“Mad Jack” was the kindest and most accurate nickname our family could think of for my father. Although circumstances of his death remain slightly shaded in mystery, it did appear he had a stroke, or something similar, in December 2006 and died in early January 2007. His body was found in his home in late January 2007. Nobody talked to him at that point, so it is relatively surprising that his corpse was discovered as soon as it was.
It was my mother who called on that brisk January morning to give me the news. She delivered it somberly: “V, you should know your father died”, to which I responded, “about time.”
I never cried about my father dying, as I had pretty much cut him out of my life back in the 1980s, after he had drunkenly told me that he wanted to shoot my mom (his ex-wife), so by the time 2007 rolled around, he was a memory longer than he had been a father. I suspected that I would never change my line of thinking of Mad Jack being a detestable, grumpy, largely illiterate, country-music-loving schmuck, and for a few years I didn’t. However, his blood is my blood, and I cannot help but empathize with his detestable, grumpy ways (I’ve always prided myself on being literate, and I’ve never quite understood why country music never evolved like every other musical form, so I still don’t get those facets of his personality).
When I was scouring my initial memories and how they have become a substandard blueprint for my life since, I thought my plight of feeling woefully insubstantial was the result of god suggesting I just wasn’t wanted at this particular party. If that was the case, then god flat out went and shut all the lights off at his house to suggest that no party even existed for my father to attend in the first place.
Mad Jack was born in 1935 to a couple of boneheads who chucked him into foster care at a very early age. In those days, at the height of the decade’s crushing Depression, farmers would routinely tour foster facilities and adopt six, seven or eight kids at a throw in exchange for some tax breaks and, more importantly, free child labor (a/k/a chores). My father was one of eight in a third wave of kids adopted by some practical, if not outright sadistic, farmers in rural Illinois.
I know very little about my father’s childhood, although he did once tell me his favorite, and only, toy was a disused hubcap, which he would pretend was a steering wheel. He’d run around the fields, “driving” over sketchy terrain of corn and cow shit. At the time he told me that, I – who was given my first record player at 2 – laughed. I bet that hurt him just a little bit.
Mad Jack, much like his only son in later years, attempted very much to play by the rules and was often punished for it. I equate it to being on a highway where everyone is going 80 miles per hour in a 55 MPH zone and me being pulled over for going 56. School was rural and neither encouraging nor challenging; religion was thrust on him to give him rationale for constant suffering; his mother popped into his life once or twice, which only exacerbated his alienation of self. And then he joined the army. While in the armed service, something – or everything – snapped and he went nuts. Allegedly, over a dozen men were required to stop him. Stories are conflicted over whether he completed his time or was kicked out.
Back in civilian life, he got a typical job that neither encouraged nor challenged. He met a girl named Mary and married her. All according to the social contract of the day. Mary had two kids and took care of the home while Mad Jack toiled away at his factory job. It was the best he could hope for.
But things went wrong, as all things seemed to do with Mad Jack. He worked midnights for the bump in pay and the cost of that was he was fairly alienated from his wife and kids, who did not work midnights at all. When Mary opted to go back to college, he soldiered on. When Mary graduated and got a killer job, he soldiered on. And when Mary divorced him, he stopped altogether. I actually think he died in 1977 but it took 40 years for his body to agree that death was the best option.
Mad Jack moved to Joliet and bought a house with cash and didn’t go anywhere but work in those four decades. Nothing had worked for him, so he gave up even trying to try. Friends and family vanished from his social calendar, and I suspect it was because he thought himself such a failure that no one could ever love him, let alone be close. So he got angry and pushed everyone away. At the time, we all thought he was nuts, and that’s when his nickname surfaced and stuck. Now, though, I think he thought the world hated him and decided to push anyone who loved him far, far away for their own safety. It was the only compassionate thing he had left to do. And it was the only thing he could count on for success.
As the years rolled along, he got more obstinate and frequently drunk – he had two refrigerators, one for frozen dinners and one for Old Style – while continuing to be called a worthless sinner in the eyes of god every Sunday at Saint Raymond’s Church in Joliet. It was then when, during our last conversation, he threatened to kill Mary – my mom – and her second husband, who had achieved his main and biggest dream: to own a farm. He wanted that more than anything, I think, and seeing his ex-wife and Jewish husband achieve that dream was too much for him. I hung up on him, and we never spoke or wrote again.
Nobody really knows what Mad Jack got up to in the last three decades of his life, save for my sister, who would be in occasional contact (although I suspect it was mainly to twist the old man’s mind enough to give her family the majority of his eventual estate), but my sister and I rarely spoke, either. At his funeral, in addition to Mary (who was kind enough to fly in to support her kids, not to pay tribute to Mad Jack), my sister and me, there were perhaps a half dozen other people there. I didn’t know them. One guy was a cop who said Mad Jack liked to tell jokes. Not the worst legacy, but not the most ideal choice for “only” legacy, either.
It is because his blood is my blood that I worry sometimes about adopting Mad Jack-isms. Sometimes I even become very like Mad Jack. I have thrown immense temper tantrums with all of my closest lovers, including my own ex-wife (who, for the record, I do not wish to shoot) and fiancee. I’m smart enough to recognize that my emotional dizzy spells are rooted in the same fear that Mad Jack possessed, but sometimes they sneak up just cleverly enough to explode before I can adjust my thinking. I’m horrible, lousy, inconsequential, I reason at unreasonable times, and I lash out – and it’s never to hurt anyone, but it is definitely to convince them to stay far afield of me. Considering the demise of my first marriage, I know it is one of the things I can count on for success.