Bear Hunting with a Switch
“God Damn, you’re big enough to go bear hunting with a switch”, was the observation I often heard from my dad, on the rare occasions that he took notice. He made this comment because I was a big graceless girl, with a lumbering slew footed gait, the proverbial bull in the china shop. I had a large moon shaped face with oversized front teeth and freckles splotching my chubby cheeks. At 5’9” I was almost as tall as my dad and had a loud carrying voice. Oddly, what I heard, when dad told me this, was that I was strong and able to take care of myself. It wasn’t until later I realized what he had actually been telling me was that he thought I was fat and graceless and a little repulsive to him.
One of his four children, I was the third girl and about five years older than my brother, the last of us to be born. Our dad never hesitated to share his opinion of our intelligence, abilities or body type. Encounters with him often left us shaken both figuratively and in actuality, so our goal was to stay out of his sight, knowing the less notice he took of us the safer we would be. The only time this would change was after he had a few drinks.
Growing up I didn’t know the term, alcoholic but I did see how dad’s personality changed when he drank. When sober, his temper was short and his disposition dour but like a reverse of Dr. Jeckel and Mr. Hyde he became outgoing and sociable when he drank. He also became impulsive and uninhibited so that our world often careened from one extreme to the other. In either persona he painted our world in big gestures and broad strokes, as likely to backhand one of us for accidentally interrupting, as he was to buy a horse and lead it home on a rope strung out of the back window of the station wagon.
I don’t have clear memories of my dad, just a vague outline of a barrel-chested muscular man with dark hair. From old pictures I can see that he might have been considered handsome. In his day he would have been described as “black Irish,” dark and brooding, with a dark complexion, curly black hair, light hazel eyes and a burly frame. He was an intelligent man, a tool and die maker, as they were called then. Always curious in a compulsive way, he would immerse himself in a particular subject. When sated he was just as quick to release it, never to think of it again. He once purchased a microscope for the sole purpose of viewing mold growing on cheese. He had a brief career as a professional wrestler, under the name of Bobby Lund. By turns a photographer or a cook in the merchant marines, he moved his family regularly to pursue each endeavor.
When I was in the third grade he took a job in Chicago and instead of moving, mom stayed in Indianapolis with us. In Chicago he met another woman and eventually he and mom divorced after twenty-three years of marriage. None of us regretted his absence. He had no comprehension of the injuries he had inflicted on his family. He left us damaged, his children feeling ashamed and inadequate, his wife worn out from trying to appease him.
He was fifty-three years of age when he died of cirrhosis, a sick and lonely man. At sixty-two I understand how short his life had been. How hot does a person’s soul burn to flame out in such a short amount of time? What demons chased this man, my father? Maybe he was his own demon, as well as ours.
I was twenty when he died, years before I began wondering about why I am, who I am and I did find many answers to that question. I know parts of the hulking young girl came forward into my adult life. Undeniably, the insecure and awkward girl is here—but the girl that heard strong and able, instead of fat and graceless, has also been there to guide me.
Perhaps, I truly have gone bear hunting with a switch.
Diana, for the Poplar Grove Muse