My dad’s coffee gave me the jitters.
Earl was 70 years old when had his first latte.
“Betty, you ever had one of them double Lah..Tays!?” Betty is my sister (and from Seattle – the latte capital of the world) and it was more of a statement to her than a question. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever had. One of the guys bought me one on the way to the golf course today. I like them! You ever had one?” He was off and running before she could answer. “You ever watched Meerkat Manor? It’s about these animals that stand up on their back legs and look at stuff. It’s my favorite show. Speaking of animals the democrats are ruining our country. Did you watch the Mariners last night? They lost again. Can’t hit to right field. I played terrible golf today. Couldn’t see the ball. Couldn’t care less. It was a great round. Hey, have you ever had a double Lah..Tay before?”
Earl had never mainlined coffee and I can only imagine that the heavens must have opened for him and he saw salvation on every street corner with a drive-through. Folgers was the gateway drug into a pure, undefiled, caffeinated woop-woop, heck, I’m going to live forever, look out, Earl is on the loose feeling! If his ADHD was bad on Folgers, it was on afterburners when he was on the good stuff. His crash that evening must have been epic – like taking Nyquil with a whiskey chaser.
As a child I never really understood my dad’s love affair with coffee, but from my earliest years I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t working through at least one cup and hollering at my mom for a refill when it was empty. Heck, there were times he didn’t even holler, just raised the cup above the daily paper and shook it back and forth like a beggar shaking his tin cup at passersby and my mom, in her beaten down exasperation, always got up and refilled his cup. At the time it seemed normal, but now I wonder why she didn’t pour it over his head. I guess it was always so much easier to do what he demanded than to fight with him about it.
NB: When I was a teenager I turned agreeing with Earl into an art form. I could agree with him in such a way that it would give him apoplectic fits. When he berated me for my lack of motivation and told me I would amount to nothing better than a ditch digger (the epitome of the lowest of the low), I would tell him in my best Disney voice that if that happened I would be the best darn ditch digger I could be. Combine that insolence with my innocent expression and hand motions and I could bring him to the brink of violence in a heartbeat.
In reality I was petrified of Earl’s coffee. I know it may seem odd to be afraid of coffee, but I had seen what it could do and wouldn’t come near it after mom set it next to him. In her hands it was safe. In his hands it was a liquid hand grenade in a cup. It was a hot blue mug of steaming nitroglycerin ready to explode at the smallest provocation and my dad was always that provocation.
Earl had ADHD before anyone even knew what ADHD was and I lived in constant fear that his searing hot coffee would engulf me in a tsunami of brownness and scald me over 90 percent of my body. He wasn’t one of those burn-your-kids-on-purpose kind of dads, but his distraction drove me to be very attentive whenever there was coffee around and especially when we were in the car.
Drinking while driving was one of the monkeys that my dad was never able to get off his back. But that monkey had nothing to do with alcohol and everything to do with coffee. The family’s AMC Jeep Wagoneer was a marvel of American ingenuity in every way but one – it had no cup holders. It could climb a waterfall of ice in winter, carry enough gear to outfit an entire baseball league, and haul the carcasses of six dead deer and one Christmas tree all at the same time, but it lacked that one very important feature. And, if anyone on this planet could have used a cup holder, it was Earl.
Driving anywhere with my dad was an adventure, but heading to a baseball game always brought his frenzy to a different level. He would open the driver’s door and throw in his Thermos, shattering the insides like a Christmas ornament (he purchased the glass inserts by the gross), jump in beside it and set his cup of molten lava onto the expansive dashboard. I usually offered to hold the cup for him (against my better judgement), but he would always bluster about me worrying too much and slap my hands back as I reached for it.
To say that my dad liked his coffee hot would be a gross misunderstanding of the word hot. If the coffee in his cup wasn’t the temperature just below the point where water turns from a liquid into a gas, he would dump it out and have mom get him a new one. And it was this boiling hot cup of pumice that he would set on the dash.
As soon as his butt hit the seat he would go into the Wagoneer starting routine. His arms and legs were a blur of motion as he mashed the gas pedal repeatedly, yanked the choke and turned the key back and forth countless times until the engine roared to life. He would instantly jam the Jeep into gear with his foot still on the throttle so it wouldn’t stall, all thoughts of the cup gone from his mind.
The mug would hiss as it slid across the dash. Earl would slam on the brakes and stab at it like he was wearing boxing gloves and the coffee would spray over everything and everyone like Vesuvius burying Pompeii. I had mastered the art of making myself really small, hugging my legs to my chest, but I was rarely spared and still have the scars on my arms and legs to prove it.
I was convinced that my dad had no feeling on the tops of his legs. He would cuss and swear at us for spilling his coffee, but he did nothing about cleaning himself up and seemed to enjoy the feeling of having hot coffee running down his leg into his boots. I’ve had an aversion to wearing wet clothes ever since and looking at his pants clinging to his chicken legs made my skin crawl, but he would just turn on the heater and go his merry way.
This always led to another problem. So much coffee had been spilled into the defroster that the green dash had a brown sheen and whenever we turned the blower on (which was every time we went anywhere), brown cumulonimbus thunderheads spewed forth turning the car into a full-bodied Nescafe rainforest. Driving in that car felt like sitting in a sauna where someone had poured old coffee over the hot rocks and then forced you to sit in it your entire childhood.
Old people at my dad’s baseball games used to love me, not because I was particularly lovable, but because after riding in the Wagoneer I smelled so much like a cup of hot Sanka. They would hug me and linger just a bit too long for my comfort, sniffing all the time like an old dog at a carpet stain.
Earl coached baseball for over 25 years, mostly, I think, because of the free coffee he got at the ball park. It was hot, like it had been plumbed from the depths of Hades and it was to be had in abundance. (I tried their hot chocolate once and I was saddled with a speech impediment until the scab finally peeled off my tongue.) He had fourteen kids on his team, nine of them for the field, four as back-ups, and one as the coffee runner. I know that on at least one occasion the coffee runner peed in his Thermos. I’m not sure at what point my dad realized it was tainted and I was never brave enough to ask.
Twenty years after leaving Alaska he had that first latte. A continuous diet of antacids helped him stomach the reconstituted freeze dried crystals he drank for so many years and that first taste of liquid heaven in a paper cup must have been an epiphany because the next day he bought himself his very own espresso machine.
Let’s just say his level of awareness stayed the same, but his level of awakeness went through the roof. I’m just glad that his friend hadn’t bought him a Red Bull on the way to golf. I don’t think his family could have taken it.