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June 16th, 2011

For Dad: “I am the man my father built.”

Never in my short life had I been camping. I hated the grit of dirt and leaves, bugs, peeing outdoors, and the looming prospect of sleeping amongst it all. The woods looked like the terrarium for my pet alligator, and from what I could tell, Wally didn’t sleep all that great either.

MarkDad1984Dad thought it was just terrific (“Want to make a fire with two sticks, Mark?” “Did you count the worms in the bait can?”) and he was getting along well with the other dads at this father/son campout with my Cub Scout troop. For that I was grateful.

At school they were calling me a queer and at church the jocks were chasing me down the halls for wearing platforms. But Cubs was populated with other misfits like me. I wondered if the Scouts was a club that parents paid to give their kid friends.

The dusk air was filled with the sounds of mallets thumping, as duos of fathers and sons pitched their tents. Dad was nearly giddy as he carried a long bag from the car. I’ll bet he bought us a brand new one, I thought, since we never went camping before.

Dad unrolled the bag at our feet. There, stretched across the ground, was clear plastic and some twine. Nothing more.

“Somebody stole our tent!” I said, shocked.

Dad laughed. He was one of those men who began most sentences with a laugh or a “heh heh” sound. It was endearing but not at the moment.

“Nope, sport, that’s our tent,” he said, “let’s get it going.” He started to unfold it. I stared and stared. It looked like the largest plastic leftover baggie I’d ever seen. My face felt flush with embarrassment.

DadDavidSplinter1968cropDad was strange. He always had projects going on in the shop or downstairs, like building a grand piano from cardboard (no special reason) or learning about geodesic domes and making one the size of a Starbucks in the back yard. Out of clear plastic. Getting a splinter removed from my foot became a lesson in physiology, not little piggies.

His obsession for years was box kites, the bigger the better. He started with a six-foot prototype, flying it in a cotton field near home. Then we worked all summer on a box kite the size of a Winnebago that we transported to the field on a flatbed truck. It crashed after a few glorious minutes and Dad, predictably, laughed. “Wow!” he gleefully shouted. “Did you see that crash? Spectacular!”

On weekends you always heard his low, rumbling laugh in the basement when he “had an idea.” Mom hated it when he had an idea.

Dad was now pitching a plastic baggie, and the others were noticing. The mallet thumping slowed and heads turned. Why did we have to be so different? I liked fitting in with this group of Scouts. Dad was ruining everything.

“Dad,” I offered, speaking in the calm manner of a hostage negotiator, “why don’t we borrow a tent?” I looked around and didn’t see anyone who felt like interacting, much less lending. I wondered how long a K-Mart run might take.

MarkatTenHe paused and twirled his wooden mallet. I was surprised it wasn’t made from clear plastic. “Heh heh,” he replied. “Nobody has one like this. I made it for us! Nobody makes one like this.” He draped the plastic sheet across a clothesline contraption he’d made and then it struck me.

The stares. The withering, judgmental stares of the others. Once inside our leftover baggie, they could still stare as much as they liked. There was no place to hide. I wanted to throw myself on the campfire.

“But Dad,” I tried, a bit more desperately, “everyone can see us. You can see through this!”

“That’s the beauty of it!” and he bellowed a laugh that produced more squinty glances from around camp. “Look up, Mark! We’ll be able to see the stars!”

Those days, and that moment, are lost to time now, and so is my father. Not long after camping out under the stars, our personas traded places. I embraced my sexuality and my misfit charms, while Dad’s struggle to understand my life made him just another parent who didn’t get it. Worst of all, he was made to contend with a teenager who saw him as something abhorrent: typical.

We had many years, later, when our outlooks merged again and we reveled in his various projects and my work as an outspoken gay man. Dad raised exactly what he valued, a man who steps up and asks stupid questions and knows that to soar you must risk the occasional, spectacular crash.

On my best days I live happily in a clear plastic tent of my own design, writing and living as an HIV positive queer for all to see. And on the worst of days, my mind’s eye conjures up a hearty laugh coming from nearby, maybe the basement, where something is being built that will solve absolutely everything.

Usually it’s a box kite, crafted from unlikely supplies and fatherly magic, that carries me far, far away.

(This originally posted in August of 2010, but my late father is very much on my mind during Father’s Day weekend. Thanks for giving this another look.)

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15 Responses to “For Dad: “I am the man my father built.””

