Hot mid-summer days in Indiana were so stifling that you felt like you were trying to breathe water through a hot, saturated, oppressively heavy blanket. The air was so thick you could cut it with a knife.
Before you even woke up in the morning, you were sweating. Your PJs were already sticking to your skin.
The sun rose, shining on dew-kissed leaves, and before you could even see the rays over the horizon, we were already hustling, trying to get as many of the day’s chores done before the thermometer rose even higher.
The windows were all open, held up by a piece of an old broom handle, but that didn’t matter. It was so hot that even the wind was too overtaxed to put forth the effort to stir.
Our house didn’t have air conditioning. No one did back then. Some stores did, and businesses, but not homes. That was decades away, far in the future.
Mom tried to get a head start on her Avon route on those blistering summer days, delivering quite early to other farm wives who were also up before the roosters, and long before breakfast.
Mom would pack her demonstrator bag with samples the night before. When it was this hot, Mom had to carry the entire heavy bag into each house, because leaving it in the car, even with all of the windows down would melt the lipsticks and ruin the cosmetics in about 2 minutes flat.
Plastic tubes and bottles would melt and warp. Sometimes it was so hot she would put the customer’s orders in a cooler alongside paper milk cartons filled with water and frozen into ice blocks so their purchases wouldn’t overheat and be ruined before she delivered them. She only had one old metal cooler though, so she could only take as many orders as would fit there, or in cardboard boxes, if the contents weren’t in jeopardy from heat.
The Avon order arrived by UPS every other week. Mom would unpack the order and sort the contents of the boxes on the Formica kitchen table. She put each customer’s order in a white Avon paper bag with their name and the amount they owed written on the front, plus an Avon book of course, in case they wanted to order something for the next time.
Those bags with customer orders would be placed into cardboard boxes sorted by the delivery order.
The hotter it was, the more often Mom had to return home, at least until cars had options for air conditioning and she would part with the $$ for that luxury. When Dad bought a car with AC, she never said a word about the cost.
Even after she had AC in the car, she didn’t want to let the car run while she was in someone’s house. No, not because of the danger of theft, but because it wasted gas. Literally, every penny mattered on the farm where a hailstorm could wipe out an entire year’s crop, and income, in the blink of an eye. I remember some of those years all too well.
Automobile theft was non-existent in Hoosier farm country. Heck, everyone knew everyone’s car or truck. No one needed security cameras back then. We had nosey neighbors who knew when everyone came and went. Speaking as a former teenager, trust me on this one
That neighborhood security force of church ladies came in handy more than once over the years and saved more than one life too. Farm country was inherently safe, at least in this way.
On this particularly scorching summer day, Dad started working before dawn in the barn. The animals were all hot too, so he made sure to give them all extra fresh, cool, water, pumped straight out of the ground. He ran water for the hogs to be able to wallow in the mud. Sometimes he would take the hose and run it over their bodies so they would feel better.
He was a very soft-hearted farmer.
By the time he finished his morning chores, Dad was done just in time to help Mom load her car with her Avon deliveries.
This particular day, Mom knew it was going to be beastly, so she planned to return home mid-morning for a second box of deliveries. That would give her the opportunity to touch up her makeup, which would surely be running by then, use the bathroom and maybe make a phone call or two to see if people were home before going back out again.
Mom wanted to be finished on the road before lunch. She still needed to cook something for her and Dad to eat – although, on hot Avon days like that, we often had a quick meal like BLTs while sitting in front of the box fan in the kitchen. Of course, iced sweet tea and for the adults, ice coffee was the preferred beverage.
Mom would insist it really wasn’t THAT hot, while the rest of us had rivulets of sweat running down our backs.
But on this miserable day, even Mom wasn’t pooh-poohing the heat – and it was still quite early.
The only cool place on that farm was the basement. The basement was called a Hoosier or Michigan basement. Our basement, maybe 15 by 20 feet, or perhaps slightly larger – wasn’t under the entire house. I suspect the original house had been built in the mid-1800s. It was Amish and square. No plumbing, kitchen, central heat, or wiring, of course.
