So I need to tell the story about what happened at the park with my dad and the pit bull. And in order to tell this story properly, and it must be told properly, I might need to use a few swear words. Consider yourselves warned.
I recently returned home from a week of family reunions. Whether you like it or not, you can learn a lot about yourself at these kinds of gatherings. You come together with people who share your blood and your history, who might share your eyes and your laugh, and you have some turkey and potato salad. You contemplate who you are and where you came from.
I like Malcolm Gladwell and I have read all of his books. In Outliers he talks about cultural legacies that are passed down--and not just one or two generations--but over many generations, and that these legacies have a strange and powerful effect on us. I have come to believe that this is true. I agree that the traditions and attitudes of our fore-bearers cast long shadows in our lives. I think that most of the time we don't even realize it.
Sometimes our cultural legacies come exploding out of us whether we like it or not and we find ourselves kicking the crap out of a pit bull at the park while our children and grandchildren watch in amazement. I'll get to that in a minute.
My dad recently wrote a memoir about his childhood. I absolutely loved it and came to know him and his family in ways that I never had before. He describes a rough and tumble life in the small town of Victor, Idaho--a tiny and beautiful town that sits on the edge of what is still wild in this world. But the story of how the Jones family came to settle here is a actually an unlikely and winding tale--and the version that I will briefly tell here I have pieced together thanks to the help of the extensive Mormon genealogical resources, church history, my dad's narrative, and my own creative imagination.
If you trace the Jones family history, it goes back a long long way, all the way back to Charlemagne and beyond. If you don't know who Charlemagne is, I suggest you consult wikipedia, but to sum up, he was the first Holy Roman Emporer and is often called the father of Europe. Lots of people can trace their lineage back to Charlemagne, so I don't think that this is particularly unique, but I do find it interesting how we get from Charlemagne to the Joneses of Victor, Idaho. If you follow Charlemagne down through William the Conqueror and then down through King Edward I of England, also known as Longshanks and who you will fondly remember as the terrible king from the movie Braveheart--you start to head towards the Joneses. After Longshanks there are no more kings in this particular branch of the family history. I guess we didn't like England anymore since we weren't running the joint because as soon as we could we set off for the New World and a few generations after that we ended up Mormon.
I don't know what you picture when you picture Mormon pioneers, but I usually think of long dresses and bonnets and faithful people singing hymns as they walked and walked and walked across the plains. As Mormons, we make bronze statues to honor these kinds of pioneers and put them up all around Salt Lake City. Most of the pioneers were a faithful, peaceful, long suffering people--my ancestors included. Well, at least the ones on my mom's side of the family.
My dad's side of the family? They were all bad asses.
You know the stories that the Mormons don't like to talk about in Sunday school? Yeah, that was us. I figure that as much as the Lord needed the good, soft, gentle, spiritual people, he also needed the mean and ill-tempered ones, otherwise the Mormons were never going to survive to make it to Utah. You want to burn down one of our farms? Well we were sure as hell going to burn down two of yours. And let your cows loose just for spite.
In his manuscript, my dad lovingly, and I'm guessing accurately, refers to our progenitors as "surly bastards." They were gritty and tough and smart and resourceful.
My ancestors were close to the prophet Joseph Smith, and fiercely loyal to him and to the Mormon faith. As fervently as others worked to kill Joseph Smith, my ancestors worked to protect him and keep him safe from harm.
Eventually we ended up in Utah with the rest of the Mormons. When the leaders of our Church asked members to go settle other areas of Utah and Idaho, mine chose the frozen and ruggedly beautiful Teton Valley, probably so all the other Mormons would leave them the hell alone. When they arrived they promptly started "cleaning out the grizzlies." I guess there isn't enough room in one valley for grizzly bears and grizzly people all at once.
My dad's family wasn't particularly churchy. Meaning, they never went. But somewhere along the way the legacy of faith that he had inherited from my ancestors caught fire in my father's heart. And so he put down his beer and his cigarettes and went on a mission, married my mother in the Idaho Falls temple, and made sure his four daughters made it to church every week.
