This Father's Day, I will eat steak. I will eat steak farmed southwest of Altus by the Holder brothers. And when I eat it, I will raise a fork to my two favorite meat-eaters: my mentor, Mark Hutchison, and my dad, George Cathey.
Mark, who died June 6, took on a fatherly role for me right about the time my dad died in the winter of 2005.
My dad introduced me to T-bone steaks, which he considered the Cadillac of beef cuts, as soon as I had enough teeth to chew them. Dad was a country kid, growing up in Brownwood, Texas, during World War II. People didn't get a lot of Porterhouse, filet mignon or Cowboy rib-eyes in those days, and they still don't in those parts.
Mark, well, he just liked meat: beef, pork, deer, buffalo. Didn't matter.
Me: “Hutch, what sounds good for lunch?”
Hutch unleashed the word in a slow, deep growl born in the exact spot where the meat would go to expire. And he had his own cadence.
“Let's get some ... MEAT!”
On May 30, my son Luke and I drove to Meers for the first time to have a world-famous burger at the Meers Store.
Upon surveying the menu, I saw where owner Joe Maranto got his start in the restaurant business with the Underwood's chain, which was founded in my dad's hometown of Brownwood. I've eaten at Underwood's countless times, where the barbecue is just fine but the hot rolls and mixed cherry and peach cobbler inspire poetry.
I pointed out the connection to Luke, who was 7 when his grandpa died. He mentioned how disappointed he'd been he hadn't been allowed to attend the funeral, which had begun in Brownwood but ended up in the Texas Panhandle in the forgotten town of McAdoo, where my mother grew up.
I told Luke we needed to drive out to his grave someday, perhaps on his birthday — June 30. He liked the idea, and we made one of those plans you feel sure won't come together in real life but makes you feel secure in the fantasy world where you always pay bills on time, never forget to take out the trash and really do get together with folks with whom you've just shared an engaging conversation.
We ate our burgers, which we agreed were delicious, and shared a bowl of chili. Then it struck me that my father's birthday wasn't June 30, but May 30.
And there we sat, my son and I, in a restaurant owned by a person with Brownwood ties as close to McAdoo, Texas, as we were likely to be for a very long time — perhaps ever.
West we rode through Medicine Park, as I told Luke everything about his grandfather I could recall, beginning with how his great-grandfather called little George “Sonny” and how my father called me the same thing in tender moments.
I told him all the way to the beginning of the end in 2002 when my dad faced a second angioplasty after already having open-heart surgery. His cardiologist warned the procedure could bring about early onset of Alzheimer's or dementia, but Dad thought the reward outweighed the risk, so he took it.
I even told Luke, 14, how my relationship with Dad had become strained before his health went south. At the time a father of two young children and still more boy than man, it was easy for me to judge the man harshly.
Dad lost his mind gradually, turning the tough, hard-charging father who pushed me to succeed, whether I wanted to or not, into a sweet, fragile and sometimes helpless fellow. For all intents and purposes, my father was gone, and so was our chance to resolve our differences.
Over the next three years, his condition slipped into emptiness, and on Jan. 2, 2005, he died.
Now about Mark
Not long before that, Mark Hutchison entered my life. He was Metro Editor, and I was office supervisor for our Norman bureau. He was my boss.
I referred to my dad as hard-charging, but that was only in human terms. Mark A. Hutchison was hard-charging in bull's terms. No, not just in a China closet, Mark was a bull in loafers, behind the wheel of his pickup, on the basketball court and any place he saw lack of effort. Not a bull kicking its hind-legs and turning circles; a bull who had just stamped a front hoof twice, snorted visible flames and mistaken your rib cage for a fluttering red flag.
Because Mark didn't tolerate failure, he expected maximum effort. He wanted motors pushing red line and reporters hammering out tight, well-organized, perfectly reported stories. He didn't want stories now, he wanted them an hour ago like he'd asked. He didn't want to hear you hadn't talked to the city manager because he was on a cruise, he wanted to know why you weren't on a ship-to-shore line asking the captain to track the man down.
He treated excuses like Dixie cups, snorting down the contents before wadding them up and slamming them in the trash can.
“Get News Put in Paper!” he might remind the excuse-wielding reporter. “It's only your job!”
I often received emails with a subject line that read “Hurry!” Open that email and there would be no other contents.
“What do I need to hurry about?” I would ask.
“You just do.”
This bull might sound like a bully, but I've never met a bully with a heart bigger than Custer County, which Mark visited along with every other one of Oklahoma's 77 counties. I never knew a bully who went to bat for his people — most of whom never knew it — and set straight anyone who might talk against them. He loved his people. Even those he didn't like.
What I didn't know at the time, is how badly I needed that and how much I miss it. My dad called it “tailing me up.” Mark called it Monday to Sundeeee.
