Three Feet From Gold: The Story Of My Father's Life

JojayStarred Page By Jojay, 12th Nov 2011 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Short Stories

My first encounter with a Bipolar Disorder was when my father turned forty years old and had his first episode. It wasn't until I was an adult that I understood his manic mood swings had nothing to do with me.

Dad put down the paper and said that the news no longer interested him.

My father died inside one April day in 1953 when he turned forty. Had he been a reader, and not a lumber grader, he might have agreed with T.S. Elliot when he called April "The cruellest month" and wrote about a wasteland.

However, he read little but the morning paper, and then he read it front to back. On the day my father stopped participating in life, President Dwight D. Eisenhower had uncertain control of Congress and was continuing Russian expansion all over the world.

On the home front a man by the name of Joseph R. McCarthy was charging Soviet espionage activities in the United States. A claim that made saw mill
workers, like my dad, more than a little nervous. He was convinced communist infiltrators lurked among the lumber pilings along the river.

On that day, he put down the paper and said that "the news" no longer interested him. In fact, nothing in the world interested him. Not even mom's birthday breakfast of apple sausage and fried eggs. And how he loved eggs! He could eat them seven days a week; boiled, fried, scrambled, baked, pickled or peppered; he didn't care how they were prepared. Just so they were eggs.

But on this particular morning in blooming April he paid no attention to the fried eggs on his plate or to the red breasted robins hopping around on the dew-laced grass outside the kitchen window.

He ignored the birthday cards propped up against the jelly juice glasses. The Old Spice gift set my fraternal twin Jill bought him sat unopened on the table.

Jill's carrot red hair matched the first batch of spring freckles, and any other morning I would have teased her, but I ignore her freckles and looked expectantly toward the head of the table.

"Open my present first." Brenda's brown hair was caught in a pink ribbon and she wore a lipstick with the fun name of Cotton Candy. Brenda's gift was a screwdriver set bought with her baby-sitting.

Dad didn't seem to hear. "Open mine first, Daddy", Brenda repeated with a mouth full of toast.

It was when dad looked at Brenda. I mean really looked with his whole face that's when knew something was off base. When dad was happy his eyes were the color of the Columbia river in midsummer, but today I saw shadows in them---like the river right before it freezes.

He picked up the screwdriver set and untied the ribbon.
The 'old' dad would have held up the package to his ear, shaken it, and then tore off the ribbon as if he couldn't wait another minute.

He laid the ribbon beside his plate as if it were a napkin at a fancy dinner and peeled away the tape.

When he saw what was inside he said, "Thank you Honey. This is really nice."

Brenda's face fell. "I heard you tell mom that you wanted a screw driver set," she said lamely.

Dad smiled with darkened eyes. "Your mother was right. I had my eye on that."

Your mother my mind echoed. What about "your mom" or "my honey". Or "Chum", names he usually called her.

He picked up the Old Spice set.

"It's something you can use." I couldn't think of anything else to say.

The same robotic ritual. He untied the ribbon, placed it by his plate and then pulled loose the scotch tape.

"Old Spice. My favorite. Thank you uh, Jean." He picked up his coffee cup, took a sip, and then sighed again.

"Aren't you feeling well, Dear?"

He smiled in a grotesque way. If he had been kidding around we would have giggled. "Oh I'm fine! Couldn't be any better."

"Well, uh happy birthday Daddy!", I said in an effort to make things normal again.
He looked at me if he'd forgotten who I was. "Oh thanks, Jean."

Mom pushed some apple sausage over to him. "Have some more sausage."
Dad shook his head. He was too full.

Full? of what? He'd just picked at his food. Did he think he was coming down with the flu or something?

No he wasn't sick, he just didn't feel like eating. Why was she always trying to stuff him full of food?

"I'm not doing anything of the kind! It's your birthday.I wanted you to be happy."

His face softened. I would have preferred the anger. I knew what his angry face looked like.

"Of course you do. I really appreciate the trouble you went to. It's just that I'm kind of tired. I think I'll go upstairs and lay down for awhile."

