When they coined the term “deadbeat dad,” they were talking about my father.
The information i have about him is pieced together from whatever scant information my mother would mete out, and the very few visits i had with him.
A world traveller, my father was born in Manchester, England England/Across the Atlantic Sea (hum the tune now if you’re into Broadway showtunes) and stopped off in a bunch of different places. It stuck in my mind that he was once a bartender in Morocco, before finally ending up in Thunder Bay Ontario. Forgive me, but Thunder Bay Ontario never struck me as a key stop in a whirlwind globetrotting adventure. But there he was, failing all his classes in the social work program, where he met my mom.
They were grossly mismatched. He was a drug-loving charismatic hippie, while she was (from what i can tell) an extremely self-conscious, introverted follower. It was a shotgun wedding, and i was born a few towns away when the family was uprooted and placed in Kenora so that mum could tend to abused kids on the Indian reserve through the Children’s Aid Society. When i was just two months old, my father decided it was time to go, and left mother and child in a chilly shack in the dead of the Canadian winter.
For those of you keeping score, remember to dock a few points from the man’s tally sheet at this point.
My father never paid child support, because my mother didn’t ever pursue it. She was too afraid that he’d fight for (and win) partial custody. For the longest time, it wasn’t clear to me why that’d be such a bad thing. These days, it’s clear. Crystal, even.
On to the hilarious pathos!
My memories of my father were few. He only visited me a few times. He was stocky with a big, scratchy brown beard and a working-class Manchester accent. He looked like a hobbit, even though i had never read the Tolkien books by then. You don’t have to know Tolkien to suspect that someone is quite like a hobbit. He also reeked of cigarette smoke, and when i sat on his knee he reminded me very much of Santa, because that’s the only real contact i had had with bearded men and their laps at that point. But i’m not talking about the real Santa here – i’m talking about shopping mall Santa, the kind that’s slightly offputting and altogether artificial. During those visits, he wasn’t my dad. He was artificial.
One time, he flew in from Alberta and visited me on Canada Day. My mom reluctantly released me into his care for the day, reminding him that absolutely nothing was open on Canada Day. He feigned ignorance here. Really? Nothing?? On Canada Day??? He had never heard such rubbish. My mom reminded him that he’d been living in Canada for at least twelve years by that point, and the rules hadn’t suddenly changed or anything.
We drove around town in his rented car with the windows rolled up while he chain smoked. He asked me if i’d like to go somewhere fun, and i said sure. He asked me where somewhere fun was. i said i didn’t know. The mall? Sure, okay. We’d go to the mall. Where was the mall? i didn’t know. i was only ten. So we drove around aimlessly before hitting an Arby’s fast food joint. He asked me what i wanted to eat so that he could tell the lady at the counter. “Plain cheeseburger,” i mumbled. “Eh? A Canadian?” “No … a PLAIN CHEESEBURGER.” Turning to the lady at the counter, he raised a finger and said “and a Canadian for my son!” We ate, and then he dropped me off and flew home.
During our most memorable visit, we met up in Thunder Bay. He picked me up in a parking lot where he had arrived fresh from the airport. There were clearly toys in the back seat, and i was really excited to get them because, as i’ve mentioned, i was pretty toy-starved in those days. My mom really didn’t want to let me go that time, worried that i would be won over by the cache of toys. Rest you fears, Mom – i wasn’t. As it turns out, the toys were hastily purchased from an airport convenience store. The one i remember most clearly was an elastic slingshot with a plastic bird with wings that supposedly unfolded when you shot it into the air. They didn’t. The bird’s wings were made out of that cheap kite plastic that you use to cover picnic tables for church banquets. They held up for all of four launches before the bird gave up the ghost by ripping itself to streamers.
So we hopped into the car and drove aimlessly around the backroads of Thunder Bay with the windows rolled up and smoke streaming out of his nostrils, on the hunt for something fun to do. Along the way, my father taught me the proper way to fight (wait ’til your opponent’s not looking and then sucker punch him), and imparted wise words regarding TV movies (don’t watch ’em cause they cut out all the swearing and nudity). We drove around forever through T-Bay’s unscenic autumnal wastelands, until he spotted something interesting poking out from the tops of the evergreens. It looked like a roller coaster track!
He floored the car towards the trees, doing his best to guess which roads to take, asking me all the while if i’d ever been to a fair (i hadn’t) and how much i would enjoy riding the ferris wheel, and how cotton candy tasted best when it was the blue kind. i was getting pretty psyched. And then, at last, we rounded the bend and saw the gates of the fairground.
They were chained together and locked.
Behind them, a bunch of trucks were parked end-to-end. A few guys were loading some merry-go-round horses into one truck, next to the ferris wheel which lay on the ground, dismantled. i think my father got out of the car and asked them if any rides were still working, if they could start any of them up. By that point, it didn’t matter anyway. i had all the information about my father i’d ever need.
Up until my 24th birthday, my second and last names were my father’s. At long last, i had them legally changed. My last name become my mother’s maiden name, the one i’d been using my whole life anyway. And while i was at it, i changed my middle name to Henson. i never got a chance to hang out with that charismatic bearded hippie with a talent for puppetry, but he had a much more profound and positive impact on my life than that other deadbeat ever did.
Cheers, da’! It’s my birthday.