Stories our fathers told
October 9, 2012 By Ian Robinson
A lot of stories are lost as the final shovelful of dirt lands on a
man’s grave or when the wind steals the last of the ashes from a
I know what this must sound like: It’s like you wandered into a Goth teenager’s creative writing assignment.
I’m not being morbid. Just think of what follows as a really good reason to share all your good stories with your kids.
My father came to visit a few years ago. He boarded a plane for home Christmas Eve and was dead the day after Boxing Day.
Last night of his visit, we were sitting around after supper when my boy, nine at the time, said, “What's the weirdest thing you ever saw, Grandpa?”
My dad says: “I guess that’d be the time I saw the fat Italian blow up the horse.”
Four days before the end of his life, he surprises me with a story I’d never heard.
Feature this—it’s 1942 and my father is a skinny, barefoot, crooked-toothed 12-year-old. It’s summer and he’s wearing his summer wardrobe, which consists of a bathing suit.
He lives on a farm outside town and he is homeschooled till he’s nine. When they finally put him in a classroom he does not like it, not one damned bit. He is awkward and weird and, truth be told, probably stinks some. He gets a bath but once a week in the tiny tub behind the wood stove in the farmhouse.
He is virtually illiterate and will not learn to read well until he is marooned an entire winter working in a lumber camp in 1946. He will pick up paperback westerns by a guy named Zane Grey and will labouriously sound out word after word until the sentences start to flow and then he’ll be a reader for life.
But for now, books are torment and school is hell and other children are demons and he has a loner’s appreciation and understanding of distance.
Which is about to come in handy.
Every morning he rides his bicycle to another farm where he turns dairy cattle out to pasture. It’s his first paying job. Barefoot and shivering, he sometimes waits till a cow takes a crap on the ground and stands in the hot cow patty until his feet warm up.
One day, the barefoot boy is bicycling home and by then the sun is riding high across the sky and he passes another farmhouse.
The fat Italian farmer who lives there is tying some kind of … what? A bundle of sticks? He’s trying to tie something to the head of his old plough horse and the horse keeps trying to shy away. Curious, my father veers off the dirt road and pedals down the lane. He comes to a stop.
The bundle is made up of …
… sticks of dynamite.
All famers have dynamite. It’s easy to buy in those days. When farmers cut down trees to expand their fields, they drill holes in the stumps of the big trees and just blow those suckers up. This variety of explosive is universally referred to as “stumping powder.”
“Um. Sir? What are you doing?”
The farmer tells him the horse is old. It is time for the horse to die. It is the humane thing to do.
My dad says: “Um. Sir? Why don’t you just shoot it?”
The fat Italian farmer doesn’t own a gun.
“Um. Sir? My father has a shotgun. I can borrow it. I can be back here in half an hour.”
No, no. That was OK. Two sticks of powder ought to do it.
The word “overkill” has yet to enter the English language, which is kind of a shame. The old man could have used it about now.
My father has, of course, identified the flaw in the man’s plan. The man he became wasn’t stupid and neither was the boy who gave birth to that man.
It is a flaw that, if he doesn’t get busy, could kill him, too, so as the fat Italian farmer begins to worry his Zippo from his pocket, my father starts to pedal until he’s about 50 yards off and skids to a halt and turns to watch because this is an event he seriously does not wish to miss.
The fat Italian farmer lights the fuse.
And begins to walk away.
This horse has known this farmer its entire life. This horse sees the farmer walking away … and it follows. It thinks it is going for a walk.
This is the flaw in the plan.
It is a serious flaw.
Because even though the horse is old, it is still a horse and horses can run like a sonofabitch.
Not so much.
The farmer now notices the flaw … but the fuse is already lit and he breaks into a waddling jog.
The horse catches up with him.
Panic hits. It will be several years before a man named Roger Bannister breaks the four-minute mile, but my father thinks, for a moment at least, the fat farmer is the currently the world’s fastest man.
But the horse? Horse is faster.
As the fuse burns down, the fat farmer trips and falls to the ground, curls into a ball and puts his hands over his ears.
And my father watches, mouth open in rapt amazement, as the horse explodes. Gobbets of wet, bloody horse shrapnel slap onto the ground around his bike. The shock wave is like being slapped in the face by a wet feather pillow. It staggers him and he falls off his bike.
And the horse? The headless horse is kneeling, and pouring its life blood out onto the fat Italian who will rise up in a moment, covered in gore and concussed and blast-loony and temporarily deafened to stagger in circles.
But he will live another day.
My son says: “Grandpa? Why didn’t you warn the fat farmer?”
And my father smiles and says: “I thought it would turn out funnier if I left him to his own devices.”
My father was not wrong.
I promised myself that night that I would get him to tell me more stories.
But you already know how that part of the story ends.
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