Riding with My Father

I remember his boots: brown leather, worn, cracked and always dust
covered just like his hands. My mother would yell at him to take them
off, she had just swept and there he goes tracking mud all over the
floor. She wasn't angry with him.  She could never be angry with him.
She could never be angry with those eyes, as steely gray as the
Atlantic before a storm, though he had never been east of Wichita.

I was five the first time he left. I don't remember what time it was,
but I knew it was late because the hall light was off. I was terribly
afraid of the dark and my parents would leave the hall light on for me
until they went to sleep. Sometimes I was still awake when they turned
it off, huddled in bed, my pink quilted comforter pulled up to my nose
even in the summer.  Just after it went dark I would throw my covers
aside and run as fast as my chubby legs could carry me to turn the
light on again. I heard footsteps in the hallway, fear started to grip
my mind as my eyes searched unseeing through the darkness, but then
the scent of his spiced cologne reached my nostrils and I knew who it
was, and I wasn't afraid. "Good-bye angel baby," his deep baritone
whispered. His hand stroked my cheek and it amazed me that something
so calloused and worn could be so gentle. A smile spread across my
face and when I slowly opened my eyes I saw that he was smiling too.
"Go back to sleep sugar." He was like the proverbial lion purring to a
lamb, "When I get home we'll go riding. I'll let you sit in front and
we'll ride out across the hay
fields all the way to Ryan's Creek and back again, just you and me."

When I was seven he came home with a pony. I was sitting on the porch
in my favorite pink night gown, the warm spring breeze blowing through
my brown curls. I heard the groan of the diesel engine before I saw
his red truck
and trailer pull into the driveway. He rolled down the window and
tipped his hat. I started running: off the porch, across the driveway,
under the mulberry tree where the fallen berries stained my feet a
dark purple, and down
to the barn.
From that day on whenever we went riding I didn't ride with him on his
horse, who's broad back made my legs sore. I rode my pony. In July the
hay was so high my pony could graze as we rode along. I was swimming
in a sea of green, the blades so high they could tickle the bottoms of
my feet. When I pressed my heels into my pony's sides we went faster
and faster until it felt like I was flying. One night, soon after, I
had a nightmare and ran to my parent's room, but they weren't there. I
heard their voices below and seated at the top of the stairs tried to
listen. My father was talking in the strangest sort of code, using
words I had never heard before.  "Vietnam, Danang, Saigon," I repeated
the words, the
strange structure of their syllables sticking to the roof of my mouth
like peanut butter. I crept down the stairs slowly, carefully, making
sure to skip the third from the top which creaked a bit. At the bottom
I hid in the coat closet and opened the door just a crack to see into
the kitchen. He was seated at the table
with his back to me. My mother was standing, leaning against the
kitchen counter. When I looked into her face I saw tears. It was the
first time I ever saw my mother cry. She didn't whimper or sob, the
tears silently rolled down her round cheeks one after the other.
He stood then, and took her in his strong arms like a baby. He rocked
her back and forth for what seemed like hours. I was scared. I was
more scared than I had ever
been of spiders, or the dark, or thunderstorms. My mother was supposed
to comfort me when I was hurt or sad. She was strong. She wasn't
supposed to cry.
The tears started before I could stop them: hot, thick tears of anger
and confusion. In my fury I knocked over the broom which fell to the
floor with a clunk. He released her and I saw him coming toward me.
Frightened and embarrassed I tried to hide, to disappear between the
layers of straw strewn wool and denim.  The tears came faster, two
great water falls spilling down my crimson face and making pools on
his blue flannel shirt. He let me cry until my head hurt and my eyes
were puffy. He told me he had to go away. He told me that there people
in trouble and that he needed to help them. He told me that I was his
big girl, and that now I had to help my mother on the farm. "When you
get home," I said, a strange confidence and maturity in my young
voice, "When you get home, we'll go riding."

I remember his boots: black leather, well worn, but always polished so
they shown. He never wore them in the house. They would sit on the
porch for a month, sometimes two, looking foreign and out of place
surrounded by jars of
canned peaches and bags of feed. His eyes had lost their luster. My
mother said the ocean had seen them, and jealously stolen their
sparkle When he was gone I slept with my mother. She said it was for
warmth, but we both knew it was for something greater. There was an
emptiness in our hearts that couldn't
be filled, so we filled the empty side of the bed. When he was home I
slept in my room alone. It felt as foreign to me as his did to him,
twice I caught him sleeping on the couch downstairs.

We went riding. It was cold and the wind whipped my face until it
burned. My hands were freezing and I held the reins so tightly my
knuckles turned white. We didn't talk. Conversations about the weather
or my schooling seemed
trivial. "You're too big for that pony." He said, "You should start
riding Bo." Bo was his horse, he had had him since he was a colt. He
never looked complete unless he was seated astride Bo's broad chestnut
back.  "Bo's your horse." I answered. "It's time for you to start
riding him."

We learned later that he was killed in action outside a small village
up country. My mother didn't cry. At the funeral she stared the priest
straight in the eye as
if she was trying to channel her anger and confusion straight to God.
She wanted to burn a whole in the gates of heaven that couldn't be
fixed so the almighty would know, for one second, what it felt like to
be broken beyond repair. Two years later we sold the farm and moved
west to California. She wanted to escape him. I just wanted to be in
his arms again. I wanted to go riding through the hay so
high it could tickle the bottoms of my feet. I wanted to hear his
voice, deep and mellow, calling me princess. I would go down to the
beach. I'd sift my hands through the sand, watching the golden grains
shift and fall. I'd watch
the surf come in. I would sit and talk to him for hours.

Years later I learned of the memorial in Washington D.C. for those who
had lost their lives in Vietnam. I went there and found him. He was
one of thousands, printed in the middle of a slab of black granite:
just thirteen letters. Thirteen letters to describe the man that saved
eight of his company members before being killed. Thirteen letters to
describe the man who has my eyes. Thirteen letters to describe the man
that taught me how to ride, who taught me more in the twelve years
that I knew him than I have learned in all the years since.

I remember his boots: brown leather, worn, cracked, and always dust
covered just like his hands. Today I got his boots out of the trunk in
my room. I put them on,
rolling up socks and shoving them into the toes to make them small
enough for my feet. I went outside and stood on the porch. The breeze
is warm across my face. Spring rains have lost the battle to summer
sunshine and later it will be
hot. I looked out to the hay fields, a sea of green gently rolling
like the swells in the pacific on a calm day. I started walking: off
the porch, across the
driveway, under the apple trees white with blossoms and down to the
barn. I breathed deeply, the clean, warm air filling my lungs,
clearing my mind, and I took my father riding.

penmage   penmage wrote
on 12/8/2009 9:59:22 AM
I love the way to descrided him with emotion rather than he's tall. He seemed to come alive with each word. I wish he had something more than 13 letters for his bravery. May all your days be filled with warm summers and gentle memories of the one you lost at such a young age.

StarPoet   StarPoet wrote
on 12/7/2009 3:25:57 AM
Very touching memorial to the father. I was caught up in the emotion and the descriptives. He is smiling down on you for your wonderful ode here. Friendly advice: Break up your paragraphs more. It was a good read, but it seemed like one long paragraph. "Let the reader breathe" as I was told when I did the same thing.

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The story of a daughter's love and longing for her father who is taken away by the Vietnam war.
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