That did it! Mom had an absolute horror of anyone sleeping in the day. Especially the morning. She jumped up and went over to the phone. She picked up the receiver.
"I'm calling Doctor Remington."

He got out of his chair so fast he sent Old Spice crashing to the floor. Good thing he hadn't taken it out of the box like he usually did.

I'm not sick! Florence. Put down the phone!

Mom looked a little fearful as she told Norma at the switchboard that she had changed her mind about the call. She placed the phone back in its cradle.

"I'm going outside where I can breathe. This kitchen is like a mausoleum." He opened the door and went out.

Mom came back to her place at the table and sat down.
Dad had left his package of his Lucky Strikes cigarettes by his plate. Mom pulled a cigarette from the red-and-white package and lit it.

"Calling this place a mausoleum. The idea!"

I was eleven and already a lover of new words. "What's a mausoleum?"

"It's a place where dead people go." Brenda was proud of the fact that she had been a teenager for two years. "Don't you know anything?"

It's all such a waste of time and energy, life.

Whatever kind of virus dad contracted the day of his fortieth birthday, it kept him in its grasp for the entire week. He ate breakfast without tasting it, went to work, came home at four o'clock, ate supper at 4:30, read the paper and then went to bed.

He didn't even watch The Texaco Star Theatre with Uncle Miltie. We girls really missed his version of the TV commercial, "Use Ajax...bum bum...the foaming cleanser...bum bum bum bum bum." No one could 'bum bum', quite like dad in a good mood.

Two weeks later mom was having her morning coffee with her two sisters. Dad had left for work. The spring vacation had started. Jill was riding her bike and Brenda was at a girlfriend's checking out her new 45's. I was sitting on the chrome stool listening to my two favorite aunts talk.

"What seems to be bothering him?" Aunt Viv, the reader in the family, asked a lot of questions.

"Bothering him?," Mom echoed as if stalling for time.
"Darned if I know. Turning forty I guess. I don't know why that would get to him though. I'm just three years away myself.

Aunt Toots looked like Myrna Loy. We all agreed she was the glamorous one. She took a cigarette from a black jet case and lit it. She worked down at Boone's Cafe and she often stopped by to have a cup of coffee with mom before she started her shift. Aunt Toots nails were freshly painted. Her garnet ring she wore caught the morning sun with a brilliant flash of light.

"It's usually the women who have a problem turning forty. That's the age when their looks start to go." Aunt Toots fidgeted with the jet cigarette case. Her looks
weren't going anywhere. At least not for a few years yet.

"Phooey. All of us are getting older. No, the problem with him is that he's feeling sorry for himself and he needs to snap out of it." She hoped it would be soon. Ever since his birthday he hadn't said more than a few words to her, and that was when he needed to know where she put his socks. And did she remember to gas up when she was in town getting groceries?

"I wonder if it might be something more serious." Aunt Vivian moved slightly away from Aunt Toot's blue cigarette smoke. She pushed thick glasses back on her nose."Sometimes depression can be triggered in the brain. You know, not related to anything external, like birthdays. I read somewhere that...."

"You read too much Vivian. I know my husband and he's just feeling sorry for himself."

Vivian was the youngest of the sisters and mom reasoned she'd have to chalk up a few more years before she could offer an opinion on her husband's state of mind.

Aunt Viv shrugged her shoulders. Perhaps she was right. But there were a few signs she might watch for...

"More coffee, Toots?" Mom interjected.

Aunt Toots nodded her head and smiled at her sister.

Aunt Viv took this as encouragement and pressed on. "If it's in the brain and not..." She looked hard at mom,"in the mind, he might go through a manic phase. Get kind of crazy, talk a lot. Not be able to sit still. Make grandiose plans. That kind of thing."

"Vivian?" Mom's voice was tight. You could see her mind work. She was offering her more coffee for the trade off that she shut up about her theories.

Aunt Viv shook her head. No, she had enough coffee. Mom smiled with relief and put the pot on the electric stove.

Aunt Viv stood up. "I must be going. Got a load of ironing to do and the week is getting away with me."

