We got the news about a month ago; the doctors had diagnosed my father with Stage Four lung cancer. They gave him three, four months to live and I had a feeling from the doctor’s tone of voice that was being optimistic, and this was only if he felt like he was up to the rigors of chemotherapy. As it turned out he wasn’t.
His condition deteriorated rapidly over the next few weeks to the point where the hospice workers who paid him visits at home told my mother he needed to be in a controlled environment, so a week ago he was placed in a hospice facility where they kept him sedated. It rained for a solid week which in Texas in the middle of July is a very unusual thing. The temperature dropped about twenty degrees which is also more than unusual here in Texas for July. It came to an end yesterday as if to cue my father’s demise. As painful as it was for me to see him so ill, we made daily trips to the hospice center.
My girlfriend and I took a long drive yesterday; something she likes to do on weekends especially if we go out of the city and explore rural areas. On a recent trip to nearby Cleburne we stopped and had cheeseburgers at a microscopic six-seat diner called The Burger Bar.
The owner proudly boasted about his hamburgers being his favorite but also told us about another off-the-beaten-path burger joint in Jacksboro, Texas called Herds Hamburgers which he told us was worth the trip. We had been putting off looking for it and yesterday seemed like a good time to go check it out.
We hit Highway 199 and drove northeast until the auto scrapyards, the bars, the Dairy Queens, CVS pharmacies and WalMarts became fewer in number and the spaces between them became wider and more open. A quick search on the iPhone revealed that Herds Hamburgers was a sixty mile drive; I became irked at the thought of driving sixty miles for a couple of hamburgers but forgot about it as we drove into a horizon topped with an array of both dark and light clouds. The weather forecasters had predicted a mere 20% chance of rain but as we drove the sky got darker and then I saw a bolt of lightning flash in the distance.
The posted speed limit as we got further away from town increased to 75 mph and I gunned the gas pedal with the new-found freedom of who-cares speed; there wasn’t any local law enforcement or state troopers on the road in sight anywhere. Up ahead of me I could see mist and spray coming from the undersides of oncoming vehicles and I slowed down just a bit lest we hydroplane on slick concrete. Large raindrops began to hit the metal roof and windshield hard and loud; indeed it was raining. I turned on the wipers and we sped on down the rural road past rusty metal barns, dilapidated farm houses and shuttered general stores. “Where IS this place?” “Twenty two more miles…” she said. The rain let up as fast as it began and I turned off the windshield wipers and sped on.
I didn’t really want to make this drive; it was eating up an awful lot of gas just to go get a couple of burgers and as I drove I thought about my father laying in the hospice sedated and gasping for breath with plastic tubes stuck in his nostrils. Part of me felt guilty about driving out of town and away from him and part of me felt as if it was therapeutic for me to go somewhere I had never been. Guilt and curiosity are a strange cocktail of emotions; I had an uneasy feeling this day was going to be a landmark of some sort much like the “Welcome to Jacksboro” sign we drove past as we got closer to our destination.
Herds Hamburgers was a small nondescript building on the side of the highway with a faded weather-worn sign whose hand-painted letters were all but illegible. We drove past it once and in a matter of minutes had reached what was apparently the other side of Jacksboro, Texas. A U-turn was negotiated and we turned around and retraced our path. We drove past it one more time but finally spotted it, did another U-turn and pulled into their gravel-topped parking lot.
It felt so good to get out of the car and stretch my legs; they felt weak and wobbly from the long drive as we walked into Herds, which was a really old wooden building. Inside a simple kitchen consisting of a steel-topped grill and a drink cooler was on our left and the “dining area” was a row of old wooden school desks lining the wall on our right. We both ordered double cheeseburgers and sat and waited as we listened to the meat patties sizzling on the grill. A few short minutes later we were presented with two delicious old-fashioned cheeseburgers which we both consumed in mere minutes. The burgers tasted the way I remember burgers tasting when I was a kid; this got me to thinking about going to burger joints with my parents when I was kid like the Dairy Queens with the swirly ice cream cone sign hanging on their front.
