Chapter 18 – Lieutenant Dan vs. a McGrease Fire
I’d say that pretty much every night during the whole first week after my dad’s passing, we all crowded around the TV and watched old home videos that my mom and sister had dug up outta their storage space. Among other stuff, there was quite a bit of footage from our annual Florida vacations, from Christmas mornings, from dopey kindergarten recitals and, most interesting to me, footage from our old house on Melvina where we’d lived until I was seven years old. I mean, in all fairness, my parents’ wedding video was pretty cool to check out as well – seein all the relatives back in their prime, not to mention my parents young and in love – but for me, nothin beats seeing my dad and myself in that old house of ours each more than twenty-five years younger. It was a crazy trip back in time that ended up triggering a bunch of memories I hadn’t thought about in forever – some having to do with my dad and some just random disjointed images long ago stuffed away into the dark recesses of my mind.
One such random thought had been how earwigs would always find their way into our inflatable kiddie pool where it was stored in that area by the back door of our basement. I hated those fuckers. They always grossed me out. I remember spending hours sitting at our dining room table, drawing and coloring and playing with my Lite-Brite and doing activities in the many Highlights magazines that were regularly sent to our house courtesy of my mom’s brother John. I remember sitting in front of the TV in the living room always watching the cartoon version of Sonic the Hedgehog and making my mom tape-record all the episodes for me on the VCR and getting pissed off if she got any commercials on my tape – see, even as a kid I was an anal-retentive control freak. I also remember my mom listening to lots of music, but for some reason the only two songs I can definitely remember hearing in that house are “Black or White” by Michael Jackson and “Stay Up Late” by the Talking Heads. The latter of the two I remember asking Mom to put on over and over and over for me – I fucking loved that song. I thought about how my dad’s bowling ball was kept in the closet right by the front door. I thought about how I once opened that same front door just a crack and tried to balance an egg on the top of it so that it would fall and crack on the head of the next person who opened it. My attempt was unsuccessful. The egg rolled off the top of the door, fell and busted on the tile seconds after I balanced it up there, and I suddenly had a little mess to clean up before my mom found out about it.
Also at that house, I used to play lots of Nintendo and Sega Genesis with my brother in our bedroom that – instead of a closet – had a door with a staircase leading up to our creepy, cobweb-covered attic that I was afraid had been haunted by ghosts. The TV was set atop one of our dressers and we’d sit in front of it on beanbag chairs or something of the like, playing for hours. Although Danny and I would sometimes compete against one another playing fighting games like Moral Kombat, sports games like Tecmo Bowl, and whatever sort of game Dr. Mario was, I mostly remember us playing a lot of 2-player games in which we’d be on the same team. A few that immediately come to mind are Super C, Double Dragon, Gauntlet, Battletoads, Toe Jam & Earl, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game and TMNT III: The Manhattan Project. Sometimes he and I would even take turns, working together as a team playing 1-player games like The Legend of Zelda, Paperboy, Dig Dug, Duck Hunt and of course Super Mario Bros – the first and the third ones specifically; we always thought the second one kinda sucked even though we still sat down and played it every now and then.
Sometimes our dad would come in our room to play some of those – as he liked to call ‘em – “finger sports” with me and Danny. I remember him playing NBA Jam, Punch Out!! and George Foreman’s KO Boxing with us. Well, to be fair, NBA Jam is the only game of those three that we’d actually played with him. The other two games we’d just kinda watch him play and cheer him on from the sidelines as he fought the likes of Piston Honda, King Hippo and Soda Popinski. Speaking of my dad and video games at our old house, I also remember taking that alcohol solution we used to swab dirty Nintendo cartridges out with and passive-aggressively filling his gym shoes with it one time when I was angry with him. During times when he and I were friends though, I remember playing catch with my dad out on the front lawn for hours and hours. I also remember him giving me little push starts on the sidewalk in front of our house when he was trying to teach me to ride my bike without training wheels on it.
I remember waking up early one time and it was still dark out. I walked out my bedroom door which led directly to the kitchen and, wiping the sleep out of my eyes, saw my dad dressed in black pants and a white dress shirt. It was his fire uniform. He was getting ready to go to work. He made me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on toast and then sent me back to bed.
I also remember it being my brother’s birthday one time and my dad letting me in on the secret that we were gonna take him to a Sox game for his present. As we got ready to go, I told my brother that we were gonna go to the batting cages. So then we got in the car and drove and drove. And then about half-an-hour later, when we finally arrived at Comiskey, I got to feel special – like I helped plan this thing that made my brother so happy – when I saw how excited he was to find out he wasn’t actually going to the batting cages, but rather going to see a pro ballgame live.
