Rattlesnake Daddy: A Son’s Search for His Father, by Brent Spencer. The Backwaters Press (2011). $25.00 paper.
I seem to know a lot of aging men who struggle with memories of their fathers. Or is it everyone? In any case, one of those guys handed the memoir Rattlesnake Daddy to me recently and said I had to read it. My first thought was that if I wanted trouble with a lost father I’d go looking for it on my own. But one night I read the first couple of pages and then kept reading until the end.
The title and epigraph of Rattlesnake Daddy are from a traditional song (sung here in the earliest version I can find): “I’m a rattlesnake daddy. / You better get down on your knee. / I’m a rattlesnake daddy. […] / You better let me be.” Given the personality of the father in question in this book (“He’s mean as a damn snake,” my mom would say) and his penchant for Pentecostal snake-handling in tent revivals, it’s fitting.
I got hung up at first over the book being advertised as a Little Bluestem Award winner, since there’s a well-known Bluestem Award from the Illinois School Library Media Association, for books for third- to fifth-grade readers, and that didn’t sound right, given the material. In this case, it means Spencer won a Nebraska Arts Council Distinguished Artist Award for Nonfiction (in 2009) and received $5,000 and publication (this year) with Backwaters Press.
Brent Spencer—now a novelist, short story writer, and teacher of creative writing at Creighton—knew little about his father for most of his life, other than what he learned of him in the sole year the family all lived together in 1961. What he knew from that year would be plenty for most of us: Robert Spencer was a Navy man, first enlisted then commissioned, smart, ambitious, rigid, hypocritical, secretive, bullying, abusive, even sociopathic. Father and son didn’t speak for 30 years after Robert left the family, and they had only sporadic contact in the years after that.
The book begins where the grown son gets the call that his estranged father—a retired Navy Commander by now and seemingly accomplished small-craft sailor—has stove in his sailboat and drowned in the “best marked” and “best lit” channel to Key West. A mysterious female companion died with him. The Coast Guard recovered from the wreck “a half-dozen bulging green garbage bags” that the father had kept, oddly, with him despite cramped quarters, containing everything from freshman English papers he’d written at Purdue, to military and marital documents, to old letters, diaries, diner receipts, shopping lists, recipes, and photographs—but only a single picture of his son Brent.
Brent spends the first night after receiving the bags “carefully lifting wet slabs of paper out of [them], peeling back the layers like some kind of archaeologist.” He discovers that his father had lived in a camper for much of the last ten years of his life, “lurking along the U.S./Mexico border, a place I’ve always thought of as mine.” Many of the entries in the log his father kept during that period show he’d visited places his son had been, even on the same dates.
Brent Spencer begins to wonder if his estranged father had been “somewhere nearby” when he was in Nuevo Laredo or Tijuana, if his father had even been following him. Who was this guy?
Part of the answer, we learn, is that Robert Spencer claimed to have been a Beach Jumper (an early form of SEAL that specialized in deception of the enemy before a beach assault), that he claimed to have served in three wars, that
… he claimed to have been involved in any number of top-secret projects and missions that took him from the Black Sea to White Sands, from the Lawrence Livermore Lab to the jungles of Latin America, where he claimed to have lived with cannibals while working on a CIA satellite ground station hidden deep in the jungle.
The book contains several surprises dealing with things the father never claimed to be but evidently was. I won’t give them away. But there’s no secret of the abuse Robert Spencer inflicted on his son and others in his family. Brent Spencer writes it in the first pages:
He whipped me for my dirty fingernails, for getting grass stains on my knees, for doing chores badly or not at all. He whipped me once for fighting and twice if I lost the fight. He whipped me for my thoughts, for my feelings, for the look in my eye and the cut of my jib. He whipped me for what I might have done, could have done, would surely do if I only had the chance. He whipped me for being a sinner before God. And he whipped me for crying while I was whipped.
He was as orderly with his tools of punishment as he was with his motorbike tools—the shaving strop, the belt, the knotted wet towel, the rope. And toward the end of that year, the knife. […] When my hands, almost against my will, jumped behind me to ward off the blows, he would kneel and paw the sweaty hair away from my face and patiently explain that protecting myself would only cause more pain.
“One blow from this towel could snap your arm in two. Is that what you want?”
“Then keep your hands clear.”
As he goes through his father’s papers, an emotionally difficult task, Brent Spencer knows he’s also facing a deadline: His siblings and other relatives expect him to drive to North Vernon, Indiana, for the funeral. But “[g]oing to the funeral would show respect for a man who doesn’t deserve it,” he decides, and instead he begins what will become a 2,000-mile drive through the American southwest and into Mexico, in an attempt to understand his father by visiting his old haunts, using the sodden, rotting papers as guide.
[The bags are] so heavy and smell so bad that as I lift them into the car, the green plastics bags going drum-tight, tighter, it’s all I can do to keep from thinking I’m hoisting hunks of his actual body into the trunk. In a way, I guess, I am. I don’t know what more I’ll find among his papers, or if I’ll find anything at all. I just know I have to move, have to retrace his steps, have to find a clear space to rethink everything I think I know about my father. And about myself.
The rest of the book is an enjoyable mystery story, a picaresque, a shaggy-dog tale, with information and back-story provided as needed, neither clogging the nonfiction plot too early nor leaving emotion with nowhere to go. People whom the author meets along the route sometimes hint cryptically at knowing his father, and he tries to follow their leads, even when he’s pretty sure he’s being hustled. This leads to adventures both comic and dangerous. One night, in a Chihuahua bar, where he’s been taken by a man claiming to know his father, who may be alive after all, Spencer’s new compañeros cry, “Let’s do the Mexican thing!” Spencer does the Mexican thing, which you do not want to do. Even later that night one of them insists again that he do the Mexican thing but this time he does not mean the thing you do not want to do, he means something else, which you probably do not want to do even more.
In the process of the telling of this journey through landscape and time, events replay and double, things (such as the father’s razor-sharp dive knife) reappear, and views of father and son deepen and become more human, which is not to say there are easy answers. Rattlesnake Daddy is a real page-turner, and like the best mysteries it pushes aside the grim fact of death in favor of the life-affirming attempt to understand.
We all leave stories behind for salvors to find in the wreckage of our lives. What’s most poignant about this memoir is that even after Brent Spencer has sifted through his father’s puzzling, violent legacy and measured it against his own reality, he's still able to utter the three last words of the book—“all my love.” One wonders which of the two men got saved.