eddings are the source of most of Dad’s best stories. Dad was married three times so he had plenty of good times at his own weddings, but it seems like the weddings where he was in attendance were the real showstoppers. After hearing him share his wedding escapades, every wedding I attend is held, in my head, to his standard that some off the wall, once-in-a-lifetime shit should happen, otherwise it's a dull affair. I mean, at Chuck’s wedding, he and Larry got into a literal shoot-out with the locals, for crying out loud. That’s a hell of a wedding story, if you ask me. And that’s just one of many.
For example, and this is one of my favorites, there was the time when Dad decided to go on a midnight hike after his cousin Zach’s wedding in Buffalo. The reception had ended, Dad was drunk, it was a full moon; the perfect recipe for a late night hike. A quick side note: getting drunk and going on midnight hikes was possibly one of Dad’s favorite pastimes. They would usually be short trips from the cabin. We’d be playing Cribbage or Pinochle until two in the morning when Dad would decide it was time to hike up to Bompie’s tree fort. Bompie, as I mentioned in previous chapters, was my great-grandfather who had built the cabin (and a bowling alley in town) with his bare hands. He embodies a lot of the character at the cabin and his presence still weighs in on most of our family history. His tree fort is a pretty sketchy construct, though, built in an eighty-foot tree at the top of a small hill about a quarter mile from the cabin. That’s where Dad would take us once he knew we were all good and drunk, because that was the perfect spot to look at the stars and talk about life. From that vantage point, the cabin lights twinkled and reflected on the pond below. We’d sometimes talk out there until the sun was peeking over the hills to the east.
The hill on which Bompie’s tree fort stands is pretty steep and is littered with boulders. Another one of Dad’s favorite pastimes was rolling rocks from the top of the hill down into the creek below. The proper term for the activity is “trundling.” We would spend hours on the side of Bompie’s hill, searching for the perfect rocks to trundle to the bottom and into the creek. Dad had been rolling rocks on that hill since he was a kid, so by the time my sister and I were introduced to the activity, pickings were slim. Plus all the rocks that had already been rolled acted as barriers, blocking new rocks from reaching the creek. So, if you rolled a rock that actually made it into the creek, it was a huge achievement. One worth celebrating.
One time, Dad decided to raise the stakes on a trundling outing. We were lounging around the cabin, along with Gram and Pop. Dad asked Nicole and me if we wanted to go roll some rocks. Of course we did. When we got outside, he revealed that he had pilfered one of Gram’s ceramic angels from a bookshelf in the cabin. He informed us we’d be rolling rocks at it from the top of the hill to see if we could hit it. It was like long-distance nature bowling and the angel was the pin. At the base of Bompie’s hill, Dad built a small cairn and set the angel on top. We climbed up the hill and started rolling rocks at it. The height of the hill is equal to about the length of a football field, so it would take a perfect roll to even get close to the angel. We took turns taking shots at it for an hour, but none of our rocks got near it. It was as if there was a force field around the small idol. We finally agreed that we weren’t going to have any luck and started to walk back down the hill. I threw one last pitiful rock. It was going to be a far miss, the rock was rolling thirty yards to the right of the target. But then the rock smashed into one of the barrier rocks and changed course. Now it was heading directly toward the angel! Dad and Nicole froze and watched as the rock went careening toward the cairn. It was picking up speed, bouncing off the earth like a deer bounding through the forest. It inched closer to the cairn, wobbled a bit and then leapt from the ground and smashed into the angel, creating a cloud of ceramic dust. A direct hit. We all cheered and rushed to the bottom of the hill. We expected to find shards of ceramic scattered everywhere but were shocked to see that the angel was fully intact except for the head, which had been knocked clean off. Dad took it as some sort of cosmic message; we just didn’t know what the message was. We took the angel back to the cabin and stuffed it on a high shelf, hiding the results of our successful target practice from Gram. We laughed about that one for years.
So, back to Zach’s wedding. Dad is on the move. He had convinced Aunt Robyn’s husband, my uncle Dan, and a couple of other guys to join him on his hike, which he decided would be to Seven Brothers Lakes. A hike to Seven Brothers is no walk in the park. Seven Brothers is about four miles deep into the Bighorn Mountains. It’s almost as far up as Angeline. Long story short, it's a challenging hike in the middle of the day when you’re sober. Neither of those applied to Dad. They hit the trailhead and drunkenly stumbled their way to the lakes, where they set up camp and continued to party by the fire. At some point, Dan and the others passed out in or around their tents. Dad wasn’t done yet, however, so he got into a boat and paddled out to the middle of the lake. Our family stashed a blow-up raft at most of our favorite lakes in the Bighorns, usually in a bush somewhere around the banks. Beats packing them every time. Dad finally passed out on the boat in the middle of the lake.
A major fog had rolled in overnight, so when he woke up, the lake was completely covered. Dad was groggy, hung over, and extremely disoriented. He said it was completely white all around him; he could just make out the water below. He fully believed that he had died and was currently trapped in purgatory. He took a moment to come to grips with that, when suddenly he heard a large horn off in the distance. He started paddling toward the sound, thinking it was the Horn of Gabriel or something. As he paddled faster and faster, still completely enveloped in the white fog, the sound grew louder. Finally, Dad touched down on shore and remembered where he was. He staggered up to camp where he discovered the source of the sound. Dan was snoring. Loud enough to echo off the trees and serve as a beacon to Dad to guide him back to shore. Dan passed away years before Dad, so I hope he was able to guide him again, to wherever the path takes them next.
