5 Unorthodox Life Lessons From Dad

I was lucky enough to have had a cool dad. A really cool dad. The kind of dad who would help you smuggle contraband rock albums into the house and help you hide them from Mom. The kind of dad who knew you couldn’t afford action figures, so he’d make awesome, handmade paper dolls of your favorite cartoon characters. The kind of dad who made as many inappropriate, filthy jokes at inopportune moments as he did delicious lunches. (Uh… Homemade crab cakes, catfish nuggets, or bologna roll-ups packed with crumbled potato chips? Yes, please!)

In honor of Father’s Day, here are five rather unorthodox life lessons that Dad taught me that stuck with me to this day. Thanks, Dad! I love you.

1. Put Things Back Where You Found Them

Before I turned 16 and got my first job flipping burgers for some extra cash, Mom gave my brother and I an oh-so-generous monthly allowance of $5.00. Our grandma would give Mom some extra pocket money for herself each month and give my brother and I about $30 each month. Mom kept most of the cash Grandma gave us locked away in this pink suitcase that she hid in her closet. Sometimes, she would break out some of the cash and treat us to fine dining at McDonald’s and let us order from the dollar menu.

Pulling down a grand total of $1.25 a week made it difficult to smuggle in the aforementioned contraband albums into the house.  Desperate times called for desperate measures. My money was being hidden away in the house and I was determined to get my mitts on at least an extra $10 each month to expand my music collection.

At the age of 11, I taught myself to pic locks using bobby pins, steak knives, and other household items. I got good at it and, one day, when I knew Mom would be out of the house for a while, I found the suitcase where she kept the money and managed to pick the locks. I dug through the box, frantically trying to locate the envelope with my name on it. That’s right. I was going to steal some of my own money.  I eventually found the envelope and swiped a $10 to spend at the record store later that week.

Mission accomplished.

In my haste, I didn’t realize that I had left the various bills, envelopes, and stacks of cash in a sad state of disarray.

Later in the week, I was hanging out in the kitchen and Dad asked, “So, what album did you buy this week?”

“Huh?”

“And how did you get into the pink suitcase to get the money?”

Shit. He knew.

I never hid anything from Dad, so I came clean and told him that I picked the lock and took a Hamilton. Hell, it wasn’t like I was stealing anyone else’s money. Just my own.

Dad laughed. He was pretty impressed that I taught myself to pick the lock.

“How did you know?” I asked.

“Because I went into the box to take some cash out for myself and saw everything was a mess.” My brother and I weren’t the only ones on a meager allowance. Despite the fact that Dad was our household’s sole breadwinner until Mom went back to teaching when I started high school, Mom kept him on a similarly scant allowance of $50 per month.

“Remember,” he told me. “Always put things back the way you found them. That way, you won’t tip anyone off that you’ve been there.”

From that point forward, I made sure to take a mental snapshot of a room, place, or suitcase beforehand and put things back exactly where I found them.

 

2. It’s All Pink Inside… Don’t Judge.

The year I started high school, Mom resumed her teaching career, picking up various substitute teaching opportunities throughout the district. Since Mom would

Dad back in the day as a touring musician.

Dad back in the day as a touring musician.

sometimes have to be in earlier and Dad didn’t start work until later in the day, he would drive me, my brother, and my friend Dave to school in the mornings. Dad would almost always have little travel mugs of tea prepared for us and would frequently rattle off a few jokes here and there from behind the wheel.

One morning, shit got real. Really real.

We stopped at a red light.  I was riding shotgun and saw my father’s eyes glaze over, staring past the red light and reaching back into his own past.

“You know, kids,” he began. “The other night, I was thinking. I’ve been with about 100 to 125 different women in my life. Black girls. White girls. Hispanic girls. Never had sex with an Asian girl, though. Never had the chance….”

My jaw hit the floor. I looked behind me and saw similar looks of shock and horror on my friend and brother’s faces.

