The Colgate Scene
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|A Son's Tale|
|by William Plummer '68|
I remember the one time, growing up, that I felt like my father (William H.,
Class of 1944) was a hero. It was the summer following my senior year in high
school. I was 18 and working as a lifeguard at the local swimming and tennis
It was August, the end of the week at the end of the summer, a strange weightless period of time.
In a matter of days, I would be beginning what seemed to me to be a new life. I'd be heading to upstate New York to start college, even as the rest of my family would be traveling west from Cranford, N.J. to St. Louis, where Dad would work for DuPont. He was going to help them make shoes out of a supposedly revolutionary leather substitute called Corfam.
It was around 9 p.m. The pool was closed. The floors had been mopped and the furniture straightened and several of us -- lifeguards and cabana boys -- were sitting around drinking beer, lying about girls and feeling alternately nervous and excited about the future.
Someone, probably me -- as it was my car we piled into -- suggested that we drive over to the Cranteen, the dance held weekly on the south side of town to keep potentially wayward teenagers occupied and out of trouble. Along the way, we stopped at a deli to buy a dozen eggs.
I don't know why we did this, what exactly got into us. But we drove up in front of the junior high school gym and pelted the kids, bombed them with eggs, as they emerged from the dance to make out or grab a smoke. It was dark, and we couldn't see who we were throwing at, but we clearly hit someone. In fact, we hit several someones, who jumped in their cars and came after us.
We took off on a wild, adrenaliz-ed ride through the south side of Cranford. Like many towns, Cran-ford was divided socially and economically, as well as geographically, by railroad tracks. My buddies and I were from the north, or "better," side of town, and I had no idea where I was going. I careered down one dimly lit, narrow street after another, the way being further straitened by the vehicles parked on either side.
It was crazy inside our car.
At first, my friends and I were full of bravado, laughing and cursing ("C'mon, mo-fo, let's see what you got!") and exchanging high-fives. But as it became apparent that there were several automobiles giving chase and that our vehicle -- my parents' beige 6-cylinder Chevy station wagon -- lacked the horses to outrun them, our exaltation soon turned into fear.
Finally, I drove down a cul de sac and was quickly hemmed in by three or four cars that screamed to a halt behind us. We rolled up the windows and locked the doors, as our pursuers ringed the car and began to taunt us, calling us "chickenshit rich boys" and "preppy faggots." They had just started rocking the Chevy, when a police car came blazing into our midst.
Initially, we felt relief. We were going to be delivered. And then we saw who it was behind the wheel: Officer Crissey, or "Crepe-sole" Crissey, as we called him, after the yellow gum-bottomed shoes he always wore. Crissey was red-haired and pale-complected, tall and thin and potbellied; and he hated us. He hated all the "children of privilege" from the north side of town and liked nothing better than catching us in some transgression. He used to steal our sneakers when we ice-skated on the river before the town officially said we could.
"Your ass is mine," said Crissey.
At the police station, we sat on a long bench across from the main desk and listened as Crissey called up each of our parents in turn. He managed to be both vague and ominous. He would not tell them exactly what we had done, but let them know that it was serious.
"Your kid's in big trouble," he told them. "I'll fill you in when you get down here."
I sat there and watched the parents of the other three kids come in. Two of them were women. Far from being people of means, they were a divorcée and a widow, and they were each raising a couple of kids purely on their own. The third was a man in poor health.
It did not take much tweaking from Crissey for all three to come unglued. I sat there and listened, as the lot of them, parents and children alike, caved into tears. "How could you do this to me, Henry? Isn't it hard enough that I'm all alone?" And: "That's it, Dougie. I've had it -- you're grounded for the rest of the year!"
I had to wait another 15 minutes for Dad to show up. We lived over a mile away, and I had the car, which meant that he had to hoof it. I got scared just thinking what he would be like when he came through the door.
My father came in wearing his pajama top and paintspattered khakis and loafers without socks. His hair was in wild disarray and he had a whacked-out look in his eyes. I started whimpering the instant I saw him. It was a strategy that seemed to work for my friends.
But Dad wasn't interested in my tears. He wanted information, and he was livid, not at me, but at Crissey, when he learned what we had done.
"You mean to tell me," he said to the backpedaling officer of the law, "that you got me down here in the middle of the night and this boy's mother is home terrified that her son killed someone! You mean to tell me this is about throwing eggs."
"Mr. Plummer," said Crissey, "I don't think you're recognizing the seriousness. I don't think . . ."
"Listen, buddy," said my father, his face clenching like a fist, "you can think whatever you damn well want to think. I really don't give a crap."
Over the next few years, Dad would be fired at job after job. He would move the family from St. Louis to Frederick, Md. to Plandome, N.Y. and back to Cranford again. At one point, he would be out of work for a year and would briefly lapse into despair. My mother would come home one afternoon and find him hiding in a closet, crying. But on this night, my father was rampant. He was not going to take any guff from anyone.
"C'mon, Billy," he said to me, "we're going home. Cut your sniveling. And the rest of you," he said to the other, wide-eyed adults and their offspring, "you cut it, too."
A Son's Tale is a previously unpublished excerpt from Plummer's third book, Wishing My Father Well (Overlook Press), a memoir of fathers, sons and fly-fishing that novelist Richard Ford has called "A stylish and companionable primer on fly-fishing, fathering, wooing women and other of the various arts involved in doing things right. Yet it is also, in its brief course, a book about living life wrong and in this way is a bracing moral testimony. I found it disturbing and raw and I couldn't quit reading it." Plummer is an associate editor at People.
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