Lessons From the Landfill

Detour – A roundabout route to visit somewhere along the way. Forgive this detour from my typical hiking posts, but writing this story allowed me to explore my father’s character. This story is in response to the prompt: Lessons I learned from my father. I wrote it while a student in Marla Cantrell’s short story class at Chapters on Main in Van Buren, Arkansas.

Lessons From the Landfill
by Jim Warnock
January 29, 2019

On a sunny spring morning, I hopped out of bed looking forward to the freedom of riding my bike on the rolling hills of Highway 167 in south Arkansas. I easily pushed aside concerns for homework or the next week’s busy tenth-grade schedule. While pulling on my favorite frayed bluejeans, I heard dad from the hallway. “Jim, we need to make a trip to the dump this morning.” I sighed as my Saturday freedom faded.

We lived in “the country” as we defined it because we were outside the city limits. There was no trash pick up. We had a concrete burn barrel I tended every couple of days, but we hauled the trash that wouldn’t burn to the landfill or “the dump.”

Daddy let me help him hoist the full trash trailer onto his Chevy truck hitch. He’d built the trailer from an old truck bed someone gave him when he came home from the Korean War before I was born. He used it to move my mom to south Texas for one year, then back to Arkansas. He worked as a chemist in an oil refinery and could have bought a nicer trailer, but we’d lose the entertainment of fender-less wheels wobbling and dancing at highway speeds.

I started to smell the landfill from memory while climbing into the cab of the truck. Daddy’s hands rested easy on the steering wheel, his bare arms rippled with muscle. I noticed a couple of scabs on his knuckles, ever-present trophies from doing physical work with his hands.

“So, Jim, how are things going at school?”

I said, “fine,” knowing that response wouldn’t prompt follow-up questions. Dad was a quiet man and I’d learned that teenager sentence fragments were enough for most adults. After that, there was only silence between us. Not an awkward silence, but very familiar.

When we drove up to the entrance of the landfill, an elderly man with dark wrinkled skin came out of a small wooden stall. “That’ll be $1,” he said.

Dad handed him a dollar. “Yes sir,” he said. Then Dad said, “I appreciate your help, sir. It’s a beautiful day.”

The man smiled and gave us a friendly wave as we drove into the landfill.

Dad stood with one foot on the trailer wheel and the other balanced on the rusty-blue trailer wall while tossing sacks of trash toward the roaring bulldozer working nearby. His slim body swayed easily and his biceps swelled as he tossed heavy trash bags as easily as I might have thrown my basketball against our garage. I stood inside the trailer and pushed bags of trash toward him so he could toss them out. I took shallow breaths to reduce the stench in my nostrils. It didn’t work. The front of my head ached from the musty charred smell.

Soon we were pulling back onto the paved road. I cranked the window down and leaned my face into the wind. As we drove, I looked across at Daddy’s hands and those scabbed knuckles. Then I glanced at his face. He had a distant look in his eyes and a slight smile.

I cleared my throat. “What was the Korean War like?”

“It was cold,” he said.

His answer, suddenly, wasn’t nearly enough. “Is that all, just cold?”

Dad rubbed the back of his neck with his free hand and stalled for a second. “No,” he said. “sometimes it was dangerous, but mostly it was just doing patrols, checking boundary lines, and trying to stay warm.”

Just then we were passing an old wood-framed house converted into a bar. I’d wondered about that old joint for years. I was sixteen, five years from being able to order a beer, but I’d have given a month’s allowance just to go inside.

Dad seemed to read my mind. “Let’s stop in here for a Coke.”

He turned into the dusty parking lot with our truck-bed trailer bouncing lightly behind.

As we entered, a cloud of cigarette smoke floated just above my head and glowed silver in the dim light seeping through pulled curtains. A lady sat on a stool behind the bar, so I assumed she was the bartender. Her bleach-blonde hair was piled up like a Viking helmet and her red blouse was cut low enough to be distracting. I remember thinking she’d probably been pretty at one time, but years of cigarette smoke and bartending must have worked against her beauty. Still, she had a broad smile.

“What’ll you guys have?” she asked.

“Just a couple of Cokes.” Dad said.

She smiled and winked at my dad, “You sure this kid doesn’t want a beer?”

I felt the blood rise to my cheeks. It was a joke, of course, and Dad shook his head no as he laughed.

I was glad mother wasn’t there.

The lady returned with two 10-ounce bottles and glasses of ice and Dad said, “Thank you, ma’am,” in the same respectful manner I imagined him using when a coworker brought him a lab report. She smiled and cocked her head to the side as if startled by his kind tone.

So there we were, a Baptist deacon dad sitting next to an under age kid, in a smoky bar. After a couple of sips on our Cokes, dad said, “I was kinda lucky in the Army. There was a lot of combat in Korea before I arrived and a lot after I left, but while I was there things were pretty quiet.” He said this as if he needed to apologize.

