--Guest post by Jesse Taylor II
I've never felt any real sense of shame when telling folks that my Daddy was a heavy drinker. That's just the plain truth. I grew up with it and accepted it as part of his nature. He wasn't a "mean drunk". If anything, drinking brought out the entertainer in him. It was the times when he was drunk that he most often turned to his music and story telling talents and enjoyed the laughter it brought from his friends. Having said that, let me tell you a little more about the man.
Daddy was a heavy construction worker. That's what he liked. He would rather work on a bridge building crew, a road crew, or with a crew that dug ditches than to operate some factory machine. Of course, back in "his time", many of the construction crews quit for the winter. Cold weather takes a heavy toll on machinery, materials and men. It can be dangerous...much better to wait for better weather.
During lay-offs, there wasn't much to do except sit around the house, which Daddy couldn't stand. He didn't have any real hobbies, except for drinking, and he craved the company of his pals. Even so, there's only just so much time anyone can spend at the local VFW, or anywhere else with a fine selection of bar stools. The mind can only enjoy as much as the seat of the pants can endure. So, it wasn't unusual for men of Daddy's kind to "take the show on the road", so to speak. They'd get a "pint or a fifth" and a cold six pack and drive around to see the sights. Yes, yes, I know...drinking and driving is a terrible thing. It was back then, too, but it wasn't the huge crime it is now days. It was more socially accepted and that's just the way it was.
Of course, you realize this is all leading up to a story. So, having "set the stage", here it is.
It was a few days before Christmas. It had been real cold and the snow was heavy and deep. Daddy was laid-off from his job, so he was pursuing his favorite hobby...we'll call it "socializing".
As it so happened, Daddy was socializing with a workmate named, Russel Wilde. Folks called him "Red", because of his bright red hair and full, red beard. Red was another "old drunk", for lack of a better description. He made good money, but like most of his kind, he kept it all "drunk up". He lived as poor as a church mouse. The old house he rented was sparsely furnished and was heated by a single "pot-bellied" stove. His wife did have an electric cook stove.
Oh yes, he was married. Poor old girl, she was a good wife and mother who struggled along and endured Red's ways for the sake of her family. As I recall, she wasn't much to look at, but that's neither here nor there. Time is seldom a friend to a woman's beauty and that's especially true for a woman who has a drunk for a husband.
I went to school with Red's daughters. I'll never forget their names...Kathy, Lootie, and Vondretta. They were all healthy and happy little girls, even if they didn't have all the "niceties" denied them by Red's over indulgence. As I mentioned, their Mom was a very good mother and she saw that they were well fed and had clean clothes to wear, even if they weren't of the latest fashion.
Still, every once in awhile, she'd pack the girls up and leave Red to stay with her mother. It never seemed to worry Red. He knew she'd come back. He just went along with business, or lack there of, as usual. Lord only knows why, but Red was the love of her life. They say a woman marries a man hoping he'll change, but he seldom does...and a man marries a woman hoping she won't change, but she always does. Such is life, but to continue...
When we left our "heroes", it was about 2:30 or 3:00 am and Daddy and Red were driving around the countryside when Red says, "You getting hungry, Willard?"
Daddy maintained that he could go for a bite. So, Red suggested they go to his house where he'd "get the old woman up out of bed and have her fix us some 'tatters and eggs". So, that was the plan.
When they got to Red's house it was almost as cold inside as it was outside. The fire had gone out in the old pot-bellied stove and there wasn't anyone around to re-stoke it. A note on the kitchen table told the whole story. The wife had packed up the kids and ran back to her mother's to spend Christmas "in a decent family fashion". This didn't bother Red. He just told Daddy to pull up a seat while he kindled up a fire and they'd fry up their own 'taters and eggs right on top of the old stove.
Now, you didn't really want to sit down on Red's upholstered furniture, or what was left of it. You see, Red loved cats and he had about 20 of them in and around the place. So, always being fashion conscious and with an eye to keeping cat hair off his clothes, Daddy pulled an old, hard-backed chair in from the kitchen and sat down in front of the stove. Beer in hand, legs crossed and his foot nervously twitching, partly to provide a little warming exercise, Daddy sat there, observing Red's fire building skills.
Red had a rather unusual way of building a fire. First, he put a couple of large, split pieces in the stove, followed by a liberal covering of kindling, followed by an armload of wadded up newspaper. Over this, he poured a large "soup can" full of kerosene. Then, he grabbed up another section of newspaper and began twisting it into a torch, which he would throw into the stove to ignite the kerosene. He was having some difficulty getting his old "Zippo" lighter to work, but finally got a spark and was turning the torch over and over so as to insure enough flame for positive ignition when it was applied to the combustion chamber.
As this was taking place, Daddy continued his "cross-legged" vigil, sipping his beer and bouncing his foot, as was his nervous habit. As Daddy later recalled, it was about this time that Red's favorite cat, a white, long-haired cat that Red called an "Angora", took it upon itself to spring into action...no doubt coaxed into a playful venture by the dancing strings of Daddy's nervously bouncing work boot. From around the corner of the couch, it sprang onto Daddy's foot. Being startled by the unexpected attack, Daddy kicked his foot. He said the cat sailed through the open door of the stove even as Red turned and threw the flaming torch in, right behind it. Red slammed the door shut and stood over the stove, clapping and rubbing his hands together as if expecting instant heat. Daddy, somewhat bent over towards the stove, looked up at Red and said, "Red...I think I just kicked ye cat in the far (fire)!"
Red said, "You done what?"
About that time, they heard "Scritch, scritch, scritch" in the stovepipe. The cat worked the damper as it went through, rounded the elbow into the chimney and continued to "scritch" its way on up. Red, who's eyes were big as saucers as they intently followed the sounds, gave a big jerk and took off towards the front door with Daddy right behind him.
Outside, both men stood in the knee-deep snow, staring straight up at the chimney on top of that big, 2-story house. The snow was still falling fairly heavy, but they could see there wasn't any smoke coming out. Then, there was a large "poof" of black smoke, presently followed by, what looked like, an animated and independent portion of that smoke descending down the side of the chimney to the roof, where it smoked it's way along the peak, sat down on the gable end and started to lick itself.
Daddy was on his knees, laughing, but Red was not amused as he stood there, staring straight up at the smoking, black cat. Daddy said he'd just got up off his knees and was dusting the snow off his pants when Red shot him a glance and said, "Well, damn it! I hope he's got enough spit to put himself out!" Daddy hit the ground again.