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A Son and his Father

I am proud of what we’ve accomplished with Agincourt. Dr Bob, my former therapist, held that this continues to be a satisfying, creative outlet that I should only call into question the day United Van Lines arrives to pack for the move. 

Glancing back through this blog as well as the several Agincourt sketchbooks tells me—regardless of the occasional naysayer—that this may be the most creative thing I will ever do, though I just as surely hope not. It always was and has increasingly become autobiographical, for which I apologize most heartily. Forty years ago I did get about writing an autobiography, though one with a considerable twist: it was to be written without any first person pronouns. Imagine writing about yourself without employing “I,” “me,” “my” or “mine.” I actually got surprisingly far on that project and haven’t given up entirely on bringing it to some sort of resolution, if only as a fragment.

What you may also have realized along the way is that the Agincourt narrative is riddled with characters who are not entirely fictional. How could I invent a place and not populate it with some of you—you colorful characters of my acquaintance in these sixty-seven years. Somewhere, as yet unwritten, there will be the requisite, boiler-plate disclaimer that “these characters are entirely fictional; any resemblance between them and any person living or dead is purely coincidental.” Don’t believe it for a moment.

As my avatar in Agincourt, Howard Tabor has written about people he has known, a handful of them in a fragmentary series titled “Ghosts of Christmas Past.” One of them is based on my father and another on someone I met at dad’s gas station (formerly at 6455 South Archer Road, Bedford Park, IL  60501, if you must know, but now demolished and replaced with a gas station; is that irony or what?). Those two and other featured Ghosts will appear from time to time, as I continue to tie the very loose ends of an exceptionally disjointed life. Thank you all for being a part of it—so far.

But back to the often troubling and sometimes unresolved relationship between fathers and sons, an entirely different chemistry than the feminine parallel, of which I would not trust any of my perceptions. Mothers are an especially foreign idea to me, and I have had no siblings other than two brief connections with stepsisters. But that’s another story.

Roy’s Funeral

With apologies to those of you in the Grief Industry, I want as little to do with morticians as possible in what time remains to me. Many of you will already know my intentions:

  1. Baggie
  2. Twist-tie
  3. Curbside
  4. Tuesday morning before 8:30

Got it? Simple enough and now on record for any of you to step in, should I pass in your vicinity. If I had made the effort to ask him, Roy would have preferred something similar, at least something erring on the side of simplicity and thrift—we are Scottish, after all. As his only heir, however, and not having spoken with him about his final arrangements, my leaky coracle was set adrift in the Gulf of Guilt and about to founder on the Shoals of “What will people think?” Morticians have you exactly where they want you: alone in a casket showroom, each model sporting a plastic-sleaved card breaking down the various services provided. I chose wood (walnut, rather than the various patinated metalic models) one that included the planting of a tree in a national forest somewhere. It seemed only fitting to plant a tree as replacement for the one cut down to make the casket—oh, and his artificial leg.

The Wake

Those and other details settled, I girded my loins for the onslaught, two to three days of viewing at the funeral home, a hold-over from nineteenth century fears of premature burial. Roy remained dead. But as the only surviving member of the family, the responsibility befell me: 1) to greet people at the entry, 2) entreat them to sign the guest registry, 3) escort them to the open casket, and 4) endure their observations that one or another of my father’s possessions was always intended to go to them. For at least a few of the visitors, this was hardly their finest moment. Goddam ghouls!

By the second day, I was definitely getting into the routine and its rhythms. I would notice some totally unfamiliar person at the guest book, stride toward them, hand outstretched for the obligatory pumping action, without a clue who in blue blazes they were. More often than not, however, it was their voice that transported me thirty years or more to a wintry day when I had serviced their car while the palm of my hand froze to the nozzle. Yeah, it was that cold in Chicago in the days before self-service. Gloves only cramped my style.

The second day, the Friday evening before the funeral, may have been one of those rare occasions that lift you from the ordinary, if not mundane, circumstances of the moment—I had an out-of-body experience. Fifteen feet from the casket, just outside a semi-circle of visitors who ranged from sixteen to ninety years of age, all of them recollected my dad in exactly the same way, with stories both new and old. These were people who had known him at the station, his habitat from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and noon to six on Sunday. Eventually I worked those Sunday shifts, though I frankly can’t tell you what he did with those unaccounted afternoons.

Read the blog about Cliff’s Garage and you’ll get an overview of the hangout for mis-spent youth that Ramsey’s Service Station became for multiple ‘teen generations whose parents lacked any understanding for raging hormones in an age of unfiltered cigarettes. Roy C. Ramsey was everyone’s surrogate father. He was also in the short-term small loan business, with a sheaf of promissory notes tacked to the edge of a shelf above the cash register. As inheritor of the station, those yet unpaid notes became worthless and mine. Macht nichts, because at the moment, a few paces beyond the circle of his friends, many of whom were known to me, but not well, I finally and fully understood who my father had been. I also saw what he had wanted to be, if only we’d figured out how to communicate.

It was clear that he had both loved and feared me. And that his ultimate purpose in life had been to provide his child the advantages he had lacked or been denied through that fucking youthful indiscretion hitching a ride on the rung of a passing boxcar.

In the years since, I have continued to explore that relationship and believe ever more firmly how much his son I am.


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