The Eric Estrada Estrangement Fiasco

I stand corrected.  Just a week ago, I wrote about how my father had kept an empty tin can with pictures stuck on it as either an act of sentimental parental devotion or administrative oversight.  It was, so I claimed, proof that my father had never given up hope that I might one day produce an even greater piece of art.  Or, alternatively, that he really liked ‘Ponch’ from CHiPs. Either way, I was touched that he’d kept it all these years.  But that was a week ago and, frankly, a lot can change in a week.  It was shortly after the story was published that I received a phone call – from my father.

I began by wishing him a happy Father’s Day.  He began by telling me that he no longer had the tin can pencil holder.  His account from that point on became ever less reliable.  He initially suggested that the tin can pencil holder could well be a figment of my imagination. This was difficult to hear. Not only was the tin can pencil holder a cherished childhood memory, it has formed the backbone of my curriculum vitae for the past thirty years and it now seems that every job I’ve held in that period was under false pretences.

 Before there was a chance to get to the bottom of whether or not the object had ever existed or was the product over an over-stimulated imagination in what can only be described as a stationery-based fever-dream, my father changed tack.  He then speculated that the item hadn’t held a place on his desk for at least twenty years.  Granted, it’s fair to say that during this pandemic time has lost all meaning and the term itself may be removed from the dictionary as a result, but I recalled seeing it just last Christmas.  It was then that our conversation took a truly dark and startling turn.

 He suggested my brother had taken it.  Typical!  Granted, it’s hard to fathom a motive.  Or, at least, a motive beyond wanting an empty tin can with a picture of Eric Estrada glued onto it.  But it’s the sheer, breath-taking improbability of the thing that, in many ways, makes it the perfect crime.  No one’s going to suspect you of stealing something that is so obviously without any tangible value whatsoever, to say nothing of the fact that it’s also devoid of artistic merit.

Naturally, I later put this accusation to my brother who denied it.  Perhaps he denied it a little too strongly.  But, despite my reservations I was ultimately prepared to accept that he had no need for a place to put his pencils as all his work was done on a laptop.  Sure, it stung a little to hear that something you created is no longer considered useful, but he made a compelling point.  An uneasy peace arose between us as I made a mental note to monitor ‘Gumtree’ for the next few weeks in the event he tried and offload his ill-gotten gain.

My father then said something that sent a chill racing through my veins.  ‘Perhaps it’s in the shed’.  Without fear of overstatement, everything that ever existed is in my father’s shed.  Jimmy Hoffa is in the shed (behind the wooden water-skis, probably).  Lost civilizations, too, wondering how to get past the large wooden dresser that’s been sitting their for decades.  Whatever you’ve lost; be it a pair of shoes, a watch or your youth, chances are you’d find it in my father’s shed.  Being sent to the shed is not so much about a change in location as it is a destiny.

Obviously, for something to be transported from the house to the shed requires an active decision on the part of my father.  A decision he’d not seen the need to take over previous decades.  It posed the question – what else had my father decided to send to the shed during lockdown?  There’s a banner that hangs just outside his study.  It says ‘We Love Our Dad’ and there’s a computer-generated image of myself and my siblings.  Because this was done in the mid-eighties, it looks as though our faces have been deliberately blurred out, like we’re whistleblowers appearing on television.  

I have distinct memories of one of my brothers looking as though he had no eyebrows at all and that these were added later with a grey lead pencil.  Given that time has not been kind to it, has it too been sent to the shed?  I don’t want to panic, but I fear for the safety of my football trophies.  They’re so amazingly small that they’d be completely swallowed up by the shed, never to be seen again.  That said, if he’s relocated the photos of us as kids where we were all dressed the same as though we were members of a cult, that wouldn’t be so bad.

Only my father would use a winter of discontent for spring-cleaning.  When the day finally comes and I can get back to Tyabb, who knows what I’ll find.  Or not find, as the case may be.  All I know is that when I stick my head in to my father’s study, I won’t see Eric Estrada’s smiling face.  

Then again, perhaps it’s all just a ruse and he knows exactly where the tin can pencil holder is.  There’s only one way to find out.  When I finally get around to shopping for my father, I will buy him dozens and dozens of pencils.  Either the tin can pencil holder will magically appear or there will be complete pencil mayhem.  It may seem petty, but you’ve got to draw the line somewhere.  And I have plenty of pencils with which to draw it.

