Pink flamingos

Story of a friend’s relationship with his father.

Plastic pink flamingos by a house.
Reflecting on family life with our parents, we need to see with eyes of compassion. (Photo by Karen Montgomery)

Stephen Ryder was trekking through time. His mode of transmigration wasn’t a DeLorean or an H.G. Wells time sled, but a Porsche convertible. And his time portal happened to be the Pennsylvania Turnpike. As he sped west through the humid summer night, top down, Dark Side of the Moon cranked up over the rushing air, he traveled back into his life.

Stephen’s time trek began when his sister called to tell him of his father’s death. Though his father hadn’t been ill, the call wasn’t a surprise. He had lived far longer, being a heavy smoker and drinker, than any of them ever expected.

“So let me know your flight number and we’ll pick you up,” his sister Sharon said.

“I’ll just drive.” Stephen didn’t want to get there too quickly. He needed time. It wasn’t that he was devastated. He hadn’t cried, he couldn’t even say he was upset by the news.

His sister had called at 5:30 in the morning. After hanging up the phone, he sat watching CNN, reading the crawl at the bottom; the Terrorist Alert Warning was at the yellow level, whatever that meant. There was an Amber alert in Georgia, and the EPA had issued a warning to people with respiratory problems to stay indoors today in the Washington area.

Overseas, the markets were already sharply down. It would’ve been a good day to sleep in. Stephen felt most days were good days to stay safely bundled in bed, the complexities of the 24/7 news and information culture frequently left him nonplussed. He sat and watched; mostly he was still sleepy, not truly saddened or stunned by his father’s death.

Since he was up earlier than normal he decided to run, but ended up just walking through the early morning humidity of the D.C. summer. Then, as his routine most mornings, he went to his favorite coffee shop, having his usual, hazelnut coffee and an everything bagel with cream cheese. He spent a couple hours there reading the paper and talking to friends, never mentioning the news he had received via an early morning phone call. The remainder of his day involved some writing and research on an article on which he was bumping up against his deadline. Around 11:00 that night, he packed a bag, jumped into the car and started his trip back to Ohio.

His deep-rooted indifference, not a new or unusual feeling when it came to his father, suddenly troubled him. That’s why he needed time, to drudge up some emotion towards his dad. He wanted to feel something.

How to describe Stephen’s relationship with his father? Was it even a relationship? Did the sending of birthday, Christmas and Father’s Day cards, and a couple of phone calls a year actually constitute a relationship? What would Dr. Phil say?

Stephen and his dad had never been close, not that he could remember. And as the geographical distance between them widened, as Stephen went off to college, to Boston, finally settling in Georgetown, the emotional bond between them also widened. Now they were strangers. That’s how Stephen viewed the scenes from his life he passed through, a stranger in a strange land analyzing the events before him as a time traveler might observe dinosaurs or, if he traveled back far enough, the Big Bang.

East of Pittsburgh he was bouncing around in the late 60s. There he was, sitting in the kitchen of Grandma Ryder’s dingy white Victorian house: skinny, awkward, and quiet. It was lunch, the aroma of liver and onions blended oddly with his Grandma’s Vick’s Vapo-rub, which she used like perfume, it seemed—Eau de Vicks.

His dad, Grandma, Stephen, and Lester, one of the boarders who lived upstairs, all sitting around the oval oak kitchen table, eating liver and onions, listening to Paul Harvey. Stand by for news! Breakfast, lunch, and at dinner, Stephen’s Grandma listened to Paul Harvey. Her view of the world was shaped by his words. She’d listen intently, eyes squinting behind the thick dirty-yellowish lenses of her glasses, shaking her head at the latest news from Vietnam. “They’re evil, those damn yellow-skinned bastards!” she’d say. News of riots in Detroit or Watts would prompt comments about “those damn lazy Negroes causing trouble.” Stephen’s dad and Lester would nod in agreement. Stephen would just listen and slowly nibble at the liver and onions which he hated. He looked forward to dessert, home-made shortcake with strawberries and real whipped cream.

