No Man's Land

Traversing the rough terrain between a father's expectations and a son's aspirations

My parents played as hard as they worked, and in sleepy Norfolk (population 2,000), the parties they threw in our barn's refurbished basement became the hedonistic social event of most every season. At least four or five times a year, and especially on New Year's Eve, anywhere from 35 to 100 people would converge on a Saturday night, consume massive quantities of alcohol, and stage a revelry, occasionally piling into an antique fire truck my father had renovated for a jaunt around our field, whooping, singing, and clanging the bell. A short night's sleep later, a dozen or so guests would return to clean up the mess, drink bloody marys, and tease those with the biggest hangovers.

But most weekends were spent working. With my grandfather gone, I was frequently enlisted to help my dad chip away at his never-ending list of projects. Something always needed to be fixed, made, moved, tuned up, or otherwise maintained. At times the work was hard, steady labor, as when the house and the barn needed a new roof, or a crop of potatoes was ready to be unearthed, carted up the field in wheelbarrows, and stored in the shed. Other times my role was to fetch tools or hold something in place as my father--always talking to himself and inventing new combinations of curses--saw to the task. On that score I was far more valuable to him for my youthful brawn than my common sense. He'd be in some godforsaken position (wedged, say, into the narrow crawlspace between the stone foundation and the 120-year-old floorboards, wrestling with a pipe or some electrical wire) and yell for me to run to the barn for a clamp, socket wrench, or shears. With comic regularity, I'd dash out to the workshop, frantically rifle through the clutter where he'd told me to look, and dash back to report that I couldn't find it. Two minutes and one baleful stare later, he'd be heading back to the job with the tool in his hand.

Any friends unlucky enough to happen by before I was set free often were included in the project at hand, a fact that earned my father the nickname Little Hitler--an unfortunate moniker that, in the classic tradition of teenage perversity, was affixed to him with a good deal of affection. His larger-than-life image among the guys I hung out with was cinched one night during high school when we were playing cards in the kitchen after a grueling week of summer football practice. As my father was getting a snack from the refrigerator, one of my friends, John Finase, commented that the workouts had strengthened him to the point where he just might be able to best the old man in a pushup contest. My father casually replied that he would do two one-handed pushups for every one my friend was able to do with two hands. John promptly reeled off 50. My father, his left hand behind his back, proceeded to double that. Another friend then did 30 and told my father he only had to match it. My dad, this time with the other hand behind his back, did 60.

 

It would be easy, and perhaps accurate, to conclude that my father used his physical strength to compensate for his lack of formal education. Yet he is also one of the most intelligent and perceptive people I have ever met, and he has exerted more influence on the way I think and interact with others than anyone else.

The only time I have ever heard him even obliquely criticize his parents is when he expresses regret that they let him quit high school--a mistake he was determined not to repeat with me. Before I had finished the second grade, he had begun to propagandize about my future, telling me that I was going to enlist in the navy and then attend MIT on the GI Bill. Even my innocent fantasies about becoming a professional baseball player were carefully rebutted with detailed explanations of the long odds of achieving such a goal. "Get your college degree and then figure out what you want to do," he'd say.

Among my father's often-repeated golden rules: Never gossip or speak ill of someone behind his back; criticize a person to his face, speaking directly and without rancor. Give at least as much value as you're being compensated for, and never owe anybody anything. No matter what the circumstances, he practiced what he preached.

He'd sit and talk with me for hours on end. Generally these conversations were of two distinctive types. In one type, usually begun as the dinner dishes were being cleared, he taught me how to argue. (It being the 1960s, there was no shortage of polarizing issues.) Specifically, I learned from him how to cajole and parry, when to hammer on a salient point and when to change the subject or obfuscate by invoking a semantic technicality or an outrageous overstatement. Through trial and error, I gradually became adept at thinking on the fly. Because the person who left the table in a huff was perceived to have lost the battle--and my father reserved a rankling, victorious chortle for just such occasions--I learned how to speak with passion without letting my emotions take control. Whenever my logic was particularly taut, or whenever I identified a fundamental flaw in his reasoning or refused to let him bait me, my father's proud, satisfied smile (albeit a brief one) revealed where his priorities lay.

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