In the late evening in the summer in Arkansas, mist sits on the face as the sun has set and the crickets go into action and the chiggers begin to "eat" between toes and from the tips of ankle bones. In 1964, in an evening sky, dad and I sat in the backyard and discussed that. As the darkness grew, I made one of my then-common comments regarding the possibility of "people on other planets."
"Dad--don't you think there could be people on other planets? I mean, just look up there at all those stars," I said, arms and hands waving across the Milky Way galaxy overhead.
"Son, if God put them there, there's people there. That's all." I had accomplished one thing: though he wasn't sharing my views unconditionally, I had gotten him to tilt his head and eyes upward away from his baseball radio to the night sky.
As we continued to gaze at those stars, the ballgame progressed on the radio, the Cardinals winning one more. I tilted my head repeatedly, curling my lips back away from my teeth like a nervous little boy will do. I was asking curious, nervous little boy questions.
"Dad, did you see that satellite there? It's coming over the horizon."
Dad turned his head, my seeing in him the ultimate Authority as his gaze fell on that object. At that moment, as his eyes connected with the same object I was looking at, I felt part of my soul, some deep inner part of myself, connect with that connection. I trembled.
"Dad, what do you think that is? A Russian satellite? One of ours? How fast do they have to go to stay way up there night after night?"
"It's a fallin'--it's a fallin' all the time. It's just a fallin and a-fallin'. That's how they say they keep 'em up. It can't fall as fast as the earth turns," he explained with his own faulty understanding of the principles of satellites, which sounded like Ultimate Wisdom to me.
I pulled closer to him, to see how his eyes looked in the dark from the edge. I could see the red of his ever-present cigarette in the corner of one eye. There was a faint glow in both his eyes, from the barely visible kitchen light, a slender fluorescent bulb mom kept turned on most of the time.
In that faint glow, I saw the slight movement of his head as he scanned the sky with that squinty intensity that was so characteristic. Intently. I loved it when he applied his intensity to something I'd brought to his attention. I stared and wondered what he was thinking about, to be continuing to follow that satellite all the way across the sky. Halfway through his scan of its star trek, I asked another question, as the announcer was wrapping up the game.
"I wonder how many satellites are up there now?"
"Prob'ly too many. They burn money up, just burn it up, sendin' those things up. But that's OK. People's starvin' and they're just burnin' money up. The Lord's gonna take care of it all here pretty soon. He's gonna show 'em who's boss."
I paused, before asking the question again.
"Dad, do you believe in flyin' saucers? In people in flyin' saucers?"
"You readin' about that agin? I thought you'd told me you stopped that."
"I have stopped," I lied. "I just read a little bit now and then now, just people that are real serious and real famous, that's all I read about it. I got a book by the Air Force on UFOs. They say they aren't real."
"Look--here comes another one of them satellites. I believe it's a-movin' faster than that other one you saw. Look at it. They glow from the sun. It's on the other side of the world, but they're so far up, it still is shinin' on 'em."
"That's real far up, huh?"
"Son, please don't spend any more of yer money on books about flyin' saucers and such. You're too smart a young man for that. Will you promise me you won't?"
"I won't," I sing-songed.
He seemed to grow angry. "That's what you told me last week and your mother said you just got another box of books in the mail. Son, them books is wasting your money. Get a good book. Go get that Bible and look at it. It's a good book. It's the best."
"OK. I will. I just read about it sometimes. One guy was saying that Ezekiel saw a flyin' saucer." My fingers were tracing the outlines of the arm of his lawn chair.
"That's not true. He saw God's angels." His head now angled his face toward me in the darkness. "That's what he saw. They ain't no flyin' saucers and don't you forget it."
"Dad, what satellite do you think that one was?" I shrugged, trying to change the subject. Sometimes the talks went better when his eyes were looking up at the stars.
"Ain't no tellin'. Well, this ball game's over and I'm tired and I'm gonna go lay down and get some sleep." Again I felt that smallness within, that emptiness, that craving to ask him more questions. I needed his advice, his encouragement. But I dared not tire him. He'd worked another long day at Pop's Pepsi plant. He worked 10, 11 hour days, easy. Though Pop was my mother's own father, he drove dad "like a slave."
("He works me like a slave--a god-damn slave Maxine." he complained to mom periodically. "He's just like Hitler." My mother would weep. "I'm sorry Bill. I know he does. I've tried to talk to mama." "He's a damn German Hitler. Slave driver. Been at work since 5 o'clock in the mornin' , and it's eight, nine o'clock before I get my supper. Mack, I can do better. I nearly know I can." "I want you to, Bill. You know I do, if that's what you want." In less than a year, they were to have their own business, freed of Pop.)
He'd go to bed like that, and it was several nights before I'd get to talk to him again, before he sat out in the backyard in the dark in the lawn chairs, my every-night perch, his once a week one. Finally, facing the sky, the stars, the dialog would revive and expand.
"Where's Tim?" the conversation would always begin.
"He's down at Scott and John's."
"He's been stayin' down there a lot, hasn't he?"
"He's got a bike now."
Gradually, I became more challenging in my questions. "Dad, couldn't angels be from other planets? This man in this one book says flyin' saucers could be angels."
"They can be whatever God wants them to be. And it ain't' got nothin' to do with any of those books. You need to stop readin' those books. You really do, son. I mean it, you do. You need to read the Bible."
That evening, he listened to a late game from St. Louis, then turned and listened to another one. "High pop fly," the announcer would periodically say, loud enough for me to hear from my distant lawn chair. Crickets filled the time between hits, their songs accompanying the sight of silent satellites moving across the sky.
"Dad, maybe those aren't satellites. Maybe they're flyin' saucers."
