While driving to work today, NPR was broadcasting a segment about musician fathers and how they influenced their musically inclined off-spring. This made me think about me and my old man, and how he helped shape me to be the writer that I am today (for better or worse).
My father was not a writer. He didn’t really read my work. My mom was the one I would wake up at 1 am with tears streaming down my face,”You have to read this poem that I just wrote Mom.” (I had a LOT of teen angst.) He was not an avid reader; he’d read the Times West-Virginian, Dominion Post, Sports Illustrated and the occasional Playboy, but that’s about it. My dad influenced my writing in a totally different way.
Daddy was a bullshitter extraordinaire. He liked to talk, and he liked to tell stories. And he was good it. Just for the simple enjoyment of saying, “I remember when…” and having people listen. He could turn a simple story about his high school basketball team into a tale as epic as Sampson v Goliath. He felt no qualms with talking about the harder truths in life with me and my three older brothers. If his precautionary tale of an acid trip gone wrong–and let me tell you, a story about your Dad seeing Satan smiling beside of him in the coal mines stays with you–would have been used in the Say No to Drugs campaign, millions of dollars and years of effort would not have been wasted.
Sitting at his knee, watching the 6 o’clock news, started my love for journalism. At first I hated the news, of course. It was boring, dry, talking stuff that had nothing to do with the Smurfs or Synergy changing Jerrica into Jem. The one day something dawned on me. The news talked about real people. These were real people and folks like Dan Rather were telling their stories, just like Dad would tell his. That connection was mind-blowing for me.
I learned when you’re telling your tales, you have to be honest. Dad taught me that spinning a yarn was about being true to yourself, and your audience, even if ain’t pretty or uncomfortable. Like the stories of him being a little black boy in Fairmont, WV and how integration was so damn hard, and made harder by everybody, even the white adults who taught him. He told me what it felt like to be forced into a situation that you had no control over, and how you don’t just survive, you thrive. His lessons were unspoken, but I live them: If you’re real with people, they will respect you more.
My father died 6 days after September 11th. Mom said she knew Dad was really sick when he barely acknowledged the Twin Towers tragedy. For the longest time, my brain would block the year, like it was trying to protect me time ticking on. Even now, I have a memory device to remember 2001. “They” say it’s supposed to get better with time, but I’m not sure if that’s true. Grief doesn’t stab me under the ribs when I think of you Dad, but the wound will always be there. I love you Dad. I miss you, and I’m trying to uphold your tradition of being an honest bullshitter. Here’s to you Daddy a little early. Happy Father’s Day.