A Secret Promise Kept

The appointment I was on my way to was very important; I was very late and very lost. With my male ego in check, I began to look for a place to ask directions, preferably a gas station. Since I had been crisscrossing the city, my gas gauge was perilously low and time was of the essence.

I spotted the amber glow of light outside the local fire station. What better place to ask directions?

I quickly stepped from my car and crossed the street to the station. All three overhead doors were open and I could see red fire engines with their doors ajar, chrome shining, waiting in anticipation for the bell to ring.

As I stepped inside, the aroma of the station assaulted me. It was the smell of the hoses drying in the tower, the oversized rubber boots, jackets and helmets. These smells, mixed in with the freshly washed floors and polished trucks, created that mysterious scent associated with all fire stations. Slowing down, I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and was transported back to my youth, to the fire station where my father worked for 35 years as head of fire maintenance.

I looked down to the end of the fire station and there it stood, sparkling gold to the sky, the fire pole. One day my dad let me and my older brother Jay slide down the pole, twice. In the corner of the station was the “creeper” used to slide under trucks when repairing them. Dad would say, “Hold on” and he would spin me around until I was dizzy as a drunken sailor. It was better than any Tilt-A-Whirl ride I have ever been on.

Next to the creeper was an old soda machine that had the classic Coca-Cola logo on it. It still dispensed the original green 10-ounce bottles, but they were now 35 cents compared with the 10 cents they were back then. A trip to the soda machine was always the highlight of the visit with Dad to the station, my very own bottle of soda.

When I was 10 years old, I took two of my friends by the station to show off my dad and see if we could weasel some sodas out of him. After showing them around the station, I asked Dad if we could each have a soda before we went home for lunch.

I detected just the slightest hesitation in my father’s voice that day, but he said “Sure” and gave us each a dime. We raced the soda machine to see if our bottle had a cap with the illustrious star on the inside.

What a lucky day! My cap had a star. I was only two caps away from sending for my very own Davy Crockett hat.

We all thanked my father and headed home for lunch and a summer afternoon of swimming.

I came home early that day from the lake, and as I walked down the hall I heard my parents talking. Mom seemed upset with Dad, and then I heard my name mentioned: “You should have just said you didn’t have the money for sodas. Brian would have understood. That money was for your lunch. The kids have to understand that we don’t have any extra money and you need to have your lunch.”

My dad, in his usual way, just shrugged it off.

Before my mother knew I had overheard the conversation, I hurried up the stairs to the room I shared with my four brothers.

As I emptied my pockets, the bottle cap that had caused so many problems fell to the floor. I picked it up and was ready to put it with the other seven when I realized how great a sacrifice my father had made for that bottle cap.

That night I made a promise of repayment. Someday I would be able to tell my father that I knew of the sacrifice he made that afternoon and so many other days, and I would never forget him for it.

My father had his first heart attack at the young age of 47. I guess his lifestyle of working three jobs to support the nine of us finally caught up to him. On the evening of my parents’ 25th anniversary, surrounded by all his family, the biggest, loudest, strongest of us all showed the first crack in the armor we as children thought would always be impenetrable.

Over the next eight years, my father battled back and forth, suffering another three heart attacks until he ended up with a pacemaker.

One afternoon my dad’s old blue Plymouth wagon broke down, and he called me for a ride to take him to the doctor for his annual checkup. As I pulled into the station, I saw my dad outside with all the other firemen crowded around a brand-new pickup truck. It was a deep blue Ford pickup, and it was a beauty. I mentioned to my dad how nice it was, and he commented that someday he would down a truck like that.

We both laughed. This was always his dream – and it always seemed so unattainable.

At this point in my personal life, I was doing quite well in business, as were all my brothers. We offered to buy him a truck, but as he so aptly put it, “If I don’t buy it, I won’t feel like it’s mine.”

As my dad stepped out of the doctor’s office I figured the gray pasty look on his face was from being poked, prodded and pricked with needles.

“Let’s go,” was all he said.

As we got into the car, I knew something was wrong. We drove off in silence and I knew Dad would tell me what was wrong in his own way.

I took the long way back to the station. As we drove by our old house, the ball field, lake and corner store, my dad started talking about the past and the memories each place held.

That’s when I knew he was dying.

He looked at me and nodded.

I understood.

We stopped at Cabot’s Ice Cream and had an ice cream together for the first time alone in 15 years. We talked, really talked that day. He told me how proud he was of all of us and that he wasn’t afraid of dying. His fear was that he was going to be away from my mother.

I chuckled at him; never had a man been more in love with a woman than my dad.

He made me promise that day that I would never tell anyone of his impending death. As I agreed to his wishes, I knew that it was one of the toughest secrets I would ever have to keep.

At the time, my wife and I were looking for a new car or truck. My father knew the salesman at Cochituate Motors in Wayland, so I asked him if he would go with me to see what I could get for a trade-in toward a new car or truck.

As we entered the showroom, and I started talking with the salesman, I spotted Dad looking at the most beautiful, fully loaded chocolate-brown metal flake pickup truck he or I had ever seen. I saw my dad run his hand over the truck like a sculptor checking his work.

“Dad, I think I should buy a truck. I want to look at something small that is good on gas mileage.”

As the salesman left the showroom to get the dealer plate, I suggested that we take the brown truck out for a ride.

“You can’t afford this,” he said.

“I know that, and you know that, but the salesman doesn’t,” I said.

As we pulled out onto Route 27, with my father behind the wheel, we both laughed like a couple of kids at the fast one we had pulled off. He drove for 10 minutes, commenting about how beautifully it rode while I played with all the bells and whistles.

When we returned to the showroom, we took out a small blue Sundowner truck. My dad commented that this was a better truck for commuting because of gas and all the miles I would be driving. I agreed with him and we returned and finalized the deal with the salesman.

I called my dad a few nights later and asked him if he would come with me to pick up the truck. I think he agreed so quickly just to get one final look at “his brown truck,” as he called it.

When we pulled into the dealer’s yard, there was my little blue Sundowner with a sold sticker on it. Next to it was the brown pickup, all washed and shiny, with a big SOLD sign on the window.

I glanced over at my father and saw the disappointment register on his face as he said, “Someone bought himself a beautiful truck.”

I just nodded and said, “Dad, would you go inside and tell the salesman I’ll be right in as soon as I park the car?” As my father walked past the brown truck, he ran his hand along it and I could see the look of disappointment pass over him again.

I pulled my car around to the far side of the building and looked out the window at the man who had given up everything for his family. I watched as the salesman sat him down, handed him a set of keys to his truck – the brown one – and explained that it was for him from me and this was our secret.

My dad looked out the window, our eyes met, and we both nodded and laughed at each other.

I was waiting outside my house when my dad pulled up that night. As he stepped out of his truck, I gave him a big hug and a kiss and told him how much I loved him, and reminded him this was our secret.

We went for a drive that evening. Dad said he understood the truck, but what was the significance of the Coca-Cola bottle cap with the star in the center taped to the steering wheel?

By Brian Keefe

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