My father, when he was a boy, took it upon himself to change his name. My grandparents had named him Leroy Martin, but when he went to school and started learning cursive handwriting, he had trouble forming a capital "L." His answer to the problem was to drop the first two letters of his name and become, from then on, "Roy." If he couldn't be "the King," he would settle for merely "King." So began his method for confronting obstacles with swift and decisive action.
One day, when I was a little over a year old, he was harvesting corn from a field he leased not far from our farm. It was late afternoon, November 3, 1956, and that evening he and my mother were supposed to go to my aunt and uncle's to watch the election returns on television. Everything I know about that day and the events beyond it I've had to piece together from bits of information various relatives have let slip over the years and from a few letters I found in a drawer not long after my father died.
I know that all our lives began to curve and change that day in the cornfield when the shucking box on the picker clogged, and my father tried to clear it without first shutting off the tractor. The picker, I would later learn from an old newspaper report, was a Wood Brothers corn picker with six "snapping rollers"devices similar to the rollers of a wringer washing machine, only studded with hard rubber fingers. As the rollers turned, these fingers worked the corn on through the shucking box. On this day, a key on one of these fingers had sheared off, and the shucking box was filling up with corn. Myfather was raking the corn out of the box with his right hand when the rollers grabbed onto it and pulled it in.
There he was, one hand caught and one hand free, and a split second to decide. He reached in with his other hand, and the rollers caught it, too.
I'm free to imagine the day anyway I like: a brilliant sun glinting off the picker, the dry leaves of the cornstalks scraping together in the wind; or perhaps it was overcast, the sky dark with the threat of rain, and perhaps the wind was cold on my father's face.
We lived in a township where the farmland stretched on for miles between houses that sat far back from the roads down long, tree-lined lanes. It was a vast landscape of cornfields, soybean fields, wheat fields. On occasion, a cloud of dust would roll up as a car sped along the County Line Road that passed our lane, and my heart would quicken. I so desperately wanted the car to slow and turn down our lane because I was an only child, eager for company, and often a nuisance to my parents, who were too busy with work to entertain me. Sometimes, particularly during harvest season, weeks would pass and the only people I would see would be my mother and father and Grandma Martin who lived with us. I would start to imagine that the mouth of our lane had closed, the way it did in winter when the snows came, and that no one could reach us.
I suspect that my father feared that no one would ever find him that day in the cornfield. Fortunately, though, a gravel road ran by the side of the field, and finally another farmer driving past heard my father's shouts. I don't know how much time had passed, as my father stood there, the rollers mangling his hands, and I can't imagine what those minutes were like for him. I don't know what my mother was doing when the phone rang in our farmhouse, and she got the news. And when I try to think of myself on that day, it's nearly impossible. It's as if I didn't exist.
When my parents found out that my mother was pregnant with me, the first thing my father said to the doctor was, "Can you get rid of it?"
My mother was forty-five at the time, and when she stunned me with this story after my father had died, she explained that he had asked the doctor that question out of concern. Concern for her and a first pregnancy, obviously unplanned, so late in her life. I imagine all of that is true, but still I find myself searching for signs that they were glad for me.
I have my baby book in which my mother recorded the facts of my birth in her neat grade-school teacher's penmanship, joyful with crisp lines and looping curves. And I remember a toy-sized rubber motorcycle, saved for years, because it was the first gift my father bought for me after I was born. I also have a Christmas greeting card my parents had made in 1955 when I was nine weeks old. It's the size of a postcard, and there's a pencil drawing on one half of it. It's a drawing of a house, set back from the road, the peaks of its gables and the chimney of its fireplace rising up behind a snowbank. There's a picket fence out by the road and a beaming gaslight, and a gate with a Christmas wreath hanging on it. The gate is open and there are puddles of melting snow on the path that leads to the house. The caption reads:
from our house
to your house
My father, at the time, was riding the wave of Eisenhower prosperity. He owned his land and equipment; he had a wife and a son. So to the left of the Christmas scene on the card, there's a photograph of me. I'm wearing a shiny jumper, a short-sleeved white shirt, and a bow tie. My eyes are bright, my mouth is open in a smile, and I look as if I'm damned glad to see whoever's out there beyond the reach of the camera's lens. In fact, I look a little bit like Ikethat same bald head, that winning smile. We're in the middle of a booming decade, and I'm a jaunty ambassador, put on that card to let anyone who gets it know how happy I am in my home.
But, as the years go by, I learn that there are unhappy families all through our part of southern Illinoisfamilies who live in poverty or with some other misery they try to hide. From time to time, I catch glimpses of their troubled lives. One of my schoolmates comes with his father to our farm to beg for work. An older boy kills his father with a shotgun blast. My family harbors its own secret, my father's temper, which he often turns against me. With his belt, he whips my buttocks, my legs, my armswhatever part of me he can reach.
