My Dad Can Beat Up Your Dad
There are many words I could use to weave a hasty portrait of my father. I once overheard him describe himself as a “double-tough motherfucker”, but those with milder vocabularies might choose from a thousand other fitting labels:
Cowboy. Provocateur. Fisherman. Hunter. Hiker. Wildlife photographer. Firearm enthusiast. Craftsman.
Norman Williams is a dad and a granddad and a husband and a brother. He is retired, and these days he photographs animals (and even feeds them) more often than he ever gets around to hunting them. My dad is cynical like me, and he is quick to anger, also like me. His work ethic is dizzying to behold, and as recently as fifteen years ago, when I was theoretically at the peak of health at twenty and he was damn near fifty, he could still hike circles around me. This summer, we plan to undertake another epic fishing trip, the first such trip we’ll have shared in several years; I expect he will hike circles around me once again.
You could call my dad reserved, but you could also call him sentimental; it depends on how well you know him. Some might say he’s frugal, yet he once chipped in with a few buddies to reward a hard-working waitress with a one hundred-dollar tip, and when his sister-in-law fell into financial trouble one day, Dad unceremoniously handed her his paycheck—and not as a loan.
Before his retirement, Dad spent thirty-four years working for Oroville Wyandotte Irrigation District, which according to a cursory google search is called South Feather Water and Power Agency these days. Thirty-five years, man. I’m only thirty-four years old, and my longest stint with a single employer was my two-and-a-half-year tenure at a group home in Boonville, California, where I worked the graveyard shift, which I typically spent watching television or goofing off on the internet while my young charges slept peacefully downstairs. I have taught for nearly a decade, but I’ve crammed five different schools into that short span of time, and teaching can be no less sedentary a job than my old group home gig; I stand to lecture, but I sit whenever my students are working independently, and I sit when I am grading, and I sit at the computer during my breaks and prep periods. I don’t know that Oroville Wyandotte Irrigation District even had chairs; Dad didn’t just work for the same company for thirty-five years. He did hard, physically-demanding, frequently dangerous work for the same company for thirty-five years. I’m embarrassed to admit that I cannot even imagine committing myself to three-and-a-half decades of such work.
In response to a vague query on my part, Dad writes:
My job titles varied, but the last one was Electrical Machinist. In reality, I did little electrical or machinist work. We had several dams, tunnels, and canals, plus our four powerhouses. It was our job to maintain them. Once a year, we take the powerhouses apart and do routine maintenance on them. Any emergencies, and we would jump in and take them apart for repairs.
There were lots of dangerous parts of our job. I climbed telephone poles, which I was never comfortable doing. I went over the edge of dams, hanging on to a rope, and often times, we found ourselves with hundreds of tons of powerhouse parts suspended over our heads. There was lots of driving, and hiking on icy trails and roads. I walked almost all of their tunnels at one time or another. They were several miles long, and pitch black. All in all, it was a wonderful place to work, if one had the misfortune of having to work.
During the summer of 2010, I spent about a week at Dad’s place with my daughter, who was six at the time. I am not as good as I could be about keeping in touch with loved ones via the telephone, so Dad and I mostly rely on e-mail to communicate with one another, and so it was no revelation to see Dad typing to a friend early one morning. What was surprising was how damn fast he was typing, and the fact that he had his fingers in their proper places on the keyboard; I’m a fast typist, but I still favor the two-finger hunt-and-peck.
“How the hell did you get to be such a good typist?” I asked.
“Took a typing class,” he replied. “In high school.”
Having spent my formative years with the man, I can confidently assert that he had few opportunities to maintain his typing skills in the 1980s and 1990s. It was surreal, then, seeing my dad, the outdoors guy, the hard-workin’, cowboy hat-wearin’ good ol’ boy… contentedly, competently typing.
Things would soon get more surreal. But first, more from the man himself. The “Blue” he mentions was our faithful canine, an Australian Shepherd with one blue eye. Here’s Dad:
A couple more interesting things that happened on the ol’ job. In 1986, five or six of us were trapped in a powerhouse. The access road washed out. We strung a cable across the canyon, and rode out in a cable car. We were trapped for two days, and one night. I had Blue with me, and had to carry her up a ladder to get her in the cable car. That dog sure led an interesting life. She had rolled in a dead mountain lion the day we got trapped. The boys were not too happy with me, insisting that she stay inside of the powerhouse. The next adventure was flying in a PG&E helicopter. We measured snow on the west slope of the Sierra’s. We flew several courses, and it was a bluebird day. One I would have gladly paid the company to be there for.
