Write Now: Never Forget You’re Irish

Never Forget You’re Irish | By Chantel Crockett
{This essay was written for the What is home? call for submissions.}

After his first arrest, when he established himself as a hellraiser, someone christened him Red Dog. This had as much to do with his wiry auburn hair as it did with his legendary temper.

He’s always had large hands – from birth, I imagine – a trait he was passed from his father. Calloused and scarred, they are now used to tinker in his garage instead of for the bar fights he pursued for reasons he couldn’t even define.

Now a bit softer and worn down, his build was once as tight and strong as a piece of leather. He was always defensive – perhaps in part to growing up with red hair and glasses, as a result of blindness in his left eye, or the later taunts of “Sally” because of his shoulder-length hair.

His mother often told him, “Never forget you’re Irish, Jimmy,” and he remembered this, first in Italian neighborhoods in St. Louis, and later on in Detroit. His four older brothers would stage neighborhood boxing matches, pitting little Jimmy against Ricky Magretta or Tommy Caniglia, fights he continued for years.

After Red Dog graduated from high school and many of his friends were stolen off to Vietnam, he was deemed 4-F – unfit to serve — by the U.S. government. He didn’t last long at the pipefitting plant his father managed, so he turned his hands to carpentry.

The friends who remained were drifters, and those who returned from Vietnam came back angry and damaged, acting out in the only way poor boys from Detroit knew how. Most of them wore their hair long, as Red Dog did, and split their time between neighborhood bars. When they got kicked out of one for fighting, they went down the street to the next.

After several arrests for fighting or reckless driving in his new black-topped GTO, local police began paying attention to Red Dog. He and his buddies needled one officer in particular – a guy who was also defensive, with something to prove. Red Dog and his closest friend, Webster, baited him whenever they crossed paths.

When Webster was killed, run off the road in his little red MG by the officer’s patrol car, Red Dog and his pregnant 16-year-old girlfriend decided two things. They would marry before the baby arrived and they would name the child — the only boy out of four children – after his dead friend.

Just six years older than his wife, Red Dog only slowed down after his second child was born. Everyone said something changed when he had a daughter.

I grew up hearing his stories, sometimes as warnings and other times to boast. When I became a teenager, those stories served as a threat to boys who had nerve enough to approach Red Dog’s daughter.

I remember reading “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” when I was in junior high and having his image float into my head whenever I read a scene with McMurphy. I imagined that was how Red Dog was when he was younger – wild and aggressive, but oddly balanced with a sense of fairness.

When I was a teenager, I was constantly impatient with him. Car trips took much longer than expected, as he had to stop for anyone with car troubles on the side of the road. He gave away his winter hats and gloves to drifters who hung around his job site. The men he gave jobs to – sometimes from work-release programs or Labor Ready – made me nervous and repulsed, and I didn’t understand why he bothered with them.

My mother, his 16-year-old girlfriend who became his wife of many years, loved to crow, “You’re so much like your father,” a statement that sometimes made me uncomfortable with all it implied.

His fighting rarely appeared in later years, only when needed to protect his family. When an incoherent man grabbed me on the street one night while walking with my father and brother, he was thrown to the ground before I even registered what happened.

The name Red Dog isn’t used much anymore, as many of his buddies are dead and he has long earned other titles. He worries about his grandson, a strawberry blond with glasses and a mouth bigger than his build, so he teaches him how to protect himself. He holds up his hands, which show more about his life than anything else, and says, “Give ‘em a punch! I may be old, but you can’t hurt steel.”

About Chantel Crockett
After trying out the East Coast for a few years, Chantel Crockett, a born Midwesterner, found her way back to Nebraska.
She now lends her background in writing and communication to instructing and advising students in the College of Communication, Fine Arts and Media at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. When she’s not skateboarding, bike riding or breakdancing with her 10-year-old son, she spends her time working on her thesis and filling her house with books and thrift-store curiosities. Say hello at chantel.crockett@gmail.com.

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