My father was a steamfitter, a term used back in the forties for a pipefitter who assembles, fabricates, maintains, and repairs mechanical piping systems. Dad frequently worked at the Standard Oil Refinery in Sugar Creek, Missouri, on looming cat-crackers that produced gasoline and other products from crude oil.
However, during the winter months, he was often laid off as no work was being done. During those months, he’d get unemployment, but week after week he’d drink away the money in local bars. My grandmother would send us care packages of food.
Every few days, he’d drive into Kansas City and check in at the Pipefitters Union Hall to see if any work was available. His union was on the second floor of a brick building; the first floor was a saloon. After the union meeting, he'd spend the day on a bar stool, mushrooming his beer tab.
In November 1946, when I was in fifth grade, we had no money and so Dad hocked his watch in a pawnshop uptown by the Independence Square. It was a gold pocket watch, which had belonged to his father. He missed that watch, and I missed seeing him take it out of his watch pocket, flick it open, and peruse the time.
That Christmas, Mom managed to buy a gift for my brother and one for me. Both beckoned us from beneath the tree. Surprisingly, she somehow also managed to get Dad's pocket watch out of hock. She swore both my brother and me to secrecy, explaining that she wanted that watch to be a big surprise for my father on Christmas Day.
That December, Dad came home drunk night after night. Mom would send my brother and me to bed, but I’d lie awake by my window, waiting for his car lights to pierce the winter darkness.
On Christmas Eve, as snow fell heavily, he didn’t come home at all. Then the police called: Dad was in jail, picked up for drunken driving. He’d be released the next day, when he was sober.
Christmas morning my brother and I stood looking out the living room window, waiting for him to get home so we could open our gifts. He didn’t come and didn’t come. Then, through the side window, we saw him tramping the deep snow. The police had released him, but not the car, so he’d walked the three miles from the Square, out into the country, and over the fields to our home.
I watched him leaving a unwavering pattern of footprints on the blanket of snow and thought, “He doesn’t deserve to get his watch back.”
Dad came into the house, stomped the snow off his shoes, and mumbled a few words that were lost as my brother and I tore open our gifts.
After we’d hugged and thanked her for our presents, Mom asked my brother to give Dad his gift. We all watched as he opened it. When he saw the watch, tears welled his eyes, trickling down his cheeks and falling on his wrinkled shirt, which was flecked with vomit.
That was the first time I ever saw my father cry.
He held the watch gently in the palm of his left hand and slowly ran the fingertips of his other hand over the inscription. He had no words. He simply sat there in the worn easy chair, his eyes glazed with tears.
We waited. Unsure what to say.
“Thank you,” he finally murmured, raising his head and taking in the three of us standing in front of the tree. He seemed to see all of us for the first time.
My little brother and I went over to the easy chair and hugged him. He was home.
If you haven’t read the guest posting for this past Monday, please stay for a few more moments and read about being homeless in Hawaii.
All photographs from Wikipedia.