Rattlesnake Daddy: A Son’s
Search for His Father
"Powerful and moving. Spencer writes like
a bruised angel."
—Alison Hawthorne Deming, author
of The Colors
of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World
the Sacred Into the Real
Rattlesnake Daddy paints a wonderfully vivid
portrait of a chaotic, colorful, venomous man who
was the author’s absent father. Spencer turns
his father’s nomadic life and puzzling death in the
Florida Keys into a true-life mystery story,
rendered with quiet clarity, deep compassion, and a
pitch-perfect voice. Spencer’s writing is
—Dinty Moore, author of Between Panic and Desire
“'A father is the mystery his son never solves,'
Spencer writes. But in this haunted and haunting
memoir/detective story, he comes as close as he can
without actually crawling into his father’s
Hemley, author of
Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness
"Rattlesnake Daddy is
the compelling story of a son’s chase, a journey
into secrets and mysteries and the venom of the
past, present, and future. It is also an attempt at
intimacy and understanding. Populated with a cast of
remarkable characters and a sequence of stunning
scenes, Rattlesnake Daddy is unforgettable
for its clear-sighted contemplation of the sins of
the father, and in their wake, the complicated
yearnings of the son."
—Lee Martin, author of From
Our House and The Bright Forever
Alternately horrifying, funny, analytical,
and heart-wrenching, it skillfully and affectingly
tells a father-son story like none I've ever
encountered: of a cruel and menacing psychopath who
managed to seem not just sane but admirable, and of
a son who overcame endless varieties of torture to
write this stunning memoir of good riddance.
Out of what Brent Spencer calls his father's
"catalogue of mysteries," he has crafted a literary
form of exorcism that is nothing less than a
—Ron Hansen, author of
Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert
"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."
Higher Ed, July 20, 2011
"The book alternates between
Brent's searches for his father's trail and
extremely vivid remembrances and exc of his father's
notes, such as Brent's father's story of a
terror-filled dark night (and extremely close call)
when his small Navy boat runs aground deep inside
Viet Cong territory. Thi literary vehicle carried
me, as a reader, along with Brent on his quest to
come to terms with and understand his father. At
times Brent was the one revealed. At others, I
discovered his father along with him."
—David Atkinson, Gently Read
Literature, July 30, 2011
Chapter 1 Higher Ed, July 20, 2011
end of his life, after several years of living in a
camper, my father moved onboard a sailboat in the
Florida Keys, a 46-foot, 14-ton cutter with mahogany
planking over oak frames, teak decks, white oak
timbers, bronze fastenings, and mast, booms, and
spinnaker of Sitka spruce. The Sea Dragon. The boat
had been meant to be the start of my father's new
life, but in the end it killed him.
lifelong dream was to sail from place to place,
meeting new people, having new experiences. But
after only a few months he had that most exotic of
all experiences, his own death. He drowned in a
sailing accident. A lifelong sailor who had joined
the Navy at sixteen, lying about his age, he'd never
learned to swim. Since his death, I've found that
this is true for many career Navy men. Was it faith
in technology and in his talents that made him think
he'd never need to know? Or was he just a fool who
died a fool's death?
swimmer. Bad sailor, too, I guess. He hung his boat
up as he entered the Northwest Channel on his way to
shore, hung it on the east jetty, the submerged wall
of granite marking the passage into and out of deep
water. The Coast Guard report describes the event as
a "collision w/fixed object." A beginner's mistake.
The sea was
calm that night and not especially cold, but the
Coast Guard had trouble responding in a timely
fashion, and before they could get there, the sea
took him. Hypothermia. Pulmonary Edema. Dead at 60.
Some say the death is suspicious. But I guess we
always say that when someone dies too soon.
troubled history made it impossible for me to claim
his body. When I say "troubled," I mean he was the
kind of father who did his talking with his hands,
belts, straps, a razor strop, and a diver's knife.
The kind of father who beats you for a runny nose,
an untucked shirt, a scuffed-up shoe, and for being
unworthy in the eyes of the Lord.
the man, to look him in his dead face and say, "Yes,
he's my father." It's just too much. How could I
claim the man who never claimed me? The thing is, I
don't want to do anything that might be interpreted
as honoring him--identifying his body, shipping him
back home. My sister Sheree did it. Jumped onto a
plane and flew down there to identify the body and
make arrangements for its return to
warning, and without fully understanding why, I
drive from Nebraska to New
Orleans to meet her when she
comes back from the Keys. I
show up late at night, shamefaced, a little
drunk, filled with explanations about why I couldn't
go to Key West but can be here
now. As it turns out, no explanations are necessary.
I knock. She pulls open the door and hauls me into
the house in one motion, as if I'm expected, saying,
"Brent, that place is beautiful!" For twenty minutes
she goes on about the wonders of
is a big woman with a big heart. Her face shines as
if lit from below by an armful of imaginary flowers.
