couple a month.

Finally, he talks about the corner of Claiborne and Gravier and how when he was 9 or 10, there was a little boy who always waited for him and challenged him to wrestle. He remembered the boy's name, John Hadley.

"He was strong and he had a good headlock. But he had polio in one leg. He never could beat me. But he kept trying."

This tale of his victories was told without any sense of shame that he had mastered a crippled boy. After all, it was the doings of a boy and so long ago and maybe too it was not about him so much at all but about the pluck of a little guy who kept trying to win a wrestling match in a weeded lot. "John Hadley, that was his name. I saw when he died. I saw his name in the obituaries."

He ponders this for a full minute. As the rhymester Ogden Nash once wrote: "Old men know/ when old men die."

He is reminded just how long ago these wrestling matches had happened. Almost 80 years ago. Eighty. He makes his eyes big over this number and his big bushy eyebrows go up and down like white butterflies. It is as if the notion of 80 years has never crossed his mind.

"Eighty years. That's a big number," he says disbelieving and then smiles and looks again at his birthday card. The one with the words about being blessed.

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