Note: A preview from my upcoming autobiography, Life’s Too Short to Smoke Cheap Cigars (Or to Drink Cheap Whiskey.)
I’m the father of four daughters.
A wise man once said that daughters are God’s way of punishing us for being men. That may well be the case; I look at what passes for teenage boys today with a mixture of incomprehension and puzzlement. Fortunately, my daughters are now all grown, with three of the four married or on the way to becoming so, so these days I’m thinking of these things in a happy past tense.
But back in the day, I only had two simple rules for any would-be suitors of my daughters:
- Our house has a front door, beside which is a doorbell. If you are taking my daughter anywhere, you will park your car, walk up to the door, ring the bell, and come in to talk to me before I do you the great personal favor of letting you take my baby girl anywhere. If you pull into my driveway and honk the horn, you’d better be delivering a pizza or something, because you’re sure as hell not picking anything up. You will be sent away to try again later.
- If you attempt to put your hands anywhere on my baby girl’s body, I will remove them, slowly and messily. This is not a threat, it is a promise, and I keep a large axe sharpened and handy for precisely this purpose.
Those two rules worked out rather well. It doesn’t hurt that I’m not a small man, and that twelve years in the Army taught me indelible lessons in intimidating young men.
Years ago, there was nevertheless a time when the shoe was on another foot.
Picture if you will a raffish young fellow. A tall lad, long hair well past his shoulders, mirrored sunglasses, blue jeans with the knees worn through, worn long enough that the excess drags on the ground behind steel-toed engineer boots. A Buck knife in a sheath on the belt, and a well-worn black pocket t-shirt complete the picture of a young man who would not look at all out of place waiting in line for tickets to a Kiss concert.
That was me at 17. The embodiment of every father’s nightmares, standing there in size 11 black engineer boots.
Unfortunately for my friends and me, we were teenagers in an era when the typical father of a teenage daughter was well up to the challenge we posed. Take Mr. Walters.
Rhonda Walters was from a family with money, and Mr. Walters expected more of his daughter than a liaison with a longhaired woods bum. Still, Rhonda seemed to find me interesting; I certainly found her interesting. (Of course, being 17 and male, it’s more than likely I’d find something interesting about almost any female between the ages of 16 and 50.) Rhonda was cute, pert, leggy, had dark hair, dark eyes, and a tendency to dress in tantalizingly short cut-offs and tight T-shirts. Rhonda also showed every indication of interest in certain longhaired, raffish woods bum types. Namely, me.
The fly in the ointment was this: To get to take Rhonda out on a date, I had to be introduced to and interviewed by Rhonda’s father.
Mr. Walters had the kind of urban sophistication that I was totally unprepared to deal with. He also had a short fuse, a voice that sounded much like breaking boulders in the deepest recesses of a cave and fists the size of babies. What’s more, he had a deep, profound and abiding distrust and dislike for certain longhaired, raffish woods bum types. Namely, me. And that was only the beginning.
How It Started
It all started one Friday afternoon, as I was leaning against my locker in the high school hallway, shooting the breeze with my hunting partner Dave.
“So, man, what’re we doing tonight?” Dave asked. “Want to go out to the river and catch some catfish? I’ve got a quart jar of chicken livers I’ve been leaving out in the sun all week.”
Tempting as that offer was, I had to demur. “Sorry, pal. Got a date.” I responded, with a knowing leer for emphasis. At that moment, Rhonda wiggled down the hallway, shooting me a big grin. “See you at seven!” She practically sang the words to me.
Dave gave me an incredulous look, once he tore his eyes away from the aft portion of Rhonda’s blue jeans. “Rhonda Walters? Oh, man, how did you ever get her to go out with you? She’s got class!”
The nerve! “You asshole! I’ve got class!”
“Slow class, maybe.” Dave said. “Low class, for sure! No way have you got enough class for Rhonda Walters. You taking her out in your car?”
“Figured on it.” I replied, uncertain now. I hadn’t thought of that one. My old Ford was somewhat on the shy side of respectable.
“Better try to borrow your old man’s pickup, bud. Rhonda’s used to nice stuff. That Galaxie of yours got rust holes you could drop a good-sized dog through, and you never did get the skunk smell outta the back seat. And you’d have to take all your fishing gear out of the back.”
Dave wasn’t a genius by any stretch, but he had me there. I suddenly remembered a can of catfish bait, my Grandpa’s own special recipe, which I had been fermenting on my dashboard for several days. And Dave wasn’t finished yet.
“Another thing, bud. You ever seen her Dad? Old man Walters’ got a lot of money, and he’s mean as the Devil hisself. He ain’t gonna like seeing someone like you showin’ up at the door.”
