My father’s birthday is tomorrow the 17th. It will be 98 years since Richard W. Clark was born in Jenks, Oklahoma. He left here a little early. I’m pretty sure I know where he is. He eschewed the mansions and took one of those little houses way in the back. I can hear him now. “Hell, son, I never gave enough to get one of those mansions. Didn’t want one anyway. And OU has not lost a game yet!” I would bet a nickel he’s out there in one of those green pastures right now trying to teach a half dozen angels to say hell and damn. Wouldn’t bet against him…here is one of my favorite stories of this great man of the earth who did so much to shape my life…
It was 1973 and I had recently left my career in the Army. Temporarily working in Chicago, I wasn’t making a lot of money but I was getting by and looking forward to a good future as I learned the craft I had chosen. As all of us do, I had my concerns, chief of which was that my dad had serious heart trouble and was not doing well. It seemed obvious that it was only a matter of time before we would lose him.
He knew his condition. He couldn’t stand not being strong as he had always been, and being sick just did not work for him. He would sometimes forget to take his medicine for three or four days, then remember and take all the pills he had missed at once. Admonish him? “Aw, hell, it ain’t nothing but a goddamn pill.” His replies were usually entertaining and always graphic.
My brother and sisters did their best to keep him in line with his medicine and diet. It was a losing battle. If he wanted a pickle he might just eat the entire jar. A pie? Look out. Half a pie, a whole pie, it was what he wanted—unless one of my sisters was there. They fussed and carried on with him trying their best to keep him well and alive. I never did any of that when he was at my house. My goal was his happiness in the days he had left. The other kids loved him just as much as I did. He was revered by all of us.
I guess you could say he was “old school.” He taught us often and well, treating us as if we were adults even when we were small children. My older brother Jerry was driving a truck in the fields when he was nine. I had a full time job in our slaughter house when I was six. I had my own skinning knife and it wasn’t sharp if it would not easily shave the hair on my arm. Dad meant for his boys to know how to work. Growing up during the depression, he knew what it was like for a young father to not know if he would be able to feed his wife and children the coming week.
He wasn’t all work. He loved sports, mostly boxing, football, and baseball. I remember driving home with him one evening in one of his big old trucks from a days work in the oil fields west of Tulsa. At the last moment he detoured us to the Coliseum in Tulsa to see a televised heavyweight championship fight between Floyd Patterson and Ingemar Johannsen, spending the last of his cash for tickets. We never missed a Jenks High School football game. He played football there as did Jerry and I.
Baseball was his favorite. He coached several of our youth teams as we grew up. He was old school there too. I was eight when I played my first organized baseball game against another team. As I was preparing to leave for the game, Dad came out on the front porch where I was sitting. With a metal file he showed me how to file and sharpen the steel spikes on my baseball shoes. He was serious about the game.
Dad built a slaughterhouse when I was six. He kept it until I was eleven. After that he worked in the oilfields building roads and hauling pipe. We had so many old trucks and always old cars. He liked red Ford trucks and any make of car. He would not buy a new vehicle of any type and make payments. He just would not do it. So it was that never in his life had he owned a new car or truck. I thought about that as I sat there in Chicago learning my new job. I was sure I would do well in time. I also knew Daddy would not live long.
I picked up the phone one day and called the Ford dealership out on Sheridan in Tulsa. I got a salesman on the phone. “Listen, I want a brand new Ford pickup. Candy apple red. I want everything on it that Ford makes, I don’t care what it is. Be sure it has a tape deck. Can you do that for me?” He assured me he could and we made the financial arrangements. “Now listen, I don’t want one mile on that truck that is not necessary. I expect to see that speedometer at five or less. That okay with you?” He allowed that it was. The truck would have to be ordered and he would call me when it came in.
Dad was working for the state inspecting oil wells and was living in Perry, Oklahoma, about 60 miles west of Tulsa. This was to be a surprise so I decided to drive the pickup to Perry. About two weeks later the call came. I got on a plane and flew to Tulsa that evening. Next morning I took a cab to the dealership. Sitting on the showroom floor, that truck was the most beautiful red I ever saw. I stopped and bought several 8-track tapes being sure there were plenty by his favorites, the Sons of the Pioneers. I then headed for Perry. It was late morning when I pulled in his driveway. I got out and as I did he came out of the house leaving the pickup sitting between the two of us. “Whose truck is that?” he asked. “It’s yours,” I said, and pitched him the keys. “I bought it for you.” “Aw, hell!” “It’s yours,” I said again. “I bought it for you. You need a new truck.” “Well, I’ll be goddamned.” With that he began to walk around the pickup checking it over and commenting on the obvious (to him) good and bad points of how they were making trucks in 1973. We got in and went for a ride.
I bought and kept the insurance on the truck because I did not trust him to do that. After all, insurance was not really a necessary expense. About three months later I went back out to see him. There was that beautiful red pickup sitting in the driveway. Where the radio antennae should have been was a heavy strand of baling wire standing straight up in the air and fastened to the base where the antennae had been. Dad came out of the house. “Daddy, what’s that piece of baling wire doing on there? Where’s the antennae?” “Well, I drove under a shed and hit something the other day and the damn thing broke off.” “Well, damn, Daddy, why didn’t you just buy another one?” “Well, hell, Son, the damn thing cost $12!
I began to laugh. How could I argue with that logic? I left it alone. He was happy with it and if he was happy, so was I.
Ray Kenneth Clark