Rodney No!

Me — after Frank taught me how to drive a tractor

“Rodney no!”

After a short pause, this was followed by, “Dammit Rodney!”

I was listening to this exchange at 5:00 a.m. from my bed in the guest room of the house that would, in a couple of years, be known as the home of my in-laws. At this point, my status was simply “boyfriend.” I was still learning about the girl who would soon be my bride, and part of that learning process was understanding the interesting relationship between the man who would become my father-in-law, Frank Edward Billings, and his dog — who was technically named Rodney but was most often addressed in the manner I had just overheard.

Rodney was a simple, happy dog. He enjoyed chewing on loose pieces of concrete from the driveway. He also liked long walks around the family farm where he took every opportunity to roll in decayed or rotten items. 

What Rodney did not care about was: 1) anything to do with directions and, 2) trying to win brownie points. It was this aspect of Rodney’s personality that gave my normally calm father-in-law fits.

From my spot in the guest bed, I felt a pang of sympathy for Rodney as I knew he just did not have it in him to please my father-in-law. I also battled a double case of fear and self-pity. Like Rodney, the 22-year-old version of myself was generally happy. Unlike Rodney, I very much did want to please the well-armed man that would soon become my father-in-law, but I feared that I would not be up to the task.

22-year-old-me knew nothing about farming, ranching, guns or tractors. I was a recent college graduate with a degree in …ahem… Radio/TV/Film. I had a dead-end, low-paying job in the financial industry. My apartment was 400 square feet of finery decorated with things like an orange, corduroy couch I had picked up second-hand to watch my thirteen-inch television propped up on cinder blocks.

Only an exceptional individual could look at 22-year-old-me and see an upside (did I mention that I had three ferrets?). When pressed by my future in-laws regarding my plans for the future, all I could think about was the rambling quote John Cusack’s character gave his future father-in-law in the movie Say Anything

“I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don’t want to do that…What I really want to do with my life – what I want to do for a living – is I want to be with your daughter. I’m good at it.”

I am embarrassed to admit that my first attempt to win over my future in-laws involved their visit to Austin to visit my future bride who was still an undergrad at The University of Texas (a school my father-in-law cared about deeply, passionately). We went to lunch at a popular Mexican restaurant and, in an attempt to stop everyone from asking me questions, I purchased a round of tequila shots for the table. The silence was audible. Everyone drank their shot, but I was pretty sure the song the mariachi band was playing was called Rodney No!

The level of questioning made it clear from the beginning that family was the single most important thing to Frank Edward Billings. I fully expected that my courtship of my future bride would end with an unholstered revolver and a one-way ticket to a destination far, far away. 

For some reason, however, that did not happen. Instead, I was thrown into a mix of activities at the family farm on a routine basis where, each and every time, I was completely out of my depth. 

Drive the tractor? Sure!“ 

Moments later I inspired a series of horrific, grinding noises from the now convulsing tractor. I held on  and screamed out above the din, “What do you mean you can’t change gears when you’re moving?”

Regardless of the damage I inflicted, Frank always thrust me back into the fray. My cause was not helped by the fact that he was not familiar with the idea of maintenance. Just about everything on the farm was on its last, weary legs. When told to dig a hole with a sun-bleached shovel I returned moments later with the pieces of that same, now-broken implement. When instructed to use the throttle on the tractor, I soon held the rusted bar in my lap from where it had snapped in two.

Each time I presented him with the damaged goods he tensed his jaw and looked off into the distance. I knew what he was thinking. He was thinking, “Dammit Rodney!”

We continued in this way for years and, despite the odds, I became an official member of the family. I was made fully aware of this fact when Frank and his father-in-law took me out of a Thanksgiving celebration and led me out to the driveway. They then told me that they expected a grandchild/great-grandchild by the following Thanksgiving. On one hand, I was delighted to know that my status was so secure that my DNA was now obligatory. On the other hand, I was fully aware of how many guns they owned between them and, at least on this topic, I could definitely do wrong.

My bride and I eventually produced the desired offspring, but it is one of my regrets in life that the new arrivals came as Frank’s health turned on him. He did get to experience the role he was meant for — the proud, doting grandfather — but I wish he could have had the opportunity to teach Things #1 and #2 how to use the Red Ryder BB guns he bought each of them for their first birthdays.

I did a lousy job of conveying some of these thoughts at last week’s reunion of the greater Billings family (which was very generously arranged and funded by Frank’s siblings). I thought I would attempt a slightly better version of the story in a written format as I’ve proved time and again that my best stand-up comes when I’m sitting down.

My father-in-law and several other recently departed family members were sorely missed, but will never be forgotten. I very much enjoyed all of the stories and opportunity to see the extended clan that–thus far–still puts up with me. I’m also glad I escaped without breaking anything and, at least to my knowledge, without inspiring any Rodney No’s!

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