On the red brick walkway outside our front door, I look up and see that the mist, so ethereal an hour ago, is rapidly vanishing. The sun, a bright white spotlight between a tall fir and a taller cedar, burns some of the chill off this September morning. I stroll to the garden and find that the tomato plants sport a couple ripe fruit, the rest are green. Their foliage has started to yellow as the plants give more nutrients to seed, less to leaf. They know fall is near.
Over the last month I have planted fall greens, which are now in various stages of growth: tiny sprouts just arching out of the ground, inch-high starts with first true leaves, and six-inch-tall beauties, green and ready for thinning.
Fall’s garden is smaller and less demanding than summer’s, leaving more time for contemplation. Watching the garden sprout, I’ve been thinking about how seeds respond to their environment. I’ve been thinking about nature versus nurture.
The seeds for the greens are tiny, so small I can’t plant just one at a time. Yet each miniscule seed contains all the genetic instructions necessary to produce a full-sized plant.
But you must nurture the seeds, plant them at the proper depth in a spot with the right amount of sunlight, give them enough water, keep the slugs and deer away, and fertilize.
I first heard of the nature-nurture argument in an undergraduate psychology class. It was the early 1970s, and we had passionate debates about the relative importance of nature and nurture in a person’s development. Do children grow from tiny seeds into the adults they become because of their genes or because of their experience with parents, siblings, grandparents, and other caretakers?
After more than a quarter-century as a parent and career counselor, I’m firmly in the nurture camp. Early nurturing points us in certain life directions, down certain paths. Of course, we can meet others later who influence us for better or worse. And sometimes we make individual decisions that can change, even save, our lives.
My father was an alcoholic. I’m told that for many years this was not a problem; he simply enjoyed his beer. But when life’s pressures grew too strong, he used alcohol to cope. From the time I was 15 to 17, I was the only family member living with him. My parents had divorced, and my mother, sister, and brother had moved to Delaware. I chose to stay in Baltimore with Dad, because I didn’t want to move to a new high school. I had no idea what I was in for.
At first, living with him was like living with a stranger. He was a stranger: when I was growing up, none of us spent much time with him. Dad was rarely at home and awake. He always worked two jobs, trying to make ends meet.
After the divorce, his drinking grew progressively worse, advancing from having a couple of beers in our apartment in the evening to coming home drunk at all hours any night of the week. I wondered how he kept his job. I worried about him and sometimes found myself coming to the rescue when he lost control. One memorable mission, when I was nearly 17, tops the list.
One school night, around 10 p.m., when Dad still had not come home from work, I sighed and put the TV dinner I had fixed for him in the refrigerator. I sat on the couch, looking at but not seeing the show on the TV. When I couldn’t stand wondering where he was anymore, I left our apartment, got into the old clunker he had bought for me before all the money went for booze, and searched unsuccessfully for him at two neighborhood taverns our family had frequented on weekends to play shuffleboard and eat dinner.
Increasingly anxious, I drove around aimlessly, wondering where to go next. I could only think of one place, but the thought of going there alone at night scared me. The Crystal Ball Inn was out on Route 40, a once important highway that now ran through a dying commercial district containing the bar, a half-empty used car lot, a run down motel, and a dimly lit diner.
Dad had occasionally taken me to the Crystal Ball on weekend afternoons. Even in the daytime with the front door propped open with a brick, the bar reeked of cigarette smoke and spilled beer. The juke box played loud country and western music. I would sit beside him at the bar, sipping a Coke, eating pistachios or beef jerky. Occasionally we would talk, but mostly I watched him smoke, drink beer, and slam shots of whiskey or shoot pool with a group of guys he worked with. Sometimes they would let me play; I enjoyed the attention and their kidding as I lost.
Having never been to the Crystal Ball at night, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Dad had told me that on any given night a brawl could erupt. As I neared the bar, I worried that maybe he had been hurt in a fight, though he wasn’t a fighting drunk. I wondered if I would see anyone I knew who could help me.
I parked the car as near to the front door as I could, got out, and pulled open the bar’s big door. Stepping in, I pressed myself into the shadows along a wall. The clacking of pool balls smashed into the chorus of a country and western song. I looked around, hoping to see Dad. He wasn’t with the men clustered in the fluorescent light shining on the pool table. He wasn’t at any of the tables I could see, and I sure wasn’t going to walk around looking for him.
Disappointed, I walked to the bar where Crystal, the owner, was working. I waved to get the attention of this tough older woman, face covered with makeup, lips painted fiery red, dyed black hair teased high. She smiled and approached. I asked if she had seen my dad.
“Oh, yeah, Hon, haven’t I ever,” she said over her shoulder in a deep voice as she pulled a draft beer.
I glanced around the dimly lit room. “Where is he?”
“He went off with the Jones twins to Sherrie’s Show Bar down on The Block,” she said, as she served the draft to a tired looking man in dirty work clothes roosting on a bar stool beneath a cloud of cigarette smoke.
Sherrie’s was the last place I wanted to go. I knew how to find The Block – Baltimore’s infamous block of strip joints signed with gaudy neon women kicking up long legs. Growing up just outside the city limits, it was a teenage rite of passage to cruise The Block with friends, fantasizing about what went on in those joints. But going there alone, looking for Dad? That was a different story.
“Sherrie’s?” I asked, hoping she would give a different answer.
