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.
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.
Recently my sister found the following letter, written in October, 1951. Sharing just a portion here.