My father never drank
by James Ross Kelly

My father never drank
While he was working
When he was not working
A bottle of Jim Beam appeared
On the dining room table like a Roman pillar
And when it drained down another appeared.

My father was generally working
Sixteen hour days in the oilfields
Seven days a week until
A well came in or there was a dry hole
In between in the moving of the oil derrick
He was off, & he would drink, in the
Mornings there was beer at Lyle’s
& later at the St. James Hotel
Where there might be a card game
& I’d drink cokes and stare at the
Huge painting of Custer’s Last Stand

On a barstool I’d sit & his pals
Would call me little Jim Beam, I took no
Notice of this but liked the smell of stale beer
& the swagger of men, & sway of women
Brave enough to come in
Sometimes I’d get sent to Mel’s Drug store
With enough change for a root beer float
& in the afternoon’s he’d hit the harder stuff

When my father decided
To fish or hunt
He’d not drink during these adventures
Fishing was sport combined
With a notion of battle I suppose

I remember a trip to Arkansas
The ‘56 Buick, a trailer, tents
Tent poles, fishing poles a four-hour drive
& we arrive to put out a fish trap, trot lines
& set up camp, Coleman stove made just up
In Wichita, & the next morning I helped him
Seine back waters for minnows & perch, & snapping turtles
My grandmother loved

This was catching, & fishing poles came out
As an afterthought & after a couple of days
We brought the bounty of catfish and drum
Back for my grandmother to cook & Jim would come out &
My father & stepmother throwing rules aside did battle
My father had been through the Battle of the Bulge
She came from some place on the other side of the County
That was worse

PHOTOGRAPH: Joseph E. Kelly (left) and James Ross Kelly, around 1955, Winfield, Kansas, in the family’s backyard with a display of channel catfish and other species, and a grain elevator in the background. To the left is a corner of a minnow tank, denoting  the residence of serious fishermen.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: James Ross Kelly lives in Northern California. He has been a journalist for Gannet, a travel book editor, and had a score of labor jobs — the in-between jobs you get from being an English major. Most recently, he retired as a writer-editor for the Forest Service, where he spent the better part of the last decade in Alaska. He started writing poetry in college, and after college continued and gave occasional readings in the Pacific Northwest during the 1980s. His poems have appeared in Westwind Review (Ashland, Oregon), Open Sky (Seattle), Siskiyou Journal (Ashland, Oregon), Don’t Read This (Ashland, Oregon), Table Rock Sentinel, (Medford, Oregon), Poetry Motel (Duluth, Minnesota), Poems for a Scorpio Moon & Others (Ashland, Oregon), The Red Gate & Other Poems, a handset letterpress chapbook published by Cowan & Tetley (1984, Vancouver, B.C.), Silver Birch Press (Los Angeles), and so glad is my heart (Duluth, Minnesota).