Daddy and me

If you know me you have probably listened to me tell a joke. You’ve heard me tell a joke, at any rate. After the first one, I suspect that many people merely nod politely and tune me out. The odds are good that your response was not so much a laugh as a groan, a groan accompanied by a wrench of your face in the way you might wrench it when observing a freshly-run-over skunk or raccoon or, if you’re in Texas, armadillo. Blame Daddy.

It is beyond my control that I tell silly jokes – what we call groaners – because it is bred in me. It’s Daddy’s fault. Blame him. Here’s what I’m talking about:

Every time we heard an unusual name Daddy would conduct the same ritual.

Daddy, reading the newspaper: “Francisco Gretzenheffer! Look at this article! It’s about Francisco Gretzenheffer!”

Brother & Clay: “Who’s Francisco Gretzenheffer?”

D: “You know Francisco Gretzenheffer.”

B&C: “No, we don’t.”

D: “Of course you know who Francisco Gretzenheffer is! Everybody knows who Francisco Gretzenheffer is.”

B&C: “No we don’t. Who is Francisco Gretzenheffer?”

D: “I can’t believe that I have not one but two sons who don’t know who Francisco Gretzenheffer is. You’re messing with me, right?”

B&C: “No, we don’t and no, we’re not.”

This would go on for five minutes or so, during which Daddy would emphasize vigorously how we were either kidding him or suffering a momentary fit of amnesia, and how embarrassed he would be if his children truly didn’t know who Francisco Gretzenheffer is, because everybody knows who Francisco Gretzenheffer is. Surely we were kidding. Finally:

B&C: “Daddy! We absolutely do not know who Francisco Gretzenheffer is. We really don’t.”

Daddy: “Well, I have a hard time believing that. I thought everybody knew who Francisco Gretzenheffer is.”

B&C: “Well, we don’t. Who is he?”

Daddy: “Oh, his mom married one of the Gretzenheffer boys.”

With that he would return to his newspaper.

Now, it would have been sufficiently aggravating for a child to suffer this torment once in his life. Like grabbing the handle of a hot skillet, it should have been an experience the scars from which imbued the victim forever hence with a reflexive avoidance. Somehow, though, my brother and I managed to walk into the trap many, many times. Once a month, maybe.

It did not help the groaning situation when Texas Monthly printed one of Daddy’s jokes. He was Runner Up one month in 1975-ish and won a year’s subscription. The joke had to do with a Navajo boy who won a science fair by creating electrically-powered bathroom conveniences for his tribe, who up to that point had only an outhouse, thereby making him the first Indian to wire a head for a reservation.

That’s what I had to live with and Texas Monthly did the world no favors where Daddy was concerned.

Daddy took me on excursions short and long. We saw The Amazing Kreskin. We saw Pat Boone. We drove out to Seguin, where Count Basie and his band played a show improbably in the gymnasium of the local high school. Sarah Vaughan was there and Basie introduced her but she didn’t sing anything.

From as early as I can remember we’d go in the evenings to the airport – first in Houston and later in San Antonio – just to look at planes. Both airports had observation decks and we’d just stand there looking around.

When the first 747 came to San Antonio – it was only a promotional flight to show off the plane – Daddy and I went to the airport and parked beneath the landing flight path. When it arrived we looked up at it and then got back in the car and went home.

We also went to the airport to see visiting dignitaries. Around 1972 President Nixon came to town, so Daddy and I went to the airport. It was a Saturday morning. The crowd was arranged in such a way that there were two pathways leading away from the plane. Daddy shoved me to the rope while he stood behind. It turned out that we were on Mrs. Nixon’s route and I shook her hand. Even as a 10-year-old I was struck by how tiny her hand was. She had a nice grip, though.

In the summer of 1976, it was in the paper that vice presidential candidate Bob Dole would arrive on a particular night so Daddy and I went out there and stood at the fence by the general aviation building. After a while somebody said that Mr. Dole was actually coming in through the main terminal so we hustled over there – maybe 100 yards – and went out to the gate. At first we were a little disappointed when only Mrs. Dole emerged through the doorway, but then the news circulated that Mr. Dole was in fact going to arrive at the general aviation area after all. So all of us – a crowd of maybe 30 people – trotted back outside. Sure enough, the campaign plane pulled up and Senator Dole disembarked. He did not come to the fence to greet us, which was a letdown.