I’d been thinking about what he told me in the truck. I knew there had to be more to the story. After another sip, I asked, “What was the most dangerous thing you saw?”

He stared at his glass. “I was leading a platoon through a minefield when the point man froze. Frozen solid with the whole platoon behind him! He wouldn’t move so I crawled to his position and told him to crawl directly behind me so the others would follow.”

“So you led the whole group through the minefield,” I asked. I looked at my hands. Both were gripped around my glass, the condensation wet against my palms.

My Dad nodded yes.

I wanted to ask more but just then a stooped man in a loose-fitting flannel shirt put a quarter in the jukebox at the end of the bar. When the music started I felt the vibrations through the brass foot bar rails. Merle Haggard’s twangy guitar intro to “I’ll Leave the Bottle on the Bar” broke our conversation.

We each took a last bite of ice, mouthed a thank you to the bartender, and left our bottles at the bar. As we opened the door to leave and dad’s eyes squinted against the bright sunshine, I remember thinking we probably wouldn’t mention this stop to mother.

As we drove home, I considered asking about the war again, but somehow I knew the moment was meant to stay in that smoky bar. But then, I looked again at my father’s strong scuffed hands on the steering wheel. They were still the hands of a quiet man who loved and provided for his family, but now they seemed much more complex.

I looked at my father. He had a dimple in his chin. Already his whiskers were growing out, something he fought every day. He seemed like every dad I knew.  

But he was not. My father was a war hero who spoke with the same respect to a man of a different race working in a landfill as he might use with his boss at work. There was respect and kindness in his voice, whether addressing his pastor at church or a woman working in a smoky bar. There was a fearless quiet confidence at his core that viewed all others as equals.

I rubbed my chin. I wouldn’t need to shave for another year but at that moment I was anxious to. When I was five he put lotion on my palm so I could pretend as he shaved. It seemed like something that would connect me to my dad, that would say I was at least a little like him. 

As I grew older, I heard that if you lack qualities you admire in someone, pretend to be that person and do as they would do. It made me recall that day in the landfill and our visit to the bar. On more occasions that you can probably imagine, I’ve pretended to be my father. I’m happy to report that each time, I’ve met with good results.

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Note to reader: For this short story, I took a scene (trip to the landfill) that was factual, then added some details and embellishments. My cousin, dad, and grandfather once stopped at a smoky bar for a Coke after installing some ornamental iron. I was jealous. I pretended daddy and I went to that bar which gave us a location for our conversation and the character of the bartender.  I learned of my father’s minefield Army experience in little bits over time. For this story I condensed it down to a single conversation.

A Father’s Influence Along Life’s Trail

A Father’s Day post…

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My father (on the far right) with friends in Hot Springs, Arkansas

I have some of my father’s traits and am thankful for those in every case. Sadly, I did not get his 6-pack abs or shiny dark hair, but I’m thankful to have inherited his legs and his enjoyment for walking our little planet.

When daddy was in high school in Smackover, Arkansas, he took a job with a local man who was doing concrete work in a nearby oil field. There were 8-10 young men moving and spreading concrete in the summer heat. At the end of the day, only he and a couple of other guys remained. They were hired to continue the next day. He was strong and determined.

I’m thankful for this photo of my father and me moving dirt in our wheelbarrows. I think about my dad every time I see a wheelbarrow, especially if it’s full and difficult to balance! I’ve never had the physical strength to match my father’s, but I’ve shown signs of his determination on occasion.

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A rare photo of my father fishing

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Hiking a mountain on the edge of Arteaga in Mexico during the late 90s

Over the years, my dad and I’ve shared several hiking trails. When I was a child, our family often visited state parks in the Ouachitas or Ozarks region. As an adult, I had the privilege of hiking trails with my dad at Petit Jean State Park one early spring morning. I still think about him each time I walk down that favorite trail, thankful for his strength in my legs and memories of his love for creation.

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Daddy and mother at Petit Jean State Park during the 1980s.

Dad made many beautiful things from iron and he had an eye for photography. He let me “play” with his Zeiss Contessa camera when I was young. He purchased it while serving in the Army.

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Photo taken on his Zeiss Contessa while serving in the Korean War (early 1950s).

He learned to weld as a young man and got into ironwork as a sideline business to supplement the family income. His regular job was shift work as a chemist and later environmental control in local oil and chemical plants. On Saturdays and some evenings, I would help in his iron shop by grinding and buffing handrails. At other times, I’d assist him with an installation. Working with my father was good experience for a teenager and made me appreciate his work-ethic.

As a hobby, he sometimes made decorative items from iron. Below are a few examples. He made the imaginary plant on the right from corroded telephone wire being thrown away next to a railroad in South Arkansas. In the center is his replica of a “preacher-in-a-pulpit” wildflower using a piece of oil shale rock as a base.

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This book was personally delivered to my father as an expression of thanks for the progress of South Korea since the war.

