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A dollar’s worth of regular

Iyeska Journal

Shorty Davies chain smoked himself to death forty years ago. The Depression couldn’t kill him. A Japanese torpedo blasting a hole into the USS Pensacola engine room couldn’t kill him. Rolling his 1942 Chevy Town Sedan off the highway south of Scenic in 1947 didn’t kill him. He was Yosemite Sam, without the handlebar mustache and the blazing six shooters: short, squat, gruff and tough, and for the longest time, seemingly indestructible.

“Smoke ‘em if ya got ‘em,” that’s what they told our fighting men back in WWII, and the military supplied the unfiltered smokes, Camels, Lucky Strike, Pall Mall, and Shorty came out of the war chain smoking every brand religiously. The magazines were full of ads featuring some doctor or celebrity bragging about how his preferred smokes were actually good for our health. Shorty finally settled on Pall Mall, and he’d go through several packs a day. Long as he had his smokes, life’s hardest knocks couldn’t elicit much more than a rueful chuckle from Shorty. But if his pack should go missing, if he forgot it at the card shop, or forgot he smoked the last one on the drive home from work, you had better duck and run. My five-year-old little sister Tracy didn’t duck and run fast enough, and he broke her arm, tossing kids and furniture, desperate to track down his smokes.

Here’s the thing, just because they didn’t call it PTSD back then, doesn’t mean fighting men didn’t suffer from it. Shorty sure did. When he got back from risking his teenage life on the battle-scarred USS Pensacola for four years, better postwar times should have been waiting for him. But I have come to understand that the soul of Shorty Davies never survived the war. His mind and body came back, but his visceral innards remained trapped in the bowels of the Pensacola, men screaming, men dying, the roar of ocean water gushing in through the blast hole. His back broken, he struggled to drag himself to the door before it sealed against him to contain the breach. Up to that point my dad was a hero, but the survivor that returned stateside, that married my mom, the man that fathered ten kids, that man was broken and lost. Had the torpedo killed him, I would have never existed, but because he survived, I got snatched up by the heels and had my head repeatedly pounded into the hard ground. My mom was a handsome woman, and Shorty did not realize that when you marry a Lakota woman, your first-born son might come out brown. He resented the brown parts of me, could never bring himself to take pride in anything I did. But he didn’t stop with me. He would tell my mom, “You’re lucky you married a Whiteman!” But she wasn’t lucky when he blew the rent money at the card shop, and how lucky was she the day he beat her to the kitchen floor with his fists?

You might think I hate Shorty Davies. But I loved him. Never once did I ever raise my voice to him, call him any names. Not out of fear—I can’t explain why, just that I never harbored ill will against him. Sometimes I dream about my dad, and it is not so much a dream as a memory of him pulling into the gas station and saying to the attendant, “Dollars’ worth of regular!” Many is the time we walked miles back into town because he never understood that there was a big difference from asking for a dollar’s worth of regular in the 1940’s and asking in the 1960’s. I realize now he was tidally locked to the past, and everything he said or did after the day the USS Pensacola engine room flooded at the Battle of Tassafaronga was just the fat lady singing. Since that time, my little brother developed PTSD from being blown out of the turret of his Humvee in Iraq. Observing his behavior up close finally helped me understand my dad’s, more than that, it made me recognize my dad passed his PTSD on to me. and just like him, I pinballed through life completely unaware of it, wrecking things, hurting others, just not to the extent he did. Somehow, he said and did enough that I never did to my wife and kids what he did to his. His real name was Irvin, and to this day I call my boys Irvin: “What you doin’, Irvin? Pick your clothes up, Irvin.” I role play Irvin, his gruff voice, his profane expressions, and it’s like my boys know their grandfather intimately, even though he died twenty years before they were born. They even call each other Irvin. They will probably call their own kids Irvin.

I miss my dad, miss going hunting and fishing with him, miss his bald head and yellowed cigarette fingers. I do lots of little things to keep him alive in my life. Sometimes I call the dog Irvin, I call the car Irvin, and I’ll probably call this column Irvin, before I get done wrestling with the damn thing.

(Contact James Giago Davies at

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