In memoriam, May 28, 1924 – October 12, 2017
My father, Lester Clouse, managed to get through 93 years of life just fine without ever resorting to ‘cuss-words’ and the short, but powerful list of our English four-letter-word bombs.
As an unworthy son who has relied all too often on those colorful expressions to get someone’s attention, make a point, or express strong feelings, I marvel at my father’s restraint. My children smile in recognition at Gladys Knight and the Pips’ song, “Daddy Could Swear, I Declare,” and there were the conferences at school about the “inappropriate language” they’d obviously learned at home. By the time I was in junior high school, it was clear that other adult men weren’t shy about using the same expressions we were whispering in class when Mrs. Barrow wasn’t looking or shouting at each other on the concrete basketball court at Blessed Sacrament.
But not my dad. Was it because he was being careful when I was in earshot? No one else seems to have heard him using bad words, either. They weren’t part of his vocabulary.
In fact, I’ve never heard my father say anything that couldn’t be uttered from a church pulpit — except perhaps for a politely critical comment about ministers’ financial understanding.
Dad told me more than once the story of how the pastors he served with on a church camp board piously suggested that there was no reason to worry about the dubious multi-million-dollar loan guarantees they were signing. The blithe irresponsibility of their, “The Lord will provide…,” earned Dad’s calm but tart response, “Yes, but he also provided you with a brain!” This without ALL CAPS or multiple exclamation marks, much less a well-placed “damn” that I would have needed to make my point.
Twice in a short period around 1965, though, I put my father into vexing situations where swearing would have been a completely appropriate response.
In the first instance, I’d just got my learner’s permit, and one evening, just after sundown, Dad and I had done a practice drive around the Heights neighborhood where we lived in east Laredo. What an exceptionally patient driver’s ed. Instructor! I was as careless and inept as the average teenage novice driver, but with Dad, there were no white knuckles, gasping inhalations, steering wheel grabbing, or foot stomping on the passenger side floorboard in search of a phantom brake pedal. The very model of patient fatherhood. My own three children. I regret, found themselves the victims of road rage from inside the car with so many expletives deleted that my seat on the passenger side could well have been a Backspace key.
We were headed home, and the car needed gas. I pulled in at the Texaco station on the corner of Guadalupe and Malinche.
Remember that this was 1965, when gas was about 20 cents a gallon, and there was no such thing as self-serve. That is, except at Yeary’s, where I would soon be topping off many a tank of the ’47 Plymouth I bought a couple of months later.
While the guy in the lime-green Texaco uniform shirt and peaked hat you remember from magazine ads if not real life pumped the gasoline, I stood idle next to the car under the fluorescent lights of the pump island.
My friendly dad (who never entered an H.E.B. or Walmart without a cheerful conversation with the greeter) went over to the office to chat with the station manager.
Fidgeting as a fifteen-and-a-half-year-old boy will, I was tossing the car keys up into the night and catching them as they fell. Head back, looking up, I could see the edge of the night’s darkness above the canopy’s lights aiming down at the pumps and me. I threw the keys up a couple of feet and caught them when they fell.
And then the rogue thought: “what if I threw them up into the darkness and caught them as they came back down into the light?”
I tried it. What a great visual effect!
Disappear. Reappear. Up into the dark, down into the light and my hand.
I tried the key toss a third time, but higher. Into the darkness above, …one thousand, two thousand, invisible… and it then it suddenly appears, falling back down into the light and into my hand.
So up go the keys again, but higher. One thousand, two thousand, three thousand, four thousand… five thousand?
Oh, ______ !(This being a family periodical, I omit one of those expressions I’d learned from Johnny Snyder, Beto Piña, Larry McNary, Freddy Dickey, or Les Norton!) when I realized that the keys had landed on the pump island roof!
Brilliant! I’d just thrown the car keys on the roof.
Here comes Dad, “Okay, Dan, let’s go.”
“Uh, er, … um, Dad, the keys are up there,” and I sheepishly look up at the canopy.
“Yeah,” pointing up, “the keys are up there. On the roof.”
“What are the keys doing on the roof?”
“Well, I, uh… threw them up there.”
This was the moment a lesser man would have grasped for the expressive emergency support of 4-letter words.
Instead, Dad asks, “What did you toss them up there for?” without any of the usual embellishments of “for ___ sake” or “in the name of.”
Have you ever had to tell someone you love that you have just done something really stupid?
I have… — and not just on this once. But that, I mean, those are other stories.
With the patience of a saint, Dad got the manager to bring around the 24-foot extensible ladder. I scrambled up and retrieved the car keys.
We drove the eight blocks home to Garfield in silence. I suppose he was wondering what sort of offspring he had on his hands. Perhaps he was pondering the mysteries of random maternal and paternal DNA combinations. Or the strange effect of naming a son after a father-in-law. I have no idea what he was thinking, but it sure wasn’t about enrolling me in MENSA.
A second test of Dad’s tolerance of my stupid mistakes took place maybe six months later, after I’d got my driver’s license and had bought the 1947 Plymouth for $85.
Hector Torres, known to most of you Past Perfect readers as Chiqui, and I were “rolling it.” I think that calque from Border Spanish was the way we used to refer to the act of aimlessly driving around. As in Chuck Berry’s phrase with no particular place to go.
Like many other afternoons we ended up out at Lake Casa Blanca.
It was an easy to remember day: there’d been a hard rain that morning, one of the three or four times it rained in Laredo during my entire childhood and adolescence.
Whooping and yelling, we roared in the ’47 Plymouth through the road’s mud puddles at full-throttle. Huge cascades of muddy splashes like the spray of the cutting water skier on a slalom ski.
Then we tried a little off-roading, fish-tailing and throwing great gobs of mud off the rear wheels.
Too much fun.
Too much, indeed.
It wasn’t long before we got a little too far off the road, where the mud was deep. In twenty seconds, I’d spun the rear wheels into mud wells up to the axles. The poor, mud-splattered Plymouth was stranded, tilted front up, back down, stuck fast in the middle of a field.
“¡Chihuahueños!” we thought and then muttered aloud, when we saw where we were. And probably without the soundalike euphemism.
Chiqui and I hiked to the pay phone at the old concession stand by the picnic tables, and I called Dad.
“Dad, I got stuck in the car.”
“Okay, where are you?”
“Out at the lake.”
“At the lake?”
“Yeah, on the north side… a little off the road.”
My father showed up 20 minutes later in a Yeary’s pickup.
He got out of the truck and walked toward us.
Chiqui and I stood there, hands in our pockets, eyes downcast.
As he approached, Dad’s eyes got wider and wider. His eyebrows were arching higher and higher as he absorbed the incredible sight of the distressed car and the two muddy boys.
“What…? How…?” Words were failing. “How did you get the car all the way out there?”
“I, uh, drove it out there.”
Without commentary Dad hooked up a chain to the truck’s bumper and pulled us out.
Not a single 4-letter word. But then no 2-, 3-, or 5- letter word, either.
One of a kind, my father.
I’ll miss the man who taught me by example, not preaching.
With Lester Clouse I had the reversed, mirror image of the hypocrite who finds an excuse for failures in “Do as I say, not as I do.” With his exemplary patience and by being slow to anger, my father dealt with the frustrating indignities of old age and lost independence in equanimity. His was a long, patient life that I’d like to have imitated more successfully.
In memoriam. Lester Clouse May 28, 1924 – October 12, 2017.