My dad was a very self-centered individual. He thought and talked about himself all of the time and one of his favorite things to do was to tell people about all of the experiences that he had, true or not. Because most of what came out of his mouth was pure fantasy, as his stories went, it is hard to know what to discard and what to truly believe. To this day, I don’t know why he felt the need to make stories up about himself. I think the life that he lived, or rather the facts about his life, were plenty interesting. I didn’t see a need for there to be more but I guess he wanted people to be enthralled with his tall tales. I’ll never know for sure.
A “pathological liar” is someone who tells unbelievable stories and does it convincingly. Although this condition is not itself a mental illness, it often correlates itself with a number of personality and mental disorders. I believe that Dad had a narcissistic personality disorder and his lying was a way to draw attention. That’s just my opinion. I’m not a doctor but if I had gone to school to be one I probably would have chosen the behavioral science field because it interests me. Mother got me a book once upon a time that was titled “My Father Was a Pistol and I’m a Son of a Gun.” That seemed to sum us both up when I was a young man but I’m not the rebellious person that I was back then.
It wasn’t always easy living with Dad but he had other qualities that made up for it. He had a positive outlook on life and he liked to have fun. I think those were his best qualities. He also had charm and compassion. He was a good provider and quick to learn things. He wasn’t the best teacher but I learned things from him, probably because I am a quick learner as well and I spent a lot of time with him as a teenager when he and my mother divorced. We were a team and he taught me some domestic chores as well as some simple lessons in life, like how to change the spark plugs in my car. Between him and my mother, they had set me up for independence.
There have been several television series and movies about people who live eccentric lives or have “jumped” from one to another. The earliest in my memory was “Quantum Leap,” starring Scott Bakula and it’s where I got the title to this short story of mine. Bakula’s character “leaped” in and out of different lives in order to make certain moments happen so that the right outcomes would happen in real time. Another series that caught my attention was “The Pretender,” starring Michael T. Weiss. That character went from living one life to another in order to escape government operatives before they could capture him and bring him back to the facility where they had raised him since being a child prodigy. Another inspirational story to me was “Catch Me if You Can,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio. This young man was a product of his environment, the son of a con man, played by Christopher Walken. DiCaprio’s character’s best con was playing the part of a pilot. He always had a harem of young stewardesses around him and he was able to cash fake airline payroll checks for a living . . . until the FBI caught up with him.
I was thinking about how to write this story and I thought what if all of Dad’s claims were the real deal and it was “everyone else” who was living a lie? I decided to make it so and came up with “Quantum Leap,” the story about a man who “leaped” in and out of different lives and was powerless to prevent the phenomenon from happening. The result was a character who lived a lot of experiences – many more than the average bear. The character in “Quantum Leap” starts out as an astronaut, a pure fantasy role for most people. Sam holds a degree in molecular biology as well as being a first-rate pilot in the Air Force. In addition, he holds a degree in electrical engineering as if the first two weren’t enough. This is inspired by my father, who claimed to hold two degrees in his life: One in Electronics & Electrical Instrumentation and the other in Electrical Engineering. The truth is that he didn’t have any degrees though he did go to trade school to become an electrician. Dad had never claimed to be an astronaut but I thought that it was fetching enough . . . unbelievable. And then there was Adrienne. Dad had been married seven times in real life and Mother once told me that he liked to have a “mistress on the side.” Adrienne was that mistress . . . someone who was not taken by another man but she was also someone who was not interested in marrying again.
The next life for the Quantum Leap character was a telephone lineman. Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” was the catalyst for this character. It is one of my favorite Campbell songs and I still enjoy going to “You Tube” to listen to it. The profession seems like an honest, simple, blue-collar job and it reminds me of the job Dad had when I was growing up. He was an electrician and he had his own business. It was a good living and he seemed to live a good life as a family man while he had that occupation. Although that life had its rewards it didn’t seem enough to ground him. The lush green prairie that the lineman looked down to see compares with the attitude that Dad seemed to always have about life: “The grass is always greener on the other side of the hill.” Dad always had a need to start anew: a new state, a new town, a new job, a new wife, new children, new furniture, & new surroundings. He would come back to his family now and then, for a visit it seemed, and then he would go out in search of something else. He was a restless man.
The “Quantum Leap” character is next a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Strange enough, Dad was in the ASAF during The Vietnam War. I have his service picture – one of the youngest pictures of Bob Shoemaker in my collection. He never talked about his service to me although Mother said that he never did leave the states during the time that he was enlisted. She did say that he received a dishonorable discharge but that’s all I know for sure. I once asked my dad about a scar on his leg. I was young and we were taking a drive one summer in his pickup truck . . . it was just the two of us. Dad was wearing shorts and was steadily changing gears in his “three-speed on the column” Chevy and my attention was diverted to his left knee as he kept pushing in the clutch. “I fell on a railroad spike,” he told me. Years later, I again asked him about the scar, forgetting the answer he had given me before. “I got in a knife fight with a guy in the service and he stabbed me there” was his answer that time. On a third occasion, sometime in 1977 or 1978, when we were “bachelors” living together, he told me that he had gotten shot escaping from a Vietnamese concentration camp. I think that I had blocked all of that out of my memory until just after he died. We had a memorial service for him and there were people there from several “compartments” of his life. We were in the reflection part of the service and people volunteered to tell personal stories of their time with our Dad. One fella got up and told a story that I had never heard. He ended it by saying that he respected Bob because of all the time he had spent in the POW camp in North Vietnam. I was “floored” by the remark but it was not the time or place to debate such a story so I simply saved it in my memory to use in my own story later. This one is for you, whoever you are.
