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Dad, Good and Bad

When he wasn't terrorizing, you could feel his tender heart beat.

By Calvin Sandborn 1 Feb 2008 |

Calvin Sandborn is a journalist, author and environmental lawyer who currently supervises the University of Victoria Environmental Law Clinic. Becoming The Kind Father is published by New Society Publishers.

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Calvin Sandborn's father. Photo: Holly Pattison.
  • Becoming the Kind Father: A Son's Journey
  • Calvin Sandborn
  • New Society (2007)

[Editor's note: "The story of how I cast off my father's armour and discovered his lost heart." That is how Victoria's Calvin Sandborn describes his new memoir Becoming the Kind Father, a vivid, insightful telling of growing up with an abusive father, and as an adult trying to overcome the wrong lessons learned. Excerpted here are two scenes, one characteristically dark, the other a ray of light, from life with Dad.]

My father was frightened of his father,
I was frightened of my father,
and I am damn well going to see to it
that my children are frightened of me.

—King George V (1865–1936)


My buddies and I are playing touch football. It's a perfect Northern California fall afternoon, and I inhale the crisp air deeply, and wait for the snap.

Our pasture is a good place for a pickup game. The milk cow keeps a serene distance from the half dozen 11-year-olds who kayai, shout signals and yell for the ball. The long grass softens the fall when you dive for a pass -- and the occasional cow patty sharpens our feinting skills and sense of humor.

"75-40-22-45-Hike!" Jim shouts. Pretending to be R.C. Owens, I go long for the Alley Oop. Jim casts up a long, wobbly pass that falls, just beyond my fingertips. "Darn!" I spit out.

"Calvin!" I look over to the farmhouse porch, where my dad stands, hands on his hips, bellowing. "Calvin! Get the hell over here, you knothead."

"Uh-oh," Jim mutters, as the other boys begin to scatter. The kids know enough to avoid Dad. "See you later, "Jim shouts, as he ducks through the barbed wire fence.

"I said now!" Dad shouts, louder now, voice full and threatening even at a distance.

"I'm coming," I cry, placating, shovelling the football to Glenn, who trots into the trees, headed for his house.

"So is Christmas. Get the hell over here!"

I arrive at the porch panting. Dad, unshaven with a bead of spittle on his upper lip, points his finger and glares at me. "Why didn't you peel those potatoes?"


"The potatoes for dinner. . . Unless you want to eat them RAW." He scratches his protruding belly. "They damn well aren't going to peel and cook themselves, Einstein." His untucked shirt rides up over his belly, as his voice rises, "Jesus Christ on a crippled crutch, can't I count on you for anything?"

"Sorry, Dad." I know better than to point out that he had told me to start the potatoes at 5 o'clock and it was only 4:30. That would just provoke him.

"You should be sorry. Your mother works all goddamn day. She shouldn't have to cook the sunuvabitchin dinner too, just because you want to play, Prince Charming." He turns and storms into the hot kitchen, pulling the five-gallon pot off the shelf and slamming it onto the counter.

"Here, get to it!" He smacks the potato peeler down next to the pot. Then he storms off to the bathroom, muttering, "I swear, useless as TITS on a BOAR!"

The bathroom door slams. Moments later, I hear the toilet's water tank lid being lifted, and the clink of glass. He's fishing out the Smirnoff's vodka bottle he keeps there, hidden from my mom.

I bend over, feverishly peeling the potatoes, burning with the fear and shame that he refuses to feel, but projects so violently onto me.

I'm in a panic, breathing fast and shallow. I squeeze back tears, closing my eyes so hard that I see stars.

In the bathroom my father explodes into a coughing fit, hacking violently, a vehement, gasping smoker's cough. Wheezing and choking, he desperately tries to clear his throat and get air. He hacks, and suddenly falls silent. I wonder if he's died. For a moment, dread vies with hope.

"Goddamn it," he finally mutters, clearing his throat and spitting. I hear the toilet flush.

When he comes out, he sets his horned-rim glasses on the counter, picks up a potato and peers closely at it. "Jesus Christ almighty! Look, you're missing spots here. See, see that spot there?" He holds the potato in my face. "Can you see it?"

I nod, wordless. "If it was a snake it would bite you. . . . They're full of spots. Now, get all the skin off those things. And hurry up, you're going to make us all late."

He pauses, looks in the cracked mirror on the wall next to the fridge, and slicks back his thinning hair with his fingers. Beads of sweat rise on his forehead. He reaches to adjust his false teeth, and the pink plate rolls in his mouth, before settling into place. He looks at himself with a trace of disgust.

Then he turns and glares at me, "Just straighten up and fly right, dammit."

A different song

In the end, Dad returns from the shadows, borne on a flood of memory. Today I remember a Kind Father -- the father before the drinking and the rage, before I was old enough to be trained to "be a man."

I am five years old, and we're driving the big, black 1950 Packard through the cool Central Valley night. Dad and I hurtle through blackness, our cocoon lit only by faint dashboard light and cigarette glow. The radio crackles. Hank Williams fades in and out on the "K-R-A-K Krack Corral of Country Hits"

The heater's on high, wind whistles in through the lowered window. Propping my pillow against the passenger door, I gaze out at the sky. I lie back, pull the Army blanket over me, and fall into the bowl of darkness and stars.