The basement was only beneath the later addition, to the right of the original square house, above, which was built later, but still significantly pre-1950. The basement was old enough that there was no wall on one side – just dirt that receded into a spider-infested shallow crawl space under the rest of the house. There wasn’t enough tea in China to get me to crawl under there. Three sides had very old concrete blocks with two small ground-level windows that didn’t open. At some point, Dad had concrete poured over the dirt floor, facilitating a drain that emptied into a pipe that drained into the little creek down by the barn. I suspect he finished and leveled the concrete himself, because it wasn’t.
We had purchased a used pool table at an auction and played pool down there. It took about 6 men to get it down those stairs and it was never, ever coming out again, I assure you.
Later, Dad somehow rigged up a shower by running a pipe across the ceiling from the outside well by the windmill. It was the only shower in the house, and from that day on, Mom and eventually grandkids were the only ones who took baths instead of showers. In fact, Mom didn’t go down into the basement unless she had to.
That shower had one temperature – cold. Eventually, we got tepid warm too. That was a red-letter day!
Soap sat in a wire soap dish on a wooden crate along with a shampoo bottle. You carried your washcloth and towel up and down the stairs with you. There were no sides to the shower. You just stood in the corner of the basement in all of your birthday-suit glory and washed quickly.
My brother lived under threat of immediate and certain death if he DARED to come down to the basement or go anyplace near those windows when I was showering.
Of course, to a brother, that was simply an invitation to cause trouble. He would stand outside the window and sometimes kick it with his foot, calling my name. I would swear, “Damn it, Gary, go away.” Then, of course, I would get in trouble for swearing, which he thought was hilarious. Rinse and repeat.
On the far side of the dark, damp, but cool, basement room was Dad’s “shop.” Not to be confused with his shop in the barn.
Dad’s basement shop, even though the basement had no heat, was warmer than the unheated shop in the barn which was typically used to repair farm machinery. Repair might well mean forging a part or beating some misbehaving piece of mechanical gear into submission. Dad was good at almost everything.
The shop in the basement, over the years, came to be favored for things like working with wood and leather, making bone and wooden buttons for his rendezvous clothes and re-enactments where he was a mountain man – and working with vintage guns.
By vintage, I mean black powder muzzleloaders. Those all came and went through the side door to the basement.
Truth be told, I’m not sure Dad even owned one himself. Our guns on the farm were “put up,” meaning locked up in the house, taken very seriously, and never gotten out unless there was a need. If you saw Dad walking out of the house with a gun, something was wrong and you needed to ask how you could help.
Most often, it meant some poor animal needed to be put out of its misery. If there was any saving it, Dad would bring it in to me and Mom. Otherwise, we were instructed to stay in the house and he did whatever needed to be done.
Mom and I listened for the report, both of us winced and looked at each other – grateful that whatever it was, was over.
Dad loved to work in his shop.
People would bring him broken things at rendezvous encampments and asked him if he could fix them. He would often tell them he didn’t know, but he’d give it a try, which often meant recreating an obsolete part. He’d return the item to them at the next rendezvous. Over time, his reputation working with firearms grew and he always had something he was fixing. I think he enjoyed the challenge – and he was very good at figuring out how to repair things that seemed irrecoverably broken.
That Hot Morning
Mom pulled out of the driveway and headed north.
I pulled out of the driveway and headed south, the pavement so hot that the heat shimmered in the distance, creating optical illusions. I worked in town, some 20 or 25 miles away. Before I was past the first crossroads, my legs were already sticking to the seat.
I’m not sure where Gary was, but I think he may have been living in town at that time. He wasn’t at home.
Retrospectively, Dad probably relished the quiet of the household when Mom and I were gone, with the windows wide open and hearing the distant rustling of the animals making farm sounds.
Make no mistake, he loved us, but we weren’t exactly quiet. We were always busy, talking, doing something, cooking, canning, and complaining about the heat. Well, that was me.
After we left, Dad went down to the shop that he affectionately called his office, probably because it couldn’t have been further removed from anything resembling an office – although he had commandeered an old desk as a work surface. To this day, I have NO IDEA how that man could see anything down there in that sacrosanct dungeon that served as his man-cave. There was one light bulb hanging from the ceiling, and it was not in “his” corner of the basement, furthest from the windows.
After Mom left, Dad went downstairs to work on fixing a black powder muzzleloader that needed a part.