As if on cue, Aunt Toots closed her black cigarette case and put it in her purse. She took out a small compact and opened it. "I smoked my lipstick off," she said as she put on a fresh coat of lipstick. It was "Strawberry Parfait". I recognized it as the same color Brenda bought in the dime store the week before. Shades of lipstick were very important considerations in my life.

Aunt Toots took a couple more sips of coffee, ripening one side of the porcelain cup with a dark pink stain. She must be on her way, too. It was her day to bake pies at the cafe. People just loved her apple pies.

After her sisters left, mom didn't say too much. She washed the coffee cups and emptied the ash tray. I knew that she was upset by the brisk way she opened and shut the cupboard doors. I was dreading lunch time already.

"Is dad going to be in a bad mood again tonight?,"
Jill asked as she bit down on her fried bologna sandwich.

Mom always ate her lunch standing at the counter, even when there was room at the table. Supper was the only meal that she sat down for. She wanted to be "where she could get things". And sitting at a table kept her a fair distance from the cupboards or the stove.

"I hope not." Mom spooned another teaspoon of sugar in her coffee. "I'm making him cream puffs for dessert. If that doesn't put a smile on his face, nothing will."

At four-thirty sharp mom had supper on the table. Fried chicken, boiled spuds, green beans, and the cream puffs (puffy and golden brown) were cooling on the wire racks. I couldn't wait to taste one.

Dad came in the door so quietly that we didn't know he was there until he put his hard hat and black lunch bucket on top of the refrigerator. He went in the bathroom right off the kitchen to wash the saw mill off his hands. He came out of the bathroom and then took a seat at the table. He was stiff and unnatural, like a little boy in church. He sighed and then grinned again in that phony way. "I see we have fried chicken."

"Yes, you see fried chicken. You won't be needing glasses for a while".

I looked up surprised, It wasn't in mom's nature to be sarcastic.

Dad didn't seem to notice. He picked up his fork, jabbed at the boiled spuds, cut off a piece with his fork, brought it to his mouth, and chewed. He ate without any of his usual enthusiasm. Like he was just "filling the vacant spot" as mom often said when she saw someone eat food without tasting it. When he got to his favorite food, the chicken, he did the same thing.

"Something wrong with the chicken?" Mom said in a voice so sharp she could have cut steak with it.

"Oh no dear. It's delicious. I'm just that I'm not very hungry today. Food isn't that important to me", he concluded.

Isn't that important!, Mom's voice rose an octave.
How many times had he told her that there were two kinds of people in the world. Those who lived to eat, and those who eat to live. And dad lived to eat.

Dad looked down at his plate. "There doesn't seem to be any point in anything. It's all such a waste of time and energy. Life."

"You don't question life!" Mom was snorting now. "You just live it."

Dad poked at his spuds. Mom looked like she wanted to slap him.
Yes, he supposed that was true. "But nothing seems to make any difference. You know?"

No, she didn't know. Life wasn't supposed to make sense. What sense was there in cooking supper? She didn't enjoy chopping the neck off that fryer. To say nothing of scalding it, and picking the feathers.

Did he have any idea how long it takes to get a chicken ready to eat? Three hours. And for what? People gobble it up and it's gone. All that killin', boilin', singeing, pluckin' and cleaning. And did she question all that work? She did not. She just did it.

Mom finished her little speech and we were finished with our appetites. Jill's face was green enough to compliment her hair.

Dad got up from the table. It wasn't the same thing at all. Women were different from men. They just didn't think as much.

Mom gave him a scalding look. Leastwise, they thought differently. No, she just didn't understand. It just make no sense to him. Any of it."

"It? it, it!" Mom's voice rose with her as she stood. Whatever It was, was making her crazy. He just better 'snap out off it, or she's sentence trailed off into uncertainty. She had no idea what it was she would do.

The silence got thick enough to take the air from the room.

"I made cream puffs for desert," Mom said after a thousand years had passed. "You're not going to refuse a cream puff."

Mom and dad stood facing one another like two generals on a battlefield. Dad's shoulder were the first to sag.

"Just one," he said as he sat down. "And no whipped cream."