While in the “hole,” character number three has an epiphany and is able to recollect some repressed memories . . . some “snipets” of other lives he has lived. This was a chance for me to offer up a couple more experiences that Dad had. The first was a college professor and this one is kind of true. In the first year that we lived in Texas Dad had gotten a job with GULF STATES, a contractor for Dow Chemical, as an electrician. Dow sponsored short non-accredited classes at Brazosport College for local employees to learn a craft or further their knowledge in their field of expertise. There was a need for someone to teach a 12-week class on electrical code and the current year’s code book would be the text for the class. Dad always talked about how well he knew the code and he was able to convince someone that he had the credentials for the job. I remember him coming home early every Thursday night to shower and change and he would leave for the college with his brown, hard-shelled briefcase. Inside the case were a small paperback code book and his reading glasses. He taught the class for several weeks and then he just stopped. I never asked what happened but he confided in me the year before he died that the college had let him go because they were unable to verify his Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Southern California – the degree in electrical engineering.
Another story that Dad told me was about his days as a running back for the Buffalo Bills. I had stayed with him for a few days after his wife (number five) died and he was telling stories like he usually did. He talked about his days as a young man and the athletic gifts that he had been given. He talked about running cross country in high school and eventually running in the New York City Marathon. He also played baseball and was a diver on the swim team. He then went to his bedroom and returned with a duffel bag that had a large Buffalo Bills logo on the side. He said “This is the last thing I have from my days with The Bills.” When I told him that he had never told me that story he went on to say that he was a “walk-on” and that he went to try-outs after seeing an ad in the paper and they put him on the team as a first-string running back. He practiced with the team for several weeks but blew his knee out just a week before the regular season started. When it was apparent that he would not return they cancelled his contract. I actually laughed out loud at this one and he laughed with me. I mentioned that Walmart carries the same duffel bag and he changed the subject to something else. Just for fun, I just now looked up something about the Bills. As Dad was born in 1935 he would have had to play for their team somewhere between high school and his first marriage. That would have been 1953 or 1954. The city of Buffalo is rich with football history and the earliest recorded team played in 1915. Their name changed a few times from the “Buffalo All-Stars,” to the “Buffalo Indians,” to the “Buffalo Bisons,” and then to the “Buffalo Bills” in 1947. However, they didn’t become part of the American Football League until 1959. The first Super Bowl wasn’t until 1967. Maybe I’m just being petty.
I did some research for the POW Camp part of my story. There was a lieutenant named Ellis who was shot down and brought to “The Hanoi Hilton.” He spent time in the same place as presidential candidate, John McCain and he wrote a book that detailed the daily life inside the camp. What I read was from “Stars and Stripes,” an online newsletter and in it Ellis talks about a return trip that he made with his family to see the prison, which is now a museum. He detailed “The Pretzel,” a torture that the North Vietnamese once used on their captives. Reading his words nearly brought me to tears. I have lived a good life, a life of freedom, and it’s hard to read about the atrocities that men like Ellis went through. Their hardships were real and not part of a Hollywood blockbuster movie. I am ashamed that my father claimed to have lived through that.
There were three other “Dad stories” that I mentioned at the end of mine. First, Dad said that he went to Las Vegas after getting out of the service. He had phoned home and told his folks that he was going to spend all of his money on gambling before returning to the city of Williamson, New York . . . his home. But, he couldn’t keep from winning and hotels “comped” him so that he would spend back the money that he had won. After a month or so, he tired of being a high roller and paid cash for a new Cadillac from a local new car dealer and drove it to New York. He got caught in a snow storm just 50 miles outside of his hometown and had to abandon his new car on the road because the roads were impassable. He returned to get his car several days later and realized that it had been stolen. The second story is about a job he claimed to have in Hollywood. He had gotten a job as an exhibition chef. I used to get confused between this story and the one he told me about being a porter in a hotel where he once brought a carton of cigarettes to Jackie Gleason’s hotel suite. Gleason was hosting a poker game with other celebrities. Maybe the restaurant was in the same hotel. Who knows? I just know that Gleason gave him a $100 tip! The third story is about Dad’s relationship with royalty. When he moved to Texas, Bob had an affair with a woman he met shortly after he got there. He told her that he was married to the princess of Ontario, Canada. I didn’t hear those words come out of his mouth but the woman once asked me if it was true. My last line was “Well, if it’s not . . . it should be.” I got that from the “Jebediah Nightlinger” character in “The Cowboys.” If you haven’t seen that movie, go and watch it as soon as you can. It’s one of John Wayne’s best.
I had a tumultuous relationship with my father. There were good times and bad and there are a lot of stories to be told about our adventures and the affiliation that we had. I came to terms with his personality a long time ago and I forgave him his trespasses, if only to drop a load that I had carried alone for so long, and that happened a few years before he died. The way he lived is a truth to be told and I often chuckle at the way he talked about it. The writing of “Quantum Leap” was enjoyable for me and the writing of this backstory was good therapy. I have my father’s features and the red tint in my hair comes from his mane. I enjoy having fun in life and I satisfy myself with a hard day at work like he did. I try to remain positive in all things that I do and I often look to him to succeed in this goal. Lastly, I love to tell stories. Most of mine are non-fiction but I do dabble in the ridiculous.