The thing about an Avon route is that while it might take all day, you were never terribly far from home. Mom knew all of her customers of course, but if she decided it would be better to return home to go to the bathroom, she probably wasn’t more than a few miles away, at most.
Mom had completed her first few deliveries. She was always torn between wanting to hurry so that she would get done before the worst of the heat, and not wanting to leave before someone had a chance to take a look at the sale brochure. Her best shot at getting a new order was right there in the living room or at the kitchen table when making a delivery.
As Mom left someone’s home, a very strange feeling came over her.
She couldn’t shake it.
She felt like she needed to go home.
Not like when she needed to go to the bathroom, this was different.
She tried to ignore it. It wasn’t rational, she told herself.
As she turned in the direction away from the house, heading on to her next destination, the feeling became more urgent.
Then it became overwhelming.
Mom turned around in the middle of the road and made tracks for home.
She heard the disembodied words, “hurry, hurry.”
Dad’s truck was parked at the barn, like always, so he was there.
A sense of foreboding had overcome her on the short drive home that seemed to take forever.
Mom parked in the driveway and scampered inside, somehow knowing something was wrong.
Had something happened at the barn?
Did the tractor flip over?
Where was Dad?
As she tripped across the threshold of the back door, dashed through the mudroom and into the kitchen, she saw it and stopped dead in her tracks.
A trail of blood.
She didn’t know which end of the trail was the beginning and which was the end.
What had happened?
Where was Dad?
There was blood, splatters, and misshapen partial footprints – like someone had been sliding in the blood, all blurred together.
Her head spun.
The bright red trail reached from the kitchen side door leading down the steps to the basement, across the kitchen in front of the refrigerator, and disappeared into the bathroom.
There was total silence.
Not even the dog.
Where was the dog?
Something was horribly, horribly wrong.
Mom ran into the bathroom and stopped again.
Dad was laying on the floor, white as a sheet.
The dog was protectively curled around him, not moving.
Terror struck like a knife stabbed into her heart.
She rushed to him, falling on her knees in the puddle of blood.
Thank God, he was still breathing.
Mom looked for the source of the blood and quickly realized he had been trying to apply a tourniquet when he lost consciousness.
His leg was hemorrhaging, but he had been able to apply at least some pressure, and the dog was actually laying on that leg, over the wound.
Bless that dog!
Mom grabbed something. His belt, I think, but I can’t remember for sure, and secured it around his leg. She had no idea why he was unconscious. Was it loss of blood, pain, or another injury someplace?
She turned him over and saw nothing more. It never occurred to her that maybe, just maybe, someone had shot him and might be in the house and they both might be in danger.
Those were the days long before cell phones. Mom ran to the desk in the kitchen where their only phone was located. There was no 911 back then either, but there was always a sticker under the handset on the rotary phone that displayed the phone number for the ambulance, “just in case.” That was that day.
Her hands were shaking.
It rang busy.
She tried the neighbor, hoping for help.
Ran back to check on Dad – still breathing.
She decided to take matters into her own hands.
My 100-pounds-soaking-wet mother couldn’t lift Dad. She pulled him through the kitchen, out the mudroom, plopped him down the two steps, dragged him along the sidewalk, and somehow stuffed him into the passengers’ side door of the car.
Then, she drove like a bat out of hell the 20 miles to the hospital.
That was the first of two times she did exactly the same thing, both times saving Dad’s life.
That was, however, the only time Dad shot himself.
Arriving at the hospital, Mom called me at work. I knew something was very wrong. No one ever called anyone at work back then. She minced no words.
“Dad’s shot, come to the hospital.”
My heart stopped.
Just stopped dead.
I had no idea if he was alive or dead.
Who shot him?
Where was Mom?
Which hospital. I guessed the one closest to the farm.
I simply had no idea about anything…at all.
But I will tell you that my life stopped in that moment, time morphed, and I have absolutely no recollection whatsoever of the actual drive to the hospital.
Pulling into the hospital property, I spotted Mom’s car abandoned in the driveway under the canopy, with the doors open and no sign of Mom or Dad. But blood. There was blood.
That’s all I could see.
The security guards were looking quizzically at the car, clearly wondering what to do. I pulled up behind her car, leaped out of my car and ran into the emergency entrance.
