I learned today that my dad died.
It happened in March, 2007.
I have exactly two memories of Danny Arnswald.
The first time, he took me to the Tasty In and Out, on Court Avenue, in Sioux City, Iowa, where I was born. I was probably around 18 months old. I can remember being in the front seat, not being able to see above the dashboard. As we sat and ate, I choked on a french fry. After he patted my back, he pointed to the moon in the sky and told me of the man in the moon.
Some time shortly after that, my mom and Danny split up. It was because he cheated on her with her best friend.
I guess he tried to see me later, but my babysitter was a bit of a redneck. When he came to the door, it was a surprise to her. Later, she learned that it was a surprise to my mom as well. No scheduled visit that day. So Sherry met him at the door with her 12-gauge. I'm told the conversation went something like this:
"You take one step in this house and I will kill you where you stand."
"I want to see my boy."
And so he left.
It was about 12 years later that he reconnected. My mom had, in the interim, married another man, an alcoholic who adopted me and whose last name I carry, and she had divorced him. And she had just married her third husband - a good man this time, to whom she is still married today.
Mom asked if I wanted to meet him, which I did. Because my stepdad had been such a complete asshole during his marriage to her, I figured Danny had to be a step up. I had dreams in my head through the years of him being some scientist for NASA or something cool like that.
"No, Brett. He's a printer in Minneapolis."
Cool... a printer. I was gonna meet my dad.
Mom decided to meet someplace public, and chose my aunt's bar. I remember walking in and seeing him as he sat with his back to me at the bar counter. He was tall. Balding. In front of him were several empty bottles and an ashtray full of discarded cigarettes.
Mom walked up beside him and they talked for a couple of minutes. He wouldn't look at me. When he finally did, he looked me up and down, and then said, "You're ugly."
I didn't know what to do with that. I just grinned, awkwardly. Was it a bad joke?
We moved to the back of the bar and sat at a small round table. He wore kind of a polo shirt, unbuttoned, and and light spring jacket over it.
He asked what my mom had done through the years, and then told her that he knew she still loved him. She told him that she didn't love him and that she was recently remarried. But he was unfazed.
He then turned his attention to me. At the time, I wore a Milwaukee back brace due to lordosis and kyphosis. It protruded through my shirt and its metal collar circled my neck. He asked me if I liked to fight.
"No. I don't like to fight."
"You a pussy?"
"No." I looked at my mom, who was visibly nervous. "I fought a couple of times," I told him.
"Once. In second grade."
Then his eyes kind of looked off in the distance and he told me that he liked fighting. He started recounting that after he was divorced from my mom, he was sent to Viet Nam. He said that he loved killing people, and went into details. Mom told me later that she had heard he'd been wounded in the war and had gotten hooked on morphine.
After he finished his stories, he turned his attention back to my mom, and told her again that she still loved him. At which point I announced that we needed to be going to a doctor's appointment for my back. We didn't, actually, but both she and I just wanted out of there - safely.
He hugged me and wanted to see me again. Mom and I left and she asked me how I was.
"Surprised. I wasn't expecting that."
"Thanks for getting us out of there."
"We both wanted out of there, Mom."
"You'll never see him again."
And at that moment it occurred to me that any hope of a dad who loved me and was interested in me was gone.
"Nope - I'll never see him again."
There's a cool aspect to growing up that way... it's the fervent desire to be the best dad I can be to all of my kids. To give them what I wanted. To give them what every child deserves.
I don't know if it was his nervousness, or the bottles of beer he'd had, or something that broke in him in the war. My first wife's dad had known him growing up, and when he learned who my father was, he laughed out loud.
"Your father is Crazy Danny Arnswald? You gotta be shittin' me... you're nothing like that son of a bitch."
That's probably one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me.
And so as I have done about every year or so, I googled his name and found Danny Arnswald's deceased record. Today, I feel just that much more my own man, of my own choosing.