Just a year or so later, however, and in precisely the same spot, our luck was better. Prince Charles would come to San Antonio for a visit, so on the afternoon of his arrival my dad pulled me out of school and we went to the airport. Again he shoved me to the front and that is where I met Prince Charles. I say met because I did more than shake his hand. He asked, “How do you do?” I said, “Very well, thank you.” And he said, “That’s good to know.”

We also took road trips. More than once we drove to Colorado to fish and to South Dakota to visit Daddy’s relatives.

It was while parked in front of a grocery store just outside Rocky Mountain National Park that we heard on the car radio of Elvis Presley’s death.

And movies. We saw a lot of movies together, Daddy and I. In 1975 we went down to Alamo Heights to see Jaws on the day of its release, but there were such long lines that we both said, “Well, forget that,” and went across the street to the theater that was, well, across the street.

I can’t remember what we saw when the rest of the world was watching Jaws. It was released on June 20, 1975, and I looked up which other movies came out on that date. I very much doubt we would have gone to Jacqueline Susann’s Once is Not Enough so the best guess is that we saw The Return of the Pink Panther, which had been out for a few weeks.

A couple of years before that Daddy took me to see Lost Horizon. Considering that there was a musical duet involving Sally Kellerman and George Kennedy in that movie, Daddy really went above and beyond.

Also in 1973 was The Train Robbers with John Wayne. Even at age 11 I knew that it was hardly one of Wayne’s better pictures. I believe that Daddy liked it, though, but maybe that was because Ann-Margret was in it.

I made a lot of model airplanes. After I felt that I had gone as far as a kid could go with plastic ones (I used a lot of airplane cement over the years but never sniffed it recreationally) I began making planes from balsa wood and tissue. These were quite elaborate constructions. This picture shows what I’m talking about.

I very frequently called Daddy at work and asked him to stop at the hobby store on his way home and pick things up for me. I gave him long, highly-detailed lists. I’d say things like, “I need eighth-inch-by-eighth-inch balsa, three-foot pieces, two of them. And eighth-inch-by-quarter-inch, two-foot pieces, three of those.” Like that. Long lists. He wrote it all down and brought it to me and I can’t remember him ever saying no.

You affixed the tissue to the balsa frame, by the way, with a smelly liquid called dope. Just as with the cement I used to put plastic models together, I never used dope recreationally.

Daddy taught me to fly cast. And I know how to put blood bait on a treble hook and to clean a crappie because Daddy taught me. None of those skills is one that I employ much anymore but it is still quite satisfying to know that I could clean a crappie if it became necessary. It’s an extremely long shot that I would need to put blood bait on a hook – or to have blood bait in my possession at all – in downtown Los Angeles, but again, I could and I have Daddy to thank.

Daddy taught me that when you fire a rifle you take a breath, let out part of it, and then pull the trigger. It helps the aim.

For all of his talents, Daddy also has his shortcomings. He was cursed with an inability to use an open-faced fishing reel without creating a tangle every couple of casts.

Here is a picture of Daddy and me from August, 1969. It is one of the few times I know of when he was on the water and wasn’t holding an open-faced reel with all the line in it tangled into a foot-wide bird’s nest.

Jim Russell & Clay Russell, Lake Casa Blanca, Laredo, Tex.

Electricity was never his friend. My memories of Daddy working on household or automotive electrical projects always include the sound of a loud spark or buzz followed by, “Nuts!” He usually laughed it off and you have to give him credit for staying at it long past the point where others would have called it a day.

Daddy was in the Navy a couple of years after the war. He was a signalman and did semaphore. Based on the look on his face in this photo, I imagine he spent a fair amount of time waving his semaphore flags at other ships, complaining about having to sweep things up.

Finally, in acknowledging my dad it’s also worth mentioning his dad, my Grandpa Sam. Here are the three of us on April 1, 1962. It seems I was pretty stocky for less than six months old. I grew out of the stockiness within a few years but have grown back into it. I can’t blame Daddy for that.

Daddy is my friend and I admire him very much.