Some time in the late morning of November 23, 1973, John Janovy, petroleum geologist, age 59, received the last of his morphine injections, administered by his son, who gently slipped the needle into his father’s inner thigh, about the only place on his body where there was enough flesh to receive it, and slowly pressed the syringe until it was empty. Later that afternoon the men from the funeral home would arrive, place John’s body in a zippered vinyl bag, and leave. It’s best when they die at home, in their own beds, the doctor had said; they’re more comfortable, more at ease, than in the hospital. The son would then pour himself a large glass of Jack Daniels and begin wondering what to do next beyond filling out an obituary form for the Daily Oklahoman. Thirty years later I, that son, would open a box containing my father’s papers, start slowly reading them, and thus discover a man I’d known no better than the woman who was my mother.
Upon being given a similar prognosis—You have only six months to live—and asked the same question—If you had just enough strength to do one remaining thing, what would it be?—Bernice’s husband John, by now a widower married to another elegant lady who’d also pulled herself up from modest working class beginnings, would answer: build a greenhouse. I had never thought of my father as a particular heroic type until he was given those final six months and embarked on this amazing, courageous, venture, either a gamble that he would actually have the strength to finish it, or an obsession so strong it would keep him alive long enough to finish it.
In the end, it is impossible to distinguish between these two alternatives. I push him in his wheel chair out through the garage to the greenhouse—his greenhouse—open the door, push him in, and let him just look at his work. I take the cigarette from his fingers; he is too weak to hold it as it burns close to his fingers. There, surrounded by his plants, he lives an hour in the company of the latest and most consuming of his several concurrently indulged passions—alcohol, tobacco, music, stamps, coins, photography, cactus, his family, his grandchildren, and the oil business. Then, at the ancient age of 59, he dies. Unlike my mother, he leaves a swath of a trail, but I would not find it for another thirty years. When I begin to explore this jungle, I find another stranger.
“How did he do all this stuff?” I wonder one day, telling our oldest daughter, home for a visit, about her grandfather’s files, about the stamps carefully mounted on loose leaf pages upon which he’d drawn, with the exquisite skill of a superb draftsman, small India ink rectangles to frame them, then added labels—actually personal catalog numbers—lettered in his perfect steady hand.
“Obsessive compulsive,” she replies, converting him into a case study.
My father’s first job after graduating—in 1935—from the University of Oklahoma with a bachelor’s degree in geology, was out in Pampa, Texas, working for Skelly Oil Company. He never mentioned whether he or my mother ever ran into Woody Guthrie, or heard about him; the music in our house was classical—Jascha Heifetz and the like, not folk singer protest with flattop guitar. My father’s second job was with Louisiana Land and Exploration Company, and so he and my mother moved to Houma where I must have been conceived and certainly was delivered, although by whom, and with whose help, I do not know. A fire in the parish courthouse destroyed my original birth certificate, but the State of Louisiana issued a replacement with no questions asked. This replacement I use to obtain and renew passports, again, no questions asked. My last renewal was prior to September 11, 2001; we will see, over the next few years, whether a long-ago fire in Houma, and a not-so-long ago hurricane named “Katrina,” make any difference in the life of a post-Patriot Act American seeking proof of citizenship.
Among my father’s souvenirs from his Houma days were two tarpon scales that he kept in his fishing tackle box. Again I wonder, as in the case of the cameras, why this young man acquired a tackle box, but by the time I was old enough to understand fishing, he had one filled with all sorts of wondrous lures in addition to these tarpon scales. Among the photographs I salvaged from my parents’ house after they died are ones of men and a boat, not a large boat, but one large enough to have a small cabin. I think I went out on this boat once; I have a hazy image of being helped down a ladder into a dark space. I don’t know whether we actually went fishing, or even whether the boat moved after I was helped down the ladder. Nevertheless, either on this boat or some other, my father went fishing, caught a tarpon, and saved some scales. Or, perhaps, and just as likely, someone else caught the fish and he saved the scales.
Why might he have saved these scales? That is, what can we learn from a couple of strange items in someone’s tackle box? My guess is because the scales were so large that they challenged our very idea of a fish, at least for a person accustomed to inland bass as I was at the time. I want to believe that to him these scales were metaphorical reminders that our preconceived ideas—about fish, obviously, but actually about anything—could easily be overturned by observations if one allowed those observations to talk and listened to what they had to say. Again, it’s somewhat of a stretch, but those scales might well have been the equivalent of 3 x 5 cards with the words BE OPEN MINDED, NOT SURPRISED, printed in bold letters, a simple but important lesson about making your living by searching for naturally-occurring resources. At least those were my thoughts every time I saw them as a child, which was fairly often. Fifty, maybe sixty, years after discovering those tarpon scales in his tackle box, I still think the same way—suspicious of preconception, unusually respectful (some of my colleagues would say too much so) of plain observation—and wonder whether such a thought pattern is inherited, or was taught to me, by my father, and by example, beginning down in Houma with a couple of scales.
BERNICE AND JOHN is available on all e-readers