03 March 2011

Macramé Flambé and Roving Outhouses

Like it or not, we are all the product of our parents' legacy in one way or another, and I am no different in this regard. Any innate sense of humor with which I was born was amply supplemented by my father's legacy to me of general silliness. Today would have been my father's 82nd birthday. He passed away 5 1/2 years ago from a metastatic melanoma. However, rather than negatively dwell on that loss, I thought I would instead honor his memory today by regaling you with some of the more "colorful" stories that he so thoughtfully provided throughout my childhood. Enjoy.

Basil Eugene LaRue, Jr., age 1
(No wonder he opted for silliness--how would you like to be saddled with a name like that?)

My father was born in Illinois, but grew up in Indiana. After a year of college (which he hated), he enlisted in the Navy, eventually serving in Korea--as a cook. When I was driving my father to his daily radiation treatments, he told me all sorts of stories I'd never before heard about how he took wild advantage of his position as one of the ship's cooks by sneaking down to the galley at all hours of the night to fix himself steak and eggs, just because he could. He also claimed to have stabbed some guy in the hand with a serving fork when he started getting grabby with the food or complaining about rations. Of course, knowing my dad, he was also probably exaggerating to make himself look more impressive. He also claimed to have taught my mother everything she knew about cooking, then leaving her to do it all on her own, because "she had to learn somehow."

Sailor Dad, age 20-ish
(Is it just me, or does he look like he walked right off the set of McHale's Navy?)

Most of the time when I was growing up my father worked the second shift so I didn't see him very often, but I loved the weekends because my mother would let me stay up late on Friday nights till he got home, which was considered a huge treat. Later, when he was working the third shift, he would stop by Long's bakery in Indianapolis and bring home donuts for us every Saturday morning. Those donuts were sheer bliss. Weekends were also the best because that's when we played silly games together. One of my favorites, which remains so to this day, was the improvisation of song lyrics, poems, etc. Long before I had any clue what a parody was, my father and I would sit around the kitchen counter making up new words to songs and ditties--the sillier the better. And if you were really good, you could improvise them instantaneously while you were singing without any breaks. I frequently employed this skill when my mother was watching her "stories" by standing in the doorway and re-imagining (loudly) the dialogue between all the soap opera characters, much to her annoyance. My father would just listen and laugh.

Dad was full of random songs. Every weekend with him was like being at a Girl Scout camp. We used to go camping every summer, first in a tent, then in a pop-up camper and graduating eventually to an actual trailer. One night I was sent to bed in our tent while just outside it, by the campfire, my father attempted to teach my brother one of his many goofy songs. My brother never learned it, but I remember every word to this day:

Standing on a corner, doin' a bit of harm,
Along came a policeman, and took me by the arm.
We went to the station, rang a little bell,
Along came the police patrol and took me off to jail.
I woke one early morning, looked upon the wall,
The cooties and the bedbugs was havin' a game of ball.
The score was nine to nothing, the cooties were ahead,
The bedbugs knocked a home run and knocked me out of bed.
I went down to breakfast, the toast was hard and stale,
The coffee tasted like tobacco juice beside the county jail.
The burgers tasted like horse meat, with the unconnected cheese,
The wienies did a flip-flop, and landed in the peas!

Modern camping FTW.

My father was an interesting mix of contradictions. Just when you'd think you had him pegged, he would do something completely unexpected, such as veering from his usual TV fare of Hee Haw and Rockford Files during my youth to shows like Discovery or Quantum Leap in his later years. To me this was just weird because he was not a very "science-y" sort of guy. He was a dyed-in-the-wool blue collar worker who believed in working hard and doing everything yourself rather than in wasting money to have someone else do it for you. He was a very hands-on sort of guy who loved nothing more than to "improve" his model train layouts or to tinker in the garage. He kept EVERYTHING in that garage: scrap wood, scrap metal, paint of every color, assorted screws and nails stored in baby food jars on a wooden wheel, tools, and pretty much anything else you can think of--it was like the Narnia of scrap crap.  I used to love going in there and creating random junk just like my father did; I remember once making him some sort of lopsided boat out of scrap wood when I was a kid, painting it first gray then pink, never ever recognizing the disturbing resemblance to the sub in Operation Petticoat, particularly given the irony that my father had once been a sailor.

"We all live on a rosy submarine, a rosy submarine, a rosy submarine..."