After we left and started driving back to Fort Worth I couldn’t help but think about road trips with my Dad when I was young. He was from Arkansas and his idea of a vacation was always…guess where?
That’s right…Arkansas. Those trips always included a scheduled visit to his parent’s house in Stamps, the same town Maya Angelou wrote about in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as well as a detour to Hot Springs.
As we would drive down the Arkansas highways I would see billboards with giant wooden hand-painted chocolate malts on them: “Only 67 miles to the next Stuckeys!” which my father for one reason or another vehemently refused to stop at. Or we would drive past billboards with things like : “SEE A MAN BURIED ALIVE IN A PIT OF DEADLY RATTLESNAKES!”
“Dad! Dad! Please stop! We gotta see that!”
“NO!” he would bark at me and speed past whatever it was I wanted to see although when we got to Hot Springs he would try to make it up to me by taking me to attractions like the IQ Zoo where trained animals would perform stunts or Tiny Town which was like a model railroad setting on steroids or my personal childhood favorite the Arkansas Alligator Farm.
The Alligator Farm always made the long boring hours of patiently sitting in the back seat worth the trip although much to my personal chagrin the alligators didn’t do very much but lay around inanimate and bask in the sun on the other side of a chain link fence.
We always seemed to miss “feeding time” when they would lower a chicken or some other choice chunk of meat into the waiting jaws of hungry gators.
There was a small tombstone inside their pit where apparently someones pet dog had gotten in there and was killed by the alligators and while I liked dogs part of me I’m sure would have liked to have been there that day.
But the real treat was inside the gift shop on a smaller rectangular pedestal; a glass case housing The Merman.
The Merman was allegedly a mummified half-man, half-fish creature captured in the net of a Chinese fishing vessel according to a sign next to the display. His face appeared Oriental with whiskers and his eye sockets were framed with what appeared to be wire-framed spectacles. Of course this thing was a fake but try telling that to a seven year old boy. I used to stare at it and tried to imagine colonies of these things swimming around in the ocean currents preying on fish and unwary swimmers.
My girlfriend laughs when I tell her about these trips; I think she likes to imagine me at the same age as her grandson and she especially likes hearing about Dad refusing to stop at the various tourist traps that I would see the billboards trying to entice road-weary tourists to stop at.
When we are on the road together she wants to constantly snap photos of everything she sees and sometimes asks the impossible when she wants me to slam on the brakes and stop while I’ve got some redneck troglodyte in an over-sized 4X4 with a cow-catcher over the front grill tail-gating my back bumper at 75mph
“You remind me of your father not wanting to stop at Stuckeys” she tells me sometimes when I speed past something she wants to take a photo of. But on the way back from Herds we spotted something I had to pull over and take a few pictures of myself: an old abandoned drive-in theater.
There’s something about the Ozymandias-like sight of the remains of a drive in theater that strikes a chord inside of me; it’s a sad souvenir of a frozen moment in time of Americas past and I always have to stop and explore them on the increasingly rare times I spot them.
This drive-in in particular looked as if it hadn’t been in operation in decades; the screen was completely gone and had been reduced to a bare metal frame. A ticket booth was still on one side and we could see a projection booth/ snack bar building about halfway back in the property. A sign on one side of the place indicated that at one point in time it had become an automobile auction site but there were no cars and no people to be seen anywhere around so we drove in. There was only loose gravel and tall weeds on the property and grasshoppers flew out of the way of our car as we cruised through the area. I shot some moody shots of the screen and projection booth with dark ominous storm clouds in the background, then I walked into the projection booth.
There was nothing inside; the place had been long since been stripped of any reminders that movies were once shown there. No broken down projection equipment; not as much as an empty reel can, just a few dusty old Styrofoam fast food containers on the floor. I took a couple of shots of the screen from the inside of the booth then trudged through the knee-high weeds back to the car. I slid the shifter to “drive” and we exited the drive-in and got back on the highway.