Then Stephen saw himself in college with longer hair and John Lennon glasses, bell-bottoms, and a ragged army jacket. He was playing pool in the student union as they all listened to the annual draft lottery for 18-year-olds on the radio. Everyone was up-tight as they listened for their birth date to be called. In this lottery if your number was one of the first 25 or so dates drawn, you’d be going to Nam.

His lottery number ended up being 362, which meant that he wouldn’t see battle unless the Ruskies invaded Alaska. He wouldn’t have gone anyhow; he’d have crossed over to Canada, land of hockey, Molson and great comedians. He wasn’t army material. He once joined the Boy Scouts, but quit after two months, overwhelmed by the barrage of rules and regulations. Plus, the uniform caused him much anxiety. Besides, he was sure that, had he gone, his would’ve been one of those stories you read about in the paper: a young soldier arrives in ‘Nam, gets off the plane, walks into the jungle, steps on a booby trap and is splattered against a wall of bamboo spikes. His Vietnam tour would’ve lasted all of 49 seconds.

Stephen thought of himself as a conscientious objector; he once had signed a petition against the ROTC on campus. His potential refusal to go to war was a philosophical choice—‘Make love not war’—that sort of thing. Or, as that great 20th century Western philosopher Rodney King would one day say, “Can’t we all just get along?”

Stephen was indeed relieved when he knew he wouldn’t be going to Vietnam. He always felt his dad seemed a little disappointed that Stephen wouldn’t be going off to war to defend his country. “Defend it against what?” Stephen asked. “Those god-damned Communists!” his dad replied.

Crossing the state line into Ohio, passing under the blue “Welcome to Ohio” sign, it was 1972, the first presidential election in which he could vote. Nixon versus McGovern. There was Stephen, dressed again in tattered bell-bottoms; this time wearing a “Remember the Chicago Eight” tee shirt, gray overcoat and an old black fedora. A uniform Stephen had selected to make an election day statement.

Stephen and his dad were driving to the polling station together in his dark green, rusted, Volkswagon Karmann Ghia. He had insisted on driving. His dad had never been fond of riding in the small, odd-shaped car. “How in the hell do those Krauts expect you to get into the damn thing!” Their relationship during this time could best be described as passively adversarial. It was Stephen’s angry period. He was angry about everything, and his father and his generation were the cause, in Stephen’s eyes, of all that angered him: the war, poisoning of the environment, the government corruption, the materialistic society, his childhood, his troubled teens. It was the establishment’s fault, his dad’s fault.

“There! Your vote for Tricky Dick is cancelled out by my vote.” Stephen said as he stepped out of the voting booth.

“Nixon’s gonna kill that Communist McGovern!” his dad said bending awkwardly to climb back into the car. Stephen cranked up Steppenwolf’s Magic Carpet Ride on the radio as they pulled out of the parking lot.

Just outside of Columbus, with the sun peeking over the corn and soybean fields behind him, Stephen spent most of his teens living with an alcoholic. This left him in an almost constant state of embarrassment and resentment, and in an almost constant state of waiting.

His parents had divorced when he was 11, and for some reason he never questioned, it was determined that he would live with his dad. That wouldn’t have been his choice. He was closer to his Mom. Like her, Stephen was more introspective and sensitive; his dad was, well… loud and would always, he was proud to tell you, speak his mind.

On this particular cold and gray January afternoon, as he waited outside the gym doors for his dad to pick him up from basketball practice, werewolves were on his mind. There had been several recent sightings of a lone, shaggy wolf man strolling along the county roads around his school in the evenings.

Stephen didn’t believe in werewolves, not at 13. But adults had spotted this wolf man; Janice Landon and her mother had driven right by it just a few nights earlier. “It was hairy all over. It was so creepy!” Janice told everyone huddled around her in home room. It eventually came out in the newspaper that the wolf man was actually an elderly widower, recently released from a mental hospital, who liked to take evening walks in his full length fur coat. So Stephen kept his eyes peeled for the wolf man as he anxiously peered into the gathering winter darkness. He watched each set of headlights as they appeared around the curve on the road heading to the school, trying to discern the outline of his dad’s Dodge Dart. He was getting colder and angrier.

