I walked into the bar and ordered a beer. I lit a cigarette and started talking with the female bartender. This was my place. Smoke filled the air. Beer bottles piled high in a trashcan. People laughing, talking, carrying on with the others around them. It was pretty early in the evening, so not everyone was drunk – not yet anyways. I took another sip of my beer and realized that this wasn’t the place for most of my friends. The bars we’d go to together didn’t smell, look, or feel like this. They were clean, respectful, and smoke-free. But the bars that I love aren’t targeted to young people. They’re old people bars. I’m always the youngest one in a place like this. For some reason, I feel a connection here that I can’t find anywhere else.
The guy sitting to my right had to be seventy years old. He was flirting with the younger, prettier bartender. The guy sitting to my left slapped me on the back. “What’s your story?” he says to me. He was tall, rather skinny, and had already downed four or five Budweisers. He wore a black hat over long, curly brown hair. He had a thick moustache with a thin beard. Torn white t-shirt, dirty blue jeans. Work boots. Without putting down my beer, I told him my name, and we shook hands.
He said his name was Bruce Hammrick and, although obviously drunk, he had it under control. He had asked for my story but was giving me his. He cursed a lot. Told me how hot he thought the bartender was. Things he wanted to do with her. He lit a cigarette and described the beauty of his motorcycle sitting outside. He asked where I lived. “Less than a mile down the road.” “I’m from around Justus,” he said. “Lived there most of my life. You know it?” “Hell yeah I know it. My dad grew up there.” I told him who my dad was, and he went wild.
My dad and I have never been close. He was a good dad, but I was a bad kid. I was paddled with the regularity and frequency of eating. Always something. Teasing my sister. Arguing with mom. Taking the lawn mower apart. I remember he’d hold me by the left arm, the wooden paddle raised above his head, and scream at me, “Apologize!” “No!” Smack! “Apologize!” “No!” Smack! Never abusive. Just what I deserved.
He worked hard for his family. Worked at a steel factory as a maintenance welder. Never went to college. I remember him coming home from work one day, when I was real young, covered in dirt, oil, and grease. He sat down and began to take off his work boots. “What’s that smell, Daddy?” I asked. Without missing a beat, “That’s the smell of money, son.”
My dad is a worker. Both of my parents were unemployed when I was born, but my dad has never stopped since. He works long days, longer nights, and most weekends. He works all the time. He’ll work until the day he dies. And I was never grateful. He worked hard for us, and I always just expected what I was given. I never thanked him. As I got older, the two of us pretty much kept our distance from each other. For some reason, I couldn’t identify with him. I didn’t want the kind of life he had made for himself.
Bruce Hammrick grew up with my dad. The two of us sat at that bar for over two hours, talking about my dad when he was my age. Bruce bought me round after round and told me how much he loved, admired, and respected my dad, “Charley” Stevens. They were trouble-makers. Smoking in school, skipping work to catch a movie, getting in bar fights. He told me how much my dad loved life. He drank too much; he stayed late at the bars; he dated too many women. These were hard-nosed, hard-drinking, hard-living men who only needed their friends and that small, dirty bar down the street. And Bruce, slurring his curses by now, told me about how my dad changed when he met my mother.
Dad always told me that my mom “saved his life.” I knew most of what Bruce was telling me, but here was one of those buddies who had been left behind when married life came around for my dad. It seemed more real now, hearing from someone who knew my dad before I was even born.
I have never known my dad to “go out with the friends.” My dad has no friends. He has a family now. And they need him. A wife and children made my dad give up on that old life. He quit drinking, quit going to the bars, and worked like a dog to keep a roof over our heads and food in our stomachs. He’s never stopped. Never thought twice about it. From the moment he said “I do” in 1982, his life changed forever. He chose us.
Bruce hadn’t seen my dad in over twenty years. I gave him a sheet of paper, and he scribbled a quick note to him, reminding him of old times and good luck for the future. The last lines he wrote were, “Sitting here talking to your son. Seems like you have a good son.” For leaving it all behind, my dad was a hero to his old friend. And his advice to me was to always listen to him because, “you won’t go wrong if you follow that guy.”
Bruce opened his home to me if I was ever in the area. We shook hands. I thanked him for the beer. I left the bar. The same bar my dad and his buddies used to go. I went home. I realized that I’m more like my dad than I thought. I should be so lucky to have the life he has. But now he’s sick all the time. He smokes too much. He works too much. It’s killing him. So I went home and thanked him for it.
Jason Stevens is a senior from Massillon, Ohio, majoring in Political Science and History.