I found an old picture of my dad and me taken when I was eight; he was thirty-eight. It was a Polaroid, tinted red after lying dormant in an album for decades. Holding the thick paper thrusted me back to 1981. Suddenly, President Regan was America’s sweetheart, and the first test-tube baby was born, and everyone feathered their hair and smoked in public. My skewed worldview was a place of endless wonder and possibility, and my dad was at the center of it all. I wanted to be my dad. Literally, and for all the same reasons many little girls worship their dads. He was the all-knowing strongest super hero in the world. He was playful and funny. He taught me how to swim, do acrobatics on the trampoline, and let me practice my karate on him. He also taught me to make a monkey face so convincing, that my mom forbade from doing it in front of her. I dressed like him, talked like him, and even once, tried to pee like him. He didn’t confine me to stereotypes; I was free to explore my world without regard to my gender. As such, he once played Barbie dolls with me at the shooting range after we finished our rounds. He also took my love for theatrical performance seriously, he would watch all of my one-girl homemade productions that I wrote, directed and acted. After his enthusiastic applause, he would recap-offering sincere and thoughtful critiques with his opinion of what worked, and what could use improvement. My mom took that picture of us the night before he took me dove hunting for the first time-it was a photo op between artist and subject. I had just performed a playlet, probably called something like, “Daddy the Dove Hunter.” New adventures always inspired me.
Right after dinner, I dashed to my bedroom and came out shirtless, wearing maroon corduroy pants, with a pooched out gut to approximate Dad’s beer-belly. That was the easy part. Finding matching crutches with handholds and forearm cuffs required a bit more imagination. After a quick search of our yard, I found two relatively long sticks. Primarily concerned with utility over aesthetics, I was satisfied when I found two that supported me adequately. I was skinny like my dad. I chose to ignore the braces under his pants, because those weren’t visible and I was an expert at walking with stiff legs anyway-I practiced that a lot. To finish out his look, I parted my long, dirty blond locks down the middle, wrapped one end under my chin for his beard, and the other under my nose for his mustache. I was particularly ambitious that evening, so I borrowed a pair of my mother’s knee-highs, and stretched it over my head to match his balding crown. Once the presentation began, I described the scene to him. “We are in a wilderness,” I said, not knowing that would be an impractical location for a dove hunt. He explained that to me afterward. I started at one end of the living room, and then planted the sticks, locked my knees, swung my legs out, and stuck the landing; over and over, walking just like my dad through the pretend woods. I had a broom resting against the column that separated our living room from the den; that was his shotgun resting against a tree. Once there, I deftly leaned my crutches against the tree, took the gun, and got three make-believe birds with just two shots. He clapped as I took a bow.
Back then, I never wondered why other dads didn’t walk like my dad, but I just figured it was one of his special powers. I was right about that. When he was eight years old, he was already an accomplished hunter, fisherman, and self-appointed anti-bully, special ops force at school. He loved to fight, so found the perfect situation by fighting bullies in defense of his classmates. This strategy was not useful in avoiding spankings at school and home, but it was excuse enough to evade any long-term suspensions. In October of 1951, he caught what he thought was a nasty cold. After several days of high fever, his parents took him to town, where his doctor diagnosed him with the flu. Finally, after a week of steady decline, he awoke one morning, and his legs wouldn’t bear his weight. He fell down, and was unable to get back up. He was a frightened eight year-old little boy, but was determined not to scare his mom. Instead, he clawed his way from the floor back into bed, and then calmly told her what happened when she came in to check on him. Within hours, he was in the emergency room enduring a spinal tap without anesthetic, as was the custom in 1951. It was polio.
After a 3-month stay at the first hospital and nearly a year at the Shriner’s hospital, he endured approximately one dozen surgeries isolated from his family. It was then that he determined that being handicapped was more a decision than a circumstance. He doesn’t remember the day, but at the Shriner’s he decided that he would grow up to be normal, and do all of the normal things men did. So he went to school, continued fighting, continued hunting, and met a girl. They got married, bought a house, and then had two little girls. He went to work, watched football and went fishing with his friends. He drank beer, played Barbies, and took his daughters hunting. When he told me that I could grow up to be anything I wanted to be, I believed him.