He found himself hoping that the werewolf was real and would savagely attack him. That would teach his dad. Stephen vividly pictured the scene in his mind: he’d be laying on the sidewalk, blood gushing out of gaping wounds, maybe an arm ripped off and tossed into the gutter. His dad would pull up and jump out of the car, screaming, “Oh my God. What happened?” Stephen, barely alive, would look up at his dad and with his last dying breath gasp, “Dad, why couldn’t you get here sooner? Why?”

But the scene that actually unfolded was less dramatic, more typical. His dad’s car pulled up to the curb 45 minutes late; Stephen yanked the door open and with a heavy sigh, slumped into the bucket seat.

“Hey kiddo. How was practice?” his dad slurred. The interior of the car smelled much like the El Toro Lounge, where his dad most likely was until 10 minutes ago.

“Okay,” Stephen muttered as he stared straight ahead over the dashboard. This was the usual course their conversation took. His dad asking questions and Stephen replying with one word answers; ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘okay’ being his usual responses. Stephen figured that throughout his teen years, he had actually spoken maybe 1,000 words to his father. The myriad of angry words that went unspoken simmered, eventually bubbling into an acidic, satirical view of the world, modern society and life. Stephen became a writer, a commentator on modern culture.

Stephen eased the car over the speed bumps at the entrance of Vance’s Trailer Park. This was where his father lived, and since he wasn’t quite ready to face his sister, aunts, and uncles, he needed more hazelnut coffee, he had decided to drive by.

The park was, as he now remembered, mostly occupied by old retirees. Buick after Buick after Oldsmobile lined the curb in front of neatly spaced light blue or beige mobile homes. From most of the trailers, American flags hung limply in the already steamy Ohio summer air. And there was an abundance of tacky lawn ornaments, predominantly pink flamingos scattered singly or in pairs. It was as if an entire flock, on their way to Florida, became lost and confused in a storm, landed in the park and decided to stay. A few little black guys in white britches with red vests and hats holding lanterns stood sentry on little green, well manicured lawns. Apparently awakened by strange noises in the night, they had donned their white britches, red vests and hats, grabbed their lanterns and dashed outside to discover these wayward flamingos. Did people really stick these things in their yards these days?

Weaving his way further into the park, past more flamingos, young Dutch boys and girls kissing, and a few gnomes lurking in the bushes, Stephen realized he’d only been here once before when his father had moved out of the old house in the country. That was three years ago. In fact, he had last spoken to his dad over two months ago, on Father’s Day. Tomorrow, he would be buried.

Stephen pulled his car up across from lot 129, turned off the engine and sat in the car looking at his dad’s nondescript mobile home. The trailer looked like every other one in the park with an awning off to one side, a slightly faded American flag and two pink flamingos stood haphazardly angled away from each other, looking in opposite directions, as if they weren’t talking to each other after a particularly heated argument. Perhaps a father and his rebellious son.

“Mornin’.” The voice startled Stephen. He looked over in the direction of the voice, towards the trailer off to his right. An elderly gentleman slowly, painfully, leaning heavily on his cane, rose out of a lawn chair.

“Good morning,” Stephen replied as the man hobbled towards the car. He was wearing light brown corduroys and a faded, red plaid flannel shirt—in August. On his head of thinning gray hair was an old green John Deere hat. Stephen thought he looked like the poster boy for the AARP.

“You must be Harve’s boy,” the man said, “You look like him.” The comment caught him off guard, he wasn’t exactly sure how he felt about the comparison.

“Yeah, I’m Stephen Ryder. How ya doing this morning?” He reached across the passengers seat to shake the man’s hand.

“Melvin Daniels, Sorry to here about your father, he was a good man.” Mr. Daniels looked off into the distance, “Yes siree, a good man.”

“Thank you Mr. Daniels, I appreciate that.” Stephen noticed that in lieu of pink flamingos, Mr. Daniels had gone with the gnome motif in his small patch of grass. Three bearded gnomes with pointy little hats stood huddled in a group, maybe planning to kidnap the Dutch couple kissing in the yard next door.

