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Fabey in the AmazonDaily Press
THE FIRE WITHIN
A SON STRUGGLES TO LIVE WITH HIS FATHER'S PAINFUL LEGACY

Sunday, June 15, 2003
By MICHAEL FABEY
Daily Press (Newport News, VA)

The smoke blended with the early morning mist like a dirty river of cotton that swirled above the firs and pines. I bent over the handlebars and studied the road as it disappeared under the wheels of my Raleigh touring bicycle. I had been pedaling for three hours up what in these parts they call an "unsealed road" a nice way to describe the minefield of ruts, ridges and rocks that trimmed the Corromandel Peninsula mountains. My leg muscles twanged like plucked bowstrings and my arms felt like they had been wrestling with a possessed jackhammer all morning.
At least I had the tropical scenery to take my mind off my aches. Ferns hung down the rock like the frayed fringe of my grandmother's couch covers. The mountains fell off toward the sea, ending with strips of shaggy green bumps like the snouts of giant crocodiles. I spied the silhouette of a house perched on a cliff's craggy brow. Distant thunder filled the air.
A few vehicles rattled by in a cloud of dust. Then -- nothing. Even the large logging trucks that had chased me off the road trailing diesel and dust most of the morning had disappeared. If anything happened, no one would hear me scream. No one would even know I was here.