I remember being with my dad down the block from our old house over at Dunham Park one evening in the summer not long after the sun had set. He and some other guys were sitting around in foldable lawn chairs, having a few beers. There were some bats flying around in the air above us. We had our baseball mitts with us and one of my dad’s buddies said, “Check this out. If you throw your mitt up, the bat will try to catch it and fly away with it. It can’t actually do it though. It might grab on to it for a second, but the mitt’s too heavy and it’ll hafta let it go so it can fly away again.” I watched him toss the mitt in the air. The bats behaved exactly as the man said they would. “Here,” he said, “now you try.” I remember giving it a try, but not much else.
I also remember being at that park at night a different time with my dad – or perhaps it was the same time; I can’t be sure – and really had to take a pee and let Dad know I needed to use the bathroom. Since the park house was closed for the evening and we either weren’t going home any time soon or maybe I just couldn’t hold it that long, Dad instructed me to go on a tree. I’d never done it before and remember being kinda scared. He told me it was okay. I urinated in public for the first time – another proud father and son moment.
I don’t remember this story myself, but I remember my mom telling it to me. She said I was just a toddler and she was pregnant with my little brother. My dad was out washing windows and she was preparing dinner. She had a pot of rice on the stove and thought it would be safe to leave me for a minute while she stepped out to go throw a bag of garbage into our can out in the alley. While she was out in the backyard, however, I locked her out of the house. Mom was knocking on the back door and trying to tell me to unlock it for her, but I couldn’t or wouldn’t do it or whatever because I was only two years old. Sure enough, the rice started to burn and Mom went next door to get help from our seventy-something-year-old World-War-II vet neighbor. George – that was the guy’s name – set a ladder up to one of the kitchen windows and managed to open it up from the outside to let the smoke out, but wasn’t spry enough in his old age to climb in and get the situation under control. I think it was at this point – the point with smoke billowing out the window, his two-year-old screaming bloody murder, his pregnant wife frantic, and his elderly neighbor atop a ladder leaning against his house – that Dad pulled up from work and was like, “What that fuck is goin on here?!” And Mom said he then ran up that ladder, climbed into the window, opened up the back door, shuffled me outside, then went back in the kitchen and got the blackened pot of rice off the burner. Dan Dan Fireman to the rescue, am I right?
So anyway, let’s put this hodgepodge of scattered memories from my old house on the back burner for a minute and hope they don’t start on fire the way my mom’s rice did as we take a moment to step outta the past and return to the year 2020. On that one day I mentioned in the last chapter when my brother and I were out doing some gutter cleaning right after my dad died, one of our jobs had been down in Elmwood Park and the next one I had set up for us after that was gonna be up in the Sauganash area of the city. Figuring it wouldn’t be the least bit out of our way, I asked Danny if he’d like me to swing past our old house on Melvina to have a look at where he and I had spent our earliest years together – the place we’d been seeing on videotape the past few nights where antiquated versions of ourselves bathed naked together and ran around the house like wild animals, jumping on furniture while our dad filmed us. He said he’d like that. So, I headed in that direction. As we’d been approaching the intersection of Montrose and Narraganset, my brother asked me if I remembered the time when we still lived in the area and Dad took us to that McDonald’s there on the northwest corner, just across the street from Wright College.
“And we were sittin there,” he continued, “we were sittin there in the drive-thru in front of the speakerbox waiting to place our order and it was takin forever. No one even greeted us. And after a while Dad says into the speaker somethin like, ‘Hey! Hello! Anyone in there? What’s goin on? Can you hear me?’ And some guy – one of the workers – responds, ‘Sorry sir, we have a fire in here and we can’t take your order at the moment. We’re waiting for the fire department to get here. We’re very sorry.’ And without sayin anything, Dad just throws the truck in park and unbuckles his seatbelt and gets outta the truck and goes inside and extinguishes this grease fire in about twenty seconds. And then as he’s walkin outta the building in just shorts and a t-shirt, he crosses paths with a group of Harwood Heights firemen that are ready to storm in with full mask and gear on and Dad stops em to say, ‘Ehh, don’t worry about it, guys. I already took care of it.’ And the firemen are standin there lookin at Dad as he walks back to the truck like, ‘Who the fuck was that guy?’ And then after that, after Dad made those other firemen look like a buncha pussy-ass sluggos, we just drove away and got food from somewhere else.”