Easily my father's most bizarre and embarrassing creation (for us, anyway) had to do with his lawnmower. When I was a kid, my father loved to mow the yard. In fact, my brother was the only boy on the street who actually wanted to mow the yard, but who was not allowed to do so because my father so enjoyed whipping around the front yard on his riding mower like he was a competitor in the Indy 500. One summer when I was 10 or 12 or so, he decided that the one drawback to mowing was having the unrelenting sun bearing down on him while he tooled around the yard. So my father, being the "creative" sort (and I use this term very loosely), decided he would take some of his stash of scrap lumber and build a sun shelter. ON his riding mower. He couldn't just buy one of those dorky hats with the little umbrella on it, oh no--that would be wasting money on junk. So off he went into the garage, where he quickly constructed a three-sided structure made of plywood, which he then bolted around the seat of the riding mower. Next, he attached a roof to the structure. My father stepped back, eyed his work, and decided it just didn't look right unfinished, so he went back to the garage and found some leftover silver paint--Rustoleum, no less (because rusting lumber has always been such a pervasive concern?)--and started slapping it on his structure. I suppose he chose silver because that's what he had the most of at the time, but it didn't really go with the yellow and black mower, which looked (and sounded) like a giant bumblebee.

After the silver paint had dried, my father decided his invention was still too plain, so he returned to Garageland and dug out some black paint (also Rustoleum--must be consistent, after all) and proceeded to outline each wood panel in black. Once again, Dad stepped back to view his handiwork, only to realize that his labor of love reminded him of something. He finally realized what it was, then ran off to procure a jig saw, after which he promptly cut out a half-moon on each side of the structure, outlining them in black as well. Oh, yes--my dear father had just invented the world's first Traveling Outhouse.

There are no words to describe how proud we were of Dad's accomplishment.*

While I'm sure you can all visualize how my older brother and I must have felt about having what amounted to a toilet driving around in our front yard, imagine if you will a car driving down the road one day while the outhouse was on the move. Now imagine that car stopping a quarter mile down the road, brakes squealing. And backing up. To your yard. And stopping. Then pulling into your driveway. Two men got out, chatted with my father for a while, then snapped pictures before finally leaving. When the photo came out in the local paper a week later, horror doesn't even begin to describe our feelings on the matter. My father, on the other hand, was delighted to have his invention recognized--so much so, in fact, that he took one of the pictures to work and had it published in the newsletter there as well. Of course the ultimate irony is that in building his sun shelter to protect himself from the heat, Dad ultimately made himself a good ten+ degrees hotter by essentially sealing himself off in a 3-sided coffin with virtually no airflow.

At least the other newspaper knew how to spell "traveling." Sigh.

While probably no single other creation topped the impact of this particular invention, that never stopped my father from continuing to putter every weekend in the garage. In fact, you had to give the man credit--he was one of the first true recyclers. Eventually he dismantled the outhouse, repainted it brown and made it into a doghouse of sorts for our fox terrier, complete with a hinged lid (in case she refused to come out the door hole) and a big yellow wooden star on the side in homage to her incredibly original name: Star. After the dog died years later Dad boarded up the entry hole, took the lime green legs off of an old table and screwed them into the bottom of the doghouse, thus creating a new laundry hamper for my mother, which she used very grudgingly to humor him. After she tired of it, he removed the legs and cut it down to make a case for one of his rifles. When he got rid of the rifle, he cut the box down yet again, making it into a storage case for some of his other gun supplies. I never understood his fascination with guns; to my knowledge, he never shot any of the ones he had. Meanwhile, his one-time outhouse must have been Buddhist or Hindu considering it was reincarnated no fewer than five times.

The problem with my father as a handyman (outhouse notwithstanding) was that his skill did not always match up to his vision. At the end of the day, most of his creations and repairs were functional, but that's about all you could say for them. When I was a teenager, he attempted to replace the broken faucet in our kitchen sink with a swanky new Delta faucet. After two or three failed attempts to hook it up correctly, he became impatient (as he often did) and completed the repair in the one and only way in which he could get it to work: backwards. For years after I left home, I was incapable of accurately working one of those stupid faucets because I'd grown up using one in reverse. Similarly, my father once attempted to replace a turn signal indicator in an old Ford LTD that we had because it was unthinkable that one would take one's car to an actual mechanic. As with the faucet, Dad struggled to hook the signal up correctly and, as with the faucet, his frustration and impatience again led to his cutting corners till he eventually got the thing working--backwards. Again. To Dad repairing something correctly was never an issue; to him, "functioning" equaled "correct" so if he could get it working, he considered his job done and left us to deal with any and all fallout from his jury-rigged repairs. The turn signal indicator in the Ford ended up on the right side of the steering wheel towards the bottom of the column, so you had to push the lever up to turn left and down to turn right. I drove that car the last two years of high school with the turn signal indicator upside down. Inevitably, everyone who ever asked for a ride looked strangely at the signal box (and me) as a result.