This soft-spoken and hard-working man often said he was lucky to have been stationed in Korea during a lull in the fighting as if he should apologize. He still had opportunities to show his character in the face of danger.

Once he was leading a platoon and his point man froze as they approached a potential minefield. My dad told the point man and others to follow his steps as he led the soldiers through the area, knowing that the discovery of a mine would probably end his life but save others in his platoon. I’ve always admired that fearless quality in my father!

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Lieutenant Warnock made friends with children in Korea

My parents are members of what we often hear referred to as the greatest generation. Based on close inspection of this man and his wife for my entire life, I can confirm they are members of the greatest generation.

Those of us who’ve shared the trail with them would do well to emulate as many of their traits as possible. I like what writer Neil Gaiman said recently in a commencement speech. “If you can’t be wise, pretend to be someone who is, and act the way you think they would act.” Not bad advice when you have these models of wisdom and character.

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Mother and daddy with a vase he gave her before they were married, 65 years ago.

Long Distance Hiking Partner – Thank You Dad

 

My father and mother at Petit Jean State Park

My father and mother at Petit Jean State Park (photo by cousin Sue Warnock, late 1970s?)

I heard a yell from down in the valley and immediately realize my error.  The voice was my father’s, and it wasn’t a happy sound.  I had paused to pick up rocks and throw them into woods down a steep embankment.  It was fun to watch them bounce their way down through the trees.   I didn’t realize my father had hiked down below, and evidently one of the rocks hit him on the shoulder.  When he got up to the piece of trail I was on, he emphasized that I shouldn’t do that again.  It was a good lesson to learn at twelve years old.  Now while hiking I occasionally stop younger hikers from throwing rocks down hillsides and this always reminds me of my father.

While visiting my Uncle Reese in Arteaga, Mexico, years later in the 1990s, I did a little desert hiking with my dad.  I stared at Arteaga Mountain through my uncle’s second floor window and thought it looked like an easy climb with little in the way of vegetation or challenge.  My dad, sister, and her son were up for it.  We consulted with one of Reese’s neighbors who had a topographic map of the area, determined a route, and drove to the foot of this “smooth little mountain.”

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Daddy and me toward the high point of our hike. Daddy used a century plant stalk for a hiking stick (photo by Martha Warnock, approx. 1996).

We were surprised at the steepness of the climbs and the thickness of prickly vegetation.  Cactus plants were everywhere and had a way of reaching out and touching you.

Another surprise was the deceptiveness of the climb.  After reaching one rise, there would be a dip before rising even higher.  We hiked up, then down and then up even more.   This pattern repeated over and over.  We finally reached the peak and enjoyed the view  back down on Arteaga.  Rather than return by the up and down route, we chose a drainage to scramble down and walked back to the car.  A souvenir from that hike was a century plant stalk that my father found and used as a hiking stick.  It was light and strong and still works today.

A few years ago my father and I visited Petit Jean State Park where we’d spent many family vacations when I was a child.  We got in late and set up camp in the dark.  Early the next morning we hiked down the Cedar Falls Trail.  Robins were everywhere, and water flowed in small drainages along the trail.  A flood of  memories came over me as I thought of the many times I’d walked that trail as a child.  The house-sized boulders in front of me sat exactly as they did when I was a child. Although there had been gradual changes over centuries from water, ice, and wind, the changes were imperceptible to me.

We were both growing older in a world that seemed to change a breakneck speed.  The world we worked in had seen tremendous changes in technology and professional practices, yet here along these rocky trails, time seemed frozen.  There was something comforting about the stability of these scenes remembered from childhood.  The little drainages still flowed across familiar rock piles.  Cedar Falls still roared with power.  Deep green moss still clung to the tops of vine-covered rocks.  Bright orange and yellow lichen still caught my eye as we descended the trail.

As I watched my father hike down the trail, I thought about his years of commitment to my mother and our family.  He’d worked hard to provide for us and make it possible for us to explore the beauty of the world and learn new things.  He always had an eye for the beauty of nature, and I was pleased to think I received that tendency as a gift from him.  He took pride in his children and grandchildren, but I knew that he had made sacrifices to provide for us and make our needs more important than his own.

The few hikes I had with my father became special memories.  He is the true long-distance hiking partner, having traveled with me for more than fifty years.  I’m thankful for his many lessons, some verbal but most taught in silence through example.  He showed me how to walk a path with integrity.  Out of respect for my father and his example, I hope to walk as he walked.

Photo taken by my father on his Zeiss Contessa on a visit to Hodges Gardens.

Photo taken by my father on his Zeiss Contessa on a visit to Hodges Gardens.

Photo taken on his Ziess Contessa while serving in the Korean War (early 1950s).

Photo taken on his Ziess Contessa while serving in the Korean War (early 1950s).

Dad taking pictures at Mirror Lake, Blanchard Springs

Dad taking pictures at Mirror Lake, Blanchard Springs