When I saw Steamboat rock around the bend I almost cried with relief

Someone was singing in the middle of a corn field. He was belting out, "Oh, what a beautiful morning." I awoke with a start. The corn field dissolved into the patchwork quilt on my bed. The singing was coming up from the heat register in the kitchen. Dad. He must have gotten over his depression!

I jumped out of bed just as the church bells began to bong. It was Sunday. We would go for a drive. Dad loved his Sunday drives.

I was excited as I made my way down the stairs. But I was not prepared for what greeted me at the breakfast table.

He had his hair combed in a style that looked more like a rock-and-roll singer than my father. One strand he had combed over the bald spot and the rest he greased back from his ears. He wore a Hawaiian flowered shirt. I didn't know he owned one.

"Good morning Jean!" He greeted me as I came into the room. "I thought you were going to sleep all day."

Yesterday he barely spoke at all, and now he was greeting me like he hadn't seen me for a year. I gave him a snappy "Good morning!" and headed for the bathroom. I didn't know how to act around him.

When we were seated around the breakfast table I made up my mind to act natural. Maybe then he'd see how weird he was acting and turn back into himself. Maybe. But I wasn't too hopeful. Dad attacked his breakfast of eggs, bacon, fried potatoes and toast.

Between mouthfuls he declared that the food was wonderful! The day was beautiful! And too bad we slept through the sunrise. And such fine daughters he was blessed with! He was a rich man indeed. "Speaking of rich," he paused long enough to take a gulp of coffee, "I've got a surefire plan. I'm going in the poultry business. I'll buy an incubator, raise chickens for their eggs, and meat.

Let's see," he drummed his fingers on the table, "A good hen could lay an egg a day. That's seven eggs a week. Multiply that by 50 layin' hens and that would be 350 eggs. At 35 cents a dozen we're talking about---"

"There's no money in eggs." Mom told him to pass the fried spuds before they got cold.

"Not eggs then, meat. I'll sell the chickens to restaurants."

"We have one cafe in town and they get their meat from Malkeroys Meat Plant. I kill the few chickens we have. You don't have the stomach for it."

Dad laughed so loud I jumped. "Well okay, Chum. We won't go in the poultry business. There's lots of other things I can do. I'm a young man yet!" He helped himself to more spuds and then passed the plate to me.

"Thomas A. Edison had but three months of schooling, and Henry Ford never reached high school. Desire is the key. You've got to harness and use the power of desire. Napoleon Hill says---"

"Who is Napoleon Hill?" Mom thought she knew everyone dad did.

"He wrote the book that I got at the garage sale in Wilbur last week."

Mom continued to look blank.

"Well anyway, it's not important where I got the thing. It's what I'm doin' with it that counts. Mr. Hill convinced me that anything is possible. At any age! If you have the desire. "I bargained with life for a penny, and life would pay no more."

Mom was getting worried. Poetry now. She did the only things she could think of under the circumstances. Offered dad more pork.

Dad speared a couple of bacon slices and continued. "I don't remember the second line, but here's the important verse. "For life is a just employer, He give you what you ask, But once you have set the wages, Why, you must bear the task!" Dad punctuated his sentence by dumping a gob of ketchup on his eggs.

"I don't remember you buying any books at that garage sale."

Dad laughed again. I wished he'd stop that. He reminded me of Scrooge when he learned that he hadn't missed Christmas after all.

"The best investment I ever made in my life! I'm going to apply the principles and think and get rich!"

"Are we going to get to go somewhere today?" Jill asked when dad stopped to take a breath.

He tugged her red hair. "You bet your life we're going "to get to go somewhere." We're going to Steamboat Rock and have a picnic."

In the thirty minute drive to Steam Boat Rock, he sang all the verses of "Mairzy Doats," read all the Burma Shave signs, and highway billboards. A sign advertising a furniture store in Spokane made him think he might build himself a house. Some Guernsey in a field chewing their cud inspired him to announce his plans for a diary. He was off mining silver ore in the Coeur D'Alene when I saw Steamboat Rock around the bend in the road. I could have cried with relief.