And I love him because he's the only father I have to love, and I think I must surely deserve his whippings because I'm a wicked child, too irritable, too stubborn, too full of sass. I don't know, then, that the moment in the cornfield has already determined years and years of anger between my father and me, or that such tensions are common between fathers and son. Instead, I rejoice in the few moments of closeness we share. On Sunday afternoons, he turns on the radio and I lie close to him on the couch, dozing to the sounds of a St. Louis Cardinals' baseball game. On Friday nights, I go with him to basketball games at the high school, and later we stop at a cafe for hamburgers and chocolate milk shakes. He brags about my athletic abilities to his friends. "You should see him throw a baseball," he says. "I tell you he's got an arm."
The day of my father's accident, a surgeon amputated the right hand and the third, fourth, and fifth fingers of the left. Three days later, gangrene set in. This time, the surgeon had to make his cuts above my father's wrists: three inches above the right one and two inches above the left.
While my father was in the hospital, my Grandma Martin and I stayed with my Aunt Ruth and Uncle Don. My mother stayed at the hospital, dozing at night in a chair by my father's bed. Aunt Ruth was my father's sister, and years later she told me about those days and how she took me to the hospital waiting room to see my mother, but every time I screamed and cried and refused to let my mother hold me. "You were just a baby," Aunt Ruth said. "You didn't know what was happening. Your whole world got turned upside down. I guess you were scared. I guess we all were."
My father finally left the hospital, and he and my mother and my Grandma Martin and I went back to our farm. He had to wait nearly six months to go to Barnes Hospital in St. Louis where he would learn how to use a set of artificial hands. "Hooks," he called them, prongs of steel that curved like question marks at the ends of flesh-colored plastic holsters.
The time he spent at home from November of 1956 until April of 1957, as Aunt Ruth told me later, was more complicated than most people knew. To those who saw him outside our home, it must have seemed that he was managing his circumstances. One story I remember, although I'm not sure which relative told it, was one about my father driving his pickup truck to Ed White's general store. I can imagine the people in that store speaking of him with admiration after he had gone. "Roy Martin. Driving his pickup truck with his stumpswith his stumps, I tell younow how about that?"
But all our lives have private truths, and the truth about my father was that after his accident he brought a deep and abiding rage into our home.
His letters from Barnes Hospital are written in a spidery scrawl, the way he must have written when he was a child who was willing to sacrifice the first two letters of his name. The individual characters are legible, and I can imagine my father working hard, the pen held between the prongs of his right hook, to make each one.
St. Louis, MO
Dear Wife and all,
Hope this finds everybody and everything O.K. I am O.K. I get good eats and plenty of them. I slept good last nite. It rained last nite. Looks like it might rain some more. Got my training through for the day. My arms are tired and haven't got a very good place to write. Hope you can make this out. My room mate has been very sick boy since I have been here. There are three of us amputee guys here now. Well my courage is picking up that I might get to come home some day. Goodbye.
With lots of love and kisses,
I knew those hooks as intimately as I ever knew anything about my father. Thick bands made from rubber wrapped the bases of the steel prongs, and wires ran along the plastic holsters to a harness of canvas straps he wore across his back. When he contracted the muscles in his shoulders, the wires operated levers at the bases of the hooks. The levers stretched the rubber bands, and the steel prongs opened. I remember the weight of the contraption and the way my mother helped him out of it each night and draped the hooks over the back of a chair. He wore long, white cotton socks on his stumps to protect them inside the plastic holsters, but still, from time to time, he would get a blister, and my mother would have to rub salve on it. I remember the freckled stumps, and the seams at their ends where the surgeon had sutured the skin.
I have a newspaper clipping from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a photograph of my father and his doctor appearing at the Industrial Health Conference at Keil Auditorium. My father is wearing his hooks, and the doctor is holding up the left one. Its prongs are open, right in front of my father's face, so close he could reach up and grab his own nose. He looks a little scared, uncomfortable there in front of the camera. His right hook is reaching out toward the doctor's left hand as if he wants to take it.
St. Louis, MO
Just got dinner ate and a few odd jobs done. We went over to Keil Auditorium about 11 o'clock and gave another demonstration. St. Louis Post-Dispatch took mine and Dr. Dayton's picture. So watch for my picture in the paper. Might not know who it is. Ha! Glad to receive your letter. Hope the gilt has good luck with her pigs. May be home this weekend to stay. Got a promise yesterday. If I do get loose, be home on bus. Tell Ma and Lee I am O.K.
And so he came home on the bus, and got a ride from town out to the farm, and walked into the house, and my mother turned and saw him there, with his hooks, her husband, the way she would know him the rest of his life.
When I look at photographs of my father before his accident, my eyes go immediately to his hands. I try to figure out whether they resemble my own, but I can never really decide. His appear to be smaller, his fingers shorter, but that may only be the perspective of the camera. All I can be certain of is the sadness that comes over me whenever I look at those photographs. I want to tell my father about the Election Day that's coming and that moment in the cornfield when the shucking box will clog. "Shut off the tractor," I want to tell him, but, of course, I can't. He's there in the photographs, and I'm here over forty years later, recalling the cold steel of his hooks and how one night, when I was a teenager, he pressed one of them to my throat and pinned me to the wall, and I swore that he would kill me.