I’ve found myself lately thinking of a man everybody, including me, called Mack. My dad. Just about the most laid back human being the world has ever had.
The man was always at ease, a man of simple tastes. I can see him in my mind, chomping on his almost ever present cheap cigar which chokes me even in my memory, sipping some whiskey, and uttering that obligatory whispery “ahhh” that drinkers who like their liquor neat always sigh and he’s going about any one of his enterprises: playing solitaire, reading True Crime magazine or crossword puzzling – when he wasn’t playing the piano.
He was in and out of my life like a man on the run. I never knew when he was going away or when he would come back. That was just him. Off to gigs in honky tonk clubs anywhere in the USA from Phoenix to Tucson to Douglas to Albuquerque to El Paso or to Nogales or Agua Prieta or Juarez down in Mexico.
One day I’d be going about my play and barely in my sight in the distance like vapors rising from a sunburned street he would manifest himself – and the world would pulsate with a boogie woogie beat and I would fly towards him like a high note shooting out of Satchmo’s horn. And then one day I’d look up and just as he came he’d be gone.
It was pretty much like that for us from my beginning to his end. But we had our moments. Some of my fondest memories revolve around hanging out with him and his musician buddies at their rehearsals. Fess, on bass. Born to pick. Paul, on drums. Nifty with the brushes and sticks. Fats, sweating in gushes, dwarfing his saxophone with his tremendous girth. Blew like it was his last day on earth. Walter or was it Wilmer? One of the two. Blaring his trumpet like a brass man is supposed to do. Mack at the keyboard, making sounds as welcome as a freak cool breeze on a hot summer day. These guys could flat out play.
Like any musicians they dreamed of jamming with Count or Duke or Benny and the like. But there’s only so much room at the top. Mack did have a shot at the big time but let the opportunity slip away. Someone from Warner Brothers heard him and a guitar player in Texas do an original piece of music in a ragtime style and asked them to come to Hollywood to lay down some musical ideas for a motion picture soundtrack. Is that a dream come true or what? I mean, man alive. However he and his buddy, on their way to tinsel town, partied hearty in every little town en route and just never arrived.
The guys in his Tucson band would have knocked down steel walls for a chance like that and they would have probably left days ahead of time in case something happened and they had to walk and if they hadn’t made it so be it. They did other things to feed themselves and their families and at the same time kept their love for playing music alive.
To Mack, work, other than tickling 88 ivory keys, was something to be avoided like a contagious disease and somehow he managed, barely, to make it musically but as to fatherhood responsibilities, he just didn’t have the genes. That was something I never understood about the man, being one who has so many times early on as a dad worked like a zombie, so dead on my feet, hustling to clothe my children and provide them food to eat, reduced sometimes to praying to the universe that the last tread on an already dead tire will just hold out until payday.
Mack missed a lot of my life which means he also missed a lot of what was supposed to be his life. But, oh, how I remember a time when I was a single parent for a spell and desperately just needed somebody to be at home when I couldn’t be there and he came and lived with us for a while and played that role like it was a song for the piano.
I don’t know how I would have managed that rugged stage in my life if he hadn’t come through. That was as close a father and son relationship as we ever had. That’s the sweetest memory I have of Mack: the moments when he came through as my dad.