Saturday, December 8, 2012

A Muncie Boyhood-Dad and His Oily Boots

Me on the left, My dad, and my nephew David

My dad turned 50 years old about ten months after I was born.  I turned 50 years old almost a year ago.  It struck me a few months back that I’m at the same age that my dad was when I was born.  That is a strange feeling to have when you’re halfway to 100.  My memories of my dad when I was a boy in Muncie are good and I think of him often.

He worked a lot.  He had come to Muncie from the Lima, Ohio area after the end of World War II and I think he had two purposes.  First, he needed work, and Muncie was teeming with factories at the time.  (Time has sure changed that one.)  Second, I think he was looking for his long, lost father who had suddenly left him and his nine siblings alone with their mother when he was only ten.  He never found his dad, but he did find work…and a wife…and a family.  He secured a job at the Muncie Chevrolet plant, and he stayed there until his retirement in the mid-1970’s.

My earliest memories are of him “going to town” on Fridays to pay bills and do his banking.  He’d hop the bus that stopped in front of our south Hackley Street house, and ride it downtown where he’d go from building to building; depositing money, writing checks, and paying bills.  Soon, I’d be watching through our front door and see him step back off that bus and stroll up our front walk.  I would be so excited because he’d always bring me something…gum, a piece of candy…something.

Other times, he would walk me down to Heekin Park to play.  I’d walk some, but mostly I wanted to ride on his shoulders.  Years later, that seemed so weird to think I used to sit up there on those shoulders.  As an adult, I had grown so much bigger than him, I could probably have given him a ride on my own shoulders.  Anyway, he would walk me some…instructing me on the proper etiquette of stepping aside when other adults passed…or, he would carry me.  Soon, we were at the park and I’d be swinging, climbing on the old military cannons, or playing in the sand.

A few times, he walked me up to Burger Chef at 21st and Madison where he get me a burger.  He liked their fish sandwiches, and so…soon…so did I.

Fishing was another thing he occasionally took me to do.  He had a nice rod and reel.  I got to use the cane poles until I was a little bigger and got my own Zebco unit from Ross Hardware.  As fun as the Zebco was, I still liked those old cane poles.  I wish I still had them.  I can remember him teaching me how to clean the catfish and bluegill that we caught.  I think our last fishing trip was to Prairie Creek Reservoir, but the best spot was the one we went to the most, it was along some stream east of Muncie.  It seems like my dad called it “Sugar Creek,” but I wouldn’t swear to that in court.  I know the place had an old iron bridge and was way out in the middle of the country.  I want to say it was somewhere between the reservoir and the little town of Windsor.  One of these days, I’m going to go out there and explore until I find the spot.

When I got too big to carry on his shoulders and I had to start going to school, our excursions lessened.  Many of my middle memories are of us passing one another in the house.  When I was a small boy, dad worked 2nd shift, so he was often around in the mornings and early afternoons.  As I got older, he moved to “midnights” and he would be asleep in the afternoons when I got home from school.  I had to be as careful as I could to try and not wake him up.  Too often I failed, as my friends and I stormed around outside the windows, playing army or hide-n-seek.

I didn’t know much about his job except that it was in a factory.  I can remember a few times when mom would go pick him up from work at midnight and I’d ride along, but for much of my earliest years, we didn’t have a car and dad either walked all the way to work, or he grabbed a ride with a co-worker.  In 1968, he bought a brand-spanking new Chevy Nova….with no power nuthin’… that he mostly drove to work, but if mom kept it, she’d have to go pick him up.    

Anyway, he had his ritual for work.  He’d put on his work clothes, gather his lunch, and then sit down on the entryway steps just inside the back door to put on his work boots.  I can almost still smell those old, oily-leather, steel-toed things.  He always kept them just inside the backdoor.  When he went to work, he’d put them on.  When he came home, he’d sit in the same spot and take them off; replacing them with some weird leather-like slip on shoes.  It’s funny, as I think about those old work boots, I kind of miss them.  It’s strange how thinking about some random item can make you wax nostalgic. 
That's my dad, Ralph DeCamp, fourth face from the left.

That ritual shifted in time of day with his changes in work schedule, but remained a constant from my birth until his retirement around my 8th grade year.  Depending on how busy the shop was, from five to seven days per week, he’d put the boots on at the back door, and a few hours later slip them back off… almost every day.

Until one day he didn’t.

He didn’t make any big deal out of it.  No parties.  No plans.  He just suddenly stopped going to work.  I don't even think that he told us he was retiring until mom finally asked him why he wasn’t going in to work anymore.  Dad was like that.  Once, he went into the hospital for a few days to have foot surgery, but didn’t bother to tell my mom.  She didn’t know where he was until she finally called Ball Memorial Hospital and they said:  “Why, yes ma’am, we do have a Ralph DeCamp registered here.”

With dad’s retirement, life at home changed.  Dad was around a lot.  From then on, I have many memories of him sitting in his living room chair reading the paper or his Bible.  He’d work around the house or yard in the morning, and then read in the afternoon.  If he wasn’t reading, he was watching a baseball game or taking a nap.  And, as I grew, I became more and more fond of our chats…sometimes arguments…but mostly just discussions of religion, politics, or baseball….whatever.
Dad, his chair, and his newspaper.

I will close this story out with the memory that spawned this Muncie Boyhood installment.  Not long after he had retired from General Motors, two neighbor ladies were discussing my dad…as neighbor ladies everywhere are prone to do regarding neighbor men from time to time…and the conversation…dripping the phonetic twang that only current and former Muncie residents can fully appreciate…went something like this:

Lady # 1:  “Why, I think Ralph’s retarred!”

Lady # 2:  “Ralph retarred?!  He ain’t retarred!  Ralph’s one of the smartest men I know!”

Think about it.

And, yes, I agree.  He WAS one of the smartest men that I too have ever known.


  1. Cute ending! I have to say I kept waiting throughout the entire story to hear the truth about the mystery of his boots and why he always kept them in the same place. I can't imagine how upset members of my family would be at the lack of communication at times between your dad and mom, but it must have worked out fine for them. �� glad to hear some happy memories of time with your dad. I feel for his heartache over never getting to resolve the loss of his own dad. We are so blessed to have had our parents as long as they walked this earth. I pray you will see yours on the other side.

  2. Sorry 'bout that. I didn't mean to create a mystery over the boots. He just kept them there because they were dirty and oily, so he didn't want to take them on into the house. As for my grandfather, his disappearance is truly a mystery. He left one day with absolutely no trace of him afterward.