She's the hugger in our family, the one who reaches
out to the rest of us. She was a runaround as a
teenager, smoking with boys in back alleys, doing
other things, I guess. Maybe because she knows every
trick, she keeps a firm grip on her own kids. Firm
but fair, like a good boxing referee. Now in her
forties, she's become a person who delights in
simple pleasures. Her kids are a constant turn-on
for her. The whole idea of family gives her a big
kick. She is not, I mean to say, a person who takes
the death of a father lightly.
finally takes a breath, I say, "So you identified
says, searching distractedly through her Polaroids
for the one that catches the exact blue of the sea,
the water that killed our father. "Oh yeah," she
says, showing me the picture, a blue so rich you
could write with it. "Yeah, I did. But really,
Brent, believe me, you have got to see that place!"
I guess you
can say my father occupied an ambiguous place in our
my brother Mark, and me--are my father's first
family, the one he'd pretty much erased from his
mind until Sheree reached out to him twenty-some
years after the divorce. She tracked him down, wrote
to him, called him, lured him out of the shadows.
All of it on her own, without a word to my brother
or me. Slowly, over many months, she recultivated
the relationship. After a while, he even made
regular visits to her. Think Frankenstein in the
after she runs out of things to say about the
splendors of Key West, she says, as if
in apology for the absence of grief, "We didn't
really know him very well." This doesn't say as much
about her as it does about him, about the essential
mystery of the man, about the distance he kept
between himself and the world. And now here he is,
dead, the undiscovered country of my father.
something else," Sheree says, putting down her
pictures and leading me out to the empty carport,
where she's stacked a half-dozen bulging green
garbage bags. "Most of this was still on the boat,
but the salvage company had to fish a lot of it
right out of the water."
what? His garbage?"
them." And when I still don't get it, "Everything."
down to the nearest bag, spread open its mouth, take
in the rank scent of seawater, and peel up the top
sheet of paper, a letter from my father to his
doctor dated more than two decades ago, a copy he
made by hand in his careful, squared-off printing:
Dear Dr. Sorenson,
me recently for a skin condition which I have
had for 29 years. It has been called nomular
eczema and you called it winter itch.…
the handwriting vividly from my childhood, the dead
even lines, the words not inscribed so much as
erected. I look up startled, expecting to see him
standing there in the room, about to whale on me for
going through his stuff. But it's just Sheree and me
and the sea-smelling bags of swollen paper, hundreds
and hundreds of sheets, bales of it, pounds and
pounds of pages fished up from the sea--checkbook
ledgers, diary pages, letters, recipes, shopping
lists, reminders, class notes, every piece of paper
that had ever passed through his hands.
gone through all this?"
"I had a
look. It's mostly old receipts. Stuff like that."
I show her
the letter I've been reading, the blue ink fuzzy
with dampness. Not words at all but the ghosts of
words, the bones of thought.
says, handing it back.
itch," I say, tugging at my pant leg. "He's
describing the exact same rash I have on my leg."
getting it, and I'm not sure I can explain it. My
heart is pounding but I keep myself calm. "Well, I
just think it's interesting is all."
more than that. That rash is a connection as real as
a fingerprint, as revealing as DNA. My father and I
suffered from the same skin condition. At last I've
found something that ties me to the man. The
realization fills me with an exhilarating mixture of
pleasure and disgust. Maybe I'm my father's son
rest of the night, I sit on the floor of the
carport, carefully lifting wet slabs of paper out of
the bags, peeling back the layers like some kind of
dawn I come across a thick wet sheaf of pages
stapled along one side, a journal in the same
careful printing, The Mexico Log of Commander R.
C. Spencer. Along with his impressions, private
thoughts, price comparisons, and lists of
necessities, the log includes detailed maps of his
routes, the places he stayed, the people he met. I
knew that, for the last ten years or so of his life,
ever since his second marriage ended, he lived in a
camper. Now I know that he spent a good deal of that
time lurking along the U.S./Mexico border, a place
I've always thought of as mine.
Mexico. The voluble
Mexicans from the capitol, the quiet farmers from
the country, the stately and reserved men from
Michoacan. Maybe most of all, I love it that they're
outsiders, no matter how many there may be, and
since I have always felt like an outsider, I
gravitate toward them. I remember how proud I felt
once when someone assumed I had Mexican blood, when
they spoke to me in Spanish, an intimate whisper, a
secret comment on these ridiculous gringos. All I
had was a deep tan from swimming in Stanford's
outdoor pool all summer long.
I've always wanted what the Mexicans have. Even the
gardeners who drive their groaning pickups through
posh neighborhoods, rubber-banding their homemade
fliers to small rocks and tossing them onto lawns,
even they have something I don't have, and I want
it. A visible sign of otherness, external proof for
the vague feeling of dis-ease I have felt all my
life, the feeling that I'm a stranger in the world,
even inside my own skin.
somewhere nearby that last time I went to Nuevo Laredo? Or was he walking in the street
below that balcony bar in
Tijuana? Or was he following
me? He might have been. According to his log, he was
in both of these places when I was there, and many
more besides. The thought that we might have passed
each other in a
Mexican street makes the
connection between us seem more real than a rash.
