My father was a fighter pilot. His life before was lived to make him one. His life after was always in its shadow. It was a time he was able to take complete and total control in the world around him. No alcoholic mother beating him, no economic depression smothering him, no prick colonel oppressing him.

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There was little difference, to him, between flying an F86 hunting Soviet MiGs in Korea or driving a Jeep hunting rabbits in Oklahoma. He was a fighter pilot. The same instincts held true no matter what he did. An uncanny ability to pinpoint telltale signs of his prey when those around him can’t see a thing, an ability to focus on the job at hand regardless of his surroundings, and an amazing ability to tell exactly where he is without the use of a compass or map.

This latter ability possibly came from his need to always be aware of where he was based on where he had come from.

As the son of a fighter pilot, there were clearly defined boundaries that were expected to be respected, and in my early life I followed these religiously. I accepted the military haircuts, the standing straight chin up when addressing my father, the yes-sir, no-sir snap responses. And I followed the military chain of command. No matter how strange, illogical or idiotic the request, I responded quickly and deliberately, never questioning neither the order nor who was giving it.

But a family is not the military, and a son is not a soldier. As I grew into manhood, it was inevitable that I would question both.

When I was sixteen, I found myself with more autonomy than I had ever experienced in my life. My brother had been in college in Virginia for two years already, and my sister was beginning her freshman year at a college a few hours away. I was the only child in the house, and my father, now ten years out of the Air Force, was travelling more and more as a wholesale jewelry salesman. He would be home only every other weekend, sometimes for only a week in any given month. And that was OK with me. I was able, for the most part, to do what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it.

Once we became civilians. I grew hair for the first time, and sometimes I would respond with a simple “yes”, minus the “sir”. He didn’t like it, but he begrudgingly accepted it, so long as all those actions were not aimed at his authority.

My mother didn’t care much for the military life. While this didn’t help her relationship with my father (who had reluctantly given in to her pressing him to get out of the service), it certainly made my life considerably more enjoyable when he was away travelling.

However, when he did come home, it was a different story. He would not tolerate any cracks in the wall he had built between himself and the family, although it was crumbling all around us. No matter what, there would be respect for the officer in charge.

When my father would return from a sales trip, he would arrive at about nine o’clock on a Friday night, and as we greeted him (mother first, children second © youngest to oldest) he would ask, “What’s broken this time?”. We would tell him about the leaky faucet or the short in the light fixture. And then we would tell him how things have been since we last saw him. Then on Saturday, we all knew that there were chores to be done. And while the afternoons were ours, the mornings were his.

One weekend, my father had returned from a two week sweep through Kansas and Oklahoma. That Saturday morning he woke me early, even though I had been out late with friends doing things my father expected of a guy my age, doing things he did when he was my age, but doing things he would still have kicked my ass for regardless of my age. I was hungover, felt like crap, and didn’t see why he couldn’t just fix the leak without me for once.

“Get up”, he commanded. I just turned over. Without hesitating, he walked up to the bed, pulled off the covers as he had done a thousand times before, calmly saying, “I said, ‘Get up'”. He then exited to his paper and prune juice awaiting him at the table.

Angry and bitter, I got up, got dressed and walked into the family room. He was sitting at the table watching TV, reading the paper. As I passed through on my way to the fridge, he dropped his paper and said, “I want you to go to True Value and pick up some solder and a couple of washers”, nonchalantly pointing towards the True Value. I stopped. He had pointed in the complete opposite direction from where True Value really was.

I said, “OK, you want me to go to True Value, right?”, and I pointed towards True Value. My finger was aimed at a place on the wall almost 100 degrees away from the point on the wall where he had pointed.

“Yeah”, he replied. “Go to the True Value and get that stuff. Get money from your mama.” He pointed again to the same place on the wall. I couldn’t believe it.

“Dad”, I said, “True Value is that way”, pointing to the place on the wall I knew stood between me and the hardware store. “The hell it is”, he said. “Just go to the damn store, boy.”

I stood still. He sipped his juice, raised his paper and continued reading. He knew I standing there looking at him. He was simply finished talking to me. I began to walk into the kitchen towards my mother’s purse. Then I stopped. I couldn’t let it go. I felt there was an injustice letting such a blatant mistruth pass, even though I was only the son.

“Dad?”

“What”, he said, without looking up.

“Dad?”, I asked again. He dropped his paper slowly, looking up from his chair, a reserved look on his face.

“You want me to go to True Value, right?” I pointed to the same place on the wall that I had before.

“God dammit, boy”, he snapped, annoyed with this pest. “The God damned True Value is that way. Now stop it and go”. He sat looking up at me.

“Dad, the True Value is that way.”

He dropped the paper. “What the hell you talking about, boy. I’ve navigated my way through shit you wouldn’t believe. I think I know where the damned True Value is”.

“But it’s that way! You go that way down Loop Rd, take a left on Pargoud and it’s right over the railroad tracks! That way.” My logic was undeniable.

“God dammit, it’s that way.”

“It’s that way. I can prove it!” I rushed out, excited in the knowledge that I finally got him. I knew I was right and I was going to get him to say the words I had never heard him utter: “I…AM…WRONG.”

I fumbled around my room, got the map of the town, my Boy Scout compass, some masking tape, a pencil and a ruler. I ran into the family room, cleared the table.

“Point again to the True Value”, I said.

“Watch your tone, boy.” He pointed to the same place on the wall. His eyes never left my face.

I ran over to the wall, placed a piece of tape on the wall. “Here?”

“Yeah.”

I then ran over to my place on the other wall, sticking a square of tape in the middle of the ugly viking ship oil painting my uncle gave us.

I then hustled to the table, laid down the map with the compass and taped it down, being careful to make sure North was north and South was south. “Right?”

He nodded in agreement, eye brows dropping slightly.

I drew a dot where our house was, checking his agreement, and then drew a dot where the True Value was. Again he agreed.

I stood still. Not believing what was about to happen. Everything was in place for me to finally prove, without the shadow of a doubt, that I was right. And better still, that he was wrong. My skin began to tingle. The hair on the back of my neck stood up from the electricity. My father sat looking up at me. He was growing darker and darker. He picked up the paper. Sweat spots grew where he held it. “Go to the damn store”, he said in a quiet, deliberate, final voice. “Don’t push me, boy.”

I looked into his eyes. I have always heard the expression “like a cornered animal”, but never quite understood what it meant. But in that moment, I knew exactly what it was. My father sat looking at me not as his piss ant sixteen year old son, but as a challenger to everything he had ever been, to everything he was and to everything he still wanted to be. And he had never been defeated in a direct challenge. Never.

I stood still, ruler in hand. Everything was in place. Victory was mine. All I had to do was to connect the dots.

My father and I were silent, looking each other, eye to eye.

I couldn’t bring myself to move the hand that held the ruler.

My father raised the paper, continuing to read. “Anything else?”

“No sir”. I slowly walked to the kitchen, dug a twenty from my mother’s billfold, grabbed her keys and left. Instead of taking a right on Loop Rd., I took a left. I don’t know why. I guess I just wanted to go a different way this time.

A couple of weeks later, my father repeated his Saturday ritual. I got up, he was sitting at the table, reading the paper, sipping on prune juice. Without looking, he said, “Go to the True Value and pick up some galvanized ten penny nails. Get money from your momma.” His hand raised and pointed to a place on the wall. I followed his finger. It was pointed directly at my piece of tape, still sticking to the wall. Right in the middle of the Viking ship.

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