Dangerspouse Rides Again

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Garage - Track

Dec. 02, 2012 - 5:21 p.m.

The Black Camel


Thirteen years ago this month NewWifey(tm) moved from the corn and gopher fields of Kansas City to join me and the gopher-sized cockroaches in the open radiation pit that is New Jersey.

I still don't know why.

The day she arrived with all her stuff, I heard her before I saw her. Or rather, I heard her father's truck before I saw her. Her father, Barton, helped her move out.

Barton had a pickup truck. A 1964 Ford F-100. The original exhaust was now about 70% duct tape, but still attached (more or less) and that's what made it sound like a Gatling gun was bearing down on me while they were still a half a mile from view. The truck had be re-painted at some point a color Jean Shepherd used to call "goat vomit green". With a spray can.

Lemme tell you, a 1964 anything is not something you often see in New Jersey. The air here is so corrosive that any vehicle over 10 years old is a convertible. Roofs just can't last that long in an acid bath.

Not only was it odd to see an old truck rumbling down my road, it was odd to see one packed 15 feet over the roof line with furniture. Normally all of it, including the bed liner, would have been stolen at the first traffic light around here. I couldn't figure out how he made it this far with everything intact.

He pulled up next to me. "Here" he said, "hold this." And he passed out a double barreled 12-guage shotgun through the passenger window. "You wouldn't believe what some people try to get away with when you're stopped at a red light in this state." (In New Jersey only legally registered Italians can own firearms, so I quickly slid the peacemaker under my shirt. Next to my .308 Remington.)

Once out of the cab and a cursory "Nice to meetcha, bud" he hopped onto the bed of the truck and up the mountain of furniture. Which he immediately began throwing down without even looking. I guess he figured everyone in America has spent time baling hay and knew the routine. So before I could even say "Would you like some water after your trip?" there was an armchair hurtling towards my head.

Fortunately, NewWifey(tm) has spent time baling hay. She leaped in front of me, caught the chair, set it down, shot me a withering look of contempt (the first of our relationship!) and braced for another. This dance continued for about 20 minutes. Toss...catch...set...brace...toss...catch...until the entire haul of chairs, rugs, armoirs, settees, ottomans, and everything in between was arrayed in neat rows on the lawn. Neither he nor NewWifey(tm) had more than the faintest sheen of sweat between them when it was over, even though they'd just tossed and caught probably 6 cubic yards of sturdy Midwestern house furnishings.

"Y'all got some sweet tea?" he asked me.

"'Sweet tea'?" I said. "I've got Earl Grey, although I know that's not so much 'sweet' as 'fragrant'. Oh wait, I think I have some Lebanese rose tea left! That's pretty sweet, for tea. Is that what you mean?"

He shot me a look of disbelief. (The first of our relationship!)

"I'll make you some, Daddy." said NewWifey(tm), and she went inside and stirred a cup of Lipton's and a tray of ice cubes into a 5 pound bag of sugar. This must be where they get all their energy.

That night I'd planned a special dinner, seeing as how it was the first time I was meeting my future father-in-law and I wanted to make a good impression. I'm pretty sure I've told this story before, but to recap: I decided on Coq Au Vin, braised endive, roasted herbed mushrooms, and a nice wine. As I was preparing the chicken, Barton was looking out the kitchen window. He spotted the groundhog which lived in our yard and ran around pretty much with impunity, and whom we'd stupidly named "Phil".

"You know" he said, "those things make fine eatin'. Fine eatin'. Where'd you put that gun I gave you before?"

I went running out of the kitchen to NewWifey(tm).

"I'm making Coq Au Vin, and your father wants me to shoot and cook Phil!"

"He's pulling your leg, honey. Get used to it."

I felt better, especially after he laughed at me when I came back in the kitchen. But I never did get over the nagging feeling that he was at least half serious.

That weekend we went to New York City, a half hour trip from my bachelor pad. It was the first time he'd ever been there.

Before we went into the City itself though, I took a detour to Liberty State Park in Jersey City. The park is just across the water from Lower Manhattan, with a perfect view of the Statue of Liberty and the downtown skyline. I thought Barton would enjoy a view like that before we actually plunged into the belly of the beast itself.

"Now listen, Bart" I said as we walked down the footpath, "People out here are not like people in the Midwest. Try not to make eye contact, and by all means avoid talking to anyone you don't...Barton? Barton??"

"He's over there, honey." said NewWifey(tm), pointing to her right.

While I was talking Barton had spotted a guy sitting alone on a bench about 50 yards away, and hightailed it over to talk to him. When we got there they were already deep in conversation.

"This is my new friend Paulie" said Bart. "Turns out we were both in the Navy. I'll tell y'all what - we're gonna go grab a beer at that pub back there. Come get me in about an hour." And he and Paulie shuffled off to the bar they'd spotted across the highway. So...me and NewWifey(tm) sat on the bench and stared across the water for an hour. Then we headed for the bar. Inside, Barton was perched on one of the stools and surrounded by probably 8 people, including Paulie, all talking raucously and downing mug after mug of Miller Lite.

That same pattern played out once we finally pried Barton loose from his stool and onto the bus to Midtown Manhattan. He leaned over to the lady across the aisle from his seat and said "Howdy Ma'am. My name's Barton, and I'm from Kansas City, Missouri." And off they went into a conversation about tornadoes and church potluck socials and denim overalls until the bus pulled in to the Port Authority Bus Terminal off 8th Avenue.