Like twins separated at birth, we suffered the same
ailments, felt drawn to the same landscapes. We were
closer, I now realize, than I ever thought possible.
parents were divorced, my father did more than drop
out of my life for thirty years. He became a ghost,
leaving a father-shaped hole in me, one I've spent
years trying and failing to fill. It isn't fair that
he took so much away from me. And now
to tell me our father had died, I didn't quite know
what to make of it. Neither did she. I could tell
from the sound of her voice. Sadness, yes, but more
a sense of wonder, as if some seemingly eternal
monument had suddenly disappeared. My father's death
was the emotional equivalent of the Berlin Wall
coming down. I don't quite mean that. There's no
dancing in the streets, the sky isn't filled with
rocketing champagne corks. But even absent for so
many years, my father still stands as a shadow, a
force, forever at my back. Without him in the
world--the stories of his naval exploits, the memory
of his madness--I'm not sure how to live.
that I'm afraid of death. That's not why I wouldn't
go down there and identify the body. I'm afraid of
my father. Afraid that if I stood next to his dead
body the energy of my anger would somehow reanimate
him. His dead eyelids would flutter. His stony head
would turn. His gray gaze would fix on me. And once
again, the hammer of his hand and the hiss of his
blade would rise against me. No, I didn't want to be
the one to go down there. Besides, how could I
identify him? I barely know what he looks like, and
anyway, he was never a father to me. To identify him
now would be to participate in a charade of family
life. The last thing I want to do is to claim my
father, he who denied me.
The new day
is gearing up. I can hear noises from the neighbor's
house--heavy, clomping footsteps on the stairs, the
chatter of a radio. By the time Sheree puts on the
first pot of coffee, I know what I have to do. I
have to go back to the border. To the places he
went. Have to look for signs of him, clues to his
mystery. Somehow it seems the right thing to do, to
drive the border between Mexico and El
Gigante del Norté. I will reclaim the culture from
my father--I will reclaim myself--by exploring the
boundary between two nations and between myself and
my own El Gigante. But more importantly, I will
track down the facts of my father's life, the
decades of secrets he kept from us.
brings me a cup of coffee, she shakes her head at
the blizzard of paper. Every square inch of the
carport is covered with old receipts, letters,
photographs, calendar pages, and more. I tell her my
here." I can't keep the excitement out of my voice.
I hold the damp journal in front of her face as if
it's a treasure map. "The places he went, the people
he talked to. Not just in the journal but in lots of
these pages." I spread my hands over my night's
work. Damp, translucent sheets of paper are spread
out all over the floor of the carport.
look on her face, you'd think I've turned into a
maniac. And maybe I have.
doubtfully at the carport full of papers. "The body
is already on its way back to
Indiana," she says. "If you
make this trip, you'll miss the funeral."
thought about that. "I'll have to miss it," I say.
she says. "Why now? Why go now? Why not wait until
after the funeral? You're his son, the oldest."
like identifying the body, going to the funeral is
one more thing I can't bring myself to do. You drive
your kid away with boards, belts, blades, and the
hard, calloused flat of your hand, and now you want
that same kid to claim you, to grieve over you, to
stand at the graveside and cry hot tears into the
open hole? No.
going to the border is my own way of honoring his
memory, or at least of trying to recapture the man,
restore him to us, the story of his life, the story
of my life, at least a part of it, his days on the
line between worlds. Yes, that's the pretty spin to
give i"I can't do
it, Sheree," I say. "I can't be there. I can't do
the grieving family thing. I can't sit there and
listen to all the relatives say what a great guy he
was when I know he was--"
looks at me a little sideways, on the verge of
speech, but she knows better than to try to talk me
out of it. She has her own history with my father.
the funeral would show respect for a man who doesn't
deserve it. Guess I'll show him. My message is
actually meant for the family, who worshipped him
his whole life. I want them to know that someone
else in the family has a different view. I want my
absence and my silence to drown out their false
praise, their meaningless sorrow. Guess I'll show
them.lence to drown out their false
praise, their meaningless sorrow. Guess I'll show
child I am. I could avoid lots of mental anguish by
just claiming the body--yes, that's him--and
dragging it back to the farmlands of his making. I
think I'm depriving him of honor, but maybe all I'm
doing is depriving myself of something vastly more
important. But what that is I don't really know yet.
of going to the funeral, I load up the trunk of my
Taurus with the heavy green garbage bags filled with
his past--thick moldy sea-smelling bales of it.
They're so heavy and smell so bad that as I lift
them into the car, the green plastic 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.
2011 by Brent
The Backwaters Press
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