“Fancy car,” Mr. Daniels said, “is it I-tal-ian?”

“No, no, it’s German,” Stephen replied.

“I buy American. Buick,” Daniels nodded towards the light blue, older Buick which he had pulled behind.

“Oh, well, they’re good cars.” Stephen smiled and nodded. Both men were quiet as they contemplated each others’ cars. The silence became awkwardly long.

“Your dad was always ready to help. Always ready with a beer and a joke. He always had a good joke to tell,” Mr. Daniels said.

Again Stephen smiled and nodded. “Yeah, he loved his beer and his jokes.” His father’s jokes had always embarrassed him without fail. He remembered when he was maybe eight or nine, sitting at the bar at the American Legion, sipping a Coke while his dad gulped down several dewy, amber bottles of Blatz beer. His father would tell his latest jokes to anyone willing to listen. Stephen remembered one joke in particular, but really didn’t understand the joke until he was older. “Do you know what bad luck is? No, what? Being Jayne Mansfield’s baby and being bottle fed.” Stephen finally got the joke when he was 14 and beginning to notice the developing chests of girls in his class.

“So you’re a writer huh?” Mr. Daniels peered down at Stephen through thick bifocals.

“Yeah, I write for magazines and an occasional book.”

“Supposed to be funny huh?”

Stephen laughed, “Well, some people think so.”

“Can’t say I thought so.”

This guy is killing me, Stephen thought. “I’m sorry you didn’t think so. What piece did you read?”

“It was a while back,” Mr. Daniels again looked off into the distance. “Let’s see, what was the name, oh, The New Yorker magazine. Your dad made me read it.”

“My dad made you read it? He read The New Yorker?”

“Yup. He’d always bring those fancy magazines up to the Legion, make everyone read them. He was real proud of your writing.”

Perhaps this news impacted Stephen more then the news of his father’s death. His father actually read his stuff. Stephen never knew this. On the infrequent times when his writing was brought up, it was his dad asking how the writing was coming. And Stephen, of course, would answer ‘Okay’. This revelation prompted so many questions: For how long had he been reading Stephen’s writing? What did he think of the sarcasm and cynicism? Did he think it was humorous at all? Why hadn’t he ever commented to Stephen about his writing? And how come Stephen had never sent his father any of the magazines or one of the books?

“Yup, real proud,” Mr. Daniels emphasized. There was another long pause as these questions ran through Stephen’s head, and he wondered what exactly had his dad thought about his writing.

Mr. Daniels reached into his pocket, “Oh, why don’t I just give this to you. I told your sister I’d give it to her tonight at the funeral home, but you can take it.” He held out a small key ring with a solitary key dangling from it. “It’s the key to your dad’s trailer. We watched each other’s places. These days you never know. In our days, you didn’t have to worry about these kids getting high and breaking into your house.”

Stephen took the key ring. “Yeah, these are different times. Thanks Mr. Daniels. You know, I’m gonna take a look inside before I go.” Stephen got out of the car.

“Help yourself. Might be a little stuffy, I set the thermostat up since the place was empty.”

“Okay, well thanks again Mr. Daniels for your kind words and all you’ve done. We appreciate it.” Stephen again shook hands with Mr. Daniels.”

“Pleasure meeting you. I’ll be at the funeral home tonight,” He said as he held up his cane. “I’m gimpy, but I want to be there tonight. Harve was a good man.”

“Stephen stood in the narrow, unaired living room of his dad’s mobile home, amidst the odor of stale cigarette smoke and familiar furnishings from his youth. He felt oddly comfortable in these surroundings.

In the corner was the brown Lazy Boy recliner, now partially covered by a multi-colored crocheted afghan, in which many nights upon coming home from a lengthy stop at his current favorite watering hole for ‘just one or two’, his father would nod off to sleep, snoring loudly. Stephen would lie on the floor, eating the cold French fries and double cheeseburger his dad had brought home for him, watching Hawaii 5-0 or Mannix.

On a set of bookshelves was the model of a Spanish galleon made of matchsticks, its once black sails now gray with dust. His dad had purchased it from an inmate when he worked as a prison guard after his early retirement, due to a dispute about a promised promotion that didn’t happen, from his livestock feed sales job.