Someone pointed me towards the curtained rooms in the back where I saw Mom emerging, looking like she was in shock, and covered in blood – even on her glasses and in her hair.
I could feel the anxiety squeezing my chest. I could smell the blood now.
“They just took him up to surgery.”
“Oh my God, he’s alive?”
Of course he was alive if they were taking him to surgery, but you don’t think clearly at a time like that.
Only then did it occur to me to ask Mom if she was hurt. All things considered, I presumed she wasn’t.
Mom and I both had a sobbing meltdown, right there, hugging and holding each other, which of course got me bloody too.
A volunteer took pity on us and shepherded us to a room that looked suspiciously like a chapel where we could cry in private. Plus, Mom was a mess and I’m sure they didn’t want us in the waiting room.
I gave the security guard our keys so he could move our cars out of the drive where they were blocking everything.
I asked Mom what happened.
I had no idea that she might not actually know.
Mom was in shock and could only cry.
After Mom left that morning, Dad had decided to work on a black powder muzzleloader.
Generally, he took a gun outside and made sure it wasn’t loaded.
But this gun was broken. Apparently, it was jammed somehow.
When Dad started to work on the gun in the basement, it discharged the bullet which then hit the concrete block wall. Ricocheting off the wall, the bullet hit Dad in the leg, badly damaging an artery and more.
Dad knew he was “hurt bad” as he put it, and decided to go upstairs to the bathroom to try to stop the bleeding.
Why he didn’t apply a tourniquet in the basement, and why he walked directly past the phone on the way to the bathroom, even touching the desk where the phone sat, instead of calling for help, I’ll never know. He was aware that his artery was involved.
He likely was shocky immediately. Who knows how much blood he had already lost by the time he had walked to the doorway, climbed the stairs, and made his way to the bathroom.
In the chapel, Mom suddenly realized that she didn’t know if she had shut the house door (she hadn’t) and was worried about the dog.
I told her I’d go home, take care of whatever needed to be done, get her some clean clothes, and come back to the hospital.
When I arrived, the dog was guarding the open door. The house looked like a massacre had occurred. Even a small amount of blood looks like a huge quantity, especially when on a flat surface like a floor.
I wasn’t prepared for what I saw.
Neither, apparently, was the sheriff, who we knew, and who pulled in right behind me.
Apparently one of those see-everything neighbors I mentioned noticed Mom driving with an intensity that belied an Avon delivery and after thinking about it, decided to drive up to the house to see if everything was alright.
The neighbor found the back door open, blood on the sidewalk, and the dog refusing to let anyone enter. They went home and called the sheriff.
The sheriff took one look at me, with blood residue on my clothes from Mom, but not realizing where it came from, and immediately put me in the squad car.
I got to sit in the squad car for some time while the sheriff radioed back to headquarters. It seems the deputies were already at the hospital – standard procedure in a shooting. The neighbor showed up again and told the sheriff what he saw.
As soon as the sheriff confirmed that things were as I said, he took a few pictures, just in case, confiscated the gun, and then he and the neighbor helped me clean things up a bit. He told me I was too upset to drive and took me back to the hospital. Mom’s clean clothes got a police escort.
This time the sheriff parked in the hospital driveway and we entered together, heading off to find Mom. I’m sure our family was the talk of the hospital for weeks, if not months or years.
I know this incident became legendary in the neighborhood.
Dad was fine, eventually. Not just fine, but he had a wonderful story, a wonderful yarn to spin to entertain his buddies.
When he got home, his first priority was to find the bullet.
Yes, find the bullet.
How would one ever locate that bullet that was bouncing around the basement?
Well, somehow Dad found it and made what was left into a memento which he wore from that day forward – especially to rendezvous.
He wore his bullet with his favorite shirt. After Dad passed away, Mom wore this as well to feel close to him.
When asked about why he was wearing this “thing” he had created, and what it was, the door was opened wide, providing him with the perfect opportunity to tell the story about when he shot himself. That story might, just might, have evolved a wee bit over time into somewhat of a tall tale.
Kids would gather, wide-eyed, and ask to see his scar from where the bullet went flying around the pitch-black room like a heat-seeking missile propelled by pitchfork fire.
