The Old Man

January 7, 2013

We’ve all wondered what the future holds in store for us. Mostly, we wonder about the events which may influence our lives. In truth,  we are mostly influenced by the small, more nuanced experiences which over time help shape our identity.

Mostly, we are influenced by out fathers. There are outliers of course. There are bad fathers, uncaring fathers and unwilling fathers. Still, to have an average father is to blessed. The average father must make a conscience effort to be a better father and the average father is at times just unsure of himself enough to be uncertain and at other times to be resolute and strong in matters he knows to be right. He knows when to perseveres and when to quit. He knows when to apologize and when to demand an apology.

Some men are destined to be kings or presidents, prime ministers or princes. They may do great things and be feted by many but with the passage of time they recede into memory. Those fathers from whom we learn, not by way of achievement but by way of example are never far from our consciousness. Those fathers, imperfect as they may be,  shape us in countless ways.

Mario Coumo, former Governor of New York and most eloquent of speakers, said it best.

I talk and talk and talk, and I haven’t taught people in fifty years what my father taught me by example in one week…

Another favorite:

“I watched a small man with thick calluses on both hands work fifteen and sixteen hours a day. I saw him once literally bleed from the bottoms of his feet, a man who came here uneducated, alone, unable to speak the language, who taught me all I needed to know about faith and hard work by the simple eloquence of his example.”

What the future holds will be determined by the examples we set.


Sons rarely get to know their fathers very well, less well, certainly, than fathers get to know their sons. More of an intimidating nature remains for the father to conceal, he being cast in the role of example-setter. Sons know their own guilty intimidations. Eventually, however, they graduate their fears of the lash or the frown, learn that their transgressions have been handed down for generations. Fathers are more likely to consider their own sins to have been original.

The son may ultimately boast to the father of his own darker conquests or more wicked dirkings: perhaps out of some need to declare his personal independence, or out of some perverted wish to settle a childish score, or simply because the young — not yet forged in the furnace of blood — understand less about that delicate balance of natural love each generation reserves for the other. Remembering yesterday’s thrashings, or angry because the fathers did not provide the desired social or economic advantages, sons sometimes reveal themselves in cruel ways.

Wild tigers claw the poor father for failures real or imagined: opportunities fumbled, aborted marriages, punishments misplaced. There is this, too: a man who has discovered a likeness in his own image willing to believe (far beyond what the evidence requires) that he combines the natural qualities of Santa Claus, Superman, and the senior Saints, will not easily surrender to more mature judgments. Long after the junior partner has ceased to believe that he may have been adopted, or that beating-off will grow hair on the hand while the brain slowly congeals into gangrenous matter, the father may pose and pretend, hiding bits and pieces of yesterday behind his back. Almost any father with the precious stuff to care can adequately conceal the pea. ft is natural in sons to lust — yes, to hunger for — an Old Man special enough to have endowed hi; progeny’s genes with genius and steel. Or, failing the ideal, to have a father who will at least remain sturdy, loyal, and therewhen life’s vigilantes come riding with the hangman.

You see the fix the poor bastard is in, don’t you? He must at once apologize and inspire, conceal and judge, strut and intervene, correct and pretend. No matter how far he ranges outside his normal capabilities, he will remain unappreciated through much of the paternal voyage — often neglected, frequently misread, sometimes profaned by his own creation. For all this, the father may evolve into a better man — may find himself closer to being what he claims, a strong role having ways of overpowering the actor. And if he is doubly blessed, he may know a day when his sons (by then, most likely, fathers themselves) will come to love him more than they can bring themselves to say. Then, sometimes, sons get to know their fathers a bit: perhaps a little more than nature intended, and surely more than yesterday would have believed.

There was that blindly adoring period of childhood when my father was the strongest and wisest of men. He would scare off the bears my young imagination feared as they prowled the night outside our Texas farmhouse, provide sunshine and peanut butter, make the world go away. I brought him my broken toys and my skinned knees. He did imitations of all the barnyard animals; when we boxed he saw to it that I won by knockouts. After his predawn winter milkings, shivering and stomping his numb feet while rushing to throw more wood on the fire, he warned that tomorrow morning, by gosh, he planned to laze abed and eat peach cobbler while his youngest son performed the icy chores.

