Things My Father Taught Me: Dave Gunn
There are few as good as Dave Gunn. From the moment we met, his humble demeanor paired with a wit that just don’t quit made for a formidable conversation partner… or “pardner,” if I dare attempt a phonetical match to Dave’s inimitable Southwestern Kansas accent. Perhaps its my familiarity with the region, having been born a couple hours East of Dave, perhaps its our appreciation of the lore of “The West,” for whatever reason, I love any chance I get to listen to Dave Gunn talk, for he always has an interesting take on the topic at hand. The weekend of his wedding, I was fortunate to hear Dave read from old letters written to him by his father. It was then I figured out a piece on his father would stand out in a series like this. And this year, this month in fact, Dave is a new dad. No time like the present to reflect on things learned from one’s own father.
My father was born James Frederick Gunn one year to the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. By the late 1950s, people began to call him “Peter Gunn” after the brass-drunk television theme song that is still a standard of every high school marching band in America. When he passed away in 2010, Peter Gunn was simply just Pete.
Pete wasn’t so much a storyteller as he was an enthusiast for stretching the truth. His high-pitched voice that sighed, hummed, and cackled taught me from an early age that you should always tell people what they want to hear, and then some. To make it entertaining. When you wreck the family station wagon, blame it on an escaped rodeo bull that you helped cowboys on horseback chase down. When you meet a woman with an amazing singing voice, never fail to mention both Streisand and Bette Midler in your compliments.
Pete liked to tell people his hobby was scuba diving despite living in landlocked Dodge City, Kansas. That oven-baked fish and vitamins saved his life. “Never felt better,” he’d inform random people at the post office and grocery store. And when Pete changed, he wanted others to change with him, often supplying the vitamins to assist. For years Pete was convinced that I’d never become a talk-show host (his idea) unless I cut my hair, stop cussing and “juice up” with Noni, a concoction akin to sweet mud.
“David, David, David,” he’d say (always three times on the name). “Keep taking your vitamins.”
Varsity Barbershop in Dodge City ensured Pete’s brunette hair was above his ears at all times, a Tuesday morning ritual that never failed to accentuate his elephant lobes that stayed tan year round thanks to his job as a brakeman for Santa Fe railroad. He wore filthy clothing to work, often duct-taped denim overalls with steel-toed boots laced with reflective, orange shoelaces. The railroad destroyed his knees, his hearing and, on occasion, his spirit, but Pete never cussed above shoot, and always had time to take my brother, sister and me to the drive-in theatre on summer nights (though he’d often be snoring by the second reel).
Pete was a man about town. If you wanted your brain filled with new knowledge on Stonehenge, magnetic fields, Broadway musicals and, of course, vitamins, all you had to do was find him. And everywhere he went, his kids went. To the credit union. To see his insurance salesman. The local racquetball club. The National Guard armory (always inexplicable). To check his P.O. Box with brass key. Being a sidekick to my father all those years taught me that you need to actually know your barber. You need to know the person selling you groceries. You need to know your bank teller, especially if she sings like Bette Midler. Otherwise you’re just James Gunn, born one year to the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, who works for the railroad.
– Dave Gunn