While my mom, my sisters, and I have tried very hard to domesticate my father, he is still Jones to the core, and if you get in his business his gut instinct is to take care of it by kicking your ass.
And so last week we found ourselves at Julia Davis park in Boise. My sister Katie had brought along her golden retriever puppy, Winston. The adults were seated along the sides watching the children. I was next to Katie and Winston. Nearby was a rough looking group of people, the tattooed, wife-beater- wearing, smokin' some cigs kind of people. They had a pit bull. I had first noticed the dog because of the way he was sitting back on his haunches. He was sitting in a way that he backside didn't fully touch the ground and I found it to be funny and thought it would make a great Snapchat photo. I love a good snap. But I thought better of attempting to covertly capture the snap, but now I really wish I would have just gone for it.
Eventually the people got up to leave and came towards us. A teenage boy was managing the leash, and for some reason he thought it would be a good idea to bring his dog over to meet ours. You know how people who own pit bulls always insist that they are just the sweetest dogs ever? Don't believe them.
As they approached my sister sat up a bit and asked the boy, "Is he a nice dog?" And of course the answer was yes. What is he going to say? "No he's a killer, but let's make friends." Before this conversation had really finished the dogs started sniffing each other's backsides and the leashes wrapped around each other and went tight. And when the leash went tight, the pit bull got aggressive. He started snarling and biting Winston, going for the throat. I had heard of legends about pit bulls and how strong their jaws are, but this was the first time I had ever seen one in action. I thought we were going to watch it tear Winston apart in front of the kids. Katie was screaming and kicking it with her little flip flopped foot. She may as well have been kicking a boulder. Those things are tanks. I was down in there too with my hands very unsuccessfully trying to pry them apart. And then suddenly my dad was there and grabbed the pit bull and threw it like it was a bale of hay. As it landed he was there and kicked it smack in the chest, lifting it in the air and moving it back a couple feet. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Now I don't know if my dad was the kicker for his high school football team, but if he wasn't that coach really missed out on some talent. I think he would have kept going indefinitely but I was starting to feel for the poor pooch and so I yelled, "Dad! Enough!" My dad is not afraid of many things, but I think he was slightly afraid of getting a long lecture from his daughters over dinner, and so he stopped and walked back to us and folded his arms in submission. The dog's owners were of course very unhappy with this turn of events and the profanity was flying. They were threatening my dad with all sort of things and getting up in his business. One guy was really getting in his face and my dad had that look in his eye--that calm, focused stare that meant, "I am going to rip your head off." And as the guy got closer I could tell he had no idea who he was dealing with. All he saw was a white haired old guy. He didn't know that my dad has ruthless instincts inherited from the Crusader turned Conquer turned pilgrim turned Mormon mercenary turned grizzly hunter. You don't pick a fight with that.
And so I stepped in between them, put my cute little wedge down, a forearm on each of their chests and said, "NO." They backed off.
The pit bull people left and my dad came and sat down with us. We had caused quite the scene. Everyone was staring. I am not used to getting into brawls at the park. It was a bit awkward. A few bystanders came and thanked and congratulated my dad for doing the right thing. Other people glared at him.
And then I saw the pit bull people regrouping and coming back. I could tell that they were wanting to get into it with dad, and so my sisters and I decided suddenly that swimming was sounding really good. And so we left.
On the way to the pool I put my arm around my dad and thanked him for saving Winston. I think he still wasn't sure if he was going to get in trouble with his daughters or not. I winked at him and said, "Dad, you know your surly bastard is showing." He laughed and felt better about things. He loves being a surly bastard.
When we got to the pool my dad relaxed into his grandpa routine. Katie and I put him in charge of fetching floaties while we worked on our tans.
I'm still not sure what all of this means for me, or how this cultural legacy will present itself in my life. I am grateful for the grit and determination that I have inherited. I guess I should start warning people not to get on my bad side. I just might kick your ass.