Monday, January 21, 2013

Dinner with Skip

On Saturday night, Joe and I joined my parents and my dad's best buddy Skip for dinner.  We got stuck at a table under a speaker in the bar section of the restaurant and the entire evening went like this:

Waitress:  Would you like a side dish with your ribs?
My Dad:  What?
My Dad:  A what?
My Mom: (blocks my dad's menu as she reaches across him to rearrange their water glasses, maybe to avoid spillage, maybe to stake out more personal water territory.)
My Dad: (trying to see around my mom's arm) Scalloped potatoes.
Waitress:  What?

My dad has come a long way.  He was a very intense person for most of his life and rather terrifying to a frizzy-haired chubby girl with purple glasses and a full-time outside voice at the dinner table.  I worked for him and with him for many years and after so many years of being in tense situations with him, it's a joy to see him throw back his head and laugh, hard, with his good friend. 

Hey, let's hang out here
for six hours! 
As I may have already bragged to you, my dad designed the moving walkway, like the one at O'Hare.  My son Max chose to do his science fair project on the moving walkway as a tribute to his Papa.  I enthusiastically supported this choice until I realized an experiment involving a walkway would require an actual walkway.  Three round trips to the Milwaukee airport later, I was thinking maybe he could have watered plants with 7-Up and coffee for the science fair like his brilliant father, Big Joe.  Or my choice of testing the flame resistance of pajamas by lighting them on fire.  But I digress...

My dad has invented all sorts of stuff and he knows how everything works.  His friend Skip has known him for about 30 years, and as the owner of an auto service business, he's no slouch in the smarts dept either.

Skip is a great big man with a bigger laugh and personality to match.  I started working for my father when I was 14 and it seemed like Skip was around from the beginning.  He was close friends with my dad’s former boss, who owned the machine shop where my dad first started his business.

“Your dad came striding into the coffee room one day with a briefcase in one hand and a cigar in the other,” Skip once told me conspiratorially.  “Your dad told me he needed some help with that old Toyota Corolla he had.  He started telling me about the alignment being off and went into a long technical diatribe about his assessment of what was going on based on the angles of oversteering or understeering.”

My father is a technical person and when it comes to fixing things, he’s the king.  He kept my mother’s clothes dryer running for over 30 years, replacing every single part, which eventually required some serious appliance store detective work. “If you don’t want to know how a clock works,” I overheard someone once say, ”don’t ask him what time it is.”  I knew exactly what Skip was talking about.

“Your dad may have understood the physics behind it all, but he had no goddamn business telling me how to fix cars.” Skip barked with assurance.  “I told him, ‘Dan, just give me the keys to that shitbox and I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it.’  Now at the time, I didn’t know him that well.

“Your dad…  was…pissed.”

No.  Really?  My dad?

Skip laughed.  “Your dad stood real still and stared at me.  He hollered that his car may be a shitbox but he needed it fixed, and he slammed out of there.  I couldn’t believe he’d yelled at me like that and I just sat there for a minute, stunned.  I stewed about it for a bit and got more and more ticked off.  I took off running for his office and I slammed his door behind me just as hard as he’d slammed the other one. Your dad was on the phone and glared at me while he ended his call.

“I said to him, ‘Hey, look, asshole, I don’t care if you drive a Toyota or a Mercedes or a Rolls Royce, they’re all shitboxes to me!  They all have engines, they all have brakes, I don’t care if they have tits, I still have to figure out what’s wrong.  Just give me the goddamn keys to that shitbox and I’ll fix it!”

My dad looked at Skip in surprise, leaned back and roared with laughter.  “Yeah, I guess you’re right about that,” he told Skip, wiping his eyes and handing him the keys.  When my dad's brilliant mind hadn't realized the problem was a flat tire, a beautiful, twisted, Scotch-infused friendship was born.

We had a fleet of limping cars, thanks to putting two kids through college while my dad was struggling to keep his computer consulting business afloat in the choppy waters of nonstop changing technology.  My dad developed software to help run Skip's business and their friendship grew. During all the years I worked for my dad, Skip treated me like family.  He always called me “sweetie” and told me jokes that were consistently foul and occasionally hilarious.  I felt a special connection to him.

