My dad often said that if it weren’t for bad luck he’d never have any luck at all, and many times, that felt so true. Just when he thought he’d claw himself ahead, something would happen to knock him down. Sometimes the stumble was self-inflicted, but to his credit, he got back up and lived to fight another day even if he felt over-matched.
Early on, I sensed and understood the “me against the world” mentality that pervaded my dad’s approach to life. He felt powerless, a victim of circumstance, rather than the sum total of his own decisions. In many ways, my own life philosophy is a direct and opposite response to my dad’s. As much as I loved him, I couldn’t fathom adopting his defeatist view of the world.
I wanted Dad to succeed in spite of the odds stacked against him. I pulled for him in ways that can only be described as desperation, but I’ve never lost my affinity for the underdog because of him. The American zeitgeist favors the underdog. It’s rooted in the language of our sports and prevails in our favorite books and movies, but I lean more heavily toward the least-favored in most situations because life has taught me that everyone needs hope. My dad certainly did.
In 1979, when he was laid off from the only good job he would ever have, the threat Dad felt from the world around him became very real. A four-year journey in hell proved it, but he survived. If life were a boxing match, Dad would have been Rocky Balboa, only without the sequels or the roaring successes and comebacks.
In one of the few fortuitous events in his life, Ford re-hired him after a four-year layoff, but once he returned to the plant, the old battles resumed. He hated his bosses and the grueling assembly line work. By the late 1980s, his body started to betray him, and he could no longer keep up with the line eight hours a day. He’d call in sick, get into arguments with his supervisor, and rail against his union rep because he didn’t get another less-taxing job at the plant. The never-ending battles roiled the whole family because he brought all of it home and laid it at my mom’s feet while he went to bed. A nap was the only form of escapism he could afford.
We walked on egg shells during those years, but we did manage to move out of the Red House to the house at the end of the road. For the first time in their lives, my parents owned their own home. We moved from a dilapidated, old house with concave floors, creaky plumbing, and porous walls to a new house with different problems.
In the rural South back then, anyone could throw up two-by-fours on a concrete pad and call themselves a home builder. Housing codes were a joke. Anyone could pass an inspection based simply on who they knew rather than the merit of their actual work. Such was the case for with the house at the end of the road. The sketchy builder had left endless complaints in his wake, but my parents were desperate to move out of the Red House and lacked any leverage to find better. Even when Dad won, he lost.
Not long after we moved in, the problems started. A leaky basement proved ruinous for the mounds of stuff my mom hoarded. A poorly dug well left us without running water during the occasional summer drought. Pipes seeped, water pressure spat listlessly from the shower heads, and cabinets came unbound from the walls. When it did rain, the famed gully-washers of Southern lore, the untamed yard turned into a labyrinth of small lakes connected by rushing torrents flattening the hill that rolled down from the house and threatening to undermine the foundation. The issues overwhelmed us leaving us dispirited about the notion of having our own place. The house at the end of the road became just a newer version of the Red House.
That’s not entirely true. The new house had central heat from which glorious warm air flowed on those cold winter nights. I don’t remember ever seeing frost form on the interior walls at the new house, but as the years passed, the things that did work slowly refused to do so. The furnace cut out years later after I had moved away for college. Shingles frittered, the well pump died, and the poorly-designed deck collapsed one plank at a time. By the time my dad retired, the house looked worn and beaten, much like he did. All of that effort he poured into getting and keeping that house seemed for naught. He did manage to replace and repair some things over the years, but he could never quite keep up with everything that went wrong.
Dad fought many other battles over the years that followed. Raising three boys is a test of anyone’s patience and sanity. We certainly didn’t make it easy. Dad used to tell us that we’d pay for our raising when we had our own kids, and I often wondered what the hell he had done when he was a kid because he was paying three-fold.
Despite all of the challenges, the battles lost, and blood, sweat, and tears shed, one thing never, ever changed. Dad loved us. He may not have won the battles that most hold dear, but he won the one that mattered. That I never doubted and never will. He may have been an underdog in life, but he was always a champion in our hearts.