Friday, October 05, 2007

My Life and Times with John Riley

When I was fifteen or so and we had a small emergency at my house. The wooded hillside across the road from our house caught fire. We owned the land and as my mother phoned for the fire department I pictured the whole river valley being just a small blurb on the local news, in much the same way they treated horrific fires out west. "X amount of acres were burned to a crisp, X amount of people were left homeless, and X amount of people died fighting the blaze." I followed my Dad's lead and grabbed a shovel and pitched in.
The fire department arrived to find two ready hands already doing what they had come to do. The hill was too steep and wooded to throw water very far, so it was shovels and nothing else, all the way up a seventy degree grade.
It took most of the afternoon to put the fire out and the valley was filled with smoke for three days afterwards, until the rains came to drive it out. When the firefighters packed it up and went home, it only left Dad and I on the hill. There was a gully that the spring thaw washed out every year and Dad and I found ourselves in it at the end of the day. I sat down to rest and clear some of the wood smoke from my lungs as I leaned on my shovel. Dad stood down the hill from me and announced "I'm going to the house" in the most tired voice I've ever heard him use, "You comin'?"
"Yeah," I mumbled, "after I walk the hill one more time and make sure that everything is out." I had learned my lesson the year before when the neighbors who rented our other house had caught the hill on fire and I had roamed the hill and found several small fires still burning long after the proffessionals had gone home.
Dad wiped the grime from the corners of his mouth and said "Oh you are just looking to get away from me so you can smoke a few cigarettes."
After six hours of wood smoke, the idea hadn't crossed my mind.
He fell silent for half a moment and wiped his eyes. "You got any cigarettes?" he asked.
I had been known in the past to swipe a pack from the behind the seat of his truck a time or two, but it was always at the encouragement of my "ne'er do well" buddies.
"No" I said in all truthfulness.
He fished around in his breast pocket of his shirt and produced a half a pack of Winstons. "Here" he said and tossed them at my feet and turned away and headed down the hill.
Of all the cigarettes I've had over the years, none ever tasted sweeter than the ones I had from the man I admired most. This was his reward for seeing me act like a man when a man was needed most.
I know in today's world that tobacco is the last thing that one should ever give to a kid who is working on being an adult, but at the time, this was a right of passage. This was different. In his eyes, that day I had faced the job of a man and didn't back down. This was a just reward for a young man who had proven himself worthy and who didn't walk away from a man's job.
I managed to puff my way through one cigarette that day and the rest I gave away to my buddies, the way a new father passes out cigars, because I was as proud as punch. From there on out, the old man treated me differently. What I said seemed to carry a little bit of weight, and was not dismissed as the ramblings of a child. I started to work with him a lot more and he would give me a chance to speak my say before he stepped in and delivered some fatherly advice. Like most young teens, I thought that I had the world by the tail. I was wrong, but he always listened, thought it over, and gave me a suggestion from his many years. He never started in with "Damn, you are dumb" as I have heard from so many fathers lately. He cut me a brake and I will always be grateful for it.
I hope you don't have fires you didn't mean to have and I hope you have the good sense not to smoke.


  1. Another great story of your father, Doc. Thanks for sharing him with us.

  2. Nice tale.

    My dad was also the first to give me smokes. But it was Swisher Sweets. He told me they were good for lighting off bottle rickets and firecrackers. Somehow, he let me know not to form a habit out of it; but if I was blowing shit up, it was okay to have a cigar. Weird...

  3. Gentlemen, thank you all.
    Coaster, always glad to hear from you.
    Skylers Dad, always a pleasure.
    bsuwg, every 4th of July I could count on one cigarette all to myself, but once you lit one firecracker, the taste was ruined. Count yourself lucky. You got a cigar, even if it was a Swisher Sweet.


  4. Nice post about your first man to man moment with your pops!

  5. Nice. I hope my sons look at me the way do your Dad. I hope I earn it as he did too.


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