Updated: May 12, 2021
It’s May 4, 2021 and my Dad would be celebrating his 86th birthday if he were still alive. As I sit here and wonder what I am going to do to earn money as this pandemic winds down, I think about how my Dad worked and provided for us. He was born in Spur, a small west Texas town in 1935. The country was still reeling from the Great Depression, which impacted black folks worse than others. His mother died in 1942 and when he was 14 years old, he and his two brothers were left to raise themselves. Their father found a new love and figured he’d done enough to equip them to finish the job of growing up.
My Dad attended a one room school house where kids of all ages were educated and where they all got out of school during harvest time to pull cotton. He graduated in the early 1950’s and moved to the big city (Lubbock, TX). He found work in a dress store doing pick ups and deliveries and may have had other odd jobs. After a while, he announced he was traveling to Denver. I don’t know how many different jobs he had in Denver before he met my mom at work. They worked at the same hotel in housekeeping, the Hilton I believe. Neither my Mom nor my Dad had the privilege of approaching work like I have had. The primary metrics they used during this era in deciding what jobs to apply for were: Do they hire black folks and how much will they pay me?
It was a different world in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Black people had ‘a place’ and were expected to stay in it. Even in Denver, no matter what your ‘dream job’ was, only certain jobs were OK for black men to be hired for. On second thought, maybe things haven’t changed that much after all.
After 5 years of marriage, they were parenting 4 children. Seven years later a 5th child arrived so they were on a mission. With a high school diploma and a fast growing family, my Dad didn’t have the luxury of doing what he loved and figuring out how to monetize it which is what I have been blessed to be able to do for the last 30 years. What he did have was a strong body and a strong mind and he set out to use them both to carve out a life for himself and his family.
The jobs I remember him having when we were growing up were in warehousing, Walgreens and Chevron specifically. I don’t know exactly what he did but he would talk about fork lifts and trucks. It may have included loading and unloading trucks along with stocking merchandise and supplies. I remember him talking about computer training which makes sense because as technology advanced, employees roles shifted.
I remember when he worked at Walgreens, they had a Christmas party for the employees and their families which we attended. It was weird seeing how he interacted with work-mates. It wasn’t anything bizarre, it’s just that we only saw him interact with family up to that point and there was a noticeable difference in the vibe he had with them. At the entrance, we received a ticket with numbers on it and were told that prizes would be raffled off throughout the event and to refer to our ticket when the numbers were announced. There was candy and refreshments and little game booths and there may have been a Santa, I don’t remember, but what I do remember is the anticipation of fishing my ticket out of my pocket and reading along with the amplified voice coming out of the ceiling of the room.
1st number - Match!
2nd number - Match!
3rd number - Match!
No big deal, I told myself, these were the same 3 numbers he read off first in all the previous announcements.
4th number - Match!
5th number - Match!
I realized I was holding my breath as I willed him to call out my 6th number. I repeated that number over and over like a prayer and then like the voice of God, he announced that very number.
YEAH!!!! I WON, I WON!!!
From out of nowhere, someone escorted me up to a section of the room where a huge present was presented to me and as I start tearing at the decorated paper, I was fascinated by the bright orange something being revealed as each handful of wrapping was ripped away. It had straps everywhere with front pockets, back pockets, side pockets and some kind of aluminum frame. It was a huge fluorescent-orange backpack. Not a book-bag size backpack but a huge, go on a trip around the world backpack!
My parents never could have afforded to buy me a backpack like that. It reminded me of pictures in magazines of climbers trecking up Mt. Everest. I imagined going on camping trips, hiking adventures and expeditions into the wilderness, splashing into lakes and streams and running through wide open meadows. Winning it in the raffle was like a sign from the universe saying I was meant to explore, to travel, to be free to discover uncharted territory. The conviction I experienced as I imagined all of this was as if the only thing that had been holding me back from booking a safari was the lack of a backpack and now that Santa gave me one, I had to call the travel agent.
I don’t remember ever carrying that backpack on any adventures in real life. It gathered dust in our closet and survived a move from one house to another before it was either thrown out, given away or donated to Goodwill. For a little while though, it served as a reminder of the possibilities.
My Dad moved on to another job at Chevron where he worked for quite some time and when his job was finally phased out, he had been there long enough to receive some sort of severance. After that, I am not sure what jobs he took other than in the janitorial field and I regret not knowing more about what he did during his last years of work.
What I do know is that he, along with my Mom, provided 5 children with what they needed to be able to chart our own course on this great adventure called life. I’ll never forget that big orange backpack because it inspired me greatly and it was one of the few times I've ever won something in such a public way but what I’ve learned along the way is the ultimate prize was winning my Mom and Dad in the great parent raffle.
I’ve also come to understand that true adventure has nothing to do with having a bag big enough to put all your things in, it has everything to do with having a heart big enough to put all your passion in. That is the gift my Dad gave me when he left everything and everyone he knew and struck out to Denver to chart his own course.
Thanks Dad. I miss you and I love you!