By the time we had unloaded the picnic basket and lit the camper stove, we were all in a kind of stupor.

"Listen to this! There was a man who had never heard that more gold had been mined from the brains of men that had ever been taken from the ground! Think of it girls!"
Mom had turned his back on him to fill the coffee pot. "Mined from the brains of men. This man in Colorado discovered a strike. He had machinery shipped to the mining site and begin to work. Then, you know what happened?"

"No, dear, what happened?" Mom asked with about as much enthusiasm as she gave a weeks work of ironing.

"The vein of gold ore disappeared. He'd gone into debt for the equipment and brought nothing from the ground but pyrite, fool's gold. He tried again. Nothing."

Dad had piqued my interest. "What did he do?"

"He quit. Yes sir! He sold the machinery to a junk man for a few hundred dollars and took the train back home. I now come to the interesting part."

Mom waited. I waited. Jill waited. The ice in the koolaid melted.

"This junk man called a mining engineer. He looked at the mine and said that the project had failed because the owners were not familiar with "fault lines." He showed that the vein could be found just three feet from where that man had stopped drilling."

Dad took a deep breath. "When the original owner heard what happened he said I stopped just three feet from gold, and someone else got rich because I gave up. But that Colorado man went into the business of selling life insurance and became a millionaire. And from that time on, when anyone said no to him, he kept after them until they said yes.

Dad took a drink of water as he waited for all this to sink in. Mom said that she never liked people who "couldn't take no for an answer." She knew a guy just like that who sold Fuller brushes. Women hid when they saw him come up the walk.

Dad frowned. "You missed the point of my story.
But then maybe that was how I told it."

It was nearly seven o'clock before mom cleaned up the picnic sight and packed up the car. Dad didn't lift a finger to help her because he hadn't stopped talking long enough to put to work any muscles that weren't need to carry on a conversation. It was too cold for swimming so Jill and I hung around the picnic area and prayed for a spring shower. We found some wild bellflowers along the bank and I picked some to take back with us.

Dad corralled us into the car and we headed back to town.

"That was a very interesting story. About the man and the gold." Mom said.

It took me a moment to realize that she was talking about his gold story.

"Oh, Jill do be careful of those flower petals!"

She was so worried about Jill getting the petals all over the back seat that she didn't notice that dad hadn't answered her. In fact he'd stopped talking. He hadn't said a word for at least fifteen minutes. Just like that. He'd wound down like a watch. He was staring straight ahead at the black highway.

Mom seemed relieved to drive back in silence.
She watched the moving landscape from the car window
lost in a world of her own. We couldn't understand how dad could go from one extreme to another so fast. Mom's moods were always constant. Neither real high or low. Just constant. Like a cup of warm cocoa on a cold day.

The front window was open and his left arm rested on the window. He was smoking. His slicked back hair had dried and was now coming out of its moorings. He looked like he had chicken feathers on top of his head. I turned my head to look out the other window.

When we got home dad went inside. Mom, my sisters, and I unpacked the picnic lunch. We were relieved to have something to do. Jill found a mason jar to put the flowers in. We took the flowers and went upstairs.

"Do you think we'll be like that when we get forty?". I plopped down on the red chenille bedspread.

Jill looked up from the funny book she was reading and wrinkled her nose. That was a long way off; she didn't have to think about it yet. "By the time we're old, people might not even get old. They'll probably invent something that will make us live longer." Jill stuck her nose back in the comic book, lost in the exploits of Archie, Betty and Veronica.

I looked at the bell flowers in the mason jar. It made me feel better looking at the flowers.

It was quiet down stairs. The only sound that was coming up from the heat vent was the occasional sound of water being turned on and off. Mom must be washing the dirty picnic pans. I wished dad would come back into the house and make a noise. He didn't have to sing. Or whistle. Just make the normal sounds of talking to mom over a cup of coffee. I sighed and reached for a Nancy Drew book. That would get me through the day.

It must have been about six o'clock and mom called me down to set the table. We didn't say much as I went about my chores. "Go outside and tell your father that supper is ready." Se began to cut her homemade bread.