What the fuck was going on? Was Dad losing his marbles? Had the cheese slid off his cracker? Should I just unfasten my seat belt, open the door, and tuck-and-roll out onto the highway now?

“But you know what I realized?” Dad continued. “It’s all pink inside, kids. We’re all the same. None of us are any better or any worse than each other. Race, age, male, female, gay, straight… It doesn’t matter. It’s all pink inside.”

When the shock and absurdity of he scenario finally wore off, Dad actually taught us all a very nice, very valuable life lesson.

Before he settled into a job working at a yarn factory, Dad was a touring / studio musician throughout the 1960s and ’70s. His musician status gave him access to the massive amounts of tail he mentioned. In later years, I had several talks with Dad about his life on the road. At one point, he was the only white dude in a band and, during the days where much of the U.S. was heavily segregated, a hotel owner told my father, “You can stay here, but the rest of your band needs to go somewhere else.” Dad told the owner to, plainly, go fuck himself and he and the rest of the band spent the night at a YMCA.

Dad lived a colorful life and never hesitated to share his stories with others. Not only were these stories entertaining, they taught us all a lot about honesty and integrity… And getting a lot of ass, too.

 

3. The Magical Mystery Hangover Cure

Schaefer Beer: One half of the dynamic duo that sponsored my first teenage bender.

Schaefer Beer: One half of the dynamic duo that sponsored my first teenage bender.

During my sophomore year of high school, I started experimenting with alcohol. Nothing major, just testing the waters to see what was so great about this stuff you had to be 21 or older to consume. One Monday night, while Mom and my brother were out and Dad was still at work, I decided to party… With myself.

I snagged an ice cold pounder of Schaefer beer from the fridge and found where Mom hid the Jim Beam. I proceeded to belt back a shot of whiskey and chased it with the beer.

I didn’t feel anything. No buzz. Not even a hint of a buzz.

I probably just had to repeat the process again. No big deal.

So, I did.

After a second shot and a second 16 oz. can of beer, I finally had a bit of a buzz going. It was a nice, fuzzy feeling, but not much different from that phase between wakefulness and sleep.

Let’s do this one more time! I said to myself. Rinse, lather, repeat.

After that third shot and that third can, I felt awesome!

For about 20 minutes.

That’s when the alcohol kicked in and the room started to spin.

I had no idea what to do. I didn’t want to go to sleep because I wanted to watch Monday Night Raw and see Shawn Michaels face Yokozuna, but I felt like death warmed over.

Too stewed to do homework or read, I proceeded to drunk dial a few of my friends in order to stay awake. They put up with my slurring proclamations of love, admiration, and wanting the best for them in life before it was time for me to hang up, wrap myself in a blanket, and park myself in front of the tube to watch wrestling.

Mom and my brother were still out and it was about 9:30 when Dad got home. He saw me huddled in front of the TV, curled up in a chair with a blanket wrapped around me, trying to stop myself from shivering.

“You don’t look so good,” he said. “You sick?”

I shook my head slowly.

“Are you drunk?”

I nodded.

Dad asked me what I had drank, how much, and when. Instead of flipping out, he handed me a big glass of ginger ale.

“Go make yourself throw up,” he said. “You need to get that out of your system. Plus, I don’t want you to choke on your own vomit in your sleep like Mama Cass. Next, drink a little ginger ale so you grease up your esophagus and you’re not forcing yourself to vomit. While you go and barf, I’m going to make you some dry toast. You’re going to eat that, let it soak up the alcohol. Then you’re going to take a couple aspirin and have a big glass of water before you go to bed. Just stay quiet while you’re watching wrestling and don’t let Mom know you got into the booze.”

He also warned me that I could be expecting to take a couple serious beer shits within the next hour or so.

