Toward the end of Dad's life, people would always ask me, "How are your parents doing?" And I would always deliver the same answer: "They've been married 61 years and they've never been unhappier."
I got looks of disbelief, a hope in their eyes that I must be joking. But I wasn't. Into their 80s, my parents became experts on getting on each other's nerves. Through long illness and a perpetually cranky disposition, Dad withdrew into life on the recliner, a world circumscribed by television and proximity to the bathroom.
A low point came when Mom left the house for a trip to the mall, and Dad stayed home, planning his day with a highlighter and a TV program schedule. He liked the adventure shows, especially MacGyver, the guy who could make a bazooka out of a soda straw. I think it must have reminded him of his own days as an action hero.
After World War II, Dad got a job with the U.S. Customs Service. He had movie star good looks and once appeared in a short government film titled Smugglers Beware. I was 4 years old and saw him on a huge screen in a New York City movie house. In the film, Dad uses his training to nab a woman smuggling diamonds in the heels of her shoes. From my vantage point, he looked 40 feet tall.
Dad's career lasted four decades and included great adventures. We have a photograph of him with Richard Nixon, and a letter from Dwight Eisenhower thanking Dad for greeting Mamie on an arrival through the Port of New York. There were huge drug busts at Kennedy Airport. And there is a color photo of Dad in a 1963 edition of National Geographic, attending to the crate carrying the Mona Lisa on her visit to America.
So it did not surprise anyone that when my dad clogged the toilet he would try to fix it himself. Call a plumber? Not on your life. My father did what any former action hero who had watched endless episodes of MacGyver would do: He grabbed the leaf blower, stuck it in the toilet, and . . . you can imagine the rest.
My mother would never let it go. Sixty years of marital fidelity and loyal fatherhood be damned, "How the hell could he stick that thing in the toilet?" she'd say over and over again. "What a mess."
During one visit, the two of them bickered in a way that made me clutch at my haircut. I thought the best thing to do was to separate them like children, so I invited my mother to go with me for a nice drive. On the way out the door, the dialogue went something like this:
"When will you be back?" asked Dad.
"Whenever I feel like it," said Mom. "And don't do something stupid."
"I did something stupid 60 years ago. I got married."
"Go to hell."
"I'm already in hell. I'm married!"
When my dad died, everything changed. Mom cried and cried as if they were 40 again and he had just been hit by a truck. She got teary and sentimental, recalling the good days. There even came a time when she stopped referring to the leaf blower incident.
I tell this story on occasion in public, and not long ago a local writer named Mike Kanter was kind enough to send along this reflection on my father's predicament:
"I have just returned from a trip to Phoenix to visit my daughter. . . . While there, we experienced one of those domestic nuisances — a clogged toilet.
"My son-in-law, Andy, and I tried all the usual fixes. No help. . . . So we headed out to Home Depot in search of a solution. Upon finding a staffer, we explained our problem and the attempted fixes. Voila! He suggested something that neither Andy nor I had heard of — a toilet gun. A toilet gun?
"Upon examining the device, we determined that it propels a blast of air into the offending toilet employing a CO2 cartridge, just like the air guns we had as kids. We couldn't resist. So $25 later, we had our toilet gun . . .
"Andy, my 2-year-old grandson, Jake, and I trudged off to the offending commode to execute. Carefully placing the plastic shield over the toilet bowl, Andy then gently squeezed the trigger, and whoosh — a blast of air and splash of bowl water. Nothing else. We flushed and lo and behold, the water level receded and then rose. It worked! No muss. No fuss.
"Roy, your dad might have been only slightly ahead of his time. He had the right idea. With enough patience, refinement and family support, he no doubt would have gotten it right. Vindication. So what, a little solid waste scattered about. The old man might not be such a bad guy after all."
Not a bad guy? How about the Al Gore of the toilet gun. The Untidy Bowl man. The Prince of Porcelain. The Ayatollah of the Toilet-Bowla. Reputation restored.
I phoned my mother to break the news that Dad was a visionary. "Don't tell me," she said.
Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at the Poynter Institute. He is the author of "Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer." He wears his dad's wedding ring and is the proud owner of a toilet gun — which should be protected by the Second Amendment.