VII: Fathers & Sons

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So Jesse Jackson wants to cut Barack Obama’s nuts off. Geez, Jesse what was in your coffee that morning you went on Fox News, of all places, and spilled what was truly in your heart? No matter. Deed’s done. That an elder would unleash such Lear-like hostility at one younger, who is deemed on the way up, got me to thinking once again about fathers and sons.

A chapter in the compelling story of the American Dream has always centered on the image of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, passing on their lessons from one generation to the next, openly proud of their off springs’ achievements, quietly hopeful that they keep moving up the ladder of success beyond the rung at which they have landed.

Maybe that chapter needs a re-write. My father, never quite as comfortable with words as Jackson, focused on actions. Even at ten, I could hold a stage the way my father never could, being chosen to M.C. local Grange events for talent shows and parties. As verbally quick as he was tongue-tied, I drew my mother’s attention whenever chosen to star in a Christmas play or if I won a spelling bee.

Enough to make a father proud?

For all my social skills, I was still a klutz: couldn’t hammer a nail, saw a board, or tell a nut from a bolt, let alone what to do with them. Walking out on stage was easy; heading down to stand by my father’s work bench in the cellar made my knees buckle. Down there I was supposed to learn how to be handy, like all the other guys.

It was fourth grade, a Cub Scout Wolf. Needing to move up, all of us boys got a chance to build our own railroad engine. Some parent in the troop had donated 80 barrels for us to work with, two per dad and son. There’s be a train parade in two weeks over at the local Grange Hall. Hoisting the barrels into the back of the station wagon, I was excited: maybe I could win a merit badge!

“Take ‘em to the cellar.” The excitement left, catching a caboose out of town. An hour later, there we stood. Me with a huge saw in my hand, warping the blade as I futilely tried to cut straight to the line my father had drawn so the first barrel would fit over my red wagon. Saw. Bend. Try again. “Do it right!” Saw. Bend. “I told you what to do! What’s wrong with you…” Saw harder now, bend more. The saw is grabbed from my hands, suddenly turned into the perfect cutting machine for the thick cardboard surface. The blade cuts as fast as the fury behind it will allow, plenty fast. The barrel is shoved over the wagon, ripping the sides. “See what you made happen?...Go get the glue…No! Not that paste, the glue over there! There!!”

Five nights like this, all of them the same. What emerged from the cellar was judged the most beautiful train in the troop, first prize. There’s a faded snapshot of me standing next to gleaming Engine 99, looking like I want to cry. It was a good likeness of us both.

So many fathers, so much to think about for us all. Why is the differing success of one younger perceived as a sudden threat? Why for some does a new generation’s achievements seem to provoke rage, so that those who come before seek either metaphoric castration or very real humiliation of those who come after? What is missing from our discourse so that achievements of an “other” can be cause for celebration rather than revenge? Some issues transcend race in America, some don’t. Where does this one fall?

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This page contains a single entry by Steve Burghardt published on August 11, 2008 9:00 AM.

VI: Neglected White Kids was the previous entry in this blog.

VIII: Searching for the Big Piece of Chicken is the next entry in this blog.

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