My Father

A portrait of a complicated man

My father’s name is Tommy Lee Sanders. That’s the actual name printed on his birth certificate. He did his best to go by Tom for the majority of his adult life.

My father, in 1966, jumped off a third-story hotel balcony with the intention of diving headfirst into a pool. The problem was, the supports were loose and gave way as he stood atop the iron railing and pushed off. He lost his purchase, couldn’t soar out far enough. When he hit, he snapped both wrists on the pool’s concrete edge. A fair amount of beer was involved. He flew off to Vietnam less than a week later. I’ve seen a picture of him in his olive drabs, his bright white casts standing out in stark contrast. I wasn’t born yet, or even conceived. If he’d come up just a few inches shorter, it’s quite probable I wouldn’t exist.

My father was born in 1940 in Stuttgart, Arkansas, a land as level and flat as lake water, a land of levees and rice and soybeans. Stuttgart is the self-proclaimed rice and duck capital of the world. I once stayed in a hotel there. All the hallways had rubber mats over the carpets (like car floor mats, but in extremely long strips) to catch all of the mud from the hunters’ boots when they came back after a long day of killing ducks. That’s the town where my father was born.

My father was an Army brat. His father served in World War II and Korea. My father went to a private, Catholic, all-boys military high school in Alexandria, Louisiana. Think about that for a second: private, Catholic, all-boys, military. Menard High School. When I called him to ask how to spell it, he said: Menard—Mike, Echo, November, Alpha, Romeo, Delta.

My father was valedictorian of his class. Technically, that’s not true: there was a tie, so the principal flipped a coin and my father called heads when he should have called tails, so he got salutatorian. Things were different back then. The brothers (his teachers) wore black cassocks and draped crucifixes around their necks. There was a rumor that, at one time, the brothers would tie the arms of left-handed students behind their backs and make them compose with their right. The brothers would hit the boys if they so much as talked out of turn or looked out the window at a girl. The brothers used a tight fist to the back of the head. The brothers had a special room called “the snake pit,” where they put the boys who didn’t excel.

My father never stepped foot in a church after graduation, save for a wedding or funeral.

My father taught me right from wrong without ever raising a hand (though he raised his voice plenty).

My father attended the U.S. Naval Academy, but he didn’t finish.

My father was an officer in Vietnam. With the Army.

My father has a BS from LSU and an MBA from Georgia State.

My father worked his ass off his entire adult life as an executive for AT&T in New Jersey.

My father was always embarrassed that his real name was Tommy Lee. He thought it made him sound like an ignorant country bumpkin. Ignorant country bumpkin he isn’t.

My father is adamantly opposed to handguns. He’s written many a vitriolic letter to the editor, expressing his hatred of the NRA. He’s been a staunch defender of gay rights as far back as the 1970s. That’s right: the 1970s. He’s written many a letter to the editor about that, too. Same goes for civil rights.

My father’s father was a flat-out racist.

My father’s father once took me for a drive in Arkansas to show me “Niggertown.”

My father’s father once took me to a private club he belonged to. The Pam-Pam. You couldn’t simply enter it like you would a normal restaurant; he had to knock on a door. There was a little panel in the solid wood that mysteriously slid open, and he had to say his name or some secret word. I don’t remember which; I was just a boy. After giving the password, he turned to me and said, “That’s to keep the niggers out.” The Pam-Pam served delicious steaks and the best, fluffiest Arkansas rice I’ve ever tasted, smothered in butter. Most of the kitchen help was black.

My father’s father went blind late in life. He tried to step in front of a passing truck and kill himself near the end. He failed. I’ve never asked my father how that incident affected him.

My father’s mother was legally blind from the time she was a little girl. A boy beaned her with a persimmon and detached her retina. She later went blind in her other eye, too. Macular degeneration. When she died, she had severe dementia. She didn’t even know who my father was. I’ve never asked my father how that affected him, either.

My father, later in life, on vacation in Kiawah, South Carolina, took a little girl’s pink foam pool noodle one evening. Then he walked across the backyard toward a canal: tepid, brackish, and filled with crabs, clams, and shrimp. That canal was also home to one menacing alligator, which would come up on shore. “Tom, get back here. . . .Tom, you’re scaring the children. . . .Tom, you’re drunk.” My father, gripping the pink noodle, walked across the Bermuda grass toward the gator, which was five or six feet long. The little girl (a friend’s granddaughter) began crying—whether out of fear and concern for my father or (more likely) for her noodle, I can’t say. But she did cry. Perhaps someone might have advised—if anyone had known at the time, had happened to have such random stats filed away—that an alligator can run nearly ten miles per hour. My father, at 275 pounds, at sixty-something years old, with a bad back, could probably run four miles an hour. Maybe five if a gator was after him. Regardless, even if such information had been available, he wouldn’t have listened. My father walked up to the gator, only a noodle’s length away, and, without hesitation, smacked the beast right across the top of its ridged snout. The alligator opened its jaws and held them ajar. So my father smacked the gator again, this time right in the mouth. That poor animal, still amazed by my father’s audacity, did what it’s programmed to do. It snapped down on that helpless noodle, causing the ends to curl into a pink smile. And then it backpedaled into the murk of the canal and slowly submerged, the pink tips like periscopes as they disappeared beneath the surface. The little girl went into hysterics, suggesting that her concern had indeed been only for the noodle. My father was pleased with his bravado.