The truth about many of us is if somebody doesn't crack the whip now and then we have a tendency to sniff around until we find something to eat, then curl up and go to sleep. Mark kept a photo of a dog sled in flight near his desk. He'd written his name above the sled-driver and the names of his greenest reporters over the dogs. They might get a call from across the newsroom that went something like this: “Jesse, I need you to go down to the cop shop and get me a police report, Mush!”
If Jesse or Augie or Chad or Joe or Hank or anybody else said something like, “I just got back from there, why didn't you call me on my cell?” — His response was twofold: 1. “MUSH!” and 2. An abrupt and loud disconnection.
Disconnection was the way I'd left it with my dad. I didn't even cry the day we buried him in the dark, sandy earth of Dickens County. Between his long suffering and the arrested development of our relationship, I was more concerned about the long drive home than paying last respects. On the Mount Rushmore of my lowest moments as a human being, that day is represented.
Somewhere on the road from hero-worshipping son to defiant young man, I'd forgotten how he never turned down a catch in the backyard. I chose to overlook how many years he volunteered to coach youth league baseball or soccer — not to mention provide food, shelter, car, tuition and so many other advantages I never appreciated.
Mark used to tell me I was too hard on my dad. He told me I was lucky to have had him for so long. Around the time Mark graduated from the University of Kansas, he lost his father. Being a good father to his three daughters drove Mark just as hard as the news did.
I used to kid Mark that he didn't want to have the world at his fingertips, he wanted to smash it into shape with his bare hands. When he put on a pair of Hulk hands, folks didn't wonder where he'd bought them, they wondered why he'd painted his hands green.
And with this self-made, unorthodox style, he became a great father to those girls and to those of us in his employ.
He made everyone who worked for him better. Not everyone wanted to be better, which drew not only the bull but his horns. Mark was committed to improving every day in every way. If you weren't getting better, you were only getting worse.
Things got worse forever for Mark on a hot summer day when a fall during an annual fishing trip left him paralyzed from the chest down. My fear was never about his survival but his well-being. The good doctors at OU Medical Center had the right man for courage and determination. Anyone whoever tried to take a charge from Hutch on the basketball court or was fool enough to tell him he was wrong got an immediate and impactful lesson in unadulterated determination.
And he did battle like we all knew he would. He did rally and make us all cheer. He returned to the newsroom, infusing it with hope. But when the credits stopped rolling on this happy ending, the pain never went away. Mark told me more than once there was no point when he didn't feel pain. But he put that pain aside and showed his three daughters and a tower full of people how to handle adversity.
And there's no way I would've been with my son Luke on the road to the Texas Panhandle without the lessons learned from the battered but unbeaten bull whom I owe more for my career than anyone I've ever known.
Luke and I stopped in Altus to pick up a new baseball at the Walmart. We drove through a fledgling storm, which was spitting lightning to the flatlands and stirring the last of the red clay. We watched volunteer firemen rush to a fire started by a bolt from the sky. I got a ticket in Paducah, Texas, doing 38 in a 30. (Here's hoping Cottle County puts to good use my $160.)
Broken from the storm, the temperature rose to 103, spitting dragon's breath across the hapless loose earth toward the storm in our wake. Deep in the heart of Dickens County, we found the dirt roads that lead to McAdoo, which for decades was known for its cotton production. Godzilla-size windmills now dominate the landscape.
Other than the monstrous propellers, little else has changed. The school my mother graduated from is still closed. The Fina station where my grandfather once whittled with his contemporaries is still home to more tumbleweeds than people.
One doesn't need a map in McAdoo, just average eyesight. There to the west, a couple turns down the dirt road, was the cemetery. Luke and I parked by Dad's grave, we shared a catch as long as we could stand the heat and dust. Luke dug a little rut next to his granddad's tombstone. We wrote, “Happy 80th Sonny,” then signed our names. Luke placed the ball in the rut, leaving it for the wind and horned toads to consider.
We made the long drive home, finally catching up to that baby storm, which had grown into full severity, just west of El Reno.
Seven days later, bad went to worse for my de facto dad, Mark. Just as dementia gradually stole my father's vitality, so, too, did the painful and complicated life of disability exhaust Mark. When the great bull had endured more than we puny humans could conceive, he left this world as tears fell from dark morning skies, echoing with thunder that sounded more and more like “hurry” with each clap.
His daughters Brooke, Brandi and Bethany will spend their first Father's Day without their dad this Sunday, and for that I'm truly heartbroken. I hope they know The Oklahoman has never been the same without their dad. I hope that fills them with pride if not comfort.
I hope the ceaseless West Texas wind slows long enough for the dust to clear and give my dad a glimpse at the ball his son and grandson left him.
And when I taste steak from cattle raised on the prairie Mark and my dad loved so much, I hope they taste it, too.
When I taste that steak it'll be with Luke and my daughter Kate, 13, whom I hope will be quicker on the uptake than their father when it comes to understanding all their old man really ever wanted was to be their hero.