Dad let me off the hook with some practical advice on how to avoid a hangover. Seeing how pitiful I looked, he knew that there was no way in hell I’d be mixing up any drinks for a long time after the incident. He was right on both counts. That hangover cure has served me well on several occasions. I was really lucky to have the Dad I did who made sure I didn’t have alcohol poisoning and that I learned my lesson with as little pain as possible.

 

4. Make Even the Worst Days Fun

Humor played a big role in my family’s life. Even in the worst of times, Dad always found a way to make a bad situation a little lighter.

When Mom was in the hospital recovering from an 8-hour Whipple surgery, Dad, my brother, and I sat in the waiting room. When you’re inside a hospital, you see a lot of people running around. Your mind starts to wonder about who they’re looking after, who’s on the verge of death, and how the person you’re waiting for is doing on the operating table.

You hear all of these messages over the intercom: Code Pink. Code Blue. Code Brown.

I remember sitting in that hospital waiting room — all sorts of awful thoughts crowded in my head — when the loudspeaker burst in with a “Code Brown on Floor 4.” Seizing the moment, Dad made a fart noise with his mouth before imitating the voice on the intercom: “Code Brown! I repeat, Code Brown! Mr. Smith just shit himself on the fourth floor. Code Brown!”

We couldn’t help but laugh out loud. Not that Dad wasn’t just as scared or worried as my brother and I, but he had enough wisdom and life experience to know that a good dose of inappropriate humor can help lighten one of the darkest hours.

 

5. The Subversive Joy of Staying Up Late

eddie-murphy-deliriousAt least once a week, Dad would stop off at the video store on his way home from work and bring home a few movies for all of us to watch. I’ll never forget the night he came home with Eddie Murphy’s Delirious. The entire family sat down after dinner to check out Eddie Murphy’s stand-up routine. After the first 20 minutes — or at least after the part where Eddie’s doing his Ralph Kramden impersonation, bends over, and instructs Norton to “staaaaaaart fuckin,'” Mom pulled the plug and said this was not appropriate entertainment for me or my brother.

“But, Mom!” I wailed. “It’s not like we haven’t heard this shit before! Come on!” It was true. Although I was 11 at the time, I was more than familiar with a lot of the words Eddie was using to pepper his routine. In fact, I’d heard most of those words come from Mom far more often than I heard them from Dad.

“No.” Mom had a unique, rather pointed way of saying “no” that let you know she meant it. Her eyes would narrow, her tone would become more clipped, and her mouth would form a near-perfect straight line.

That was the end of that.

Later that night, after Mom was asleep, Dad poked his head in my doorway. Being an insomniac, I was already awake.

“Hey, kid,” Dad said. “Wanna watch the rest of the Eddie Murphy video with me?”

“Hell, yeah!” I tried to contain my enthusiasm and remain as quiet as possible. Dad knew I loved comedy and filthy jokes. Eddie Murphy was my favorite SNL star when I was a kid and missing out on seeing his routine was a crusher.

“I’ll get your brother up, too. But you both need to be quiet.”

I threw back my blankets and made a beeline for the living room. Under the cover of night, I experienced the top-notch comedy stylings of Eddie Murphy in his prime. Sure, I had to cover my mouth every time I laughed, but I got to see the whole show.

Dad knew I was an insomniac and that I shared a love of the same types of television programs that he did. If I was awake, he’d let me know whenever some of the good shows — Highlander, Forever Knight, and (my favorite) G.L.O.W. women’s wrestling — were on and would invite me to hang out and watch them with him in the living room.  Whenever the Canadian cop drama, Night Heat, was on, my brother would join in on our viewing parties. Whenever the local PBS channel would have Errol Flynn or sword-and-sandal movie marathons, I’d stay up late and watch those with Dad, too.

All of these movies and TV shows formed the basis of many philosophical conversations between us through the years. It also taught me how much fun it is to break the rules and how some of the best TV shows are watched, conversations are had, and memories are made well past the midnight hour.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I love you and am so grateful to have had you for my father. Here’s hoping all of you have just as wonderful memories and times with your own fathers!

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