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Father Time 6 min read

Father Time

Dads make for good stories, as demonstrated by some incredible writing. Don't wait until June 21 to celebrate the father figures in your life.

By Cary Littlejohn

I once fell off the top of a six-foot ladder. I was in sixth grade, and I was helping my dad put up a sign. It was a large sign, painted by my uncles, who, like my dad for a time in his life, followed in their father’s footsteps by building a business hand-painting large advertisements before long before the age of digital advertisements you see driving down the interstate. It was a cold morning, and that evening, I had a concert with the sixth grade band; I had a trumpet solo. The sign was painted onto two pieces that would be lined up, like a puzzle, and affixed to a brick wall. It was a sign for a local realty company; it was orange and white, like the colors of my law school alma mater, The University of Tennessee, because the name of the company contained the word “Volunteer,” which was the mascot of the state’s flagship school.

My job was simply to hold up the sign, so that my dad could do the more involved work of drilling. Holding the piece against the wall as I stood atop the ladder was already taxing my scrawny arms, as the piece was quite heavy when held at a particular height for an extended period of time. But then a gust of wind blew up, and it found the space between the wall and the sign. I panicked, strained and struggled to correct and reposition the sign, and in so doing, I lost my balance and the ladder began to wobble. Then it all came crashing down.

The fall felt like it took forever, but it obviously didn’t. The ladder fell over, I fell on top of the ladder on its side, wrenching my leg between its legs, and then continued onto the ground, the back of my head connecting solidly with the pavement.

From the ground, looking up as my body caught up with the reality that I was in pain, I remember seeing my dad leap from his ladder, however many rungs up he was, and he was at my side immediately. I can’t remember another time he moved so quickly. I avoided serious injury, but the story sticks with me all these years later. It was a such a physical embodiment of a father’s love, and it retains its ability to bring tears to my eyes.

Many years later, the inimitable television show The West Wing gave words to what so deeply affected me about that moment. In the last episode Aaron Sorkin wrote, Season 4, Episode 23, entitled “Twenty Five.” A long (SPOILER-FILLED) story short: The president’s daughter has been kidnapped, there is no acting vice president, and the president wishes to invoke the 25th Amendment, thereby surrendering the presidency until the emergency was settled. But with no vice president, this means that the most powerful Republican in the country, the Speaker of the House, played by John Goodman, will be elevated to power.

When asked what he thinks, Will Bailey, a deputy communications director, played by Joshua Molina, says:

“Of the president temporarily handing over power to his political enemy? I think it’s a fairly stunning act of patriotism. And a fairly ordinary act of fatherhood.”

Though I’ve never asked him about it, I imagine that’s how my dad would categorize his leap from the ladder and tending me to just so: a fairly ordinary act of fatherhood.

I thought about this story recently because of a new essay in The New Yorker from David Sedaris. He’s long written about his father, Lou, and as Sedaris moves and progresses through life and his relationship with his father, he brings his readers along with him. The most recent essay tells of visiting his nearly 96-year-old father at his assisted living center after a stint in the hospital ICU, the result of fluid on his lungs and a failing heart. His siblings were gathered; they feared it might be the end. The essay seemed to wrestle with the human pain and discomfort that attends impending death but is tempered by memories of a difficult life. When his dad tells him, “You won,” Sedaris’s mixed feelings become  apparent:

“As for my dad, I couldn’t tell if he meant “You won” as in “You won the game of life,” or “You won over me, your father, who told you—assured you when you were small and then kept reassuring you—that you were worthless.” Whichever way he intended those two faint words, I will take them, and, in doing so, throw down this lance I’ve been hoisting for the past sixty years. For I am old myself now, and it is so very, very heavy.”

Read it here: Unbuttoned | The New Yorker

  • More Lou Sedaris:

    • This American Life: Music Lessons — Can’t say it any better than This American Life itself: “A case study of how children are asked to live the unlived lives of their parents.”

    • My review of Sedaris’s book, Calypso

Tom Junod’s father’s name was Lou, just like Sedaris’s. Junod, long one of my favorite writers, is working on a book about his father, and he’s acknowledged that it’s incredibly difficult to write. I await its publication with bated breath, but until then, I can read some of Junod’s other writings about fathers, his own and others’.

An all-time classic in the history of men’s magazines is his 1996 National Magazine Award-nominated piece for GQ titled “My Father’s Fashion Tips,” a personal essay peppered with practical fashion tips and a peek behind the curtain of what made his father, an endlessly fascinating man, tick.

I have a sense of style, I guess, but it is not like my father’s—it is not earned, and consequently it is not unwavering, nor inerrant, nor overbearing, nor constructed of equal parts maxim and stricture; it is not certain.

Read it here (with, sadly, more than a few typos): My Father’s Fashion Tips | GQ

In “My Father’s Fashion Tips,” Junod relays one of his father’s stories as a would-be rival of Frank Sinatra, which is fitting because, two years earlier, Junod had written what’s perhaps one of the best profiles ever about Sinatra. But not THAT Sinatra; no, Junod wasn’t trying to unseat “Frank Sinatra has a Cold” as the greatest Sinatra story ever told. He wrote instead about Frank Sinatra, Jr., and the painted a father-son relationship that is heartbreaking and beautiful.

The Old Man had just come to the centerpiece of his show—the “saloon song,” the song of smoke and liquor, yearning and regret—and now, in front of his audience, in front of thousands of people, he asked Junior if he knew the words to “One for My Baby.” Yes, Junior said. He knew the words. “Then you sing it, and I’ll wave my arms for the orchestra.” So Junior sang it. He took the microphone from his father, and, yes, by God, “he sang his ass off,” the musicians say. “He tore it up.” Then the old man took the microphone back. He sat on his stool, and lit his cigarette, and drank his drink. “Now I’ll show you how it’s supposed to be done,” he said and proceeded to seize the song back from Junior, and from everyone else who has ever tried to sing it. He sang it between the darkness and the light, behind a sheath of smoke that, in the single spotlight, turned the blue of a cataract and rose into a cloud…

Read it here: Frank Sinatra, Jr. is Worth Six Buddy Grecos | GQ

More recently, Junod told the story of his father’s relationship with football and gambling, and how it shaped Junod’s relationship with his father.

Read it here: Inside a father-son story of betting the Super Bowl | ESPN The Magazine

Gambling is a powerful draw for many, but perhaps none more so than a journalist. That’s not to say all journalists are degenerate gamblers; no, I’m talking about the story potential. The stakes, the tension, the give, the take, the sacrifice, the dreams either realized or shattered…these are ripe themes for a gifted writer. My good friend, Ron Stodghill, is just such a writer, and his story on the history of African American jockeys and the Kentucky Derby is deeply informative on its own, but when you add the personal history element of his father’s love of horses and racetrack gambling, it moves from merely educational to something truly special.

“Through the years, I have come to believe that being my dad’s son is how an amputee must feel. The nub, over time, becomes its own badge of honor, a kind of beautiful mutation of loss and resilience. Childhood memories of him grabbing the baseball mitts and playing catch with me for hours in the backyard meld with him vanishing around sundown and not reappearing until the following day. Prolonged absences during my teenage years swirl into him tossing me the keys to his Mercedes for evening cruises around town. Visits to his house during college breaks and him being MIA fuse with him calling in favors to administrators the semester I nearly flunked out. I spent years trying to reconcile the dad who left me behind with the dad who put me first.”

Read the rest of it here: The Kentucky Derby’s Lost Generation | AirBnB Magazine

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