Crap. Dave was right. Much as I hated to admit it, Dave was right. My old Ford was out. On everything else, he had to be wrong. What father could resist someone of my wit and winning charm? I figured if I could solve the vehicle problem, I was in like Flint.
Funny how our illusions can be shattered so quickly.
Later that afternoon, at my folks’ place, my old ’66 Galaxie 500 “unexpectedly” suffered a breakdown – a breakdown facilitated by the simple expedient of yanking a couple of plug wires.
I burst into the house with the news. “DAD!” I shouted, trying to get a desperate edge in my voice. “The Galaxie is dead as a doornail, and I’ve got a date in two hours! You gotta let me use your truck!”
Dad’s pickup wasn’t the typical battered farm utility wagon common in Northeast Iowa in those days. A year earlier, Dad had found a newly rebuilt 1970 Chevy pickup, bright orange with a hand-made wooden bed, reworked ground-up by a particularly talented body shop. It was shiny, smooth, and clean, and Dad’s pride and joy. Dad reluctantly agreed. I imagine he was unwilling to stand in the way of true romance.
That’s how I came to be driving Dad’s bright orange pickup when I pulled into the Walters’ driveway that Friday evening. Visions of Rhonda in tight blue jeans assailed me; little did I know what was in store for me inside the front door of the expansive Walters residence.
And Then This Happened
A long driveway greeted me, followed by an equally long sidewalk leading to the massive, double door of white oak at the front of the Walters estate. A doorbell button loomed; this was surely the moment of truth.
I figured I was as ready as I’d ever be. I rang the bell. I wasn’t even remotely prepared for what happened next.
There were, in those days, certain conventions to be expected when a young man came calling on a family’s daughter. Those conventions involved the father meeting the young man at the door, upon which the intimidation and subtle threats began immediately. The Walters family broke with that tradition in a very significant manner.
Rhonda’s mother answered the door.
In that moment, I realized where Rhonda got her charm and good looks. Mrs. Walters was still on the sunny side of forty, tall, willowy, shining dark hair and a smile that doubtlessly brought many a man to his knees.
“Hello!” She breathed, beaming stunningly on me, bringing me metaphorically and immediately to my knees. “You must be here for our daughter! We’ve been expecting you. Come on in, Rhonda’s getting ready.”
At this tender age, I was still possessed of some instinctual knowledge that a teenage girl “getting ready” could take at least an Ice Age, I was prepared to wait; the late show of Animal House wasn’t for two hours yet anyway. I had planned for that, you see.
What happened next brought my euphoria crashing to earth. Mrs. Walters had ushered me through the living room, and her glowing smile turned on me again as she raised a perfectly groomed, graceful hand to indicate an open door. “If you want to wait in the study,” she purred, “You can chat with Rhonda’s Dad while you’re waiting.”
Well, I’d expected this, and had been through a few fairly uncomfortable interviews in living rooms, farm kitchens and barnyards before this. The normal process was a moment or two of more or less friendly intimidation, a required recitation of plans for the evening, of which we boys generally left out a few hoped-for details. I knew what to expect.
Or so I thought.
Mr. Walters was ensconced in his expansive study, behind a large oak desk. Reading glasses were perched on his nose; he was looking over some papers. Without looking up he motioned to a wooden chair drawn up to the desk. “Sit down.” He growled.
I sat uncomfortably for a few silent moments. Then Mr. Walters, finally, looked up at me.
It was amazing; at first, Mr. Walters had the usual expression, the usual frown of a loving father about to shrivel his daughter’s date. Then, as he took in my long hair, black t-shirt, the Buck knife at the belt of my badly worn jeans, his frown turned to a disgusted scowl. He dropped his reading glasses on the desk and leaned back in his chair.
“So,” he snarled at me, “You sure don’t look like much of a catch. Why in the world do you think you should be taking my daughter out?”
“Uh, well sir, I asked her, and she said yes?” I ventured.
Mr. Walters balled up a fist the size of a basketball and tapped it gently on the desktop. “She did, did she?” Suddenly he stood up and leaned over the desk.
“Listen, boy, you didn’t come to MY house to take my daughter out on a date. You came here to ask ME a great personal favor. That favor is taking my baby girl out in YOUR car, to God knows where, until God knows when, to do God knows what, and frankly you don’t look like someone I’d trust to find his way out of a shithouse. So, once again, why in the world do you think you should be taking my daughter out?” My pulse started to hammer in my temples.
“Sir,” I replied, having been taught from an earlier age how to address an older man not related to me, especially when asking a favor, “I may not look like much, but I’m a stand-up guy. I’ve got my Dad’s truck, and if I have it out late, he’ll kill me. I’m figuring I’ll take Rhonda to the Burger Five and to the movies, and we’ll be back by eleven-thirty, and you got my word on that.”