He took me along when he hunted rabbits and squirrels, and on alternate Saturdays when he bounced in a horse-drawn wagon over dirt roads to accomplish his limited commercial possibilities in Putnam or Cisco. He thrilled me with tales of his own small-boy peregrinations: an odyssey to Missouri, consuming two years, in covered wagons pulled by oxen, fordings of swift rivers, and pauses in Indian camps where my grandfather, Morris Miles King, smoked strong pipes with his hosts and ate with his fingers from iron kettles containing what he later called dog stew. The Old Man taught me to whistle, pray, ride a horse, enjoy country music, and. by his example, to smoke. He taught that credit-buying was unmanly, unwise, and probably unforgivable in Heaven: that one honored one’s women, one’s flag, and one’s pride: that, on evidence supplied by the Biblical source of “winds blowing from the four corners of the earth,” the world was most assuredly flat. He taught me the Old Time Religion, to bait a fishhook or gut a butchered hog, and to sing “The Nigger Preacher and the Bear.”

I had no way of knowing what courage was in the man (he with no education, no hope of quick riches, no visible improvements or excitements beckoning to new horizons) to permit him to remain so cheerful, shielding, and kind. No mailer low difficult those Depression times, there was always something under the Christmas tree. When I was four, he walked five miles to town in a blizzard, then returned as it worsened, carrying a red rocking chair and smaller gifts in a gunnysack. Though he had violated his creed by buying on credit, he made it possible for Santa Claus to appear on time.

I would learn that he refused to accept the largess of one of FDR’s recovery agencies because he feared I might be shamed or marked by wearing to school its telltale olive drab “relief shirts.” He did accept employment with the Works Progress Administration. shoveling and hauling wagonloads of dirt and gravel for a road-building project. When brought home the latest joke from the rural school — “WPA stands for ‘We Piddle Around’ ” — he delivered a stern, voice-quavering lecture: Son, the WPA is a honest way some poor men has of makin’ their families a livin’. You’d go to bed hungry tonight without the WPA. Next time some smart aleck makes a joke about it, you ought to knock a goddamned whistlin’ fart out of him.

Children learn that others have fathers with more money, more opportunity, or more sophistication. Their own ambitions or resentments rise, inspiring them to reject the simpler wants of an earlier time. The son is shamed by the father’s speech, dress, car, occupation, and table manners. The desire to flee the family nest (or, at bottom, to soar higher in it; to undertake some few experimental solos) arrives long before the young have their proper wings or before their parents can conceive of it.

The Old Man was an old-fashioned father, one who relied on corporal punishments, Biblical exhortations, and a ready temper. He was not a man who dreamed much, or who understood that others might require dreams as their opium. Though he held idleness to be as useless and as sinful as adventure, he had the misfortune to sire a hedonist son who dreamed of improbable conquests accomplished by some magic superior to grinding work. By the time I entered the troublesome teen-age years, we were on the way to a long dark journey. A mutual thirst to prevail existed — some crazy stubborn infectious contagious will to avoid the slightest surrender.

The Old Man strapped, rope-whipped, and caned me for smoking, drinking, lying, avoiding church, skipping school, and laying out at night. Having once been very close, we now lashed out at each other in the manner of rejected lovers on the occasion of each new disappointment. I thought The Old Man blind to the wonders and potentials of the real world; could not fathom how current events or cultural habits so vital to my contemporaries could be considered so frivolous, or worse. In turn, The Old Man expected me to obediently accept his own values: show more concern over the ultimate disposition of my eternal soul, eschew easy paths when walking tougher ones might somehow purify, be not so inquisitive or damnfool dreamy. That I could not (or would not) comply puzzled, frustrated, and angered him. In desperation he moved from a “wet” town to a “dry” one, in the foolish illusion that this tactic might keep his baby boy out of saloons.

On a Saturday in my fifteenth year, when I refused an order to dig a cesspool in our backyard because of larger plans downtown. I fought back: it was savage and ugly — though, as those things go, one hell of a good fight. Only losers emerged, however. After that we spoke in terse mumbles or angry shouts, not to communicate with civility for three years. The Old Man paraded to a series of punishing and uninspiring jobs — night watchman, dock loader for a creamery, construction worker, chicken-butcher in a steamy, stinking poultry house, while I trekked to my own part-time jobs or to school. When school was out I usually repaired to one distant oil field or another, remaining until classes began anew. Before my eighteenth birthday, I escaped by joining the Army.

On the morning of my induction, The Old Man paused at the kitchen table, where I sat trying to choke down breakfast. He wore the faded old crossed-gallus denim overalls I held in superior contempt and carried a lunch bucket in preparation of whatever dismal job then rode him. “Lawrence,” he said, “is there anything I can do for you?” I shook my head. “You need any money?” “No.” The Old Man shuffled uncertainly, causing the floor to creak. “Well,” he said, “I wish you good luck.” I nodded in the direction of my bacon and eggs. A moment later the front door slammed, followed by the grinding of gears The Old Man always accomplished in confronting even the simplest machinery…

Read it all.

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This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

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This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.


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