Roastbeef's Promise: When Your Dad's Dying Wish Is to Have His Ashes Sprinkled in Each State, What's a Son to Do?by David Jerome
In this, his first novel, David Jerome combines two of his passions: travel and comedy writing, into one warm, and funny, travel-adventure. A Promise, An Urn, And An Atlas is loosely based on the author's experiences while visiting the 48 contiguous United States during the mid-1990s.
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By DAVID JEROME
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Chapter One "A CHICKEN IN EVERY POT!" Dad screamed out to no one in particular from his slightly inclined hospital bed. A young hospital volunteer battling a severe case of acne looked at him quizzically as she set down his dinner tray and then began to tiptoe out of the room, anticipating another outburst.
"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," he blurted out in a louder, more assertive voice. The teenage girl, dressed in a red-and-white striped dress and looking like a gangly barber pole, paused a moment. She seemed obviously confused with my father's ramblings and answered tentatively, "Well, enjoy your dinner," as she left the room.
"Shut up, Mr. President!" a gruff voice stated from behind the curtain of the shared, semiprivate room. "I'm trying to listen to the TV."
"If my legs were not riddled with polio, my good man, I'd get out of this bed right now and kick your ass from here to hyde Park!" said Dad, as he adjusted the invisible glasses in front of his cloudy and distant eyes.
It was hurtful to see what had become of my father. He had had a good build at one time, but now age and disease had taken their toll on him. He had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease a few months before by his doctor, who called Dad's condition the most aggressive case he had ever seen. My father had gone from slight forgetfulness to drifting in and out of reality, and then he'd deteriorated to the point where this lifelong Republican now believed he was Franklin D. Roosevelt.
My dad's name was Charles Lindbergh Hume. He was born on May 21, 1927, the same day "Lucky Lindy" touched down outside of Paris after completing the first-ever solo trans-Atlantic flight. His parents, convinced they were having a baby girl, never even considered a single boy's name, so with the newspapers full of the exploits of Charles Lindbergh, my dad was given the heroic aviator's name instead of the previously decided upon Peggy Lynn.
Years later while serving in the army, he had made the unfortunate mistake of telling this story to his army buddies, who, from that day on, always referred to him as Peggy Lynn. Sadly now, his name and the story that accompanied it had become a distant memory. His life memories had been lost.
As a seventeen-year-old, he had been sent to fight in Northern Africa and Europe during World War II, where he was among the liberating forces in Berlin in 1945. After the war, he returned to the states and attended the University of Minnesota on the GI bill. He remembered his university days as some of the happiest of his life. He used to say, "I was just happy to be someplace where they weren't shootin' at me."
Dad met his future wife on a blind date during his sophomore year, but tragedy soon followed when he learned that both his parents had been killed in a car crash. His mother had fallen asleep at the wheel and steered their '38 Ford into a pine tree, leaving Dad to raise his four teenage siblings.
After dating for just six weeks, my parents were married in the St. Paul county recorder's office by a justice of the peace. They dropped out of college and moved to North Carolina to rear their instant family. After a few years of "flying by the seat of their pants" and "pickin' shit with the chickens," as he used to say, Dad's siblings were old enough to go out on their own. Mom and Dad then had two sets of twins ten years apart, starting with Paul and Minnie, who were named after Minnesota's twin cities, and then Mark and Karen, named after no cities at all. You'd think that raising two sets of twins a decade apart would be enough parenting for anyone, but years later they adopted me as the empty-nest syndrome set in.
"Time to check your blood pressure," a Filipino nurse said, walking into the room as if she owned the hospital.
"Never a moment's peace!" Dad retorted. "This is a day which will live in infamy!"
"Is this your son, Mr. Hume? he's good-looking, just like you," the nurse asked as she began to roll up the sleeve of his pajamas.
If he had been in control of all of his faculties he would have said something like, "It sure is. The acorn doesn't fall far from the tree, you know." Instead, he introduced me as his Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes.
All the years I knew him, he never told people that I was adopted, though it was obvious because we looked nothing alike. Dad was a short, stocky man with a full, round face and deep-set eyes. His thick, black eyebrows were so bushy they should have been named a national forest. He had olive-colored skin and a dimple in the middle of his chin that would have made Kirk Douglas envious. And he always looked like he needed a shave, even if he had just had one. I, on the other hand, am lanky with a fair complexion and sandy brown hair, and I shave about once every two weeks whether I need to or not, just to stay in practice. But he always introduced me either as "my boy" or his "number-three son." It might not sound like much, but for somebody who was passed around with the regularity of a flu bug, it always seemed to give me a strong feeling of security and inclusion.