This chapter was one of the harder ones for me to write and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to include this, but I think I need to, just to get my own feelings out. My own wedding was just over two years before I wrote this, and it has become a bittersweet day for me. I slighted Dad at my own wedding in a way that I don’t know if I can ever forgive myself for, even if I did so unwittingly. I now look back with regret and disappointment in myself on a day that was supposed to be the happiest of my life. That, intertwined with the joy of marrying my wife, makes for a complicated memory for me.
To talk about my wedding, I need to backtrack a bit. When I was in high school, I moved from Montana to California with my mom and stepdad. Two years later, Dad had a wedding of his own and moved to South Carolina. Our simultaneous moves marked a big change in our relationship. Growing up, I had spent every other weekend with Dad. Now we only saw each other a handful of times a year, usually a week or two in the summer and then on one major holiday. We talked on the phone every few weeks, but over time we called each other less and less. I think Dad and I are equally bad at staying in touch with people. I would be lying if I said that our relationship didn’t grow more strained after the move. Not that we ever became upset with each other. Dad was never upset with Nicole or me, ever, except for when I was five years old and took a screwdriver to the door of his girlfriend’s Thunderbird. It was the first and only time he spanked me. Even then, he only did it because his girlfriend made him, I honestly don’t think he cared about the car. They broke up, regardless, so I was only doing him a preemptive favor. Anyway, Dad and I never fought, but still, we were living our lives separately now and it felt like our lives had grown apart, despite neither of us wanting them to. Still, whenever we were together at the cabin or out on a hike, we picked up right where we had left off.
When I started planning my wedding, I got caught up in the whirlwind of organizing vendors and planning the day's events. Anyone who has planned their own wedding knows that getting into the details of who’s going to sit where and who’s going to do what is the hardest part. There are so many factors to consider, you know you’re going to offend or disappoint someone. I just wish that it hadn’t been Dad that I offended. On the day of the wedding, I had everything planned out and I thought it was perfect, but I had forgotten to include Dad in any part of the ceremony. Dad, Gram, Nicole, Jesse, Larry, my Aunt Robyn, and cousin Matt had all made the trip from Wyoming to California to be there for me. They are all a huge part of my life and I treated them as if they were just spectators.
After the wedding, Nicole emailed me to let me know what I had done. Until I’d read her email, I had been oblivious. I was crushed. I called Dad, crying, trying to apologize and let him know that it had not been intentional. He, of course, forgave me immediately. He was such a caring and kind guy that he never held onto anger. Still, I knew that he had been hurt and even if he forgave me on the outside, he also knew that there was no getting that moment back. I could have asked him to do anything for the wedding and he would have jumped in wholeheartedly. I mean, he built the arch for my sister’s wedding himself. We had an arch. Why didn’t I ask him to build the arch?
I’ve thought about this a lot, and I think what I’ve realized is that it stems from the distance that had grown between us. I wished Dad and I had been more involved in each other's lives during my teenage years and early twenties. Those are important years for a father and son. I was growing into a young man and needed more of his influence during that time. His perspective on life was gentle, thoughtful, artistic, caring, and I wanted more of that for myself. But I only got it in small doses when we were together at the cabin. I think if we had been better about caring for our relationship and seeing each other more during that time in my life, I most certainly would have made sure he was involved in my wedding. It just didn’t occur to me to ask him if he wanted to help, and Dad was not the type to say that he was feeling left out. I know that communication is a two-way street, and we both could have done a better job about communicating our feelings to one another, but I’ll still be dealing with my feelings of guilt for a long time.
There is a positive from that experience, though. After that, Dad and I were much better about staying in touch. I think we both realized that we had let ourselves drift too far apart for comfort in the years leading up to the wedding, so we course-corrected. We called more and talked longer. Dad got pretty fired up about politics, to put it mildly. He was staunchly liberal, so let’s just say he was rather…unhappy with the administration in 2017. He could rant about politics for hours, which we did sometimes. Even just sending check-in texts to each other more regularly was enough. We started playing our games of online chess again. I saw him at Christmas a few months after the wedding. We were good. That was all that mattered.
On my wedding day, sometime during the reception, Dad, Larry, Nicole, Jesse and I snuck away from the rest of the party and stood in a circle enjoying a victory cigar. The subdued music was echoing through the trees around us, but it was now background noise instead of the main event. Dad and Larry started telling stories, captivating their audience as usual. We reminisced about Darton. I had climbed a new mountain of my own that day and had a real cigar to celebrate this time. Soon Chris and Ant and a few of my college friends found us and joined in on our circle. They’d all been to the cabin once or twice and had a few memorable experiences of their own with Dad. Chris and Ant relived the Cross-Mojination tour. Thankfully there was no water around or Dad was liable to strip to his tighty-whities and dive in. We talked of our late night trips to Bompie’s tree fort at the top of the hill and hikes to our favorite Bighorn lakes. Everyone just wanted to be near Dad. He had that effect on people. And he was so giving and joyful in that moment, even though he was hurting inside. That’s how I will always strive to be. When I called him in tears a few days after the wedding he told me:
“You know, all your friends came up to me and were so excited to talk and hang out with me that night. That alone tells me how much I mean to you, and that’s good enough for me.”