Article — From the April 1971 issue

The Old Man

While we digested our suppers on The Old Man’s front porch, his grandchildren chased fireflies in the summer dusk and, in turn, were playfully chased by neighborhood dogs. As always, The Old Man had carefully locked the collar of his workday khakis. He recalled favored horses and mules from his farming days, remembering their names and personalities though they had been thirty or forty years dead. I gave him a brief thumbnail sketch of William Faulkner — Mississippian, great, writer, appreciator of the soil and good bourbon — before quoting what Faulkner had written of the mule: “He will draw a wagon or a plow but he will not run a race. He will not try to jump anything he does not indubitably know beforehand he can jump; he will not enter any place unless he knows of his own knowledge what is on the other side; he will work for you patiently for ten years for the chance to kick you once.” The Old Man cackled in delight. “That feller sure knowed his mules,” he said.

The Son Takes Up the Work Where the Father Drops It [ca. 1902], by Walter Appleton Clark. Painting courtesy the Library of Congress, Cabinet of American Illustration collection.

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. It is natural in sons to lust — yes, to hunger for — an Old Man special enough to have endowed his progeny’s genes with genius and steel. Or, failing the ideal, to have a father who will at least remain sturdy, loyal, and there when 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.

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, a contributing editor, has been son, father, and — since his thirty-ninth year — grandfather. He is convinced that being a father is the most complex and demanding of these roles.

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