FabeyAlone. Riding a bike on an unsealed road in this weird woodland. Scaling some remote mountain on the North Island of New Zealand. Watching smoke rising from some far-off fire. I doubted my pocket South Pacific visitor's guide had any advice for this particular situation.
And yet I was anything but concerned. I felt oddly ... primed.
What had driven me to this insanity?
Salvation? Understanding? Thrills?
Exactly what I was doing in the South Pacific, I really couldn't say. I was supposed to be attending college in Australia but, like so many things in my life at the time, I had found it difficult to stick with that commitment.
I could, however, pinpoint what I was doing riding up a mountain rode in New Zealand.
My Australian buddy Gary Fumeaux in Wollongong fathered the idea several months earlier. He suggested I see the South Pacific by bike. "Aw mate," he said. "What a trip."
Oh, yeah. Ride my bike through jungles, backwoods and other areas safer for a Leyland Land Rover than a 10-speed.
But, the idea hatched, grew and overran any rational argument.
Gary had a lot to do with it. He climbed mountains, traveled Australia's coastal highways by motorcycle and hitched anywhere else he could. Together, we had surfed, skied and even survived Sydney's infamous King's Cross. We were mates and there was no tighter bond in Australia. It's a term that dates to the country's convict days and implies the ultimate in trust against the system and all its oppression.
"Look, mate," he said. "You've hitched west and south. Why not just take your bike and ride?"
"Ride to where?"
"Put the bike on the railway. It goes up to Cairns. I reckon that'd be good spot to start. You could ride back here."
"That's got to be a thousand miles."
"Think of the shape you'd be in, mate."
And what an adventure it had turned out to be. Swimming with sharks on the Great Barrier Reef. Bushwalking into the land of emus in eastern Queensland. Cycling through days and nights of rain of the Aussie "Wet."
Now on to the mountains of the North Island and unsealed road the Corromandel Peninsula with skyline getting smokier than a corner bar pool room.
I stopped for a quick bite and a breather at lunchtime. A warm wind fanned the giant ferns around me into a kind of primitive dance. Below me, another warm breath rode across the trees that covered the hills. I nibbled away at a peanut butter and grape jam sandwich, washing it down with a swallow of water. I lifted the bottle and poured some water on my face, leaned back against the side of the mountain and looked at the sky. The smoke was thicker. It rose above the mountains in front of me. Maybe it meant nothing. Sometimes, they set parts of the bush on fire to clear the land. Slash and burn. A total cleansing.
Maybe that's what I was searching for, what I had traveled so far to find.
* * *
A bit more than a year ago, half a world away, I was an English education student at Trenton State College in New Jersey.
My father was less than pleased with my choice of a major. "What the hell are you going to do with that?" he asked.
"I'm going to teach."
"Computers," he said. "There's the future." He was a programmer. He offered to teach me everything about bytes and memory and programs.
"Dad," I said. "That sounds about as much fun as mowing the lawn. Besides, college was always your idea. I never had a say whether I wanted to go. None of my friends went."
"You ungrateful little punk."
The computer debate was just one of many skirmishes. A former Marine, my father knew there was only room for one commanding officer in a household. He gave orders, we followed them. No room for discussion, or for developing that special bond that a give and take can lead to. Fabey men were never known to be especially huggy-feely or for brooking any kind of insubordination from younger Fabey men.
One time, after he told me to do some little task, I asked why.
He leveled me with a look of two blue bullets. He scared me. He had forearms like Popeye and a set of shoulders that would make Atlas proud. He wasn't a tall man, but once I saw him crumple a big barroom bully with just one shot in the ribs, an accomplishment worthy of admiration in our blue-collar corner of Philadelphia.
One day, when I was 7, I left my bike on the front lawn. I also had forgotten to put out the trash. Furious, my Dad issued a garbled order. I was too scared to ask him to repeat himself.
I thought he said, "Put the damn bike in the damn trash."
A moment later, he found me in the driveway, crying, trying to force my bicycle into the trash can, back tire first.
"What the hell are you doing? I told you to bring in the damn trash can put the damn bike in the house."
He programmed us by his code. This is right, that is wrong and we darn well knew the difference. He demanded that we act accordingly. If you screw up, pay the price without complaint. No matter what, once you start, don't stop until you are done. Thou shalt not quit. One time, I quit my high school football team to get a job. You would think I wanted to quit the priesthood.
"No son of mine is going to be a quitter," Dad swore. "Once you start something, you see it through."
I knew Dad's ways were the most honorable. But he was a black-and-white guy trying to find solid footing in a shifting gray world. By the time he found a place to stand, the world had changed to color.
My father graduated from the old school. He showed love by providing bed and board.
"You've got a roof over your head," he'd say. "You've got food on the table. You don't know how lucky you have it, kid."
But his family also needed patience, appreciation and sympathy. Funny, one of his favorite songs was "Cat's in the Cradle."
When I was 16, Mom told him she wasn't in love with him after more than 15 years of marriage. Under his code, divorce was definitely wrong. He drank. He raged. He carried on like a frightened man. The devil was whipping my god.
He never hit me when I didn't deserve it. But there are other ways for a father to scar a son. Those wounds heal much more slowly. Much more slowly.
I escaped by hiding out at Trenton State. College can be one of the best sanctuaries.
I'd been there a year and a half, looking for and occasionally finding a little peace.
Then one night the phone rang. Late. I grabbed the receiver.
My mom wailed: "Michael! Come home!"
Dad was dead.
The next few days seemed like scenes from a movie of someone else's life, a series of quick flashes. A cop showed me the vacuum hose my father had used to connect the exhaust pipe of his Pinto to the interior of the car. For good measure, he had parked the car in the garage, closed the garage door and stuck shoes in the door track to make it difficult to open. The cop showed me the shoes, too.
They say that choking to death can be an almost peaceful experience, once you resign yourself to it. But I would wonder then and for the rest of my life if he had simply fallen asleep or if he had struggled mentally, physically, spiritually at the end. Had he gasped for his last breaths? Had he reached for the door handle? Had he given one thought -- just one passing second of concern to the pain and guilt he would cause all of those he left behind?
What had I done? What had I failed to do?
Dad was 41 when he died. There was a funeral, of course.
I quit caring about school. I quit living Dad's dream. I quit everything. I pretended to go along with the program of life for several months. When Trenton State picked me for its study-abroad program in Australia, I saw my chance. Escape.
But I never realized the depth of my fears and my guilt. They stalked me to Australia. Oh, I kept them at bay at first with lots of beer and parties and other adventures in Oz. Nothing like a tropical paradise to get your mind off the bad and the ugly. But, eventually, as I drained my last bottle at night and my friends drifted back to their rooms and I would be alone in my bed, the phantoms appeared.
I dropped out of school there, too, and kept on running.
* * *
The last bit of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich disappeared into my mouth, followed by another swig of water. The smoke ran thicker along the tree line. Slash and burn. I needed to get moving soon, but my body refused to obey. I just lay there, immobile, as the smoke gathered about me, blanketing and suffocating.
I closed my eyes. My thighs burned. My calves tightened like bungee chords. My lungs fought for air. The smoke torched my throat and inside my nose.
My body finally got the hint and pulled itself from the ground. I mounted my bike and started climbing again. All I needed was a decline. One little downhill and I'd be fine. I'd be out of this mess.
Pedaling hard, I tried to push out of my mind all the things I had been trying most to forget.
Grunting. Pushing. Aching, but needing to escape. Denser now, smoke enclosed me. It burned my chest and choked me. My eyes watered. Blinded, I crashed into the side of the mountain and flew off the bike. My mouth filled with a sickening paste of blood and dust.
For the first time, I began to wonder if I would live through the day. I lay there, tasting blood, gasping for breath and listening to the trees crackle and whistle. The fire consumed them, the flames crawling closer and closer.
Why not just lie here and die -- the thought just came to me. I had quit everything else, why not make the ultimate act of self-defeat? Life father, like son.
Maybe I'd suffocate. That's how it usually happened. Just like falling asleep. I leaned my throbbing head back against the rocky side of the cliff and coughed twice.
Smoke enveloped me like an evil cloud.
If this was what my father felt before he died, sitting and choking in his small Pinto, then he did not die peacefully. There was nothing peaceful about this.
I did not hear my father's voice then, saying, "Get up. Don't quit."
Nor did I feel his spirit fill me with new strength and pull me to my feet.
But a different picture of my father burned its way into my mind. He was not Hercules or Solomon. That was my own creation. He had been a mere man. A man who had done his best throughout his life. When his best no longer was enough, he chose to die.
I chose to live.
I climbed back on my bike. Choking and wheezing, I pushed and coughed and grunted to the top of the mountain and out of the smoke and fire.
For a moment I rested there, catching my breath. The road rolled down in front of me like a ski jump. Behind me, the fire flowed along the cliffs like lava. Never would I learn the cause of the fire or the extent of its damage. It was enough that I had survived. I turned away and let my bike coast away from the heat, stretching my arms and embracing the fresh air.