IN A DINER SOMEWHERE IN IOWA, I IMAGINE MY FATHER MEETING THE FUTURE PRESIDENT
He would have been sitting at the counter, waiting
for a greasy truck part to arrive from Davenport
when Nixon walked into the joint.
He would have been more attentive to
the slim black-haired waitress with the coffee pot
than the politician’s entourage,
but when she turned to take another’s order,
he would have noticed the dark gray wool suit
Nixon wore through the Midwestern heat of August
and the way Nixon awkwardly flirted with the folks
in the booths lining the window, mainly old women
who barely looked up from dunking their dry toast into tea.
My father would have shaken the hand of Nixon
who made his way one by one down
the working class men on stools at the counter,
but my father would have said later
that Nixon’s hands were damp and pink,
soft like some rich girl’s.
And when my father returned home
to my mother the next week, after
unloading La-Z-Boy recliners and boxes of record albums
and banana-seat bikes, he would have said
If that’s the best we can do,
we got a whole world of trouble.
But there would have been a change in my father
after Nixon won the White House.
My father would have become interested in things
he’d never questioned before. While driving his rig
cross country, he would have killed boredom by
holding imagined conversations with Nixon,
telling what Nixon ought to do to ease the plight
of the working man. At first, it would be funny
when my father’d say at dinner:
You know what I told Dick
when I was going through Oklahoma? I said, Dick,
I ain’t like you, Dick. I didn’t get to college. I never had things
handed to me. I got one suit and it’s for funerals. He’d shake
his fork at the TV, and joke,
I told my man there
the only China I care about is what them
housewives unwrap, me watching
and waiting for all hell to break loose when they find
a cracked tea cup. My father’s conversations would grow
darker with each year of Nixon’s administration.
You should have got them out, Dick, goddammit he’d swear,
slowing behind the funeral processions
along some state highway, driving past, looking
in his rearview at the old men, hats on their hearts,
standing next to their cars parked on the shoulder
of the road. Then, with wrecked grief
get them out now.
He’d have explained how he’d have been there
too, but got turned back because when a boy
his heart was torn apart by rheumatic fever.
That night, when at home, watching Nixon resign,
for once he would have been happy
(or at least happier), seen a larger world view
and understood something complicated
was trying to be put right, instead of
crying and agitating his ill-treated heart, and
blaming himself for the rest of his life that it was his kid
brother, on his second tour, who was killed in the bush
of Vietnam. Or at least that’s what I can imagine.
from Rattle #37, Summer 2012
[ download audio]
Kathleen Driskell: “One of my most intense childhood memories is of my father watching Nixon resign on TV. My father was always rather circumspect, but that evening he stood in front of the television and wept openly. It was the only time I ever saw him cry and it was so upsetting and, frankly, odd, that I never asked him about that night. Years after his death, I continue to wonder why Nixon’s resignation wounded him so.” ( website)