As we cruised down the highway once again en route to Fort Worth she reminded me that when we got back to town we needed to go see my father at the hospice center. I thought back to when I was a child and how my dad looked back then with his ducktail hair-do, his sleeves rolled up and a cigarette hanging off his lip as he drove his 1964 Chevelle. Then I couldn’t help but think of him emaciated and thin curled up in a fetal position in his bed at the hospice center on a visit earlier in the week. I thought of how I held his hand and told him I loved him and him coughing and wheezing and trying to speak to me but no real words coming out.
I tried to stay calm, cool and collected but there was a part of me that wanted to punch something, kick something, break something, shatter something the same way I was feeling inside. Instead I bit my lip and promised her we would go see him and after returning to town I reluctantly steered the car in the direction of the hospice center. Unknown to me this would be the very last time I would see him; he was sound asleep and sawing logs snoring. I whispered “I love you Dad” under my breath and left the hospice room. As I pushed the door to the hospice center open the sky boomed loudly with thunder, which startled me. The rain began to come down hard for the seventh day in a row as we bolted back to the car. We sat in the car for a minute and I looked into the clouds for a glimpse of a vision, a sign, an answer and saw nothing; there was only the sound of the rain hitting the roof of the car and an occasional rumble of thunder.
We only got about a quarter mile up the road when the sky let out once again only this time with a downpour so hard my windshield wipers couldn’t keep up and I couldn’t hardly see where I was steering the car. I quickly steered the car toward the parking garage of a nearby bank where underneath the concrete ceiling we could safely park and watch the rain come down around us. This was the seventh day in a row it had rained which as I previously said was very unusual July weather for the usually scorching Texas summer season. It had rained every day my father was in the hospice center. We fiddled around on our iPhones but the battery was drained on hers and I was getting “low power” notices on mine. The rain seemed to let up a bit, so bored and restless I re-started the car. “Enough of this; we’re only ten minutes from the house”
The streets had reached flash-flood level during the brief time we sat inside the parking garage; at one intersection the water had reached a door-level height in just minutes. We sat through one light three times as thunder boomed around us and cars inched their way through the intersection slowly. Finally we got through and got closer to the house. My neighborhood was dry; the storm had apparently just blown right over it and soaked the part of town where the hospice center was.
We went to bed early that night; both of us were physically and emotionally drained. About one thirty in the morning the phone rang; Mom was on the caller ID. Although I was groggy with sleep I knew what this had to be about before I even said: “Hello?” Mom had never called me at 1:30 am before.
“Brian, I’m here at the hospice center. Dad’s gone…” I asked her if there was anything she wanted me to do ( an honest enough question since I didn’t really know what exactly I was supposed to do) and she said: “No there’s nothing you have to do; I’ll call you in the morning.” I crawled back into bed and went back to sleep.
The next day I woke up hoping it was a dream but it wasn’t. The sun came out and the rain ended as if to signal my father’s demise. My father was a quiet man; when he did speak it was always direct and to the point. I couldn’t help but wonder if his strong spirit had somehow conjured up the freakish week-long July storms from his weakened physical body in the hospice bed.
One of the old black and white photos my Mom has of him from the early 60s shows him in a dapper suit, smoking one of those damn cigarettes and looking for all the world like The Twilight Zone’s creator Rod Serling. There was almost something supernatural about the seven days of rain coinciding with his last week on earth.
Sometimes when he spoke especially if he was playing a verbal joke on someone as he was so fond of doing, his usual poker face would break into the ever-so-slightest of a devilish smile which I think was a silent clue that he was just messing with them. He did this a lot. You could say something like: “It sure is hot outside” and he would say: “I like it hot; the hotter the better.” Or if I said something about the number of natural gas wells the city was allowing to be drilled within city limits he would say something like: “I’d have one in the front yard if I could get away with it.” He was computer-illiterate, yet he loved trolling people.
Although we didn’t see everything on an eye-to-eye basis my Mom and my girlfriend both tell me they see little bits and pieces of my father in me once in a while and I can only take it now as a compliment.
Thanks for the genes Dad.
R.I.P. Oscar Paul Roper 1936-2013