Looking to his left, through the kitchen area and down a short hallway, Stephen could see into the bedroom where he saw an unmade bed with a parquet headboard he recalled from when his parents were still married. Though an open door off to the right of the living room, he saw his father’s dark, wood desk with its marble top. He remembered watching his dad work at that desk.

Stephen walked into the small kitchen and opened the harvest-gold colored refrigerator. The bottom shelf, as he expected, was almost completey lined with cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. He winced as he reached for one, he hadn’t drank this swill since college, and then only when it was dollar pitcher night. He popped the tab and took a swig; it wasn’t quite 10:00, but he had no hazelnut coffee or scotch.

He walked back through the living room into the small room to his dad’s desk, and flopped down into the chair. Mr. Daniels’s comment about Stephen looking like his father crept back into his consciousness and he formed the realization that, at some point in their lives, many sons have—‘Oh my god, I’ve become my father!’. The physical resemblance was much easier to accept, the result of genetics, but other common traits and failings struck Stephen right between the eyes.

Both father and son had been unsuccessful at marriage. His dad twice, Stephen just once, so far. His dad finally concluded that the whole matrimony scene wasn’t for him, and proceeded to a succession of marginally adult and profoundly shallow relationships, until apparently forsaking relations with the fairer sex completely in favor of night after night with his fellow Legionnaires drinking Pabst and smoking Marlboros.

Stephen hadn’t yet given up on having a successful relationship someday, but the terms ‘marginally adult’ and ‘profoundly shallow’ seemed to resonate when he thought of his current fling. And maybe he didn’t hang out at the local chapter of the American Legion swigging beer; but he did definitely have a penchant towards single malt scotch. He substituted handmade cigars for the Marlboros.

There was more besides the sharing of vices and a physical similarity. He thought of his father’s belligerence. His dad was always eager to argue and disagree for sport. He was ‘in your face’ before the term was coined. Stephen inherited that same inclination, but he used the written word, which was much less confrontational, much safer. People, irked by his sarcasm and strong opinions, were taken aback, once meeting him, by his quiet demeanor; they expected someone more pugnacious. People were usually ready to engage Stephen in verbal battle or punch him in the mouth, but ended up having a drink with him and exchanging e-mail addresses.

Stephen drained the last slug of beer, crumpled the can, and then went out to the kitchen for another. He headed down the hallway, stopping at the tiny bathroom. He noticed a recent large-print Reader’s Digest lying on the toilet tank. His dad had always read the ‘Digest’ as he called it. “Good stories about good people,” he’d say.

In the bathroom, Stephen sat on the bed and pulled open the nightstand drawer, finding just what he expected. He pulled out the automatic handgun his father had kept in the drawer since Stephen was in junior high; at least that’s when he had discovered the gun one night as he snooped around his dad’s bedroom in search of pornography. Danny Tidd had put that notion in his head after he had found a stash of Adam magazines full of beautiful, buxom, scantily clad women in his dad’s nightstand.

Hopeful and eager after learning of Danny’s eye-popping find, Stephen had waited anxiously one night for his dad to go out to the El Toro after dinner. As soon as the back door slammed shut, he ran up the stairs to his father’s room. He found no magazines with pictures of gorgeous ladies wearing only bras and panties; no girls named Pauline wearing black, fishnet stockings who liked her men ‘tall, dark, handsome… and wild!’ All he found was that gun.

He pulled out the clip, which was empty as it always had been. This fact bothered Stephen when he was younger. Why have an unloaded gun? What if a would-be intruder had a gun, what then? Would his dad just throw the gun at him? But when he was older, and anti-war and anti-gun, he was glad his dad at least had the good sense not to keep a loaded gun in that nightstand.

He clicked the clip back into the gun and looked around the bedroom, noticing for the first time a grouping of pictures on the opposite wall. He stood and walked over to the four 8 x 10 pictures arranged in a slightly cockeyed diamond.

