My Father, Shoveling

Dad, around 1958, with his first new car


Every Fourth of July, my father shoveled shit. At least that’s what I remember, although our septic tank probably didn’t back up more than three times altogether. Still, in my memory, my father’s shoveling shit was as much a part of Fourth of July in the 1950’s as the intermittent popping of firecrackers during the day or the town fireworks display in the evening.

Nine or ten or eleven years old, I would watch my father methodically digging down three or four feet through the rocks and clay that lay under the grass in our back yard: stepping down on the shovel, lifting the dirt, pausing, turning the head of the shovel to drop the dirt where he wanted, then reversing the arc downward.

He talked to himself, his voice raspy from Camel cigarettes: “Goddamn septic tank (step down) … What’s the friggin’ use (lift up) … Work all week for chicken shit (turn) … Shovel more shit on the holidays (drop) … Some goddamn life” (swing down) …. He cursed this country’s education system for not preparing him for a trade, cursed World War II for taking five years from his life, cursed Will Franklin who’d stayed home during the war and made money in real estate and who was probably lying in the shade right about then, drinking beer.

Somewhere in Europe, probably 1944

On Fourth of July, when he shoveled shit and the sun rose to the top of the maple trees in the front yard, my father removed his sleeveless under-shirt. When the sun got directly over his head, he ran water on the undershirt and tied it around his head. When he got to the septic tank, he pulled a pint of cheap whisky from the pocket of his overalls, and took several swigs before using a crow bar to pry open the rusty cover of the tank. I stood in the shade of our apple tree, away from the smell, hearing my father’s distant, dry voice: “Jesus H. Christ from Baltimore! How much toilet paper do you kids use at one time, anyway?” Feeling then as if it was my fault that my father had to shovel shit on his only summer holiday, just as it was my fault for needing new shoes, my fault that we ate fried bologna while Will Franklin’s family ate steak.

Yet what strikes me now is that in some weird way my father was, if not happy, then at least content. Perhaps shoveling shit confirmed his conviction that God and Circumstance had conspired to make his life as shitty as possible. Beaten by his father until his mother took him and moved out, put in what 1920’s Massachusetts called a “Home for Wayward Boys” for four years while she worked in Grants and searched for another husband, taken to a small Maine town when she did remarry where he struggled in school and lived the rest of his life working sometimes two jobs to support his wife and three children, he was convinced he lived in a world of injustice—where life handed out unearned advantages to some and unwarranted disadvantages to others … like himself.

Or perhaps, in spite of considering himself a failure, he knew his family loved him, and if he had to clean up their shit, well, that was better than living in the Home for Wayward Boys or in an Army barracks.

Or maybe his spirits were simply jacked up by half a pint of rot gut whisky.

For whatever reason, I remember my father singing as he and I carried the shit, the smell dancing in waves over our buckets, down back of our yard to a ditch that ran to the river that carried shit from septic tanks all over town to the ocean:

“God bless America,

Land that I love

Da da da da, dum de dum dum,

Da da da, dum de dum, da da da.”


1986 or so. One of the last pictures of Dad. With Mom.

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