That was just my dad...he made stuff that worked, stuff that was functional, but rarely anything that was particularly pretty. His work always tended to look home-made and, well, it was. Each and every home he ever owned was filled with a plethora of random shelves and organizational devices for anything and everything from pens and pencils to TV remotes and eyeglasses (and no doubt a kitchen sink or two), most of which were slightly lopsided (but always functional) in construction. It was just one of his quirks, not unlike his lopsided smile or lopsided sense of humor. 

Everything with him was a production, whether he was constructing something out of scrap wood, preparing to take us to the drive-in for the night, or sitting around playing with his lighter. Next to my mother's quintessentially '70s macrame plant hanger. Made of hemp. Needless to say, his attempts to entertain us with stupid lighter tricks took on a whole new flavor when he got his lighter a little too close to the plant hanger and set the ubiquitous tassel instantly ablaze. Eyes agog in shock, my father sat there stunned for a moment, then jumped up and rushed to the kitchen to retrieve the fire extinguisher. In his panic, however, he could not remember how to release the latch holding the extinguisher onto its wall mount and ended up ripping the whole thing out of the wall. He ran into the living room with the extinguisher (wall mount flapping uselessly), where the flaming macrame was busy singeing the curtains and the drywall.  He eventually managed to rip out the red pull tab around the wall mount and started wildly spraying CO2 all over the room, as though the extinguisher were an unmanned fire hose, somehow finally managing in his panic to land enough of the mix on the actual macrame hanger to smother the flames.

Unsuspecting Deathtrap

Afterwards we spent hours removing CO2 from every surface, crack and crevice in the living room, washing the drapes to purge them of hemp-scented smoke (no midnight toking for us), and shoveling up the dirt that had spilled onto the floor from the planter when the macrame gave way--only to discover scorched beads underneath and a giant J-shaped scar seared into the carpet from a strand of burning plant hanger. In true dad-style, my father never apologized, never used the incident as an exhortation against the dangers of playing with fire (though I have no doubt that my mother told him as she so often did to me that "those who play with fire pee in bed" [WTF, Mom???]); rather, he behaved as though it had never happened or as though he had "meant to do that." Never confess, never admit anything. Maybe it was a holdover from his time in the military, like "don't ask, don't tell." I don't know.  But that man could commit to a mean nonchalance.

Mom and Dad at my wedding in 1986 (as if you couldn't tell from the glasses).

My dad was a little crazy (as am I), but I still miss him. I miss our flipping each other off while badly camouflaging it as merely pushing up our eyeglasses. I miss his telling me which classes not to take because they were "too hard" (for him), and then sneaking my report cards to work to brag about to the other guys when I took those classes anyway and aced them. I miss driving with him through towns to show him all the cool upscale houses, invariably rolling my eyes when he'd continuously gape at them only to say "It must be NICE to be RICH" ("rich" usually meaning "having anything more than I have"), later contradicting himself by telling me repeatedly that it was "just as easy to marry a rich man as a poor man." Apparently "rich" was bad unless I married it, in which case it was perfectly acceptable, presumably because he would no longer have to worry about supporting me in my inevitable spinsterhood.

Dad liked to pretend he was some big, gruff bad-ass (not unlike Red Forman from "That '70s Show"), but deep down he was really a lot closer to the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, especially as he got older. He let my daughter ride around on his back, he'd play silly games with her just as he had with me, and I'm pretty sure he even taught her some of his goofy songs as well. If you were to ask her a few years ago "who is the silliest person in your family?" she'd always say "PaPa, of course!" with my husband's father, "Granddaddy" (who was also born in March and who is also now gone), a close second.

Mom and Stay-Puft goofing on their 50th Anniversary

While I might not have seen my dad as often as I'd have liked when I was a kid, time with him was rarely dull, whether he was attempting to set our house ablaze, building bizarre contraptions like toilets on wheels, hanging out just watching baseball, or teaching me foolish songs while unintentionally honing my wit. I am eternally grateful for his gift of silliness and for teaching me not to take life too seriously (most of the time, at least), and I am proud to share a birthday month with him. He may have been a little crazy, a big smart-ass, and a consummate goofball, but I wouldn't have had him any other way.

Happy Birthday, Dad.

*At least not any that are actually clean.


  1. What a wonderful tribute to your Dad! Sounds like he was such a fun guy!! My Dad passed away in 2007 and I miss him so much.

    I enjoy your blog and gave you an award. Please see my latest post for details.


  2. Thank you so much! Glad you enjoyed the post. :)