His buddies wanted to know how that happened with the gun and all about when the sheriff arrested his wife and daughter.
Mom’s friends wanted to know how the heck she had managed to haul his carcass to the car. Dad didn’t really want to acknowledge that part. In his defense, he was unconscious and had plausible deniability.
They also wanted to know how Mom got the blood out of the linoleum and the seat of the car. She didn’t – she got a new kitchen floor with nary a whimper from Dad, and seat covers worked wonders.
In fact, sometimes the bloodstain on the seat would become part of Dad’s tall tale performance. He’d take those kids right over to see it, prefacing the great reveal with, “Are you ready? Are you sure?” before yanking the car door open to their amazement and horror. Ok, he might have enhanced the seat a bit, for effect.
The sheriff had a version of his own that he referred to as the Muzzleloader Massacre where the dog was the hero and saved Dad’s life. Sometimes, the sheriff would stop by the rendezvous and he and dad would tell dueling tall tales where they would both good-naturedly call each other liars. Those were something to hear. No matter how many times you had already heard them, they were funny. It seems there was always some new detail added by one or the other, or both.
Occasionally, I’d get to tell my own version, kind of as a tie-breaker, where I’d explain how Mom carried Dad to the car, kind of like a reverse wedding, carrying him outside over the threshold and then qualified for the Indy 500 on the way to the hospital. Then how she managed to get a new kitchen and new car out of the deal.
I think everyone always liked the dog-hero version of the story best.
Me and Dad
Dad, who was actually my step-father, and I had a wonderful one-of-a-kind relationship. We adored each other, as you can see by the look on our faces, above, at my wedding, just before he walked me down the aisle, after telling me it was alright to bolt out the back door if I wanted to change my mind.
I marvel at how fortunate Mom, along with me, were to have stumbled into his life. Or maybe he stumbled into ours.
It was my lucky day when they married.
Forever the prankster, you never expected that of Dad. He was always the quiet one, a man of very few words, and infinite love. However, he was always on the lookout for an opportunity to cause some mischief. My step-brother came by it honestly.
I’m positive, on the other hand, that I sorely tried that man’s patience, especially as a teen. He actually married my Mom when I was a teenager, in spite of me. Of course, I inherited that pesky brother in the deal, so I guess that was a two-way street.
Dad and I became incredibly close, bonded by our common losses and the joy of finding each other. I lost my father and he lost his daughter. One time, he walked past me sitting at the table, thunked me on the head with his thumb and forefinger, and said, “You know, when I married your mom, I got my daughter back,” and just kept on walking. Like I said, a man of very, very few words.
Not one time did any cross words ever pass between us. Not once. We loved each other, infinitely.
Only death would separate us, but not on that particular hot day in Indiana.
Back at the Hospital
Seldom did I get the best of Dad, but this time, I did.
I’m still secretly pleased by this.
Back at the hospital, when Dad returned from surgery and recovery, and we had cleaned up and changed clothes, they told us we could go to his room to wait.
As they wheeled the gurney in and got him settled, Mom was terribly relieved just to see him and started babbling – a release for hours of pent-up nerves.
Dad was all hooked up to IVs, a little groggy, but talking.
Mom asked him what happened.
He told her simply, “I shot myself.”
She asked, incredulously, “On purpose?”
“Hell no, Jean,” he replied, quite irritated at the question, probably because he was a much better shot than that.
I’m sure he thought he was about to receive a lecture, and he might just have been right.
I wasn’t sure he saw me, so I bent over the bedrail, looked down, smiled at Dad, and touched him. His irritation melted away immediately when he saw me, frown lines smoothing into the tenderest smile. I remember it so well, even today, all these years later.
He reached out to hold my hand. I could tell, in spite of his toughness that he was frightened and badly shaken. He knew how close he had come. So did I.
Had it not been for Mom, the dog, and perhaps the hand of God…
I took his rough, calloused, farm-hardened hand in both of mine, ever so gently and lovingly, and said…
“So, Barney, tell us what happened.”
I love you and miss you incredibly. I am so privileged to have had you in my life along with these wonderful memories – and your bullet – one of my cherished possessions.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad.
Source: The Day Dad Shot Himself