“Yeah, Hon, that’s where you’ll find your old man.” She leaned across the bar toward me, her big hands working a damp towel. “And I think he’ll need a ride.” She ended her whisper with a wink and went off to another customer.
I left the bar and got in my car, started the engine, pulled onto Route 40, and drove towards Sherrie’s, trying to picture what I would do when I arrived. I found a parking spot in front of the bar and sat behind the wheel talking aloud to myself. “I’m not old enough to go in there. How do I find him even if I get in?” I banged the steering wheel with my fist and listened to the big wheel vibrate. I hit the wheel again and then shouted, “Why do I have to do this?”
Finally, I stepped out, slammed the car door, and approached the club with its NO MINORS ALLOWED sign. I pounded on the door, and a face appeared in a narrow eye-level window. The door opened and a man shorter than me, but much broader, stood blocking the entrance. His dark hair, shiny with oil, was combed straight back. His nose and cheeks were red. And from his pants zipper hung a one-foot-square pink plastic padlock. I stared at it and considered running back to the car.
The man looked at me, then up and down the street. “And what would you be wanting, boy?” he said, his Irish accent forceful.
A thick cloud of cigarette smoke rolled out the door and I felt myself choking when I inhaled. “My dad,” I said, looking past the man into the bar with its shadows, flashing colored lights and rhythmic drum.
“And who would he be?” he asked with a smirk.
I looked down, past the padlock to his shiny black shoes. I didn’t want to use our last name, didn’t want this guy to know it. “Ben,” I said softly.
“Ben, is it?” He threw his hands up in the air and barked, “You’ll have to tell me more than that, boy.”
I jerked my head up, stepped back, again considered leaving, but stood my ground. I looked at the man and said, “Red hair, my size, came here with these two guys who are twins.”
“Oh, the Jones boys,” he said while nodding. “They left a while ago, but he’s still here.” Then gentler: “Come along, boy. We’ll get him.”
I followed him into the crowded bar filled with men, some sitting in dark corners beside big-breasted dancers. The stage, now empty, was a splash of white light through a fog of smoke. I stayed close as he steered between tables.
We found my father, alone, slumped forward, head down on a table disgustingly littered with full ashtrays and empty beer and shot glasses. We hauled him to his feet; he put up no resistance but certainly didn’t help. He mumbled incoherently as we walked him to the car, the Irishman on one side and me on the other. After we poured him gently into the front seat, I walked to the driver’s side, got in, locked my door, and released a quiet sigh of relief.
The man rolled down Dad’s window before gently closing the door. Then he leaned through the window and said almost tenderly, “He’s a good man. Been coming here for years. Something’s wrong at home, I fancy.” He patted my father’s shoulder, turned, and walked back to the club, his plastic lock clunking with each step.
That guy knows my Dad? I looked at my father – eyes closed, mouth open, head against the car door. I started the car and drove toward home.
Twenty years later, I am home, crying, lying across the bed in the master bedroom. My wife is in town on errands. Our four-year-old daughter, Allison, is in the living room watching a video.
I have retreated to the bedroom after Mom called and told me that Dad had just died of alcohol-related problems. Sniffling, sobbing, my right arm across my forehead, I am thinking about fathers, children and alcohol.
About a year after dragging Dad out of Sherrie’s Show Bar, I graduated high school, enlisted in the Army, and spent two years overseas in an alcohol fog, never once considering that drinking was a dangerous path. Upon returning from my tour, I drank regularly and sometimes to excess with friends as I completed college. As the years passed, my drinking decreased, but alcohol stayed in my life. While I never called myself an alcoholic, alcohol had a strong pull on me – like it had on Dad. Could that pull be genetic? Would I succumb like he did if life got too rough? Had I passed this problem on to Allison?
Lying on the bed, sandwiched between grief for Dad and fear for my daughter, I am unaware that Allison has come into the bedroom until I feel her small hand caress my forehead. I turn on my side and look into her loving eyes. “Hey, you,” I say and pull her up onto the bed beside me.
She hugs me and buries her face in my flannel shirt. Her muffled words vibrate my chest, “It’ll be all right, Dad. I love you.”
A fresh wave of tears pours forth, and I think: I never want you to have to rescue me. I never want you to be embarrassed by me. And I never want to teach you to be an alcoholic.
I don’t say any of those words to her. I just hug her small body, smell her warm brown hair. Perhaps in the strongest way ever, I experience the responsibility of being a father, of nurturing a child.
In the evening, when I am the only one still awake, I walk to the refrigerator craving a snack. I open the door, squat, and come face to face with four cans of beer. I reach for one, thinking it will help me relax. Then I recall my unspoken promise to Allison. I grab the four beers, walk outside, and drop them one by one into the trash can. I look at Allison’s dark window, nod my head, and walk back inside.
Twenty-four years have passed since Dad died and I quit drinking. Even now there are times when the thought of a cold beer attracts me.
But I’ve resisted the urges. Allison hasn’t had a problem with alcohol. And she has never had to rescue me.
Rick Lamplugh is the author of several titles about the job search process, both written during his 26-year career as a vocational rehabilitation counselor. He also wrote and produced a public radio series, Work In Oregon. As he enters retirement, he looks forward to writing every day, especially on his current book-in-progress, Dig It: A Backyard Gardener Learns About Growing and Dying, and on his website.