"My father has never met a stranger" NewWifey(tm) said. And over the years I found that was very, very true.

A few years later he and NewWifey(tm)'s mom moved permanently to their little summer bungalow on the Norfork River in the Ozarks, in the northern part of Arkansas (which we've dubbed "Ozarkistan"). Once all their kids were grown and out, the family barn in KC was just a bit much upkeep for them in retirement.

The first time we went to visit them, we drove. It took two days, and we got there just before midnight.

At 4 in the morning, Barton shook me awake. "C'mon, we're going fishing."

"Fi - what?"

NewWifey(tm) was standing next to him, already decked out in hip waders and a hat with lures all over it. "C'mon, idiot. I told you my dad and I always go fishing when we're together."

"Yeah, but it's 4 in the freakin' -"

Barton yanked me up by the front of my SpongeBob pajama top and shoved a pair of smelly rubber waders in my chest. "Be in the truck in 5 minutes. Don't bother peeing. We're gonna be in a river."

And 20 minutes later we were in a river. A cold, cold river.

Actually, we were in a boat. A cold, cold boat. And this cold, cold boat was my father-in-law's pride and joy (after his wife I assume, although he never said so specifically). Now, I'm not a boat person, but I could tell this thing was a bit of quality kit. He apparently designed it himself and had some shipwright put it together from scratch. It was stable, even with an oaf like me flailing around on board like a hippo on roller skates. There were coolers attached to the bow and stern, and a trough running down each side of the boat filled with water to keep our catch.

I still had to pee, though.

I carefully sidled over to Barton and quietly asked if he could pull ashore for a minute so I could duck behind a tree and go.

"What?" he said loudly. "We're fishing, son. We don't pull ashore until we have a full hold. And you better go now, so you don't scare the fish once we start." He handed me a battered (and stained - blech!) coffee can that apparently was all the privacy I would be allowed.

I turned to beg NewWifey(tm) to intercede on my bladder's behalf, but when I did I saw MY NEW WIFE SQUATTING OVER THE BOW OF THE BOAT TAKING A LEAK! Snow white ass hung out in space, just letting it fly.

She stood up and hitched her waders back in place. She looked at me standing there with my jaw open.

"What? she said. We're fishing."

Indeed we were.

For the next seven days we were in that boat every morning by 0430 casting for trout. We fished the White, the Buffalo, and the Norfork Rivers. I found out later these are three of the most famous and most heavily stocked trout waters in America.

Guess how many fish I caught in seven days of fishing three of the most heavily stocked trout rivers in America?

Zero. Zeeee row. Zip. Zilch.

I've written before about how bad a fisherman I am, but this took the cake. Barton and NewWifey(tm) actually took pity on me at one point and pulled their lines in for a full hour, dumping every bit of bait in the boat into the water and having me cast into the roiling mass of fish that were frenzy feeding on it all. Not one of them grabbed my line. Not one.

(Those two, meanwhile, had fish practically leaping into the boat to grab their bait as they were putting it on the hook. Neither of them ever seemed to pull up an empty cast. I've never seen so many fish in my life, and I used to go to the Fulton Fish Market when it was still on the Lower East Side and the trawlers would dump tons of them onto the docks at once. Around the third day I asked Barton what the daily limit was on their catch, and he said "What's a 'limit'?")

Barton ragged me about my incompetence every night as we were eating yet another pile of trout that the two of them had reeled in that morning. But a week later, after we'd driven home and were unpacking the car, I found the handmade split bamboo rod and fully stocked tackle box he'd slipped between our suitcases, along with a 1.5 liter bottle of Maker's Mark bourbon and...an empty coffee can with the word "HEAD" stenciled on the side. Along with a thank you note for being such good company "for a Yankee".

I loved my father-in-law.

In the ensuing years we went down to visit a few times, and they came to visit us a few times. Barton loved New York City, especially the subways. We hit up Broadway shows, Vietnamese restaurants, dive bars, Ellis Island, the Circle Boat tour. Every time we got together it was a hoot. I always felt like I was hanging out with friends, not my in-laws.

Did I mention that before he retired, Barton had worked most of his adult life at the Ford plant in Kansas City? It was because of that, I'm sure, that he taught NewWifey(tm) just about everything there is to know about fixing cars...fixing plumbing...fixing electrical problems...and maybe even fixing dogs, for all I know. NewWifey(tm), the consummate Daddy's Girl, soaked it all up so that by the time she was in high school she'd already done a brake job on her brother's Chevy Nova and built out her bedroom with a new shoe closet. I do a lot less work around the house than any husband I know, and it's all because of Barton. Of all the things he ever made with his two hands (or other), NewWifey(tm) was the best. And he gave her to me.

Barton died last week, the day before Thanksgiving, at his house within sight of the Norfork river and his boat, surrounded by family. At the services Thursday and Friday, people came from hundreds of miles away to say their goodbye's and tell my mother-in-law how lucky they felt just to have known the man, even if it was only briefly in some cases. A few had driven all night to be there. The man really never did know a stranger.

I wasn't able to be there because I'd been marooned at work by Hurricane Sandy. NewWifey(tm) had to make that terrible journey alone and say her goodbye's without me. I really wanted to be there for her, at least. Not that I, or anything else, would have been much succor as she watched her Daddy, her fishing buddy, her greatest cheerleader, slipping away from the dock for the last time. Without her.

Goodbye, Barton. Thanks for doing such a good job at any parent's most impossible task. I'll try to take good care of her while you're gone.

And I'll miss you every time I use that coffee can....



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