“Chihuahua? I don’t know how to spell chihuahua. How ‘bout dog?”
“How ‘bout you learn how to spell chihuahua? Ch-ih-uah-ua. Try that.”
“Good. Spell chrysanthemum.”
“How ‘bout flower?”
“How ‘bout chrysanthemum? Chrys-an-the-mum. You try it.”
And so it went. I was an elementary school student in McComb, Mississippi in the ‘50s. Dad was my de facto teacher. Every grade. He moonlighted as a printer for our hometown newspaper, the McComb Enterprise-Journal. Or maybe the moonlighting was the other-way-round. Whatever it was I was part of it.
Many nights after supper Dad would head back to work with me happily in tow. I learned a lot “in night school” those moonlit nights.
In those days—the ‘50s—newspapers were published after having first been typeset. Metal moveable type had to be arranged in wooden trays containing dividers. Words were spelled backwards reading right-to-left, not the normal left-to-right, in order for the words and sentences to print correctly. News stories written in this fashion, were tightly compressed in the wooden tray, inked, and pressed onto paper. The skilled printer read upside down, as well as backwards and right-to-left. Upside down a “q” looked like a “d” and a “b” looked like a “p.” I thought my daddy was the smartest man in the world.
Dad not only enjoyed teaching me things—things like spelling, fishing, drop-kicking a football, firing a rifle, hitting a baseball, cleaning a fish, tying a necktie— he also got a chuckle out of teasing me.
“Are you wise or otherwise?” he’d ask.
“Now, how am I going to answer this? Either way he will laughingly challenge my response. I’ll try wise.”
“O, good! Help me with this. What happens when a force that can’t be stopped meets an object that can’t be moved?”
“Can I change my earlier answer?”
“I think you just did.”
Dad dropped out of McComb High School in the 10th grade, pumped gas at a filling station to make enough money to buy a used Plymouth, then hired-on at the newspaper as a clean-up boy before joining the army for a 2-year stint. After serving in Alaska, receiving his GED, returning home in ‘48, he married mother, got back on at the paper as an apprentice printer and through the years worked his way up to Production Superintendent, before retiring with 40 years of service to our community.
Guess who came along 9 months after the ’48 wedding, in ’49. My sisters joined us in ’50 and ’51, along with our brother in ’52, who died shortly after birth. Maybe we O’Briens were what some call “a blue-collar family.” Dad was not a doctor, nor a lawyer, banker, dentist, nor entrepreneur (en-tre-pre-neur). He was just dad. My dad.
Yup, dad. My dad. I am who I am because he was who he was. Perfect? Nah. Typical thirsty Irishman, it would be fair to say. But letters, words, sentences were his business, my inherited toys. Gifts from dad. Ink flowing through his veins cheerfully course through mine.
Maybe your question: “Was there any other virtuosity your dad possessed that surpassed his syllabic skills and type-setting talent?”
“Play Stag-o-Lee in ‘A,’ son.”
“You gonna sing it or play it?”
With that overture the show begins. Dad on French Harp and I on guitar.
“I was standing on the corner, when I heard my bulldog bark.
He was barking at two men a’gambling in the dark.
Stag-o-Lee and Billy Lyons were gambling late one night
Stag rolled a 7 and they began to fight.”
The harmonica catches fire as dad inhales and exhales flames! The living room sways on fragile verge of collapse. Dad and his harp ghost into the night, music swallowing them whole.
Dad is Apollo, deity of music! We are all his dancing subjects. Even the gods dance as he plays.
Into eternity . . . .
Here’s to the best I ever knew or heard, my hero, my muse,
Happy heavenly Father’s Day, Dad!