My father died 19 years ago today, on Nov. 23rd, 1996. I try not to take note of the anniversary of his passing every year (don’t know why, really, but I think I’m trying to not be guilty of not moving on). This year, however, is a significant one. As of today, from my perspective, he’s been gone as many years as he was here. That feels like a big deal, though it’s just math.
I was 19-years-old and ten months into my two-year, full time work as a missionary. I hadn’t seen Dad since he dropped me off at the training center in Utah. My last words to him in person were an optimistic “See you later.”
Elder Vaughn and I came home early that night. On the answering machine we shared Weldon and Suggs was a message from our Mission President to call him immediately. He told Elder Vaughn to be there for me as I was about to receive some pretty terrible news from my grandfather.
Grandpa told me Dad had been shot in a robbery, again (more on that in a bit), but no one knew how bad it was yet. He told me to pray. I knew Dad was dead.
I prayed anyway. I prayed that God would spare my father, that the pain would not be too great and that the feeling in my gut that he was gone was just youthful, useless cynicism. I prayed in vain. I prayed anyway. For the next 45 minutes my knees didn’t leave the carpet.
Mom called to tell me the news. Dad had died almost instantly, moments after a loud BANG cut their telephone conversation short and he ordered her to “Call the cops, Jill!”
Two shots to the heart. One to the stomach. He went quickly, just like he always wanted.
Dad knew he was going to die relatively young. He talked about it often. In his own, what-seemed-to-us-pessimistic way, he prepared us well for the inevitable. What seemed a cruel and unpleasant joke when he was alive gave comfort once he was gone. There’s an order to things, a structure. Some of us are gifted with peeks at the plans, and always for a reason.
I’ve never thought it unfair that my father died when he did. Maybe because, as the oldest of four brothers, I had the longest time with Dad before he went. Logan, McKay, and Tyler all experienced this particular, mirror image anniversary a long time ago, and, of the four of us, only I ever knew him as an adult. But I don’t think that’s it. Now matter how much time you get with a parent or a loved one, it’s never enough.
I’ve never thought it unfair and I’ve never asked why my father had to die because Dad taught me better than that. He taught me, more than anyone, about having the proper perspective. This life is but a moment. There’s so much that’s grander just ahead. If the next life is Disneyland, then we’re in the car, maybe in the backseat, on our way right now. Who gripes about the car ride when you know you’re gonna end up in Disneyland?
I never thought it unfair and I never asked why. Maybe that’s why I got an answer anyway.
The next morning, after meeting with my compassionate, supportive Mission President and his wife, I left the mission field to return home for five days to be with my family, help get my dad’s affairs in order, and organize the funeral. I spoke at the funeral, which was one of the hardest–and easiest–things I ever had to do. A wise man, a spiritual leader I respect very much, pulled my family aside shortly afterwards and told us that it was his distinct impression, for whatever it’s worth, that Dad had to move on so my brothers and I could become the men we needed and ought to be.
That’s a bold thing to say. In the wrong context or to the wrong ear, that can be a cruel thing to say, but in that moment I understood perfectly what he meant. My brothers and I had a responsibility to take who our dad was and what he taught us and really add it all up. We had to see in a way we couldn’t see when he was alive just who he was, good and bad, and make some decisions about who we wanted to be. Our identities are wrapped up in who we belong to. We didn’t belong to Dad, the strongest man who ever lived, anymore. Strength now had to come from within. Not our old, weak strength that failed us and made us come running to Dad for help, but a new strength. A suspiciously, gentically familiar strength, but our own strength.
In the past 19 years I’ve done my best to nurture that strength, though I do fail. I fall. Dad failed a lot, too, but he always got back up again. I think, ultimately, that was his biggest strength. He knew how to fall and get back up again and keep going like no one I’ve ever met. Or will likely meet again.
19 years. He hasn’t been there to catch me in a long, long time, but he doesn’t need to now. I figured out how to get back up on my own.
(This video is part one of Dad’s biggest fall. The circumstances in this first shooting were exactly the same as the ones that killed him. The only differences were: 1) he was shot thirteen times, not three, and 2) He lived. In my house, we call that a miracle.)
