Four Texas writers discuss fathers and sons
My father, Jesse "Jake" Sublett Jr., died on Jan. 4 of this year, but whenever I call my mother, I still half expect her to say that Dad's outside painting the house, plowing the garden, or engaged in some other arduous activity. Even at age 81, he was still a tough guy, the original strong, silent type but the kind who used to cry when my visits from Los Angeles came to an end, or when I broke the news that I had stage four neck cancer.
My dad grew up on a farm near Henley and worked as a ranch hand until his mid-20s. After a stint in the army, he married my mother and worked as a linesman for the Pedernales Electric Co-op, retiring as district manager after 37 years. Pretty good for a kid with a sixth-grade education. Being a linesman was hard, often brutal work. My dad saw men electrocuted. He saw them skid down utility poles, impaled on splinters the size of boars' teeth. The sun broiled their skin to the color of those creosote-daubed poles. He grew up in an era of deer hunting of which, it was said, there were only two seasons: salt and pepper. And yet he was a gentleman. I lose my temper more in a week's time than he did during the 50 years I knew him.
Seeing my dad in his cowboy hat and belt with "JAKE" engraved on the back, you might think he and my mother would have a problem with their son heeding the call of rock & roll, but they became my biggest fans. You'd think such devout Lutherans might become upset about Never the Same Again: A Rock 'n' Roll Gothic, which relates my youthful indiscretions and other lurid stuff in great detail, but you'd be dead wrong. Whenever Austin store clerks, nurses, or mechanics told them "Your son is a famous musician!" they would nod, beaming. He was proud we shared the same name. He even copped my standard greeting "Hey, man!" when he called on the phone.
During my father's last few weeks, I was helping feed and dress him, holding his hands when the morphine made him manic, talking him through his hallucinations and thinking to myself, this is the man who taught me to tie my shoes, who showed me how to track a wounded deer through a cedar break.
Now, I'm the father of an 11-year-old son named Dashiell. On the Monday after my father's funeral, my wife, Lois, and I attended a function at Dashiell's school. As we sat in the school cafeteria, admiring our son from across the room, suddenly the image reversed itself: I felt my father watching me walk to school, looking at me from his perspective, feeling the same things I was feeling now. Up until then I'd never seen myself through his eyes. Tears came, but on the whole, it wasn't a bad feeling. I carried it outside into the sun, like a shiny new coin in my pocket. I've carried it ever since.
As this Father's Day has approached, I wanted to talk about these things with some of my writer pals. We usually meet up at places like Hoover's or Threadgill's to converse for hours over dietetically incorrect blue plate specials, gallons of iced tea, and cobbler. Unfortunately, David Wilkinson was in Alpine, where he now lives, and W.K. (Kip) Stratton was in Portland, Ore., promoting his new book. So Tom Zigal and I got together with the other two via e-mail for a virtual lunch instead. We didn't have as many laughs as the real thing, but the cholesterol was lower and results were illuminating and entertaining. Tom was gracious as usual, Kip mentioned at least one John Ford or Sam Peckinpah film every hundred words or so, and David tended to dominate my bandwidth, but that's OK, because he usually has something terribly eloquent to say. Basically, I asked each of them to talk about what it means to be a father and a son.
My dad grew up on a farm in Southwest Arkansas, lied about his age to enter the Navy and fight in World War II, paid his own way to college where he graduated first in his class in electrical engineering, and then chucked all that to become a Presbyterian minister. He was also a civil rights activist, artist, amateur architect, and an expert outdoorsman. He owned patents on farming equipment and novelty games. He walked with a swagger, black tie loose around his neck, suit coat cocked back by the hands duck deep in his pockets. He wore cowboy boots. Smoked cigars.
But he was also poor and, as it turned out, bipolar. The first deficiency drove him. The latter lured him to his early ruin. He was in his early 40s when he was arrested for fraud and embezzlement, among other crimes. Ultimately, he was committed to the state institution. I was 13 then. I'm 47 now.
So I basically grew up without a father. That man was around, but I fathered him more than he did me. I watched him struggle and repeatedly fail, collapse, regroup, and reach again for the greatness he always believed was within his grasp. It was a terribly sad time for my family.
My first son, Dean, was born in 1989. My battered father dragged up soon afterward, and he began to talk in grandiose terms of the fortune he was about to bestow upon his only grandchild. I knew that it was his mania talking, and I decided that I didn't want to hear that craziness anymore. I told my father point-blank that he wasn't welcome in my home. I saw him once more before he died.
Neither of my sons ever met him. Given the reality of the situation, I still think it was for the best. But I've never been happy about it, or absolved of it, either. It's a weight you carry, until you find some place to set it down, and walk on.
I'm writing a novel, set in the Big Bend, called Where the Mountains Are Thieves, about a failing writer gathering up everything he has left to create his final masterpiece and ends up instead coaching a bunch of poor Mexican kids on a little league baseball team. This character I've created shares a similar relationship with his father. And so this fatherless man coaches fatherless boys and together they sort of complete each other. They can't solve each other's problems, but they can teach each other how to live with them.
One of the last things my dad ever told me, just a few weeks before he died, after begging me to forgive him, was how proud he was of my books. I was reluctant to meet with him, but after all it was his last request. I responded that I was not angry with him. That I remembered all he had accomplished at such an early age, what a good and respected man he had been at his zenith, when he was one hell of a man. I wanted him to know also that my own sons are happy and well-adjusted. I think my father felt relieved after all that. I hope that he did. I'd like to think that I brought him a little peace before he died. He knew so little in life.