"They're planes or satellites. Yer mother said you got a book about hypnotizin' yourself. I want you to stop that hypnotizing yerself. I mean it."
"OK, I will," I again sing-songed. "I just thought it might make me learn better. Or have more confidence in myself."
He jerked his head toward me in the darkness. I couldn't bear to look even at the darkened outlines of his face. I could feel his concerned, serious gaze, his blue gleaming eyes fixed on me. "Son, you can have confidence in yourself without all that. You can do anything you make up your mind to do, you just remember that."
I never forgot it. He told me that frequently. It's what kept me alive all these years, kept me together at times when I'd otherwise have fallen apart. It was a memory of an event that was repeated many times during those years. I can still see the blue outlines of his face, reflected blue by the fluorescent light in the kitchen window, as I'd yawn and start to doze off, his words still in my ears, my backward-leaning head and body supporting my two eyes fixed on his softly glowing, blue-outlined cheeks and lips as he'd say, "You can do anything you make up your mind to do." Fade to blue.
I did manage a thank you before I dozed off and returned to the house. "I can do anything I make up my mind to do. Thanks dad. You always tell me that. I'll try to just believe you. I won't hypnotize myself anymore."
He was troubled that I ever did it at all. "Son, that's so ridiculous. What in the world made you do that in the first place?"
"I don't know. I just don't know...I just thought it would help me..."
(It was actually an innocuous and probably harmless tape recording of a hypnotist: "Relax....Left arm...completely relaxed...Right arm... Relax more... You can now give yourself suggestions and images...[However, at this point, I can only recall falling asleep while trying to image myself in some way. The image gradually would fade, as the blue marble I gazed at faded out as I stared more deeply at it. Fade to blue.] One... two... three... four... five and at the count of five you'll awaken feeling refreshed...".)
"I don't want to hear about you doin' that no more, you hear me? Do you hear me?"
I knew he was looking intently at me as he said it. I could feel his eyes. I forced myself to look at him. "OK dad." I reached out and touched his hand and his arm. I reached over and hugged him.
"I think I'm going on to bed ," I said. It was unusually late. It was really different for dad to be up that late.
I didn't realize for several years how troubling the whole incident of my attempt to use self-hypnosis had been for dad. Mom told me years later that, late that night, long after she was asleep, he'd come in from the backyard. She told me she thought he'd been in tears. She said he was deeply troubled that I felt I couldn't come to him with my fears, that I didn't seem to believe him when he said I could do anything I made up my mind to do. Instead, she said, he felt I preferred advice from strangers.
He was, in reality, for all his tough and steadfast side, a deeply sensitive man. My respect and admiration were desperately important to him. At times, however, this was hard for me to realize or believe. He often seemed hostile to me in a way he wasn't toward Tim. He, I think, "identified" better with Tim than with me. I was the older, and dad had been the younger in his stressful relationship with his older brother and father.
In that relationship, criticism from his dad was all he'd known or at least all he could recall. His father never seemed to be satisfied with him. His older brother was clearly his father's favorite. I picked up on that identification conflict quite early on and felt that dad had little confidence in me. At the time, too, I didn't or couldn't realize the dynamic that was the basis for it: Dad's inability to confront the real sources of his pain, his need to recreate the relationship in our three-way relationship. In that set-up, I was the bad guy, the straw man. Yet it is also true that dad could step out of that and desperately seek my respect and awe. He'd been unable to reconcile himself to it that night, however.
As for me, that night was also a different one. While dad was still in the backyard, I'd gone to sleep and begun what apparently was a long and memorable dream. As usual, the hypnosis tape was rolling softly in the background, hardly audible. My "gaze object", the big clear and blue catseye marble, lay uselessly on the comic book table between Tim's bed and mine.
Dad, Tim and I were in the backyard, a phenomenon that rarely occurred but does seem to have occurred, since Dad always seemed to use it as a point of reference. ("Where's Tim?") I have no clear, specific memory of Tim, Dad and I all being in the backyard at night at the same time, only a composite--a vague, dim recollection of sunset to darkness, of voices without faces, with no details.
In the dream, it was dark and the stars were shining brightly in the cold winter night. The semi-wild peach trees at the edge of the yard were bare and we could see a satellite come up from the horizon, from the direction of the hill and lights of town. Tim was saying "Look-- look how big it is!"
I was pointing at a plane going across the sky. As it flew over, its engines roared ominously, as much a vibration as a sound.
"Well good Lord," dad said. "Why's that thing s' low?"
Excitedly, Tim called our attention back to the "satellite."
"Look--look how big it is," he repeated, mouth left agape.
It was a crescent moon shape. It was big, and it wasn't the moon.
"Dad--look!" I shouted. "It's a..."
"Look further up, Max, " Tim breathlessly gesticulated.
Directly overhead, a silvery object, a disc, floated across the sky. Then another and another. Soon, the sky was filled with crescent and disk-shaped objects. There was a brilliant blue glow around them, a glow that gradually filled my vision and my memory of that dream. Fade to blue.
"That was a dilly of a dream I had last night, " I said at breakfast.
"You better stop that hypnotizin' yourself son, you hear me?"
"Your dad's right, Max. Listen to him. He's telling you what's right. All that's against the Bible. It isn't good."
"Okaaay, I won't do it anymore," I answered impatiently. "Mom, when did y'all go to Kroger, when you all left together and went to the store with Gwen and then you brought that stuff back for us? What was it you brought? It was cold. Was it close to Christmas? I can't remember."
"Huh," mom said, with no small amount of amazement. "How can you remember that?" She paused to reflect. "Well, back four months ago, in January, we left the tree up for awhile, and went to the store with Gwen and Martha instead, one night. Bill wanted us to get some popcorn. Maybe that's the night you remember. We had to call you three to come in to fix the popcorn."
Fade to blue.
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