The Tippecanoe River

The first eighteen years of my life were spent in Highland, which is a small town in Indiana. I grew up with my single dad and two brothers in a blue house with three rooms. The town consists of maybe 20,000 people in 7 square miles - one high school and a corn field on every other corner. To continue on with this Norman Rockwell painting, my dad worked at one of the few surviving steel mills, Arcelormittal. Highland exists in the county of Northwest Indiana, which is known for being a big player in the steel industry. A large portion of the elderly are barely surviving off of pension checks from the closed down US Steel corporation. Most working adults either worked at the steel mill, the utility company, a hospital, or they travel the hour it takes to work downtown Chicago. Northwest Indiana has a certain suffocating culture that I haven't experienced outside of the Midwest. Growing up, it always scared me that no one ever spoke about how new industries or companies were never developed in the area. Sure, you can find as many diners as you can cornfields, but nothing profitable was ever built and I imagined one day waking up to find a ghost town. The accepted ideal was that change is bad and everyone should be striving for a past that was left covered in grain dust. My dad, Bruce, always seemed personally offended that I wouldn't subscribe to the idea that living in Indiana didn't suck. He was perfect for Highland, its like he was crafted out of clay to exist there. My brothers and I always teased him about being born with a hat and mustache, and his standard uniform was a flannel shirt or t shirt combination with jeans. When he was eighteen, he bought a cabin on the Tippecanoe River, which is about two hours south of Highland. The only summer vacations we ever had were at that cabin, which was dubbed - 'The River'.

As a child, I was forced to tag along with my dad to the river. Often enough my brothers were left alone or escaped to a friends house, which was fine for me because I enjoyed the alone time with my dad. The drive there became comforting for me. This was in part because, those weekends at the river were the only time in which I saw my father relax. While driving there we would listen to music from the 60s and 70s and talk about everything. The man had a tragic life and took that pain out on my brothers and I.
My father has three brothers (which includes his twin) and he hardly knew his father, as he was an absent alcoholic. Unfortunately, my grandfather died when my dad was only in his twenties. He also lost one of his brothers and then my mom soon after I was born. He was known for only having two moods - which consisted of being either extremely angry or depressed. It was evident he never thought he would be a single parent, as his parenting style was based mostly on anger and being hypervigilant. However, this did provide some hilarious stories for my brothers and I to compare as we got older. One being that, he used to tell us not to ride our bikes to close to the banks of the river because a monster would pull us in and every single time we left the house he told us to not do anything stupid. I stopped blaming him for the disproportional anger and unhappiness, which I attribute to the time we spent together at the river.
When we arrived there, it took my dad about thirty minutes to get the place in livable condition (he mowed the grass, turned on the hot water, checked for spiders ..etc). It took me no time, since there was no internet, no cell service, and the closest town was a hour away. The cottage was in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by many miles of corn fields (I doubt I could even find it now), and we had no neighbors. Cornfields were directly in front of the house and the river flowed in the back. This is where I learned how to respect nature, dock and drive a boat, and fish. We would spend our time leisurely hanging about and the music was always on. The isolated river was the only place for me to pretend. I spent hours in my own imagination: playing like I had befriended a bear, was at the battle of Tippecanoe, or queen of the river. A few years ago, my dad recounted to me of how one night, I was rushing in and out of the cabin while he continuously asked me what I was doing. I would run by him saying "nothing" over and over. Finally, I stopped and he came into my room to find me laying in bed, with my hands behind my head and the light off. I had filled the room with glowing fireflies. It was easy to be a child with him at the cottage because of how happy he was. Indiana isint worth much but watching the sunsets with my dad over the fields are unforgettable. The weekends spent there always felt short and I was usually in a sad panic when we left. My dad almost never missed work and spent three days out of the week working over time, so the hope of an extra day there just didn't exist. I dreaded heading back to Highland because I knew that our happiness would stay with the fireflies.
It was difficult growing up with him and trying desperately to see him happy. As I got older, I tried to focus on the good things he instilled, instead of his depression. For all he had been through, he never drank, beat us, and it was obvious that he loved us very much. My dad saved a house that started on fire from blowing up and on hot summer days would leave the mail men water. The first accident I got into was when I was sixteen. Whenever I left the house he told me to not let anything happen to the car, which I really took seriously! This is because he never called me about how 'trips to Best Buy' with my friends took all night. A guy hit me from behind and I hit the car in front of me. The man of the family I hit was a pissed army vet and screamed at the guy who bumped into me. We all waited for the police to show up and chatted while ignoring the guy who caused the accident. I'll never forget that when my dad showed up, he moved passed us all to talk to that guy we were ignoring. Later on he told me that, the guy who hit me was an ambulance driver, who was working a 12 hour shift and we wouldn't be calling insurance. Another gem that I found out while driving with him to the river was a story about what he did for my mom. My mom, Nancy, was from Pennsylvania and didnt have much money after moving to Indiana by herself. She moved into a cheap apartment and walked thirty minutes (regardless of the weather) to the train stop to work in Chicago. When she was visiting her mother in Pennsylvania, my dad surprised her by replacing all of her old furniture with brand new sets. This being the most romantic thing I've ever heard him do. However, the best thing about him was his somewhat sarcastic sense of humor. He could actually laugh at himself and didn't get mad at me for being a smart ass. Some of my favorite moments were seeing him crack a smile while screaming, because he knew that I got him good. This was probably because he would take the opportunity to roast my brothers and I just as hard. One of my favorite jokes he made at someones expense was when my brother was looking for a job. My brother told my dad that this company he was applying to would pay for his relocation, and my father's unexpected response was, "oh yeah - you would be a cheap ass relocation, all they would need to pay for is an uber and a garbage bag." It was like the Def Comedy Jam in our house and I'm forever grateful to be able to laugh myself through tough situations. He wont ever know he taught me, but being able to look for the best in someone is a precious lesson I learned by loving him.
My dad sold the cottage about five years ago and after his retirement. I was sad to see it go and I miss it now more than ever. I try not to take anything for granted, but I wish I had a warning that I would never see him smile so carefree again. I wish I could have another chance to spend a two hour car ride talking to him about life while listening to music. Its true that the only thing constant in life is change. The river isint the same as much as him and I aren't the same people now as we were then. From a young age, I had always hoped that one day my dad would allow himself to experience some sort of happiness in life - he never did. For him and for me, I'll do my best to enjoy moments for what they are now and for as much as what they wont be someday.

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