My father once drove by several bags of garbage on the side of the road. He pulled over, picked up the bags, opened them, and found discarded junk mail and letters, all with the same address. He put the trash in his trunk and drove to the address. He planned to throw the bags on the front lawn. At the last moment, he decided against it because he couldn’t be absolutely sure. To this day, he regrets that decision.

My father always loved that old commercial where the Indian cried by the highway while staring in anguish at all the litter.

My father had a pack of matches and, when I was six, asked me, “Have you ever seen a match burn twice?” I said that I hadn’t. So he lit one and let it burn for a few seconds. Then he blew it out. “That’s once, right?” he asked. I nodded. Then he took the head of that hot match and stuck it to the bare skin of my arm. “That’s twice,” he said, and laughed. Don’t have a hissy fit. It shocked me but didn’t hurt. Not really. I thought it was funny. And I learned something important that day.

My father‘s appendix burst, and when the doctors did a standard biopsy following the operation to remove it, they found that he had colon cancer. He beat it.

My father, without telling anyone, parachuted out of an airplane to celebrate his sixtieth birthday, not too long after the colon cancer. He got airsick on the way up and wrenched his knee on the way down.

My father occasionally wears penny loafers with tube socks, khaki shorts, and a tucked-in white T-shirt—belt optional.

My father voted for George H.W. Bush.

My father voted for Bill Clinton. Twice. My father voted for George W. Bush. Twice. Yes, even the second time. (The Swift Boater propaganda worked on my father. Don’t mess with Vietnam vets; he takes that shit very personally.)

My father voted for Barack Obama. Twice.

My father enjoys Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Also, Family Guy.

My father loves storms and lightning and thunder.

My father has witnessed two tornadoes. On both occasions, he stood outside and watched instead of seeking shelter.

My father is amazed by the stars, the moon, the planets, the space station, satellites.

My father, as a boy, would bust apart thermometers so he could play with the mercury. That might explain a lot, actually.

My father has seven toothbrushes in his bathroom—one for each day of the week. I’m not joking. He has tried to explain his logic, something about how it makes each one last longer. It makes no goddamn sense.

My father once punished me for two weeks of summer vacation because I forgot to brush my teeth. I never forgot again.

My father once washed my hair with toilet water after our pipes froze, because there was no way in hell (his words) that I was going to miss a day of school (messy hair—and therefore getting made fun of—being my excuse). Years later, he maintains the water came from the tank. I say it was the bowl.

My father was intimidating. Sometimes, even cruel. He could make me feel small and inadequate. I was never good enough. I always did things wrong. It took me a long time, well into adulthood, to realize that almost always when he acted that way, there was alcohol on his breath. As a teenager, I rebelled. I’d had enough. I started drinking when I was twelve or thirteen. I did drugs, got in trouble, had no ambition, no motivation, no purpose. I didn’t care.

My father and I had a lot of long, hard, bitter years. We didn’t like each other for quite a while. A lot of that was my fault. A lot of it was his.

My father taught me to stand up to bullies, not because they harassed me but because they bullied those who couldn’t defend themselves. He said to get in their faces just once and they’d back off and run away with their tails between their legs. He was right. I protected several kids when I was young, thanks to him, and I’m still proud of that. But I could never stand up to my father.

My father taught me honesty. To be a leader. My father taught me the value of hard work, not by preaching it but by doing it. He taught me how to take care of my family, to raise my son, to do whatever I had to do to put food on the table. He taught me the importance of a firm handshake and to look the person in the eye when doing it. He taught me how to play poker. And never to welch on a bet.

My father pronounces naked as “nekkid.”

My father calls a gas station a “filling station.”

My father eats cereal every morning with slices of banana. When he was a kid, he ate cereal with weevils crawling around in the grain. He still eats eggs well after their expiration date. Milk, too. My father easily puts a quarter-stick of butter on one dinner roll. More if there’s any surface area left.

My father has an iron stomach.

My father drinks too much, eats too much, is overweight. But he’s happy. And he’s earned it.

My father let me drive for the first time when I was twelve. A little 1980 Honda hatchback. He let me lean over and steer while he worked the clutch, stick, gas, and brake. We were headed to McDonald’s to pick up dinner. Oncoming cars made me nervous, but he didn’t seem concerned. He trusted me. As we came off the bridge spanning the Musconetcong River, the traffic light at the end turned yellow. My father punched it, but a car pulled out from our right, zipping from the Golden Skillet parking lot. There was no time to do anything. We slammed into the driver’s side door. My knees went into the dashboard. The Honda’s horn wouldn’t stop blowing—a high-pitched, incessant whine like that of a mosquito in the hollow of my ear. My father grabbed the steering wheel and pulled violently. The horn stopped. The traffic stopped. The ache in my knees didn’t stop. The cops were there even before my father exited to examine the damage. “Let’s not tell anyone you were steering,” he said, after making sure I was okay. I nodded as steam oozed from the crumpled hood. It was as close to a lie as I’ve ever heard him say. At least as far as I’m aware.