The top picture was familiar even though he hadn’t seen it in years, a shot of his parents before they were married, before his dad went off to war. They were standing in front of a vine- and flower-covered trellis, a handsome couple. Stephen had forgotten just how beautiful his mother was. And his dad a confident, eager figure in his neatly pressed uniform. Both wore big smiles, full of hope for their life together. A few weeks later, his father went off to Europe.

The middle two pictures were Stephen’s and his sister’s high school graduation pictures. Sharon looked like one of Gidget’s friends or possibly one of the bobby socked, American Bandstand dancers. Stephen, with his Beatles’ bangs and forced smile, appeared unsure and uneasy.

The final picture looked like one of those that come with the frame, a perfect picture of a father and son on a fishing trip, together holding a stringer full of glistening yellow perch between them. The son looking up at the dad with loving eyes and a big smile, the father looking down at his son, proud. It was Stephen and his dad, though it took several seconds longer then it should have to recognize the happy faces.

As a boy, Stephen loved to fish and was constantly begging his dad to take him up to Lake Erie for a father/son day of fishing. The trips came infrequently, but he always so looked forward to them. He loved getting the rods and reels ready, making sure the fishing line was strong and strung with the proper leader and weight; he loved organizing his tackle box the night before. Then, after barely sleeping most of the night, he’d awake around 4:30, get dressed and go into his parent’s room to wake his dad. He’d gently shake his dad’s shoulder and whisper, “Dad, wake up, time to go,” then wait patiently for his dad to gradually come to life.

His Mom would make them a big thermos full of coffee with cream and sugar. These fishing trips were the only time Stephen was allowed to drink coffee. He considered it a rite of passage.

They’d start the drive up to the lake in the dark, sipping hot coffee, listening to the car radio. He remembered the music so well: The Ray Coniff Singers, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, and Bobby Darin.

Stephen and his dad would fish off the same long pier jutting out into Lake Erie. They’d spend the entire day on the pier, breaking only for a sandwich at the restaurant, a short walk down the shore. They’d always order perch sandwiches and his dad would of course, have a long neck bottle of Blatz with his.

He remembered how proud he felt being his dad’s son; his father seemed to know everyone on the pier, and would tell jokes, share fishing stories, and laugh. And he’d always make a big deal about the fish Stephen would catch, calling him ‘my little fisherman’.

He sat sipping his beer, looking at the picture, fondly remembering those times. An unexpected wave of nostalgia enveloped him. He loved being his dad’s son, and his dad loved him. He knew that. What happened? Where along the line did they lose each other?

Looking at his parent’s picture again, Stephen thought about his father going off to war at 19. What were his dreams? Certainly, as he posed with his wife-to-be for the picture, he didn’t dream about being a livestock feed salesman or a prison guard. What had led him to numb himself with alcohol for so many years? Was he that unhappy? Memories intertwined with questions as Stephen looked at the four pictures of his family. He saw his father as a young man interrupting his dreams to fight the Nazis; and he saw a loving father, teaching a son all about fishing for perch. Finally, he left.

As he headed down the short walk to the street, Stephen stopped and looked over at the two askew flamingos stuck in his dad’s lawn. After a few moments of contemplation, he walked over and carefully turned them to face each other. They looked happier, more like a family, not two pink, stilted birds that were pissed at each other.

He waved to Mr. Daniels as he got in the car, then he looked over at his dad’s trailer one last time. What was he feeling? Forgiveness, regret, sadness, love? All of the above?

Stephen got out of the car and walked over to the pink flamingos. He pulled one out of the ground, then the other, put them both under his arm and walked back towards the car. He noticed Mr. Daniels eyeing him closely, probably sure that Stephen had smoked one of those marijuana cigarettes and was high as a kite.

Stephen stuck the two plastic birds behind the seats. They appeared happy with the prospect of going for a ride.

Starting his car, he again waved to Mr. Daniels who was peering intently at Stephen. “Don’t worry Mr. Daniels, I’ll take good care of them. Thanks again.”

Easing the car back over the speed bumps exiting the trailer park, Stephen wondered exactly what his snobby neighbors in Georgetown would say about his pink flamingos.

Guest Author: J. S. B.

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