I only lived with Mom and Dad together for about three years before Mom died in a freak accident at the nut plant. Dad had been a very successful businessman, owning a nut-packing plant outside of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. One day, while counting the inventory, Mom slipped on a catwalk and fell into a large storage vat of Brazil nuts. Investigators said she must have landed in an air pocket and sunk below the surface level. The more she struggled to get out, the deeper she sank. By the time the fire rescue crew got there, she had fallen ten feet below the surface and died of asphyxiation.
This was another tragedy for a man who had suffered so many losses in his life. We all took her death hard, but after forty-three years of marriage, Dad was devastated. He said he never wanted to see another Brazil nut as long as he lived. He immediately ordered the plant manager to change the recipe of the mixed nuts to exclude Brazil nuts and dispose of every Brazil nut in the plant.
A couple years passed and he couldn't shed the memories of my mother's death, so he sold the plant and our house and we moved to Kensington, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. I was thirteen at the time we moved and in my last year of middle school, and transferring to a new school was tough. I only made a few friends that year and, due to the school district's boundaries, I was assigned to a different high school than most of the other kids so the next year I was the new kid again. The whole experience was reminiscent of my early years, when I bounced around multiple foster homes, always starting over again and again.
A few years ago I asked about my birth parents and was told they were hippie-types who discovered that a love child interfered with their love-ins and peace rallies, so they placed me in state care. Some adopted kids obsess about trying to establish contact with their birth parents, and for them that's fine, but I never had the yearning.
My last foster home happened to be next door to the Hume's. My name is Jim, and as an eight-year-old I smelled their roast beef dinner cooking, knocked on the door, and basically invited myself to join the meal. I ate so much roast beef that night they started calling me Roastbeef. Over the years, the nickname stuck with me (what the heck, it beats Butch or Chip or Rusty). By the time I was ten years old, I was the newest and youngest member of the Hume family.
"I want to be cremated!" my father blurted out loud enough to echo all the way down the hospital corridor.
"Oh, Dad, don't talk like that. You'll be okay. You just get some rest."
"Listen," my father said in a stern voice. "I want to be cremated and I want you to sprinkle my ashes in all forty-eight contiguous states of the country I loved and served so well."
I tried to change the subject, but the president wouldn't have it.
"When the President gives you an order, you say, 'Yes, Mr. President.' Now do you understand?"
"Yeah, I understand."
He looked at me coldly with a snarl on his face.
"I mean, yes, Mr. President," I said formalizing my previous answer.
"I want you to promise me you'll fulfill my wish."
"Okay," I said, followed by a half-hearted, "I promise."
"Now let's talk about something else," I said with disgust in my voice.
I bent down to hug him good-bye. He didn't sit up so I couldn't get my arms around him, but when I pulled myself in, he pulled away. This was the saddest part of all. He would have never done that before. He hugged everybody: family, friends, employees, even acquaintances in town. A hug to him was like a handshake to most people. Fighting back the tears, I told him I'd see him again tomorrow. As I was leaving the room, another nurse entered. I heard Dad say, "Ah, the First Lady. Eleanor, you'll be the belle of the ball."
I visited Dad every day for two weeks, and he'd remind me of my promise. This man couldn't remember his name or what he'd had for breakfast, but he continued to remind me of my promise to sprinkle his ashes in each state. On one visit he said, "Don't sprinkle too much of me in Vermont. In four elections, I never carried that damn state." I went home and looked up presidential elections in the almanac and found he was correct. FDR never carried Vermont, but how could Dad in his condition possibly know that? The Alzheimer's disease had miraculously opened up something in his brain, making him some kind of FDR savant.
It was two weeks later in the middle of March 1996 (a fairly uneventful time after the O.J. murder trial but before the Clinton sex scandal), and the East Coast was basking in an early spring warming trend. It was the second semester of my sophomore year of college. I had suffered through two subpar semesters and was again struggling to get a C average to stay off the dean's shit list. Late one night I was reading Daisy Miller for an Introduction to Literature test the next day, when a friend stopped by, and the study session quickly turned into beer drinking and Letterman watching.
The telephone rang at 1:15 am with the inevitable news I had been dreading. The nurse started in with her death spiel that sounded like she was reading from a card. "It pains me very much that I should have to be the one to inform you that your father, Mr. Hume, passed away at 12:35 this morning. If you would like to come to the hospital, we have grief counselors that you can speak with." She went on to give me condolences and blah, blah, blah. After a while it sounded like Charlie Brown's parents.
I hung up the phone, a bit stunned. I knew the news was coming, but there's something different between knowing that death is imminent and the cold, hard, smack-in-the-face reality of it. I sat down and sipped from my beer. My friend offered a bit of condolence.
"Sorry, man," he said. "You okay?"
"Yeah, I'm okay. I just think I'd rather be alone."
