Saturday, June 14, 2014

Today, Praise For Another Famous Man

In his consideration of fatherhood, Eags mentions that he caused his father to cry twice — the second time was the occasion of the publication of The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl (2005) with the following dedication:

To my dad, raised by his widowed mother during the darkest years of the Great Depression, four to a bedroom. Among many things he picked up from her was this skill: never let the kids see you sweat.

O, yeah. The first time Eags saw a tear in his father's eye was when 16-year-old Eags came home after an evening of beer-drinking and cruising in the family station wagon. The elder Eagan met Eags on the front porch at 2:00 AM and his only words were "I'm disappointed in you" with moist eyes. James Agee wrote about three sharecropper families in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) and Eags has praised another famous man, his father. If this is (fair & balanced) paterfamilias in our time, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
Secrets Of The Ordinary Dad
By Timothy Egan

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His gut was a jellyroll or two over the belt line and he smoked these discount cigarettes he bought by the carton, but that didn’t keep him from showing me one of his more nimble tricks. We’d wait till just after kickoff at the football game, the Cougars of Washington State. Then he’d lead me around the side where we could sneak in by crawling under a small opening in a big chain-link fence. I was 6 or 7.

The Cougs were terrible, and the stadium was always half-empty. Nobody cared if we got in free. But he was proud to pass something on, father to son.

Once, while running a race in our backyard, I had some of my teeth knocked out by the wire clothesline strung across the lawn. I forgot to duck. I was 10. It was about 95 degrees, and he was sweating over the grill, shirt off, charred-rib smoke in his face, holding a 16-ounce Schmidt beer in an insulated foam cup. He looked down at me, blood spurting from my purpled face.

“What is it now?”

“I think I broke my jaw.”

“It’s always something.”

He stayed three hours at the hospital while they reconstructed my mouth, and didn’t go off on me later for all the blood I got on the front seat of the station wagon.

My mom had a lot of babies. While she was in the maternity ward, he had to take care of us. The only thing he knew how to cook was meatballs, which he made with ground sausage, lots of garlic, onions and a couple of eggs, in a cement-thick red sauce. He’d put on a stack of Frank Sinatra records. “Fly me to the moon ...” Man, we couldn’t wait for our mom to get pregnant.

After working as a driver of a local Coca-Cola delivery truck, he took this foot-dragging sales job, requiring a lot of travel. All week he was gone, in Idaho and Montana, going from one dumpy little town to another trying to get miners and loggers to buy life insurance. If I’d been acting up, my mom would warn me about the coming consequences. “Wait till your father comes home.”

On Friday night he’d tumble into his chair, exhausted and spent. Then he’d dutifully trudge downstairs to the basement room I shared with one of my brothers. He was supposed to spank me. He’d look all sad-eyed and say something about how hard it was to raise seven kids. After a while he’d pretend to forget what he was supposed to. “Just don’t tell your mother about this.”

He got into the church band at a time when they went all folky. He couldn’t sing, and couldn’t play an instrument. They gave him a tambourine. After one Mass, the hip nun who played guitar fired him. He was the only guy who couldn’t keep rhythm to “If I Had a Hammer.” He was really hurt, and we all felt sorry for him, but he never popped off on Sister Stephanie, the tyrant.

He hated long-winded people. Some politician would show up on our doorstep, a right-wing kook running for State Legislature, and go on about how rotten the system was. “Give me the short version,” he’d say. That always shut ‘em up.

I came home late one night after drinking beer with friends and driving around town in his station wagon. I was 16. I thought he’d be asleep and I could just slip downstairs without notice. He was sitting on the porch, sometime after 2 a.m. “I’m disappointed in you,” he said. He turned to go to bed, and I’m sure I saw a tear.

When I was in college, he thought I was full of myself. And he was right. When I’d start with some fancy-pants academic idea, he’d cut me off. “Save your breath,” he said. “You might need it someday.”

He read only two books in his adult life: “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” and one that I wrote, which I dedicated to him. It was the second time I made him cry.

On Father’s Day, I tried to give him something practical, like a drill or an electric carving knife. But a few weeks later, he’d give it back. “You take it — I don’t need anything.” He loved to shop at the thrift store. One day he showed up in a pair of used Rockport shoes he got for under $2. “Do you realize how much these are worth?” So comfortable, and didn’t smell a bit. They say you can never know what it’s like to walk in another man’s shoes. He did.

When he got sick from a lifetime of smoking and not eating vegetables, he went into his room and got hooked up to an oxygen tank. He held my hand and said I was a good boy, even though I was a middle-aged man. Watching him die, as with watching him live, I learned something. His life could have been full of disappointments and what-ifs, all those anchors of regret. But he never let the bad stuff stick to him.

In his last days, when you asked him how he was doing — though he was full of pain, unable to sleep, his skin scaly and red and draping from his bony arms — he gave the same answer as always when one of his children was present. “Never better.” Ω

[Timothy Egan writes "Outposts," a column at the NY Fishwrap online. Egan — winner of both a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 as a member of a team of reporters who wrote the series "How Race Is Lived in America" and a National Book Award (The Worst Hard Time in 2006) — graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in journalism, and was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by Whitman College in 2000 for his environmental writings. Egan's most recent book is The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (2009).]

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