Saturday, June 15, 2013

Art and Opal: Jim Rue's Eloquent Father's Day Tribute to his Deaf, Depression-Era Dad

Arthur Harold Rue was my father. He was born to a lead miner and an evangelizing, argumentative teetotaler in Joplin, Missouri in 1902. No dancing on Sundays, nor on any other day for that matter. Art was a good student and a prodigy on the piano but as a young adult he became profoundly deaf over the course of a few short months.  It was never certain what caused his deafness. Either his auditory nerves were killed by the massive doses of quinine used to keep him from dying from diptheria, or he  suffered permanent injury after being beaten with a truncheon by a railyard security thug.

He tried to stay in college but when holding an ear trumpet in each ear was no longer sufficient to hear the lectures, he quit. Then he wandered the country, riding the rails, looking for work on road gangs, ranging as far as California and Puerto Rico. In 1928 Arthur met my mother Opal in Tucumcari, New Mexico. They corresponded briefly and then he sent her bus fare to Kansas City, where they married.

Things were very tight in Kansas City and they didn't stay there very long. There was no work. Opal dressed as a man and the two hitchhiked to Detroit together, flat broke. The first night in Detroit, Art took his new wife to the city jail and asked them to hold her for safekeeping until morning, which they did. But Opal was 17 and looked younger. By morning the police had decided she was a runaway. They kept her for a week while Art hurriedly arranged for their marriage license to be mailed from Kansas.
Art and his new wife Opal, dressed as a man for their travels to keep questions from strangers to a minimum
There was no American with Disabilities Act nor anything similar. Art's deafness was a problem when looking for work. Using WPA funds, the Rue family opened one and then a second used bookstore in downtown Detroit. Finally Ford Motor Company began hiring. Art was large and fit. He could do assembly line work. As the economy struggled to recover, he stood in line all night, at least once in a driving rain, hopeful of getting one of Henry Ford's prized $5 per day production line jobs.

Three boys were born in six years–Bill, Bud and Bob. Arthur got what assembly line work he could. But he was often laid off when the factories shut down to retool for the new model year. He was an avid reader, especially interested in philosophy, history and religion. When his bookstores closed he moved his entire inventory into their home, buying and selling used books by mail for the rest of his life. Upon his passing, the local library received over 40,000 books that had been stored in the tiny three-bedroom house Art had built in Livonia, Michigan out of used lumber. He had had a lot of help with the building from Opal and the rapidly maturing Rue boys.

They also helped with farming. The house sat on an acre of land, small but enough land to grow pears, grapes, raspberries, currants, gooseberries, mulberries, rhubarb, corn, peas, beans, asparagus and much more, enough room to cook and can hundreds of jars of strawberry preserves and stewed tomatoes each year, enough room to raise and kill a hundred setting hens annually and to raise prize Californian rabbits for competition at the annual state fair. Arthur had a shoe box that bulged with blue ribbons. A career as a bunny in the Rue household was brutal. Losing bunnies became Sunday dinner. Winning bunnies were bred and then became Sunday dinner. At times there were a donkey, a goat, a wild turkey, even a pig for a time. Finally Arthur got union work at the Ford Transmission Plant, where he put in 15 years before bad knees and finally Parkinson's Disease took him out of the work force.

Though he had learned to talk as a child, years before going deaf, Arthur mostly kept his own counsel. Working afternoons or graveyard shifts, often coming home from work drenched in machine oil and covered with tiny metal splinters, he was stoic. He would stay out of the 'nice' rooms of the house for a week at a time, sitting in the washroom off the kitchen, reading.  He had little in common with the other production workers, and his friends were few. As he was 'deef and dumb' he was often addressed on the job as 'dummy.' He did his work and ignored his detractors. He couldn't hear them anyway.

In 1948 there was a late-in-life baby and that was me.  Jim Rue was born, 14 years after the birth of his youngest sibling. Opal had already raised three boys. One by one they joined the service and moved out. When I started public school, she was done. She got a two-year nursing degree and went to work.  I was born into a household of five boys and finished my childhood as a latchkey kid.

Arthur became my primary caregiver. He made sure I ate lunch, got me to camp each summer, coached me through the intricacies of marlinspike seamanship, animal husbandry, Morse code and waterfront safety, and the associated merit badges, making sure I became an Eagle Scout like my brothers. But he never taught me American Sign Language. The family had only two ways of communicating with him, either by fingerspelling or by writing him notes–both excellent ways to learn to spell, by the way. He could read lips, but he just never got that good at it. Quite apart from his deafness, he had a communication problem. Silence was generally easier, more peaceful in what was sometimes a noisy, chaotic home.

As I became a teen, I realized it was my father and me in the house alone. I could yell at the top of my lungs and he would not hear. He was deaf and I could get away with anything, I felt. Art was uncertain how to parent me alone. He knew more about my shenanigans than he let on. It wasn't that he didn't care. He simply didn't know the right course of action, and so often he did nothing. My parents fought about my upbringing, loudly and regularly. Art could see Opal chafing to escape the humdrum life of a housewife, but once the war was over he didn't really want her to work. She felt guilty that I was unsupervised, but that was very common then. She got over it. She was done.

A handful of times Arthur hit me with his belt to discipline me. He was a very imposing figure with a booming voice garbled by decades of profound silence. He would become very earnest and angry. He would terrify me with his belt, but his nature was gentle.  He loved me and would not hurt me. It was all for show. Never once did he leave a bruise or a welt. And I learned I still had carte blanche, a misapprehension that got put to rest on my first day in boot camp.

Opal and Arthur would drift from one church to another in the Detroit area looking for services for the deaf, one of the only social outlets they enjoyed together. Such programs were rare and when they did turn up, they were either a long drive for us or the program didn't last too long. A room full of deaf people 'singing' is a terrifying sight for a young child to behold.

In the late sixties, Dad's Parkinson's disease was becoming more pronounced. When he rear-ended a car as he was leaving his work one day, he realized he couldn't remember the actual accident. Soon afterward he stopped driving and retired.

After I left home and went to Vietnam in 1967, my parents traveled a bit. They took some nostalgic train trips, went on a tour of Ireland and Scotland, but as his Parkinson's advanced, Art had a harder and harder time getting out of the house.  When he could no longer speak or move about he was completely defeated.  In 1972 he had a heart attack and lingered in the hospital for a couple of weeks. I came home from college and was relegated the task of asking the doctor to abstain from any artificial means of life support. Within a day or two it came to that. I felt a little proud. As the youngest sibling by almost a generation and immature to boot, I had never been picked from the boys to do anything.  I also felt guilty.

The worst thing was seeing my father, who had lived his entire life in silence, grit and industrial grease, heavy physical labor and making do, die in a tiny institutional hospital room, hardly a shadow of the tower of strength he had once been. Then not even the shadow remained, and then even the bed was removed. What had been his life became an empty room, and somehow I had never gotten around to asking the most important questions I had for him. Somehow I never got to telling him I loved him often enough.

But the pastel colored photo of Art as a child had his spirit in it more than anything else. For 20 years or more I would make eye contact with that picture and feel his presence in the room and tell him about my day, and be more with him than I ever had been when he walked the earth. After all, when he was alive, as children and parents often are, we were one and everything was assumed.

Happy Father's Day, Dad, and happy birthday. Even when I was at my very squirreliest and most disruptive, underneath it all you always had the utmost of my honor, respect and love.

By Jim Rue
Shared by permission June 15, 2013