He regarded me with bloodshot eyes. My blood pressure was edging towards the redline.
“Eleven-thirty, eh?” He finally growled. “Well, boy, this is against my better judgment. You look pretty worthless, and I hear you spend most of your time bumming around in the woods with your delinquent buddies. The only reason I’m giving you a chance is because I know your Dad, and he’s as good a man as they come.”
Way to go, Dad! I was in!
The fist slammed down on the desk, rattling the windows and knocking several knick-knacks off the bookshelves behind me.
“But if you’re ONE MINUTE past eleven-thirty, or if I’ve got ONE REASON to think you’ve laid one finger on my girl, I’ll HAVE YOUR HIDE, boy, YOU UNDERSTAND THAT?”
“Uh, yes, sir…” I stammered.
He leaned closer, and snarled, “I mean it, boy, you better not be even a minute late, or so help me…”
At that moment Rhonda came in, a vision in a white silk blouse and tight black pants. “Oh, Daddy, are you giving him your mean act? Don’t worry about it, Daddy’s a big softie. He wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
I wasn’t convinced; if I’d been a fly, I would certainly have feared for my life. Mr. Walters continued to spike me into my chair with an angry glare.
“Well, go on. Eleven-thirty. Rhonda, eleven-thirty, not a minute later, you hear?” By this point, I had a fine sheen of sweat on my forehead, and at these words I bounded out of the chair. “Thanks, sir, we’ll be on time!” I assured Mr. Walters, with what I hoped was a calm, confident demeanor. Rhonda walked over to kiss her father on the cheek. I caught his sotto voce comment to her as she bent down:
“He’s worthless, Rhonda, I don’t know what you’re thinking.”
“Oh, Daddy, don’t worry.”
Mr. Walters wasn’t worried. I was worried. I was, in fact, feeling more like a fly every moment I spent in Mr. Walter’s presence.
We walked down the long front sidewalk, Rhonda happily describing something that had happened at school that afternoon; behind us, Rhonda’s Mom smiled and waved, and Mr. Walters glared, his eyes stabbing into my back like twin laser beams.
The rest of the evening went wonderfully. Dad’s pampered pickup purred like a kitten, and so did Rhonda; the local burger joint was up to standard, turning out piping-hot pizza burgers and fries; and we laughed all the way through Animal House. And, during the movie, Rhonda’s hand stole over and took hold of mine – and didn’t let go. Bliss! We even had time for half an hour of hanging out in the Safeway parking lot with the other kids. I even ended up leaning back against the bright orange side of the pickup, with Dave and the other guys glaring enviously at my arm draped comfortably around Rhonda’s shoulders as she leaned against me, laughing at all my horrible jokes.
There’s a moment in each teenage relationship where a line is crossed, a line between friends and boyfriend/girlfriend. Years later the two kids involved will still recall that moment, that first time that line is crossed; that happened on this night, right on Rhonda’s doorstep. Promptly at eleven-twenty-eight, I walked Rhonda up the long sidewalk to her parent’s house. She turned to me in the light from the bulb above the door.
“This was so much fun! I think we should do it again next week, don’t you?”
YOU BET! I thought in a loud internal shout, but instead suavely replied, “Yeah, I think we probably should.” I was slowly becoming aware of two glaring eyes peering through the front window curtains.
Rhonda leaned close, grabbing my shoulders and planting a warm kiss on my cheek. “I can’t wait. I’ll be looking forward to it all week.” The door suddenly popped open, and Mr. Walters stood imposingly framed in the light from the front room. He growled ominously, “Eleven-thirty.” Rhonda smiled sweetly at me as I stood, grinning like an ape, and then she turned and went inside. Her father shot me one last murderous look before he slammed the door.
As I walked away, one thought came to mind.
It was worth it.
Shoe on The Other Foot
Sadly, the relationship came to an end, as most teenage affairs do; in fact, the whole thing ended rather spectacularly, but that’s another story (and one I’ve already told here.) The lesson of Rhonda’s father wasn’t lost on me, though, and has served me well in later years, as the father of daughters of my own. In fact, it served me well the first time I faced a fidgeting, grungy young potential boyfriend in my own home.
I glared at the young man, as he stood there in his backwards-facing cap and baggy pants. Finally, after letting him stew a moment, I snarled at him:
“Listen, boy, you didn’t come to MY house to take my daughter out on a date. You came here to ask ME a great personal favor. That favor is taking my baby girl out in YOUR car, to God knows where, until God knows when, to do God knows what, and frankly you don’t look like someone I’d trust to find his way out of a shithouse. So, now, tell me why in the world you think you should be taking my daughter out?” I struggled to suppress a grin as the boy shriveled before my eyes.
Thanks, Mr. Walters. At long last, I owe you one.