My father let me drive for real in Arkansas two years later. On flat, straight roads with only soybean fields in every direction, I sat behind the wheel and went for it. I got up to fifty-five miles per hour. My father even let me pass a car that was going too slow. In New Jersey, the driving age was seventeen. I drove for the first time three years before I could legally get my license. Technically, I got into my first car accident five years before I could legally get my license. But nobody knew that . . . except my father.

My father saw a woman pull out in front of a semi and get killed instantly. Her fault. My father was first on the scene. He was also first on the scene when a neighbor had a heart attack and crashed into a telephone pole. The neighbor died, too.

My father’s eulogy will be given by me someday. This is what I’ll read.

My father taught me how to change a tire when I was fifteen.

My father pulled over and changed a tire for a stranded black woman during a pouring rainstorm. He was dressed in a suit and tie, and was late for work. But he did it.

My father and I swam with a pair of dolphins in the Bahamas. Not at some fancy resort, but out in the middle of the crystalline ocean, completely on our own, right at sunset, with snorkel gear. One came directly at me, so close that I heard—or actually felt—the clicks it made with its jaw.

My father retired on a lake. The lake attracted a lot of Canada geese, which liked to use his lawn as their toilet. That pissed my father off. So he chased the flocks of geese with his Sea-Doo, sending them honking and flapping and racing over the water. Once, he did that with my five-year-old son sitting between his legs. The neighbors didn’t think that was a good idea and let him know about it. My father let them know he didn’t give a rat’s ass what they thought, nor did he care that “the geese were here first.”

My father no longer has a problem with goose shit on his lawn.

My father told my son, ten years after the goose incident, that he didn’t care for him much when he’d been a child. Said he’d been more or less a little shit.

My son loves my father a ton. Thinks he’s hilarious. Calls him Granddaddy.

My father has never stolen as much as one penny in his entire life. If I was ever told otherwise, I’d truly be shocked.

My father once tied his dead, broken-down riding mower to the back of his Pontiac—the front wheels resting on the trunk of the car, the rear wheels on the pavement, the entire machine tilted at a forty-five-degree angle—and towed it to the dump because he didn’t want to pay to have someone haul it off.

My father has a lot of lawnmower stories. Here’s another: my father’s front yard is extremely steep. He likes to mow in the evening while drinking wine out of a New Jersey Devils plastic cup. His wine cup. One day, he came down the hill running a little hot, turned the wheels too sharply, and flipped the thing. He got tossed, and when he looked up, a giant orange Husqvarna riding mower was barreling toward him, so he logrolled down the hill like a 275-pound child trying to get dizzy. He was pretty banged up. He was sixty-four when he did that.

My father did the exact same thing again a month later, except this time the damn mower did run him over. He bruised his ribs and messed up his elbow. When he examined himself in the mirror after the accident, he noticed black tread marks on his white T-shirt.

My father is unable to look in the mirror and see the scars that Vietnam left. But they’re there. He lost only one man under his command. I originally wanted to write, He lost only one man under his command, but whether he’d lost one or one hundred, it was too many for him. It affected/affects him profoundly. One of the hardest things I ever did was approach him and suggest that he go to a therapist who worked with Vietnam vets. He didn’t want to go, didn’t feel he needed any help, but he went for me.

My father has never cried in front of me.

My father took me to my first movie when I was five. It was the war film Midway, with Charlton Heston and Peter Fonda. Not whatever children’s movie happened to be the matinee, but Midway.

My father, when I was in first grade, showed me the giant, zipper-like scar he got from his hernia operation. He said, “That’s where a shark bit me.” I thought that was cool. I wanted a scar like that when I grew up.

My father was good at catching snakes. I thought that was cool, too.

My father, around the same time he showed me the hernia scar, let me play with his binoculars. He warned me never to look at the sun through them. As soon as he turned around and went back to his business, I took the binoculars and aimed them straight at the sun. I’ve never done that again.

My father, his mishap at the hotel pool notwithstanding, was an expert diver and an excellent swimmer. He taught me to do a back flip when I was three years old. We have pictures to prove it. Bystanders were amazed. He could also do a gainer. I never could.

My father, as I write this, is seventy-two. Overweight and all, he can still do a back flip off his dock into the lake.

My father’s favorite movie is a tie between Babe and Shrek. His favorite song is “Bridge over Troubled Water.” My father has his very own Xbox. The only game he plays is Call of Duty.

Up until I was nearly forty years old, I don’t remember my father ever telling me he loved me. Now, often with drink on his breath (but not always), he tells me all the time.

About the Author

Scott Loring Sanders

Scott Loring Sanders lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. In 2014, he had a story featured in The Best American Mystery Stories, as well as an essay in Creative Nonfiction #53: Mistakes.

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