"I haven't seen him since the picnic. He's probably in the barn," she said as she put the bread on the table. "Studying dairying."

It was just beginning to get dark as I made my way out the back yard. The pasture's twilight glow reminded me of the blue flowers in the window. It was very still. Butterball, Our cow was in the field. I gave her a welcoming pat on her rump.

Dad then was standing by the watering trough. He was looking down in the water.

"Mom told me to tell you that supper's ready." He had combed his hair back in the usual manner.

"Tell her I'll be right in." He just stood there.

"Are you hungry, Dad?" I thought if he still had his appetite then all would be right with the world.

He gave my braids a little tug. "Oh I could eat. I'm always ready to eat."

"But are you hungry?" I persisted. I had to know that.

He smiled and this time the smile made its way to his eyes. "What did your mother fix for supper?"

"Oh lots of good things," I chimed. "No leftovers. She took a steak out of the freezer and we're gonna have mashed spuds and gravy."

"Mashed spuds. Let's go!" He grabbed my hand and we walked back to the house.

During supper dad talked, not a blue streak, just nice and steady like he usually did. He told us about a new lumber grader they hired at the mill. How the nights were still cold, but it was always cold in the spring "around here." He was seriously considering changing brands of chicken feed.

After spring vacation things got back to the way they had always been. Dad wasn't happy, he wasn't sad. He was Once in a while he'd have another of his ideas, but they didn't seem to go anywhere.

He lost interest in them even before he put the Farm Journal down. He never wore the flowered Hawaiian shirt again. Sometimes he whistled but it was not a song you ever heard before. It drove mom crazy that he didn't whistle something she could recognize. He was doing it, she said, just to annoy her.

The Napoleon Hill book, Think And Grow Rich" ended up in the cubby hole where it collected dust. Mom eventually sold it at a garage sale. And dad never talked about finding gold again. In his mind or anywhere else.


Bipolar, Bipolar Disorder Symptoms, Burma Shave Signs, Hypomania, Napoleon Hill, Thomas Edison

Meet the author

author avatar Jojay
I am a published and produced playwright. I enjoy writing about anything that strikes my fancy as well as engages my passion for a lifetime of learning.
Also find my
writings at

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author avatar johnnydod
13th Nov 2011 (#)

A wonderful well written story Jojay, congrats on your first Wikinut Star page,and I am sure one of many more to come.

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author avatar Steve Kinsman
14th Nov 2011 (#)

You are just the most wonderful story teller, jojay. I loved this. And I had to laugh - my dad, too, used to sing all the verses of Mairzy D'Oats.

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author avatar Denise O
19th Nov 2011 (#)

Your story reminds me of Billy, when he first came to live with us. Billy was so all over the place. Never a middle, always one exteme or another. If not for Billy's meds, he would have continued this life. Now, do not get me wrong, Billy still has his ups and downs, they are just better to handle is all with him on his meds. Also, Billy goes to a day school, which helps him with his mental challenges from his bipolar to his mental retardation. I have also taken it upon myself to study Billy. For example, if Billy puts on his sunglasses and wears them in the house, he is on a upswing. Billy has all kinds of quirks I can hone in on. I then let his counselors know what the day is fixing to bring them, it is most definately a team effort. If I had known of this disease and had been around Billy through his teen and early adulthood years, I would have figured out, Billy was suffering from this awful illness, since he was at least in his teen. My heart goes out to y'all. I am sure it had to be so hard for children to work this all out in their heads, I mean, at least I knew Dad was mad, all the time, no other way. Heck, y'all never knew what to expect. This is a well written story. Congrats on the star page, it is well deserved. As always, thank you for sharing.:)

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author avatar Denise O
19th Nov 2011 (#)

Oops, it seems I was automatically logged out. I clicked on your page, taken the dogs outside and when I finally made it back in, wikinut logged me out.
I really appreciate the message you left me on my page, I just wanted you to know that I did make it to your page, as suggested in the message you left me about your father and the ordeal y'all went through. So yes, this is the same Denise O, as posted above this message. Once again, thank you for sharing.:)

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