After a while, the cigarette lighter clicks metallically, and pops out of the dash. I sit back up. Dad reaches over and brings the glowing red spiral up to his face. The cigarette flames up, illuminating the crags of his face, the face I wear decades later, as I write this.

Flooded rice paddies stretch out endlessly into the dark. The red lights of radio towers glow in the distance, foothills the shape of a woman's body rising behind them. In the cozy Packard, Hank Williams sputters to life:

Well, why don't you love me like you used to do
How come you treat me like a worn out shoe
My hair's still curly and my eyes are still blue
why don't you love me like you used to do?.

Dad reaches into his shirt pocket and wordlessly hands over a Tootsie Roll. I take the surprise and quickly unwrap it.

"What do you think Tom and the babies are doing right now, champ?"

I try to respond, but my mouth is full of the chewy candy. "Probably asleep, I'd guess," he answers for me. "It's up to us men to go and find us a new house, huh?" He pauses. "You're going to like living in Paradise. He reaches over and tousles my hair. I nod and smile.

Well, why don't you be just like you used to be
How come you find so many faults with me
Somebody's changed so let me give you a clue
Why don't you love me like you used to do?

Dad hums along. He finishes his cigarette, and flips it out the window, sparks streaming into the night.

Abruptly, the pitch of the engine changes as we enter a tunnel of trees. The yellow headlights illuminate rows of almond trees. A gust of wind blows blossoms and the hint of almond extract smell across our path. Just as suddenly we're back out to prairie again. Static overwhelms the radio. Dad fiddles with the dial for a minute, bringing the song back:

Why don't you say the things you used to say
What makes you treat me like a piece of clay
My hair's still curly and my eyes are still blue
Why don't you love me like you used to do?

The static rises again. "Dammit," Dad says softly. After trying the dial again, he turns it off.

"Hey, son, do you know any songs?

"I know Three Blind Mice. Mrs. Smith taught it to us."

So I sing the song for him:

Three blind mice, three blind mice
See how they run, see how they run
They all run after the farmer's wife..."

"SHE CUTS OFF THEIR TALES WITH A BUTCHER'S KNIFE!" Dad interjects, and we finish together:

"Did you ever see such a sight in your life
As three blind mice?"

On the last word, Dad snorts with satisfaction. It's quiet for a few minutes, just the sound of the engine, the heater, tires slapping the road. After a while, Dad looks over at me and smiles. Holding his gaze for a moment, I lay my cheek against the back of the cloth-covered bench seat. A pair of oncoming headlights pulls his gaze away. He squints, looking down the highway. "You want to hear a new song?"


"Now this is a very, very serious song."


"My Uncle Simon taught this song to me when he came back from Africa." Dad looks over at me seriously. I've never heard of Uncle Simon. Grinning, Dad sweeps his hand briefly over his glossy, combed back hair, and starts to sing, in a powerful, smooth tenor:

Boom-boom, ain't it great to be crazy
Boom-boom, ain't it great to be crazy
Silly and foolish all day long
Boom-boom, ain't it great to be crazy!

On "boom-boom," he slaps the chrome dash playfully. At the end, he vibrates his lips to make an engine noise.

"Now you try it."

"OK." We sing the chorus together. On "boom-boom," he reaches over and softly taps my head.

We decelerate as we pull into a small farming community. A single street light casts pale light on cinderblock buildings, a few houses recede into the dark. The car engine strains as we stop for the stop sign. The town is empty, as if we are the only ones on earth.

As he accelerates, back onto the open road, Dad looks over at me again. "OK, now try this:

A horse and a flea and three blind mice
Sitting on a tombstone, shooting dice
The horse fell off and landed on the flea
Whoops said the flea, there's a horse on me!"

I laugh, and try to repeat the verse, but I miss a few words. He fills them in, then we sing it together. On the chorus, his voice becomes so loud it's a bit scary.

Way down deep in darkest Africa
A mouse stepped on an elephant's toe
The elephant looked down with tears in his eyes. . .

Dad stops for a beat, then delivers the punchline falsetto,

Why don't you pick on a fella your size!

I giggle, and he laughs, slapping my knee softly. He sings the song over again, until I know all the words. Then we sing it several more times. Each time now, he sings "boom-boom" like a drum.

I yawn. "You cold?" Dad asks. He puts out his arm, and I shift over to snuggle up next to him as he drives.

I lay against his side, against the bulk and the warmth of him, feeling the tide of his breath; smelling his aftershave and smoke as the Packard hurtles down the highway. As I fall asleep, he's humming softly.

When we get to the hotel, I wake up when Dad turns off the car. "You awake?" he asks. I say nothing, pretending to sleep. He picks me up and carries me to our room, holding me close as he walks up the stairs. My cheek against his soft cotton shirt, I smell his sweat, feel the beating of his heart. He puts me down on the bed, and kisses me on the cheek. His whiskers are rough on my skin. "Good night, slugger," he whispers.