Kevin O'Hara: Chutes and ladders

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PITTSFIELD — One of my favorite board games growing up was Chutes and Ladders. You simply spun the dial and moved your colorful game piece up the board to claim the grand prize — beating your nettlesome brothers for momentary bragging rights. This entertaining game was also heartbreaking. You'd be well ahead of the pack — say Square 87 of 100— but with one tragic spin, you could slide all the way back to Square 24, while your heckling siblings danced gleefully around you.

In later years, this childhood game became synonymous with my relationship to my dad — one step forward, two steps back. It all began following my discharge from the Air Force in California in 1971. Rather than go directly home, I spent the next four months in San Francisco, adjusting to civilian life and letting my hair grow long. When I returned to Pittsfield, my father greeted me at the door, "Lella, come quick," he called out to my mother, "I think our son Kevin is home!"

Though Dad was delighted to have me back in the fold, the length of my hair became a festering boil between us. He'd been my sole barber throughout my boyhood, and was just aching to dig out his old metal clippers and prune me once again. His infamous twice-monthly "whitewall" haircuts were so severe that our grammar school janitor once remarked, "Dang, son, I've seen better looking heads on cabbages."

Besides my unruly mop, Dad was no fan of the music that emanated from my bedroom. "Turn that noise down!" he'd yell from the foot of the stairs. "Oh, really, Dad," I wanted to scream back, "Carole King's 'So Far Away'! How about a heavy dose of Led Zeppelin's 'Heartbreaker,' instead?"

NEW JOB, SAME HAIR

Tensions eased a bit after I landed a job as an orderly at Pittsfield General Hospital. When I returned home with the good news, Dad immediately asked, "What did the nursing director say about your long hair?"

I answered him truthfully. "She said she'd die for my curls."

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Hearing this, his pipe lit up like a blast furnace.

Now with a job and weekly paycheck, I began my steady ascent up that fickle ladder of life. But like the old board game, I committed one grievous blunder that sent me careening down its slippery chute.It was a Saturday night, and I was chilling at home up in my room. I had a little pot that my parents knew nothing about — God forbid — but no papers to roll it. So I snuck out to Dad's car, fished out his briar pipe from the ashtray, packed it, and took a few satisfying tokes. Crime complete, I put the pipe back in its place, slunk back into the house, and called it a night.

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Next morning, on our short Sunday drive to church, Dad took up the pipe for his few customary puffs. Imagine my horror when the cab filled with the unmistakable waft of my stinky weed mingling sweetly with his Cherry Blend tobacco. Yep, Mr. Pothead had forgotten to empty out his father's briar. When we arrived at the churchyard, a glassy-eyed Dad turned to Mom and mumbled, "Lella, I feel queer."

Consequently, our solemn 9 o'clock service bordered on a three-ring circus. Dad knelt when he should have stood, stood when he should have sat, and sat when he should have knelt. Worse still, he kept glaring up at the choir loft, as if convinced that a sniper had been hired to snuff him out. Thankfully, it wasn't his Sunday to ring the church bell. If it were, I'm afraid his tolling would've been better suited for Tanglewood on Parade.

The hammer came down at the breakfast table, after Dad had polished off his third cinnamon donut. Slowly collecting his marbles, he asked me outright if I'd put any "wacky-weed" into his pipe. Painted into the corner, I came clean. My parents were horrified, realizing that their celebrated ex-airman had not only morphed into a long-haired hippie, but was a blooming drug fiend to boot!

BACK UP THE LADDER

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It was a slow and agonizing slog from the doghouse to the base of that lofty ladder again. But I rallied by buying my own car, being accepted into BCC's nursing program, and proudly introducing my future bride, Belita, to the family; a lovely Asian colleen to whom my dad took an immediate shine.

Looking back, I'm glad to say that Dad and I got along famously in the end. He could be a hard nugget at times, granted, but now I realize the old fellow was simply footing that precarious ladder of life firmly beneath my feet, while encouraging me onward and upward, one rung at a time.

Kevin O'Hara is a longtime Eagle contributor. Contact him at kevinbohara@gmail.com

PHOTO CAPTION: James O'Hara 1911-1992

PHOTO CREDIT: Sandy McNay

     


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