After proving there was real merit to the Empty Tomb symbol and that people were genuinely interested in seeing it on some type of accessory, my thoughts went immediately to who in the world I could call upon to help me make my germ of an idea into something real.
Thankfully, I’m Mormon. That means I know a guy for just about everything. Need work done on your car? I know a guy. Your house? I know a guy. What about a lawyer or a handyman or a foot doctor? I know a guy. A cop? I know a few. Mormons are everywhere and we’re all connected to each other with not very many steps in between. Basically, every Mormon is Kevin Bacon.
I didn’t even have to go outside of my own circle at to find the perfect partner for the Empty Tomb project. Jeff Kennington at Kennington Jewelers sold my wife and I our wedding rings. My Mother-in-Law is one of his most frequent customers. He’s also my uncle.
Jeff reminds me of my dad probably more than anyone else I know. Hopefully, he takes that as a compliment because my father was not only one of the better people I’ve known, he also had no small part in inspiring the Empty Tomb symbol in the first place.
Dad died as a victim of an armed robbery in 1996 after claiming for years that he would die before seeing his sons grow up. I was 19 at the time, and my youngest of three brothers was 10. Dad was 47. H is final years were full of pain and struggle as he had suffered no small amount of physical complications from another armed robbery eight years prior.
If you watched the above videos you heard my dad say it boldly: “I’m not afraid to die.” He really wasn’t. He talked all the time about what a grand adventure death would be and how much at peace he was with the idea–to him, fact–that he was not long for this world. He was a believer in the resurrection. He looked forward to living again and his body being restored to perfect order. It was his understanding of the gifts Christ had given him that got him through some pretty tough days and gave him a courage I still envy. Dad taught me more about the Living Christ through his powerful, matter-of-fact faith than any other book, teacher, or person I’ve known.
Jeff was a good sport about my email inquiry. He didn’t even tell me straight off like he should have about how he gets a million of these proposals from people who have the “next big idea” in jewelry that will make him millions. Instead, he looked at the design, considered the social media response and read the reactions, and ultimately concluded that I just might have something.
“There are no guarantees,” he said. “But this probably has the best shot of anything I’ve ever seen.”
Jeff, who I like to refer to as “Master Craftsman,” is real DIY jeweler.Kennington Jewelers specializes in high end and custom jewelry and Jeff has all the tools and equipment he needs to make just about anything he or anyone else can imagine. Immediately, we both wanted to make the symbol real. We wanted a pendant, in our hands.
Using the computer at the back of his store, Jeff immediately went to work on a 3D model using CAD to bring my flat design out of the 2D realm.
And, specifically, to my wife.
The road from designing the pendant to reality was a bit longer than I might be making it seem. Once the design was finessed in the computer (Jeff was extremely patient with my requests to take off 1/8 of a millimeter here and add 1/10th of a millimeter there), Jeff made a wax mold, cast it in white gold, polished it, added a chain, and probably did a whole bunch of other stuff I’m forgetting or just plain don’t know about. Because Jeff is the real brains of this operation.
In the end, we ended up with something that very, very closely resembled my initial drawings. We opted for putting two o-rings on either side of the pendant because of concerns over the inherently uneven weight distribution across the symbol. The thinking was that splitting the chain and attaching it at the o-rings would balance it out for the wearer.
But, as it turned out, we didn’t need to be all that worried about imbalance. There was a much, much simpler solution…
Next: The Second Prototype.
Things have a been a little crazy lately.
Now that I’m all in at Tremendum, I’m seeing what it is to fully dedicate myself to those things I enjoy and I’m best at. And I love it.
Last week, we headed down to Hollywood for a small screening of The Gallows and to work on sound design. I was more in tagalong mode as I learn more about the process, but I was able to offer some input here and there. I’ve never been to a test screening and I found the entire process completely fascinating, especially the conversation afterwards with the focus group and the studio heads. There’s far, far more that goes into the creation of every single second of a movie than you could even guess at.
