“Tell me a story.”
I focus the camera on my dad as he stands in the dark hotel room. The videocamera was graciously “borrowed” from Best Buy, and would be returned with receipt within the 30 days grace period. My cousin Michael was graduating from law school in New Hampshire, and his mother was in a hospital bed recovering from surgery to remove a tumor. As the lone film student, my job was to record the ceremony for her to watch. So I was testing out the new camera.
“C’mon, fatman. Say a funny.”
My dad and I share a baked-potato like appearance so much so that our elderly neighbor often confuses me for him when I’m home from school. Except, where I am merely a late-twenties lothario, my father is hardened steel gone soft in the wake of recently receiving his AARP card.
He stares out the window for a second and then he kind of leans forward on one foot, like a tubby flamingo, and does this strange little hop forward. Once, twice. Bouncing with his arms stretching like wings. Then he goes back to staring out the window.
I turn off the camera, satisfied that my rudimentary first level white balancing skills and slow zooms will be more than enough to capture the diploma dispensing. I return the camera to its box.
Then my dad explains his phone call.
Minutes before, as I was doddering about with the lenses and instructions, he took a call on his cell. He’d just started a few months ago with a new company. After 25 years as a vice-president of construction management, in an industry where they told him he’d never make it anywhere as a Catholic, the company he had bled and sweat for had fucked over his entire retirement. And here he was, overqualified for everything, unable to find an employer who wasn’t trying to mine him for his industry contacts and then chuck him aside before he could ditch them for something better, working in a new job as essentially the knowledgeable one who went to construction trade shows and answered questions. Had he not had two sons to put through college, he would have started his own contracting company, and been a goddamn millionaire. Instead, here he was, answering questions on his vacation.
I had only caught snippets of the conversation. My dad was defensive and embarrassed. He said, “No, I’m fine. Jerry. You don’t have to… Well, you can call it whatever you want. I don’t want you to… I don’t want…. That’s silly. Don’t call me. Well, I don’t agree with that, but whatever. Fine, you’re welcome. Okay. I will. Take care.”
So with the camera safely packed away, and my mother getting ice, my dad decided he’d honor my request. He told me a story.
He had just come back from a trade show in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, at their convention center. They decided it was a moot point, and wanted to beat the traffic back into the civilization of Pennsylvania. He had been packing away their stand, and he and a co-worker were helping the woman who had been stationed next to them load up her car. My dad had placed his materials in the van that he and his buddy had driven down, when he realized that he had forgotten his glasses.
This comes as no surprise. My father needs to wear reading glasses, which he’s not accustomed to, and so he purchased cheap-ass half glasses which he constantly has to tilt his head and peer down through. My brother and I call him Geppetto. He has about four or six pairs scattered among glove compartments, briefcases, offices, coffee tables, because he almost always forgets them, and so multiple pairs mean there's a better likelihood one will be at hand.
My dad pauses in the story, rubbing the back of his head. He looks at me, “I don’t want you to tell your mother about this.”
My father and I are both short, stocky little brick shithouses. The man’s got a head like a damn cannonball, bald and mighty. But we’re both well under 5’6”, and each of us keep competing to see who can stay 40 pounds overweight in the gut. My dad was an athlete, a goddamn machine. He didn't fight in Vietnam, he was in Laos and Cambodia in 70-71, where he was an Airborne Ranger. While overseas, he studied Aikido. The shit that Steven Seagal does. He failed his third degree test, because after he defended himself seven times from upwards of eight men at a time, he got a glancing blow from the FOURTH SWORDSMAN as he was hurling the first swordsman at the second and third. The final test, he failed. So he’s only a second degree.
My brother and I used to mess with my dad. I’ll never forget the day, as we were leaving a Pizza Hut, after my dad met us on his way home from work, when my brother was slapfighting with my dad. The day was waning as we crossed the parking lot and my brother kept sweeping in, slapping my dad on the back of the dress shirt, and feinting punches at him. As I walked a few steps behind them, my dad does this amazingly graceful skip to the right, kicked down into the back of my brother’s knee, and my brother drops like a lead zeppelin. All without hurting anything but his pride. We all laughed, even my brother, because that was fucking AWESOME.
But that was a whole lot of report cards ago. My dad was sprouting a whole of snow around the summit now. And there are a few more Deep Dish Pan pizzas in the bellylands.
As he walked out to the car, he saw four guys helping his friend load stuff into the car. He got closer, and realized they weren’t helping. One of the guys was holding his co-worker’s arms while the other was punching him in the face. The other two guys were in the van, pinning down the woman. One held her, while the other tried to pry her legs apart.
My dad pauses for a moment before sprinting across the parking lot. He tucks himself into a ball and tackles the guy punching his friend, knocking him sideways to the ground. My dad struck the guy at an angle, so their combined weight snapped the man’s leg like a fucking pencil. He falls to the ground screaming, my dad on top of him driving an elbow into his cheek. My dad said he turned around after he felt a thud. That would be the second attacker, punching my dad in the head. All my dad saw was him clutching his knuckles. Two of which he broke when he tried to hit my father. My dad sprung up and turned to the guy who tried to hit him. He swings at my dad again, who tucks the guy's fist under his armpit and strikes the guy in the forearm, snapping his arm in half.
By this time the third guy, the one trying to rape the woman, runs after my dad. My dad lets the guy swing twice before hitting him in the ribs, breaking most of them. The guy was hopped up on something, and goes at my dad again. My dad punches him in the nose, shattering the guy’s nose, spraying blood all over himself. He stops his return strike at the last minute, because he realizes he’s about to drive his palm heel into the guy’s nostrils and jam the bridge of his broken nose into his brain, killing him.
Meanwhile, the fourth guy gets out of the van, and starts running away. At this point, almost all of the middle aged construction workers from the trade show had been piling out of the convention center and noticed the ruckus. So all these fat balding guys in suits and ties chased down the fourth guy, knocked him to the ground and started kicking and punching him until the cops showed up.
News vans pull in. My dad is totally fine, except he’s worried that his name is going to be in the paper, because he doesn’t want people to make a big deal about it. He doesn't want it getting out, the news that an overweight, senior citizen ex-Ranger just fucked up four guys dusted out of their minds. He doesn’t want people calling him a hero or anything. He doesn't want my mom to hear the story. The police have to take his name, in case (get this shit) the guys he fucked up want to press charges. My dad leaves, drives his friend home, and then goes home.
He sneaks up the side stairs and quickly changes his shirt so my mom wouldn’t notice, so she wouldn’t worry about him. He just wants to let the whole thing blow over. The next day, they got in the car and drove up to New Hampshire for my cousin’s graduation.
My dad delivers this entire speech to me while standing against the television, staring at the carpet. Not once does he look up. He’s almost ashamed to tell me the details. Meanwhile, my mom had come in the room around the middle of the story.
He explained to her that that was what the phone call was about. That was his boss, calling to ask if he was okay. The guy he saved had come to the office and told everyone what he had done. He was calling him a hero. My dad didn’t want any part of that. He just did what he had to. He asked me not to tell people what happened.
He told my mom that’s why he hadn’t said anything when he came home. He just didn’t want her to see the blood and get scared that he hurt someone. He’d not a fighter. My dad’s the kind of guy who’ll buy drinks for the bar. He’s a goddamn teddy bear. She was okay, she just wished he told her what happened.
He then shrugs, smiles and says, "Let's go get dinner."
I’m thinking to myself, “I can’t believe you didn’t turn on the fucking camera.”