When Time Was Only a Bird in a Cage

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A Father’s Day Reflection: Dad’s “Heroic” Stories

When I was a small boy, my family lived on a cul-de-sac in the Los Angeles suburb of Whittier. At the end of our street was an open field with a path that led toward a barbershop and small market that lined the road at the field’s other end. To an adult the field was just an undeveloped landscape of weeds, dirt, and dust. But to the neighborhood children the field was a wild and open land, a place where our imaginations could run free.

“Let’s go to the field” was our rallying cry, the refrain of untamed young hearts that thought life was wild and daring and they were wild and daring.

Sometimes we kids would lie in the brush grass and pretend to be tigers or hyenas — or Martians who had just landed on Earth to explore an unknown world. There was a Disney show popular in those days, “The Swamp Fox,” about the Revolutionary War leader Marion Fox and his guerrilla band. We became fighters in Fox’s ragtag militia, scattering in the brush grass to ambush an advancing British Army platoon.

Other times whatever imaginary drama was playing in the grass and dirt would give way to the distant sound of the ringing bell signifying the Good Humor ice cream truck had entered the cul-de-sac. Then we would run frantically to alert our parents — they had the money, after all — to the urgency of the situation. In those days heaven was a toasted almond bar.

Our field days were all innocence and excitement. They were the days of my childhood.

In those days, my imagination roamed not only in fields, but also in my youthful vision of my father’s omnipotence. I lived for what I considered Dad’s “heroic” stories, the tales of his brilliance and courage in all matters. Sitting in the backseat of the car or at the kitchen table, I would listen with rapt interest as he entertained the kids with stories from that mysterious past before he was a father or a husband.

There was the story of working in a gas station in Hollywood where “Dragnet” star Jack Webb used to fill up his car. This was around the time Dad met our mother, who would prove to be the biggest star in his life. We heard the story from 1946, when Dad worked the summer as a security guard at the Utah State Fair and caught four teenagers attempting to scale the fence. They had threatened to jump in unison, making it impossible to catch all of them. But he had called their bluff by announcing that while he could not catch all of them, he would catch the very first one over the fence. Instead of jumping in unison, the boys hesitated before running off.

There were San Francisco stories. As a teenager, Dad and his buddies spent summers swimming in the city’s legendary Fleishacker pool, flirting with the girls while the lifeguards patrolled the huge pool in rowboats. In the fall came the glory of the Lowell High School gridiron (we were all convinced only polio had kept our father from a promising NFL career).

Some stories even came accompanied by eight-millimeter home movies. From his Army days in Korea, Dad’s camera followed an anonymous officer as he walked the path toward the outhouse. The movie captured a practical joke by a couple of enlisted men who had burnished the toilet seat with a caustic powder. We would all laugh as we watched the stern officer walk unwittingly into his starring role as the literal butt of the soldiers’ joke. No wonder my father later loved the television show “M*A*S*H.”

As a child, our field of dreams was also a place to occasionally lie alone in the grass on a warm summer afternoon. Squinting, the sun’s rays would play like a kaleidoscope of light and color in my mind’s eye. In my reverie, I would imagine many things then, including the impossible idea that my father was himself once just a child. But in those early days, time was only a bird in a cage. It seemed impossible that it would ever fly away. Nor could my childish mind then grasp that fathers someday die.

It has been half a century now since those innocent days. The past has become a wrinkled old photograph hidden away in a back closet. In one old photo, I see my father standing next to a country road on a California spring day. The year is 1936 and he is 8 years old. In the photo he holds wildflowers to his chest and he is smiling. There is no facade of father or adult in the photo, only a small boy full of life and dreams.

On Father’s Day, I remember that boy’s life and dreams.

Mark Harris’ father, Reed, died in a 1975 car accident. Harris has written for Chicago’s Conscious Choice, Utne magazine and other publications. He lives in Northwest Portland.

[Originally published in The Oregonian, June 21, 2009]

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