Trickle Down Toughness: Dad, drink, basketball and the strange courage of an old man

Distilled: A shot of life

Trickle Down Toughness: Dad, drink, basketball and the strange courage of an old man
Jessie Spaccia illustration

When I think of the term "distilled," I think of my grandpa, Herbert, in the hills of Montana during Prohibition, brewing moonshine. Many of my family's most cherished memories, at least for the men, have to do with the often ridiculous and humorous nature of the stories that surrounded drinking, bar fighting and the effects of strange distillery. The Latin origin of the word distill comes from distillare, meaning "to trickle down in minute drops." That's how our family drinking and fighting escapades came down to me, trickling drop by drop from grandfather to father to son.

OK, at first blush I'm not proud of these stories because they are about family, drunkenness and fighting, things we like to keep hidden from the public eye. But more honestly, I love them because they are some of the strangest stories I know. Certainly drink ruined us at times. But it also played a part in the way men gathered, how we talked or remained quiet, and what drew us together. As I see it, normally the stories involved some life lesson my grandpa or father were unconsciously trying to impart, about human stupidity, friendship, humility, courage and perhaps a unique vitality for life. There are many such stories in my family, as there are in all families. Here's one in three parts, about my dad:

1. In my mid-30s, I'm playing basketball with my dad in a great run of college players and other locals at the auxiliary gym at Montana State University. My dad would have been 65 to 70 at the time, and yes, he could still run and still play, and he could really shoot. I look up to find a 6-foot-4-inch, muscly bruiser who's about 30 coming at my dad, yelling: "F--- you, Tom! Let's go, right now!" Now I don't know what instigated it, probably an errant elbow on a rebound, but the guy was pissed and literally wanted to fight my old dad. My dad simply approached him, fists ready, looking him in the eye, and my dad's body was as calm as I've ever seen. The way he carried himself made the guy back down, and we all went back to playing.

2. Cut to another story, I'm driving with my dad outside Livingston on the north side of the Beartooth Mountains when I ask him to tell me a bar fighting story. "You know," he says, "I remember a funny one. I was walking through a parking lot of a bar in Miles City when I was just out of college." Those were his drinking days. I remember him mentioning things like no guns or knives back then. Just a good old fight.

"At the back of the parking lot I see another guy coming toward me," he says, "and I can tell he wants to fight, and I say to myself, 'I reckon I'll oblige him.'"

"What?" I say. "How do you know he wanted to fight? Why didn't you just walk back into the bar and ignore him?"

He looks at me like I'm a fool.

"I knew," he says. "So we go at it and the punches are flying, and it's getting pretty physical, and finally I throw him into the side of a car, and wouldn't you know it, he dislocates his shoulder. He's sort of crying out in pain and we both sit down in the parking lot together. I help him get his shoulder back in place and he thanks me." My dad chuckles. "Then we go into the bar arm in arm like the best of friends."

3. Back to the gym fight that didn't happen. As we're driving away from the gym, the road is on a rise and the Spanish Peaks crown the distance, snow-capped into a blue sky. "What were you thinking back there?" I say. "Aren't you a little old to be getting in fights with young guys who look like they can bench 300 pounds?"

Again he looks at me like I'm crazy.

"What were you thinking?" I say again.

He lets the silence build some, then he says, "I'll tell you. I was thinking, 'I'm bringing my lunch and I'm not closing my eyes.'"

More silence. Literally, I don't even know what that means... bringing my lunch, not closing my eyes? So I ask him. "What do you mean?"

"I mean I'm not closing my eyes. A lot of guys close their eyes and flail around when they fight. Not me. I'm looking right at the other guy's face and going at it. And I figure, if we're going to fight, I'm in until it's done. I'm not going anywhere. I'm bringing my lunch." ♦

Shann Ray is a professor at Gonzaga University. His forthcoming debut novel, American Copper, is set in early 20th century Montana, featuring bar fights, forgiveness and love. The book launch will be at the Bing on Nov. 10 featuring old-time songs, and some all-around edgy fantastics with Sherman Alexie.