When Skip heard that I had been fired from my corporate job, he wanted to help because he’s a fixer, like my dad. He called me out of the blue, asking me exactly what had happened so that he could use some connections to fight for the job I was supposed to get.  I was touched.  By that time, I was committed to trying to build my pencil portrait art career and I’d probably dodged a bullet by not starting a demanding, technical career.  I was coming to terms with how severely my ADD compromises my ability to make it out of the house with keys and clothes on.

So Skip ordered a portrait instead.

He told me all about his long distance relationship with the love of his life.  He'd had a rough road, unlucky in love, with nonstop challenges around every turn.  When he and Teresa reconnected through email, after knowing each other for years, life felt complete.  With demanding careers, they traveled together and Skip visited Teresa in Arkansas whenever he could, eventually buying a beautiful house together.

During one trip, Skip was driving back to Teresa after visiting his son. On a dark, overcast night, he came upon a dump truck, parked in the middle of a little country road. "The guy’s story was that he’d stopped to talk to someone," Skip explained, "but I believe he’d gotten out to take a pee. The truck's tail lights were so dirty that you could only see a faint glow.  When I came over the rise, I couldn’t see a thing until I was right on top of it.  I swerved to the left to try and get around it and didn’t make it.”

Skip hit the back of the dump truck going about 50 mph driving Teresa’s little Honda Accord.  Being a big guy at 6’4, Skip’s knee was only about an inch from the dashboard and the impact forced his femur out the back of his pelvis, smashing his sciatic nerve.

“I had to stay in Arkansas,” Skip told me, “I was going to be bedridden for months.  I couldn’t walk at all.  Teresa saw me through it all, the hospitalization, the surgery, taking me to physical therapy three times a week for the better part of a year.  She cared for me constantly, bathing me, making sure I took medication.  One time I developed blood clots and she rushed me to the hospital.  She was my nurse and my salvation.”

Skip suffers from permanent nerve damage, causing numbness and cramping.  “I can’t feel my foot touch the gas pedal,” he says. “You know that tingling feeling you get when your foot falls asleep?  It feels like that all the time, like pins and needles.  It gets to the point where I can’t stand it.  I can’t walk more than half a mile.”

Still, Skip is stunned by his good fortune, that he’s alive, that he has this amazing woman by his side. Since he couldn't help me with my corporate job, he ordered a portrait celebrating their first ten years together, a collage of their favorite places they've visited.  He wanted a special gift to show Teresa how much she meant to him.

It was the largest, most detailed portrait I'd drawn back then, and I was so grateful for the work - especially for somebody I loved.  When I delivered the finished portrait to him, Skip gave me such a warm, wonderful, fatherly hug.  He told me that I was talented, that he was proud of me.  He'd wanted to help me, but I was so glad I made him happy too.  They hung it in their office, over their computers... a sweet reminder of how they fell in love through emails. 

It looks like I forgot to sign it, though.   

Solving the world's problems one beverage at a time.
Over dinner, my dad showed Skip his photo retirement book I'd put together with messages from colleagues, clients, family and a few friends.  Workaholics don't have a lot of time for friends.  Skip has a two page spread in the book with great photo of them in Arkansas and a long funny story about my dad fixing a problem.  He and Skip happily share war stories about their businesses, the state of the country and the times they've injured themselves.  At one point, my dad was joking about the time he ripped his entire rotator cuff off his shoulder while stubbornly trying to start a power washer.  He said it was tricky getting used to using his left hand for bathroom hygiene, if you know what I mean.  

Skip, not missing a  beat, said "I'm surprised you didn't invent a machine for that.  Like maybe a corncob and a drill?"  It took us all a solid minute or so to stop laughing, wiping our eyes and sighing with appreciation.  Joe had never met Skip before and he got a huge kick out of seeing them swap puns and stories and hugs and laughter.  Everyone deserves to really be known by a good friend and I'm so deeply grateful that my dad has Skip in his life.

Wendy Zumpano


  1. What a great story! And your drawings are amazing! I thoroughly enjoyed this.

    1. You are obviously a highly intelligent reader with a great eye for art! 8-)

  2. I do believe families reflect certain characteristics! I look through my family and find one who does pastels, several others who work with wood, several who do pencil even one who lives in Alaska and does masks for the New Orleans. We have that hand eye coordination and ability to see and interpret. It is fun to see how this evolves in a family! Barbara Ebeling, Plainfield, Illinois.

    1. I wish I had some family members who were highly organized, good with time and dates with great memories who would have passed on some of THOSE skills, too. But that's probably too greedy!


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