Most of my work at the moment for Tremendum is in developing and writing a post-Gallows project. More on that when I can share it, but I hit a real milestone this week by finishing a first draft. I didn’t expect to get it done as quickly as I have, but I guess I’ve got the fire in me right now.
In an odd way, moving so completely forward and quickly on a new project has caused me to reflect on old projects, particularly one I put away years ago.
Raised by a Dead Man: A Coming of Age Story Between Two Shootings is the first memoir I wrote and the one that allowed me to form a relationship with my literary agent, Bonnie Solow. For a variety of reasons, few having to do with the quality of the story or even the way I wrote it, it didn’t sell. But it’s still a book and a story I feel passionate about. I’ve already posted the prologue on this site, but, just for kicks, this week I’m going to serialize the first few chapters of RBDM.
I welcome your feedback. If response is good, maybe I’ll post more than a few chapters. In any case, I hope you enjoy it.
Here we go. The following is a true story:
* * *
No one makes a living retailing junk food. Not one good enough to support a wife and four sons, anyway. The guns were what fed us. The bullets and the barrels sold right alongside the soda bottles and the Slim Jims put food on the table and gave us a home. Us, and Dad’s employees—both of whom had gone home early that night from the dirty little shop on the outskirts of Fresno. Bill’s Bait and Tackle closed at 5:00pm. Dad was alone for everything that happened afterwards.
A small business owner never clocks out. Not really. Once home, Dad could look forward to adding receipts and counting money long into the night. Might take even longer if his sons bristled once again at helping him or, even better, tempted him into a rubber band war. Closing time wasn’t particularly restful, but it didn’t require him to be a husband or a handy man or a father or a disciplinarian. All he had to do between the flipping of the “CLOSED” sign and the pulling of the car into his driveway—which probably needed to be cleared of bikes and toys—was to perform the routine.
Close out the register. Lock the freezer. Put away the inventory. Shut off the lights and secure the store with deadbolt and lock on the way out.
It took Dad a good fifteen minutes to pack up the dozens guns by himself. They were housed in two display cases doubling as the store’s front counters; Now and Laters and trucker hats making a pit stop on top of the .45’s and Thirty Ought Sixes on their way out the door. Dangling yellow tags attached to the guns on tiny, white strings shouted the sale price from behind the clean, always clear glass.
Dad removed the guns quickly, one by one, and placed them with great care into two long, black, clam shell cases for storage during the night. This was the puzzle to which only he had the picture. Without markers or leftover impressions on the foam pad lining the inside, he still knew the precise placement of each handgun and rifle inside their carriages. Once packed, he would transport the guns into the iron safe in the storage room just behind the freezers.
It was something Dad did night after night with little incident—with the exception of that night. On that night, he never made it to the safe.
Neither did the guns.
The two men kicked in the front door with a shout.
“YOU’RE DEAD, SUCKER!”
Their semi-automatics lit up only fifteen feet away from the fat man behind the counter, ejecting bullet after bullet directly at him. The first bullet rocketed towards Dad’s chest, but missed. The next went straight into his stomach, forcing him to double over from the impact. Not from the pain. That hadn’t registered yet.
Dad made a grab for his own gun stuck between the waistband of his pants and his hip. He got the weapon up and out, but didn’t have enough time to do anything productive with it as more bullets tore with great speed through his muscle and flesh, his body jerking with the impact of each one as it burst into him. His gun fell to the floor as he did, with a thud behind the open, sliding wooden doors of the display cases still filled with all the firearms he hadn’t had a chance to pack up yet.
The glass on the front of the cases exploded into twinkling, falling stars as the two men fired into them. Quickly, one of them collected the store’s most valuable merchandise into a bag while the other shooter fired even more bullets, this time at point-blank range, up and down my father’s body as he lay on the floor. Satisfied the store’s owner could not survive such a barrage, the men worked together to gather up the rest of their spoils as quickly as possible. When they were done, the only thing left on the carpeted shelves lining the now-broken cases was broken glass.