For Father’s Day, Wherever It Finds You

At first glance, it’s just an old tin can.  It sits where it has for the past forty or so years, on my father’s desk.  But more than just a piece of recycling gone astray, this empty can represents the pinnacle of my career as an artist.  Of course, he was not to know that this would be as good as it would get. I can’t recall naming it, but if I were to do so, it would be called, ‘Empty Tin Can Pencil Holder With Random Pictures Stuck On.’  As the artist, it was incumbent on me to sign it but I failed to do so.  It was, I think, an oversight on my part.

The tin can is decorated with pictures that I chose, reflecting the things that were most important to me at that time of my life. Eric Estrada’s on there.  He played ‘Ponch’ on the television show, ‘CHiPs’ about the California Highway Patrol.  Whilst Eric and his co-star Larry Wilcox were important figures to me, I doubt very much that my father felt the same way.  Despite this, he thought no less of my work. In fact, I think the piece generally positioned with the ‘Ponch’ side facing out.  

Fonzie may also be on there.  For people of a certain age, there was a time when Arthur Fonzarelli from ‘Happy Days’ was the epitome of what it was to be a cool adult. A role model, if you will. As a stage of development, though, the ‘Fonzie’ stage is somewhat fleeting.  The older you get, the more you realize that having the men’s toilets as your ‘office’ really isn’t that flash.  To say nothing of living above the garage of the parents of your best friend who has, himself, long since moved out of home seasons earlier to work at the Milwaukee Journal before totally going off the rails and directing ‘Far and Away’.

There’s probably a football on there.  Maybe even an Essendon player.  This was clearly before I was officially declared a ‘lost cause’ on the football front.  He must have had such high hopes for me. As I grew up, there was a succession of Essendon Football Club jumpers, always several sizes too big, that my father purchased.  Either he was being thrifty and knew we’d grow into them or, as was probably the case, he had only a loose idea of how tall we were and simply erred on the side both of caution and larger sizing.  

Those jumpers sat on our tiny frames like tents, billowing in the wind.  When the breeze was particularly strong, the jumpers were like a sailboat spinnaker and would become bloated with air before capsizing the occupant.  We often wore them when playing ‘kick to kick’ in the backyard, along with our gumboots.  It must be said that the task of kicking a football is made all the more difficult by the wearing of gumboots.  In fact, gumboots are only one notch up from clogs, in this regard.  Our father, however, was relentless.  Not for him, the gentle drop kick in our general direction so that we’d have some hope of marking the ball.  Rather, he’d dispatch a wild torpedo punt that was not kicked to you so much as it was launched into orbit.  My brother and I would spend ages running (to the extent that running is possible in gumboots) after the ball before returning it, inadequately, to the other side of the yard.

His approach to cricket was equally punishing. Rather than a tennis ball, he favoured something called a ‘composite’ ball.  It was something akin to a miniature cannonball that he’d fire down the pitch with all the speed he could muster.  They produced the most spectacular bruises imaginable.  I, for one, have nearly given up hope that the bruising will, in fact, ever subside.  It’s no surprise to anyone that I failed as a cricketer. This is despite the fact that my bedroom had wallpaper decorated with cricketers.  What an exercise in optimism that was.  Although it’s been thirty years since I left that house, the cricketers remain in place.  

If my father was disappointed to receive an empty tin can pencil holder for Father’s Day, he didn’t show it.  Nor did he hesitate to give it pride of place on his desk.  I wonder whether he thought to himself that he’d keep it there until I invariably produced something better the following year when I was more proficient, only to realize as each year rolled by, that this was my artistic high-water mark.  To make things worse, my brothers and sisters created their own father’s day projects that were so obviously superior to mine. 

It’s hard, I think, when you have a younger sibling who’s been blessed with every creative skill you lack.  The year I produced a tin can with pictures stuck on it was probably the year my younger brother produced as twelve foot bird cage that played ‘Sink the Bismarck’ whenever you opened the door.

Like a lot of people, I won’t see my father on Father’s Day this year.  I wish I could be in Tyabb.  I wish I could step into that study and see all the gifts of Father’s Days’ past littered around the room.  Instead, I’ll wait.  And when the time comes (as it surely will), I’ll ask him to pencil in a time in his diary for us to catch up.  At least he knows where to find his pencils.  Until then, I’ll be making his gift.  It’s a tin can decorated with things that are important to me.  There’s no Eric Estrada, no Fonzie either; just pictures of my family.  Because that’s what’s important to me now.