"That's cool," he said, grabbing the remainder of the twelve-pack and carrying it out the door like a football under his left arm. "I know how it is, dude. When we put my dog to sleep, I didn't want to talk to anyone for, like, a week."
I sat idle for a moment, unable to cry or feel much of any emotion. Everywhere I looked sparked memories of him. I went to the hall closet where our family kept our voluminous collection of photo albums. I grabbed a few and carried them back to the sofa, where I stayed up most of the night looking at pictures of family vacations, holidays, and parties and feeling a tremendous sense of loss not only about Dad, but also about the times captured in those photographs that were gone forever.
Around dawn, I fell asleep and woke up at noon. I hurried off to school for my one o'clock class. I knew I was ill-prepared for the test but hoped somehow to weasel my way into a passing grade. While I should have been taking the test, through tear-filled eyes I began developing a plan to honor dad's wishes by sprinkling his ashes in each state. As I worked on my travel plans, one-by-one the other students finished their tests, took them up to the professor's desk, and exited the classroom. Eventually I was the last student in the classroom, and the professor asked me for my paper. I had drawn a picture of the United States and devised a plan to quickly and efficiently visit all of the contiguous 48 states. I had figured how much it would cost me to make the trip but hadn't mentioned a word about ol' Daisy Miller.
Things weren't going any better in my accounting class, where I was crediting the debits and debiting the credits, quickly on the fast track to a career in the fast-food industry. My plan had been to wait until the end of the semester to take the trip, but due to my lackluster academic efforts, I decided to take withdrawals in all my classes (even the two I was somehow pulling passing grades in), and without further delay get on the road. The price tag of the cross-country ash-dropping trip was considerably larger than the available balance in my savings account. I decided I would scrimp here and there, sleep in the car as much as possible, and make it work.
My brothers and sisters flew in for the funeral, and we discovered that Dad had prearranged his cremation and funeral long before his diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease. It showed he either had great insight or that the former Eagle Scout had continued to live by the Boy Scout oath. he had decided on everything: white gardenia flowers, a silver-plated urn that looked like a tea kettle without the spout, a mix of religious and patriotic music, and a buffet table set up with Krispy Kreme glazed donuts. He even left a handwritten note to the mortician saying, "Anyone caught crying at the funeral should be asked to leave." He wanted a happy gathering of friends and family celebrating a life well lived.
Since Dad had done all the arrangements for us, the five days between his death and the funeral were spent relaxing with family and thanking friends and neighbors for their support. We received dozens of sympathy cards from every genre: religious, nature scenes, and cartoon characters. It's hard to believe people would send a cartoon character sympathy card, but we got several. My family had a good laugh at a crying Snoopy sitting atop his dog house mourning a fallen Woodstock.
We also received countless numbers of the worst-tasting casseroles imaginable. I now believe the only thing worse than the loss of a loved one is being one of the surviving relatives who has to eat all the sympathy tuna casseroles and three-bean salads. The tradition of making food for the grieving might have been appropriate years ago, but nowadays with restaurants on every corner, home pizza delivery, and convenience stores open twenty-four hours a day, this is a tradition that must also die; the mourners have suffered enough.
One day I mustered up enough courage to tell my brothers and sisters my plan of fulfilling Dad's wish. I knew that some, if not all of them, would think it was a stupid idea and was pleasantly surprised when two out of four liked the idea. Minnie and Mark thought Dad's ashes should be placed in Mom's crypt at the mausoleum. Minnie tried to filibuster the whole discussion with a long emotional rant, and when I couldn't change their minds with any of my high-school debate techniques, we agreed to split Dad's ashes. Mark's and Minnie's shares of the ashes would go to the mausoleum, and Paul's, Karen's, and my shares would go on the road.
The day before the funeral, Dad's obituary appeared in the local section of The Washington Post. It was a bit disheartening to read that a man who had given so much to his country, community, friends, employees, and family was given only three lines of tiny print wedged in between the obituaries of Gerald Hamsteil and Rodney Ivansauer and next to an ad for discounted mufflers. To add insult to injury, Dad's obituary contained a major typographical error.
* * *
Charles L. Hume, 68, a retarded nutpacker, died of complications from Alzheimer's disease. He is survived by three sons, two daughters, and six grandchildren. Funeral services pending.
* * *
The people at the newspaper agreed to reprint Dad's obituary stating that he was a "retired chief executive officer of a nut-packing company," but by the time it reran it seemed pointless. Dad was so unpretentious anyway that I think he probably would have gotten a kick out of being called a retarded nutpacker.
Excerpted from ROASTBEEF'S PROMISE by DAVID JEROME Copyright © 2009 by David Jerome. Excerpted by permission.
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