Dad, his pants and shirt already soaked red, had just enough of his wits remaining to grab his gun up off the floor to fight back. On his back and without much mobility, his mind ignored the swell of intense pain in his lower body while his hand searched, doing its best to find his metal piece before the shooters saw what he was doing. Frantic and fading, he grabbed one of the display guns that had fallen out of the cases instead. The yellow tag dangled.
Display guns are never loaded.
The shooters gave Dad’s body one last sweep of bullets. His body jerked up and down on the hard, uncaring floor of the store. More blood exited from fresh wounds to make room for their hot new guests. Some bullets exited just as quickly as they entered. Others dug into Dad’s flesh and took residence.
Finally, the shooting stopped. Dad went still.
The two men, with bags full of black treasures, turned around and left in a hurry, slamming the door behind them.
* * *
Guest Blog Alert!
As I mentioned in my previous post, while I am taking a bit of a short break from writing full posts right now, I did manage to crank out a guest blog a couple of weeks ago for author, blogger, and teacher of how to write memoir, Marion Roach Smith.
I was invited by Marion to contribute to her blog on the topic of my choice. Since Marion’s focus is on helping others write memoir (and because she specifically requested I write to that audience), I chose to write about the very first rule I laid down for myself as I began to write my first book–two words I figured no writer of memoir should EVER put together. Which two words are those?
You can find out on Marion’s site, in my post, The Two Words No Memoir Writer Should Ever Use. (You saw that title coming, didn’t you?)
Marion generously offered me some space below the blog to include an excerpt from one of my books. I chose a piece from Raised By a Dad Man, a comedic, self-contained little short story about how I got the better of two high school bullies in a most unconventional way. Those who have read the book often cite it as a highlight. I hope you dig it.
More regular-type blog stuff coming soon!
On August 28th, my wife lost her job. 24 hours later, I lost mine. This blog is a continuation of the day-by-day chronicling of our emotional journey back to employment. This is bound to be upsetting, hilarious and hopeful.
Friday – October 10, 2014
Lately, Erin’s been doing the morning school runs while I sleep in since I stay up so late and, if I were to try to drive the children around after four hours of sleep, they might die. Erin is up anyway since she jogs a few miles most every morning, but this morning she asked me to rouse myself, not kill the children, and make the runs for her.
I slapped myself around, put on some clothes, and did the runs, which amazingly did not end in a fiery crash. After Erin woke up around 9am, I went back to bed. I can function well on five hours of sleep, but not four.
The physical effects of unemployment have been unexpected. Never in the history of our marriage has Erin had trouble sleeping, but it’s been one restless night after another for her lately. She also has headaches about every day now. I couldn’t eat much during the first couple weeks and I’m clenching my teeth a lot without realizing it (though the hurt in my jaw wakes me up to that fact at the end of every day). We’re both experiencing a lot of tension in our muscles–to the point where we’ve pulled things the wrong way and spent a couple days doing our best impression of Movie Batman’s head mobility. Despite the fact that we feel deeply like we’re going to be okay at the end of this, there’s still a toll. The present does not always shake hands with the future.
* * *
Some good friends of ours, the Hubbles, took us out to dinner tonight at Tahoe Joe’s. Their treat. I got the salmon while Erin tore into the angus steak. Back when things were normal and we worked for the Company, Erin and I would go out together on a decently regular basis. But now, it just doesn’t seem like there’s a whole lot of time for such things, and even less financial justification.
We had no idea how much we desperately needed the night out and off until we were sitting in that dimly lit restaurant, watching platefuls of far too much food whiz by us, and talking and laughing with our friends as if the reason they’d asked us out didn’t even exist in the first place. In fact, nobody brought up our unemployment situation once. It was a glorious relief.* We were so relaxed, so happy, and so very, very full.
*The mood only really turned sour once, when I got off topic and started describing my father’s bullet wounds from his first shooting. We were knee deep in our eating at the time. Sometimes, I forget that story is shocking and kind of a big deal. Didn’t everybody clean their father’s bullet wounds after school?
We woefully underestimated our need to get out and take a break from everything. Even if we have to spend a little money, that might be worth it to take a second to calm down a little and recharge. I imagine we’ll feel a little guilty about it, but it might be worth it.