“Ya notice anything unusual about the highways up here?” I quizzed my customer, Rhonda, as we motored along the Interstate from the Burlington airport en route to the Capitol Plaza Hotel in Montpelier. It was a sunny afternoon, and all around us the trees were at their late-springtime peak — lush and lime green.
“I’m not sure,” she replied. I glanced to my right to see that Rhonda was seriously considering the question. She was dressed in a proper blue business suit, and her short blond hair was similarly unadorned and no-nonsense — an unassuming Midwesterner, if I had to guess. “The landscape is simply beautiful, I can tell you that,” she offered.
“Well, you’re kind of on the right track. There are no billboards. State legislation outlawed ’em in the ’60s. Doesn’t it make a big difference? The vistas stay wide open.”
“Of course,” she said. “Now that you say it, it’s obvious, but I never would have guessed. What a great idea.”
“So, what part of the country are you from?” I asked.
“I’m from Kansas. I run a small cattle farm with my husband.”
“Really?” I said, chuckling. “You’re not exactly dressed like a farmer.”
“Well, we are. But you know how it is these days. My husband and I both have outside jobs. I’m an unemployment insurance specialist, and Gill is a lineman.”
“From Kansas? So, Gill is, like, the Wichita lineman.”
Sweetly, Rhonda chuckled at my less-than-scintillating repartee. “We’re not from Wichita, but you’re kind of on the right track,” she said with a wink.
We rode along for a while in silence, just enjoying the sunshine and billboard-free vistas. As we passed the Waterbury exit, Rhonda said, “Father’s Day is coming up shortly. Is your dad still around?”
“Nope,” I replied. “He died about five years ago. How about you?”
“My dad recently passed away.”
“I’m sorry. How about your mother?”
“My mother died when I was 10.”
“That’s rough. Did he remarry?”
“He did, and immediately. I guess he wanted to provide a mother for me and my younger sister. His new wife, Brenda, had four kids of her own — 3, 4, 5 and 6, if you could believe it. Anyway, it was no ‘Brady Bunch’ situation, to say the least. The marriage turned out to be a fiasco. Brenda had serious issues, as they say these days, and enough skeletons in her closet to stock a haunted house on Halloween. My dad was just a trusting soul. They divorced after about seven grueling years.”
As Rhonda spoke, I reflected on how, when a loved one dies, talking about the person helps with grieving and healing. I’ve been on both sides of that conversation. Sometimes I think this is the core of the human experience: We help each other out by just listening to each other’s stories.
I asked, “What kind of man was your dad?”
Rhonda closed her eyes for a moment and raised an arm, gently brushing her fine hair with the fingertips of her right hand. “Well, he was quite the guy. He ran the auto repair shop in our small town. This could have been a good business, but he didn’t exactly manage money very well.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, the customers never seemed to have, like, actual money to pay for the repairs. It was mostly farm folks, and they all seemed to be struggling financially. So he would take stuff in trade. I remember one time he took a bunch of watermelons, for God’s sake! Another time he traded an engine job for an old, beat-up shotgun.”
“That reminds me of an old pal of mine who practices law in Gillette, Wyoming,” I said. “One time, in barter for a major piece of legal work, he accepted a gold brick from a client.”
“Yeah, well, my father wasn’t exactly receiving any gold bricks,” my passenger replied. “A few weeks ago my sister and I were sorting through his belongings and found an old lockbox from the shop. Inside were a bunch of car titles — some going back as far as the ’80s — for cars he had worked on through the years. Our best guess was, the customers would give him the titles to hold on to until they could pay off the repairs, which, of course, never happened.”
“You know, Rhonda,” I said, “to me he just sounds like an incredibly generous guy.”
“That’s exactly what he was,” she said. “The kind of person who would literally give you the shirt off his back. When I was a teenager, I once gave him a Father’s Day present I knew he would love: this dungaree jacket with an elaborate embroidered eagle on the back. He was so happy! For the next few months, he would wear it all the time and then, all of sudden, we stopped seeing it on him. I questioned him about it, and he was kind of evasive. I soon found out what happened when I saw this down-and-out guy wearing it outside the Salvation Army in a nearby town. So, I asked my dad why on Earth he would give away this jacket he liked so much.”
“What was his answer?” I asked. I was way into this story.
“He said, ‘Well, it’s like this, Pumpkin — the man didn’t have a decent jacket.’”
Rhonda was crying at this point. Not sobbing — in fact, you could barely hear a sound — but gumdrop tears were sliding down her cheeks.
For my part, I felt honored that she’d shared this with me, telling me about her dad — a man who evidently spent his life quietly living the gospel truth rather than talking about it. How rare and precious is that? He also seemed like a father who only wanted the best for his two girls. The type of man, I thought, for whom Father’s Day was invented.
“Hackie” is a biweekly column. To reach Jernigan Pontiac, email firstname.lastname@example.org.