An informative aside: We adopted Blue when Dad’s rancher buddy Jay decided the critter’s cowdog skills were not enough to compensate for her tendency to chew on Jay’s saddles and tools. We had her for the better part of ten years. She was viciously attacked by a bear during a fishing trip—you see the kinds of supposed leisure activities my father favors—and she came home in rough shape, barely alive, with deep, terrible grooves torn into her sides from the bear’s claws. When my folks brought Blue to the vet, they found out she also had Canine Parvovirus (“Parvo”), but… well, like master, like dog, I suppose: Blue toughed it out for a good five to seven years after having run afoul of that bear.
Dad still favors the outdoors. He and my stepmother Penni are almost always hiking or kayaking or cross-country skiing. Indeed, once Dad discovered the joys of wildlife photography a few years ago, he became if anything an even more enthusiastic outdoors-man.
That said, Dad and Penni left California some time ago for Washington, and now Oregon. It snows frequently where they live, so outdoor adventures are not always a viable option. Dad found an elegant solution: he now creates and customizes black powder guns, powder horns and other tools and trappings of the hunting trade. His latest piece is a tomahawk featuring “a brass head, hickory handle, four poured pewter bands, and three inletted brass diamonds”:
I love that my dad has found a creative outlet, and I’m frequently speechlessly impressed with the beauty and sophistication of his pieces, but I’d be lying if I said I ever expected such an occurrence. My dad’s a gruff, no-nonsense man’s man. Who’d have thought he’d ever go in for arts and crafts, let alone kick ass at it?
While I could go on in this vein for pages and pages, this blog ain’t called Two-Fisted Dad Talk. Why then have I donated this space to celebrating Norman Williams? Well, out of gratitude, for one thing; it can’t be easy to have your grown son spontaneously decide to leave the country to teach abroad, but my dad has been supportive and excited for me and my wife and our daughter every step of the way. He and Penni deal with all our mail and financial issues back in the States, and hell, they let me offer their address to Amazon.com and Big Bad Toy Store so they can store my G.I. Joes in their house all year until we get to visit the States in the summer. Twice now, Dad and Penni have even opened dozens of figures for me, repacked them as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible and then shipped them overseas so that I’d have new figures to photograph. Dad wouldn’t know a Joe from a Cobra or an Adventure Team hero from a He-Man villain, but he still had the selfless courtesy and foresight to ask me whether I’d prefer if he held onto my San Diego Comic Con-Exclusive Rise of Cobra Destro figure until next summer. “This package it comes in is really nice,” he explained. “You might wanna wait and deal with it yourself so I don’t have to destroy the packaging.”
In recent weeks, Dad has shared his latest nature photos. In this series, however, there is not a bird nor a bear to be found. Not only that, but I’m starting to suspect that, as concerns his efforts to keep my Destro figure safe, Dad’s motives were perhaps less noble than he let on.
And then a week or two later, he sent another batch; he’s already improving!
Fifteen-hundred words into this tribute, I’ll go ahead and concede that words cannot express the surprise I felt when my father sent me these toy photos. In the 1980s, my dad spent his time working and hunting and fishing and drinking—I suspect he’d sometimes do all four at the same time—and he had little time, concern or regard for anything else. Now it’s 2012, and Dad’s prone to feeding geese rather than shooting chukar, and he spends dozens of quiet hours finely shaping pieces of wood or metal.
He’s still a badass, though. He’s as tough and prone to wild, provocative commentary as ever—I feel that “I’d kill people all the time if it wasn’t for the death penalty” remains the definitive Norman Williams quote; he delivered it calmly, apropos of nothing, during a mellow restaurant lunch in Chico, California back in the late 1990s.
Indeed, if you’ll allow me to indulge in some playground-style taunting, I’ll go further than “he’s still a badass”:
My dad can beat up your dad.
And then he’ll pose action figures on your dad’s unconscious body and photograph them.