“How can you beat it?” He would ask me, not really expecting an answer. I know that I picked that saying up from my father over forty years ago when I was a boy. He would say it whenever he realized one of life’s simple pleasures, like the times in his garden after he’d bite into a plump, red, ripe tomato fresh off the vine still warm by the sun. He’d shake salt into the juicy bite from a yellow shaker shaped like an ear of corn he carried in his pocket and would ask with a smile, “How can you beat it?” I’d smile too because I knew what he meant, even if I may not have tried beating whatever “it” may have been. He would occasionally ask the question while sipping on a cold beer, bourbon in a glass or chewing on a red hot tamale pepper that could kill a kid from internal injuries - coming and going if you really want to know. And I would respond to his rhetorical question if only in my head – “you can’t beat it.”
I picked other things up from my father aside from the cut of my chin, width of my shoulders or length of my legs. Some subtle and other not so subtle personality traits that he had, I have too, just like his father’s father before him, I’m sure. Some guys are funny, some are smart and some kids are “chips off the old block” in every respect. My father wasn’t a comedian or genius but a hard working guy who worried about being a good provider for his family. Kids know these things. He tried balancing life’s harsh realities with a passion for the outdoors, hunting and fishing. On one February night when life’s problems must have loomed heavy before him; he stopped being the primary provider, and died when his heart stopped at the age of 47.
On one rainy morning years before that fateful night, I recall him driving me to school. I was in the second grade. As the Winston cigarette smoke filled the air, we rode silently together while I worried about an upcoming test. He knew about my unusual, if not unnatural fear of failing and tried to reassure me by stating the obvious. “It’s just not that important,” he said, trying to lighten my load. I never thought of it like that and nodded at the wisdom in his sentence. He smiled reassuringly, wanting me to know that how I did in school wouldn’t change the way he felt about me. I kissed him good bye on his Aqua Velva shaved cheek and quickly walked up the wet cement sidewalk of that huge social edifice of higher education called Lincoln Elementary School. It was 1964.
I’m fifty years old now and it feels a little strange living longer than my father. There are some things I’d like to have shared with him; like my first bottle of beer, high school girl troubles, or my first real job. It would have been nice to have had him in the stands at a couple of football games I played in, a basketball game here and there and maybe a track meet or two. He would have been proud that I finished college and graduate school, but even I didn’t attend the ceremonies. Pomp and circumstance were not our calling. I’d want him to know that how he did would never change the way I felt about him. Even if I couldn’t actually say the words, I’d make sure he knew until he smiled his understanding. He would have enjoyed my wife and loved my kids. My son looks like him when he was that age; loves to fish and tends to be a bit of a worrier too. It’s in the genes, I guess.
My son’s going into the third grade next fall and he’s already concerned about what may be expected of him. My instructions each morning are simple. “Have fun,” I say, because the fun is what you remember once childhood passes. Unlike the times a generation ago when it wasn’t part of our culture for fathers to say such things, I tell him that how he does in school will never change the way I feel about him. He nods and kisses my cheek before getting on the school bus. Through the picture frame of the school bus window he smiles and waves a thumbs up goodbye.
And the times when it was just the two of us fishing will not be forgotten. With fishing rods in hand he’d ask, “How can you beat this?” And I hear the voice of a little boy before I can actually say the words out loud, “You can’t beat it.”