  1. Kai Says:

    June 16th, 2011 at 8:03 am

    I wish I would have had this type of relationship with my father. There were never summer camps, kites or anything of that matter. Any gay men that has memories of his father should cherish them every moment of their lives.

  2. Bill Trimble Says:

    June 16th, 2011 at 8:05 am

    Love this story. Reminds me a bit of my relationship with my Dad. John Trimble loved his basement workshop, the smell of sawdust, immaculate peg board walls displaying tools of every size and shape. I remember him “assisting” happily with the Scouts Pinewood Derby car. How my car was inexplicably flawless, with a probable “illegal weight” inside. Dad liked to win, as do I. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Kristen Says:

    June 16th, 2011 at 8:18 am

    Loved it even more the second read! It captures the true nature of Pops.

  4. R J Hadleyr Says:

    June 16th, 2011 at 10:51 am

    My dad was like yours in that he could build and fix anything (I guess growing up in the “Great Depression” helped). From him I learned to use hand tools, be patient and some self sufficiency. When I made Eagle Scout, as a surprise, he took the invitation, cut it out and framed it (it hangs on a wall by my front door). Not having officially come out ’til after he passed, I don’t think he’d be happy with me being gay but I know he’d love me just the same.

    Queer that way from others I guess.

  5. Butch McKay Says:

    June 16th, 2011 at 12:11 pm

    Great reflection of a wonderful relationship. I lost my father too ealry in life so my reflections are limited but wonderful.

  6. Bill K Says:

    June 16th, 2011 at 1:12 pm

    Bravo, Mark! Terrific last two paragraphs. I wish I had written them!
    (Only a fine writer like yourself would mention that! Thanks, Bill. I am proud of the closing too. — Mark)

  7. Michael H Says:

    June 16th, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    Mark,
    Thanks for sharing! This brought tears to my eyes reading your awesome experiences and memories of your father.
    It made me reminisce of wonderful, and some not so, however all proud moments I had with my father. I wish we could all have experienced wonderful and fond memories of our fathers. It’s shameful some families can’t say such. Hopefully, more sons and daughters can now have more of those times than those in the past.

  8. Nancy L. Says:

    June 16th, 2011 at 6:21 pm

    Mark,
    We always knew we had a genius for a Dad. Being a King meant we were different from other families, but in a good way. Nothing about us was ever boring. All Kings try something different and aren’t afraid of building things ourselves (except Mom, but she has us for that). I miss that laugh that was so deep and loud. My favorite quote of Dad’s was when we would comment on how different or unusual his creation may be and he would say. “That’s the beauty of it.” We were so blessed.
    Love, Nancy

  9. Carole Ann Says:

    June 16th, 2011 at 7:02 pm

    Thank you for reposting. It’s just as good a read as the first time.

  10. subversive librarian Says:

    June 17th, 2011 at 6:20 am

    God, Mark. Just beautiful.

  11. Carrol Hanna Says:

    June 17th, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    My Grandpa had the most Jolly Laugh of mankind. I always envisioned that Santa Clause would have laughed that way as a child. A few memories of mine are the Kite as big as the garage with David and Mark helping after school not sure the size but as a child it was HUGE! The Bubble Circles he made that made a bubble as big as a basketball. And last but certainly not least when the Sunday football games were on and Cindy (the dog) by his side and his enormous SNORE, just made me sleepy every time without fail, I would fall asleep beside him. Miss you Grandpa.
    Love, Carrol

  12. Anne Says:

    June 17th, 2011 at 6:12 pm

    Our memories will keep him alive forever. I’ll always remember him saying, “You know what we should do?” and waiting with some trepidation for just what it was that we should do! He was always fun, sometimes unpredictable, but always interested in what was going on in the family. We can always have a ball guessing, “what would Pops do or think about that.” Thanks for your blog, weren’t we lucky?

  13. Sue Says:

    June 18th, 2011 at 7:19 am

    I never knew a father. It seems you had the best.

  14. Aunt Carrol Says:

    June 18th, 2011 at 7:34 am

    Mark, you have written a beautiful description of your Dad! Thank you for sharing. Only wish he could read it today and we could all listen to his booming laugh one more time. I don’t remember life before Harold King. He was a part of my life all of my life. He was special. He was unique. He was Harold. You were blessed with a wonderful Dad. Please continue to cherish and share your many marvelous memories. I loved him too.

  15. Judy Says:

    June 23rd, 2011 at 4:23 am

    What a lovely piece, thank you for sharing it with us.

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