by Terry Hargrove
A word to all my fellow former hippies: remember being yelled at by your dad because your hair was too long or your skirt was too short? Remember discussing Vietnam and politics with him, and the otherworldly volumes he could attain? Remember his lofty opinions of your musical choices, and how he could share those opinions with the neighboring state? Remember thinking that screaming at kids was a pretty good job description of what dads do?
Well, I remember it, and I think enough time has passed for me to say that, yes, your dad was loud. I heard him hollering at you for hours every day. It was kind of distracting. We discovered early on the secret to getting along with our father: we never saw him. The Dad was a busy guy. He worked six days a week at the Casting Company, and as I have six brothers and sisters, he enjoyed some late-night diversions as well. Our house was a place of calm in a loud decade, and The Dad was a time-displaced President Eisenhower — we didn’t bother him and he didn’t bother us.
But my folks needed more money, so The Dad took a weekend job running a gambling house. Tennessee in 1969 didn’t have casinos or lotteries or any of the other effective ways of taxing the poor that we have today, so a few rural entrepreneurs set up some local houses for men to gather and play cards, shoot craps, and dally with lady luck. The rules were simple: no guns, no booze, and the house got 10%.
The Dad never actually told us that he was doing this, but we gathered enough information from muttered conversations and half-heard phone calls to draw our own conclusions. Mom didn’t like that The Dad was doing this, and she liked even less that he had to. So every Friday and Saturday night, The Dad ate supper and left, returning in the dark of 4 o’clock in the morning.
I should point out that The Dad had a strong respect for the law. He said honoring the laws of man prepared us for the Law of life.
“What’s the Law of life, dad?” I asked.
“You have to die someday,” he replied. “You can’t run from that, and no lawyer can appeal it. But it happens to everybody, so that‘s a good system.”
The Dad was kind of creepy when he tried to be deep. Alas, such a career move was pregnant with bad possibilities. Every summer at least three of the county’s gambling houses were raided by the police. Our sisters were old enough to question The Dad about this.
“What happens if your house gets raided?” asked Donna.
“Well, they’ll take me to jail, I suppose,” said The Dad. “I’ll post bond, then get out in 24 hours. They’ll probably take a picture of the raid and I might even get my photo on the cover of the Lewisburg Tribune. If I get caught often enough, they might send me to prison.”
“Then you need to stop doing this right now,” demanded Connie, the first born.
“Oh, missy, there ain’t anything to be afraid of,” he replied. “They still haven’t caught me the first time, so prison isn’t…”
“Daddy, what are we gonna do if a picture of you getting arrested is on the cover of the Tribune?” asked Donna. “How could we ever go to school again?”
Yeah, girls are funny. For me and my brother, the idea that our dad was mixing with a criminal element was too cool for words. We could be the envy of all our friends, if we could convince any of them that it was true.
“There’s no way that your dad runs a gambling house,” said Mark. “He’s too small.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?” demanded Glenn.
“Everybody knows that those places have fights and guns,” retorted Mark. “You gotta have somebody big and bad to keep things in order, to keep everybody in line. My daddy said that whenever he busts a house like that, he always looks for the biggest and meanest guy, ‘cause that’s the guy in charge. I don’t mean any disrespect ‘cause I like your daddy, but lets face it. He’s a shrimp. What’s he weigh, about 110 pounds?”
“117,” I told him, but Glenn cut me off. “We need to change the subject,” he whispered to me. “Mark’s dad is a State Trooper, and if Mark tells him that our daddy’s running a gambling house, he’ll get arrested for sure. Then he’ll get his picture on the cover of the Tribune, then…”
“Then everybody will know it’s true,” I said smiling.
Thus began a furious two-pronged assault. Our daddy did run a gambling house, and if Mark didn‘t believe it, then by golly he could just tell his dad the State Trooper about it and then he’d see.
“I’d have to see it with my own eyes,” said Mark.
And so it was decided. That Friday night, four of us packed into Big Du’s car (he was the only one of us old enough to drive) and snaked our way down Verona Road toward Milltown. Big Du’s aunt lived nearby, so we parked his car there, and trudged
the rest of the way on foot.
There were about 30 vehicles resting in front of the gambling house. Glenn pointed out that The Dad always parked our car four miles away in the woods, so he could run away if he had to without worrying about having his car impounded.
“That don’t mean nothing,” said Mark, “You said he ran the house. Prove it.”
That’s when the police showed up, seven cars with lights flashing and sirens wailing. It was quite a sight. The house erupted as men took off in all directions. As the police were busy gathering up gents who foolishly made a break for their cars, the back door opened, and out came The Dad, holding a huge wad of cash that was the house take. He slid around the side of the building unnoticed, and made his way to the bushes right in front of us. He didn’t know we were there.
“I guess that settles that,” whispered Glenn. Mark nodded and was indeed impressed.
The bust was being made by police from Lewisburg and Shelbyville. But when the State Trooper pulled up, Mark’s face twisted in fear.
“Oh, no! Oh, no!” said Mark, and his voice shook. “If my dad finds me here, I’m dead! I didn’t tell him about your dad, honest! He’ll think I was in there gambling.”
The Dad heard Mark. He turned around, and there we were. I waved at him. He looked beyond us at Mark, then at the money in his hands, then back at Mark. There was something in his eyes that said a greater thing was at risk here than cash, but what it was, I didn’t know. Behind The Dad, the law was about to begin a sweep of the woods. They were looking for the house money and whoever had it. As the spotlight swung from left to right in front of us, The Dad stood up and allowed himself to be discovered. He walked toward the spotlight, and we stayed down. The police cars were packed with gamblers, so once they had the house money, there was no reason to keep searching. We left after they did. The Dad took a great picture. Our sisters didn’t go back to school for a month.
Was that the end of the gambling house? Of course not. The Dad was right back the next weekend. He wasn’t big and he wasn’t bad, but he could divide by 10 faster than anyone else in town and he never cheated for the house’s benefit. Once the paper came out, my brother and I were seen in a new light. But we never went back. That is how I will always remember The Dad. He did what all dads do, even the worst and loudest of us. He stood between his children and the Law, and as long as he stands, some Laws are a comfortable distance away. Happy Father’s Day, dad.
Did he scream at us? Are you kidding? My ears are still ringing.