My sons delivered me. Living with what had become of my own father, I knew that I could not possibly fail them. I'm still learning how to be a good father. When Father's Day rolls around, I think about the very last thing my father said to me. "You're a damn good dad, son. I'm proud of you." He took that to his grave. I'll take it to mine.
My dad worked in an oil refinery in Texas City for 35 years, was a strong union man and a union rep, still hates Republicans, screams at Bill O'Reilly, et al., on TV every night. He was raised on a dirt poor farm near LaGrange, spoke Czech until he was 6 years old and went to school, picked cotton with his eight other siblings, was a good running back for Flatonia High. After high school he worked on the railroad in Rockdale, then at a creamery in LaGrange, joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, then the army at the outbreak of World War II. After the war he and his brother ran a beer joint in Galveston. They got tired of being shook down by the Maceo brothers and bribing the police. After the Texas City Disaster, there were several hundred openings, and he took a job in one of the plants. It was stable work and considerably less prone to violence. He and my mother began to raise our family of four kids.
One of the things I've never had to do is to fight with him over politics. Imagine the luxury of that! He even listened to me when I explained why I was opposed to the Vietnam War, and within a year or two, by 1970, he was adamantly anti-war, too.
I never wanted to work in a plant like he did a fact that was hammered home viscerally when I actually worked at Marathon Oil in the summer after my freshman year of college. My dad didn't want me to work in a plant, either. I can't think of any dad who did. So I always knew who he was and his limitations. But I was always proud of him. Picture a man who has arms and shoulders like Popeye, and who can still jitterbug like Gene Kelly, even at 83. He was a very good baseball coach, and he keeps a meticulous lawn and gardens. How can I not love a guy like that?
A few weeks ago my son, Danny, and I went to New Orleans with my friend Lynda and her children. Danny was reading The White League, so I was able to show him where some of the novel takes place: the Cabildo, the White League monument (now hidden on a side street out of public view), the house on St. Charles where my narrator lives, and the two houses where we lived when Danny was a baby and toddler. And to the zoo, where we have photos of him sitting on a small brass elephant. And to the aquarium, where we found the brick that says "Mom and Dad love Danny Zigal." I try to maintain our familial connections to certain icons from the past farms and dance halls and old beer joints that are closed down now and to connect Danny to them. It's his choice, really, if he wants to add them to his personal history, the way I do. But my feelings have begun to fade for many of those places. Nostalgia ain't what it used to be.
In my case, I guess I should talk about two dads. My birth father was a rodeo cowboy/carny who also was a runaway dad. He was a womanizer, a three-pack-a-day smoker, and a case-of-beer-a-day drinker. He came from a background in which he saw a lot of examples from which he might have deduced that it was okay to abandon families/wives/children. My dad grew up and went to school with Neal Cassady of On the Road fame. Like Cassady, my father was okay with hitting the road and leaving women and children behind to fend for themselves. When he died of lung cancer in Oregon in the early 1990s, he was completely without family. In an odd turn of events, I flew up there five years after he died (I didn't know where he was or that he had died until then) to claim his ashes, which I later scattered. That was the only physical connection I ever had with him, since he left my mom shortly before I was born.
My stepfather was a product of the oil field and agriculture cultures of Oklahoma and West Texas. Eventually he took over his father's auto/truck repair shop. He defined himself by a macho code that involved being the toughest guy around, taking no shit off anyone, and loathing anything that he perceived as being weak. He worked harder than any person I've ever known. He came home physically wounded every night cut, bleeding, burned from his work, working usually 6 1/2 days a week. He had few friends and was estranged from some of his relatives.
He was very close to his son from his first marriage, who became a Marine, an oil-field firefighter, a bulldozer operator, a long-haul trucker, a cop, a fireman, and a mechanic. But my stepfather never understood why I was so interested in reading, couldn't fathom why I wanted to go college, etc. So apart from my not being his "blood" son, I was just such a different character that he couldn't get close to me. Or I suppose he didn't know how. He idolized his own father, yet his dad was extremely tough on him. One day when I was about 35, my stepfather started to talk to me about how tough his father had been, but he couldn't finish the conversation. I appreciated the effort he made, though. And since then, we've been closer than we ever were when I was a kid.
Chasing the Rodeo is at its heart my quest to find my rodeo cowboy dad and, by extension, myself. I grew up around rodeos ... even though my mom split from my father, she never lost her zeal for rodeos. In fact, I was at a rodeo, comfortably in her womb, just days before I made my grand entrance. I tell people that rodeo literally created me. Although there was a long period of time in my early adulthood when I stayed away from rodeos, probably as an act of rebellion.
I've always felt this almost instinctive love for the West, which I think comes from my roots, and that's manifested itself in my appreciation for great Western movies (I often say that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the great American tragedy), Western writing, jeans and boots and country music (the real thing, that is: Hank Sr., Merle Haggard, George Jones, Buck Owens). So, that time I spent on the rodeo circuit in 2003 and in writing Chasing was indeed a coming to grips both with my absent father and my inherited "self," if there is such a thing.
Meanwhile, my stepdaughter, Kim, who graduated from UT School of Nursing in May, already has a job as an RN at Seton Northwest in Austin. How cool is that?
Jesse Sublett's most recent book is Never the Same Again: A Rock 'n' Roll Gothic. David Marion Wilkinson's most recent novel is Oblvion's Altar; he also co-wrote One Ranger with retired Texas Ranger Joaquin Jackson. Thomas Zigal's new novel is The White League. W.K. "Kip" Stratton's new book is Chasing the Rodeo: On Wild Rides and Big Dreams, Broken Hearts and Broken Bones, and One Man's Search for the West.