On a beautiful late summer day in 1967, just before I was to be married, my parents went to a neighborhood barbecue. I was thinking of my parents as old, then, but they were just in their early forties – still vibrant and youthful in the world’s eyes. They went to the party as a couple, no children in tow, which was an unusual event. We were a family of eight, and for some odd reason, all of us children were busy elsewhere.
There were about 10 families at the barbecue, most with small children; a group that had been friends for decades, sharing service in the local American Legion together and watching their collective children grown up. Most lived in Cape Cod or ranch style houses on streets named Ash, Pine, Maple or Mulberry – houses purchased under the GI Bill.
It was a hot afternoon and the backyard pool was full of little ones. The moms stood waist deep along the edge – cocktails and ashtrays close at hand – cooling off in the water and keeping an eye on the children, while attempting to keep their Aqua Net-sprayed hairdos and their cigarettes dry. The men were gathered around the charcoal grill and a keg of beer, hand pumping the mechanism that kept it pouring, and telling stories. Every once in awhile, one of the men would tell a joke and all the women would turn their heads to see what the men were laughing about.
It was my father’s turn to pump and he had just grasped the handle when the pressurized keg exploded. The cluster of men were peppered with shrapnel but the pump handle caught an eight year old boy directly under the chin. His body immediately dropped but his head sailed into the pool.
The mothers grabbed whatever child they could reach, their own or someone else’s, it didn’t matter. They ran for the street, around the front of the house, clustering in a dripping knot on the sidewalk. Most of the children had no idea what had happened but the mothers knew. And the fathers knew.
First aid was rendered to the men who were drenched in beer and bleeding. Someone covered the little boy’s body with a gaily striped beach towel. My father, despite a broken eye socket, three broken fingers, and slices on his face, hands and arms, took the pool skimmer and removed the child’s head from the pool. He put it under the striped beach towel and sat heavily into a lawn chair where his only view was a pink-tinted pool.
Emergency vehicles, ambulances, and police arrived. My father, the child’s parents, and four other injured men were taken to the hospital. Statements were taken. The police retrieved the beach bags, pocketbooks, towels and clothing from the back yard so the mothers could get their children home quickly, where they peeled wet bathing suits from little bodies and tucked them into bed with songs and prayers and shaking hands, trying to keep their babies’ innocence intact.
My father and mother returned home very late that night and, worried, I met them at the door. My mother was crying and my father’s face was nearly unrecognizable. He silently walked to his bedroom and quietly closed the door.
That was when he stopped speaking.
My father was a tall Irish electrician and had always been a quiet man – quiet in the sense that only the snap-crackle-pop of his ankles, damaged in World War II when he parachuted from a plane, gave him away when he walked into a room. He was not prone to outbursts or shouting or laughing or singing. He was an observer, a man who watches the world around him intently and gently. He loved the ham radio, where he could sit quietly for hours, listening to other people’s conversations. Every once in a great while, when pressured by one of us children, he would talk quietly about his parents or his childhood. He was well spoken but controlled his words, using only those few that conveyed his meaning – not tossing words around willy nilly just to hear them. When my father talked, the whole family listened. It was like catching sight of a rare bird at the feeder and holding your breath so as not to scare it away.
I’m not telling you that he never spoke again, because he did. At my wedding, one month after the explosion, he said “Her mother and I do,” when the priest asked who gives this woman to be married. He would say “thank you” when passed the peas or ham. But after the explosion, mostly he quietly said “Please get me another beer.”
Every morning, both before and after my wedding, my father and I carpooled to the same company for work. He did not speak in the car. Not coming. Not going. Once at home, he sat in silence in his worn platform rocker to watch the news before dinner. Beer after beer disappeared before the meal, followed by beer after beer afterwards, while watching Gunsmoke or Ed Sullivan or The Red Skelton Show.
He grew thin.
My mother argued. He remained silent.
My mother begged. Silence was her answer.
He was so far away from us that we began to forget he was there. I didn’t ask him marital advice before he walked me down the aisle. My younger brothers and sisters didn’t ask him for driving lessons, or share honors won at school. There became that single startling moment each evening when he walked in the kitchen door after work and all heads would turn in surprise as if an old friend had unexpectedly shown up.
By the next summer, the explosion lawsuits began – against the keg manufacturer, the beer company (it was Budweiser) and against Macaluso’s Market, which sold the keg – and my father turned grey. Sitting in court, required to retell the story over and over, was like when a woodpecker fixates on one thin tree and, almost overnight it seems, the tree becomes riddled with holes, holes that let the wind whistle through and diminish its tenuous strength and stability.
That was when my father’s words came only once or twice a week, and the beer was replaced with vodka. He began silently walking into the back yard, when the house was sleeping and dark, and draping himself over the dog house where he tried to exorcise the pain in his heart by letting his tears cascade down his face and over the dog house shingles.
The trials ended. Holidays came and went. Birthdays passed by. Suddenly it was another hot summer, more barbecues were held, friends gathered and he remained silent.
We still rode back and forth to work together. After he picked me up each morning, I’d greet him and chatter on during the ride, using my stories as crowbars, trying to pry my way into him, imagining that one secret password that would open the door, unhinge the lock, and abracadabra him back to me.
I carefully watched his gray eyes as they carefully watched the road, his wrinkled hands on the steering wheel, his Chesterfield wafting smoke from the ashtray.
Those rides became a tightrope walk – I wanted to bang him on his head, or pull at his cheeks in a hopeless effort to knock him awake but I also wanted to put his head on my shoulder and hold him tightly and take his burdens into myself and gift him his freedom.
One fall afternoon we passed by a house with a many-paned bay window – a window that we had passed by every workday for three years – and I casually remarked that I had always loved that window.
“That’s a perfect window for a Christmas tree,” my father said.
My hands went to my heart and I held my breath. “What was your Christmas tree like when you were little, Dad?” I asked.
And we had a conversation. The first conversation my father had held with anyone in 1,124 days. It was a short little talk. We talked about Christmas trees and how my dad, his sister Joan and their brother Mickey had long ago hung the stockings off the dining room buffet because they had no fireplace. Just a few words – possibly just four or five sentences, but I felt I was drowning – not in a panicked, out of breath kind of way, but rather in a washing over of joy, of goosebumps on my skin, of the electricity of reconnection. A baptism to a new beginning.
When he dropped me off at my house, I reached over and covered his hand on the steering wheel and he quickly cut his eyes my way and then turned them back to the windshield. “See you tomorrow,” he said, as if my poor, damaged father had not just restarted the spin of the world.
“Talk with you then, Dad,’’ I answered.
Sharon Mack is a retired journalist living on the coast of Maine: writer, artist, grandmother, community activitist, depending on the need.