When the RSVP list for my father’s surprise 80th birthday party started shaping up and it looked like we would have just shy of 100 guests, a few people asked me “Do you think your father will be able to handle it?”
(This pause is the sound of me laughing out loud.)
I rightly predicted that once my father realized he was at his own party and not John Crafts’ party, he would be the same Mr. Popular he’d been in high school and he’d be “Tops Among Teens” once again. The only problem I anticipated was how to keep the party a secret until he walked through the door. This required a number of small deceptions.
First, I needed to get him to The Club and this involved a fraudulent invitation. I bought a box of generic “come to a party” cards and invited my father to someone else’s party. I disguised my handwriting with a calligraphy pen and my mother agreed to quickly show the invitation to my father when it arrived in the mail and then put it away. She would write “John Crafts’ Party” on the kitchen calendar. The scheme was believable because John Crafts’ birthday is the day before my father’s; he and my father have been celebrating back to back May birthdays ever since they were in kindergarten.
(Who is this John Crafts? He’s been selling and transporting cars since 1951. Travelers up and down Interstate 95 from Maine to Florida have likely been passed by one of his car carriers over the years.)
Then, my mother concocted a story that I was having lunch with a group of friends from high school on Saturday and I’d need to stay at Motel Four on Friday night. My father would think it was perfectly natural that I was wearing a black spring dress and sandals. Doesn’t everyone dress like this when they go to DaVinci’s with their friends?
We almost blew it on Friday afternoon; my father said “what are you two whispering about?” My mother brilliantly said “Julie-Ann’s showing me pictures on her phone.”
There was one last small problem.
When my father knows he’s going to have an extra strong back around the house, he plans Saturday morning projects. Leaf raking, bringing in wood, setting up fence posts, moving furniture, and sealing the driveway are just a few of the father-daughter activities we’ve done together. My father had a project for me this Saturday morning too, and my mother didn’t like it.
We ate our dinner Friday night and while we did the dishes, my father was rehearsing a story he was planning to tell at John Crafts’ party the next day. I’ve heard the story before. He, Rufus Ham, and Justin Crafts (John’s brother) decided to drive to Birdland in the Big Apple in a Chrysler New Yorker from John’s auto dealership. In Worcester, Massachusetts, the car engine caught on fire and the police thought it was stolen because it had dealer plates. The trio never got to Birdland, but they had a good three days in Worcester while the engine was rebuilt.
My father had just finished saying “I can’t wait to remind Justin of that story,” when my mother said “Herman, aren’t you and Julie-Ann going to cut up those boards?”
I played along.
My father said “We’re going to do it in the morning.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea; Julie-Ann is going to lunch with her friends and she doesn’t want to have sawdust in her hair.”
My father likes to do things at “Herman time” and he resisted.
“Dad, let’s take care of it tonight. That way you’ll be fresh for John Crafts’ party.”
My father didn’t say much. He put on his boots and we went out back where he had neatly piled the boards from the old fence he’d taken down during the week. His plan was to saw them into two foot lengths with his chainsaw and then split the lengths up into kindling. My job would be to hold the boards while he sawed them. My mother had provided me with a pair of safety goggles.
I could tell my father wasn’t happy. He had just regaled us with one of his best road trip stories; he was probably tired after dinner and looking forward to watching the news. He said “Your mother’s watching us from the bedroom window” with an emphasis on YOUR MOTHER which indicated he didn’t appreciate her supervision.
Sure enough, she was watching us.
Once we got the twenty-five or so boards cut up into 2 foot lengths, my father used one as a kneeler and then started chopping the pieces into kindling with his axe. I volunteered to help with the kindling.
“Nope,” said the almighty stubborn one.
I insisted and went down into the basement to get my Plumb hatchet. I watched my father snapping the boards into kindling like they were match sticks. It seemed easy enough, but the hatchet was the wrong tool for the job.
“Dad, is there another axe in the basement?”
Of course there was. It was the axe I gave him for his birthday a few years ago.
I kneeled down on one knee and started carefully imitating my father. He said “you always work on the cut end. It will split easier.” He then went over the possibility that a knot in the wood would affect the size and shape of the kindling sticks. An occasional “watch your hands” reminded me that I was a novice with an axe.
The axe was heavy, too. By the time I was done, my right hand was shaking. It was a good reminder that I was not ready for the Apocalypse yet.
“Dad, this is hard work.”
“This is child’s play,” he said.
By the sheer force of will and a little guilt, I managed to chop as many sticks of kindling as my father did. He was in a better mood, too, by the time we were done and I suggested we split a Moxie.
Axes, burning car engines, and surprise birthday parties. It’s all in a day’s work for my dad. Herman can handle it.
Are there any more questions?
(A very happy birthday to Mr. John Crafts today, too!)