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A Family Affair

William Schwenn

Brighton Publishing LLC

435 N. Harris Drive

Mesa, AZ 85203

ISBN: 978-1-62183-463-2

Copyright © 2017


Cover Design: Tom Rodriguez

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher or copyright owner.


To mothers, fathers, sons and daughters everywhere, with this admonition—be easy on each other, and yourselves. Let life find its own way to be tough on you.


Crossword puzzle clue: six-letter word for “emotional institution.”

‘Asylum’? Close. ‘Prison’? Sometimes.

Ah—‘family’. Bingo.

More than love or hate, ‘family’ sits alone atop all emotion-evoking words in the English language. I came through one. I should know. Whether born into the comfort of wealth and privilege, injected into the mean streets of poverty and desperation, nurtured somewhere in between, or shifted along some form of adoption’s curvy path, every person has known some version of connections that brings the notion of ‘family’ to mind. And it can do any number of things to a heart: it can warm it, chill it, terrify it, or break it. Sometimes family manages to do it all.

What follows is the journey a family of three highly individualistic individuals traveled in an effort to do what felt necessary along the way. After idyllic beginnings, they veered off course, leaving me clueless how to come up with a solid meaning of a word that to this day will not let me rest. What I am sure of is that understanding ‘family’ is left to each one of us to sort out.

My tale is, at one point or another, everyone’s story. It is a jaunt through life that has left me wondering, “What happened?” Life’s easiest questions can prompt the most elusive answers.

Part One

Setting the Table

Chapter One

Getting Started: Giggles, Ponies, and Ping-Pong

For those of us who have had at least one parent (or parent figure) live long enough for us to remember the relationship, we should concede this much: sons and daughters, no matter how gentle of disposition and willing to please, are just not easy to raise. Probably because they share so much of their parents’ DNA and/or temperament. And then there’s that annoying reality that a child has to undergo the frustrating task of growing up, just like his or her parents had to.

“Just you wait!” cries every mother at some point. “You’ll have a kid of your own, and then you’ll see!” That one is actually scarier than “You just wait ‘til your father gets home!”

My earliest childhood memory is my head on my bed pillow, my dad’s head inches from mine, his whispered voice reading that short passage from Pogo where Snavely—a worm, halfway through a hole in a pail over the main character possum’s head—says, “Pogo, you needs a shave!” Something in his inflection or silly grin sent me into a giggle fit. This just egged him on, so he made up another version of that line and then another, and with each one I grew louder with delight.

Mom appeared at the bedroom door to reprimand him: “Lee—stop that! You’re getting him so worked up, he’ll never get to sleep!”

At that, Dad whipped his head around, assured her we would behave. Then, after she moved on, he slowly turned back to me, eyes big and grin bigger, conspiratorially nuzzled back in close to me, and repeated the last line, which is when I completely lost it. He pushed his finger to his lips, reminded me to “Shh, shh, shh” so we wouldn’t get scolded again, and Pogo went on for a little while longer, until relaxed, happy, and safe, I finally gave in to the Sandman.


A mansion in my childhood memory until I re-visited it as an adult, our tiny house had a basement where Mom did the laundry in an old-fashioned washtub with a double roller that squeezed excess water out of the clothes before their trip outside to the clothes lines. More than a few women lost fingers in those rollers. In the 1950s, household machines could be deadly. Equally scary was a coal furnace (featured prominently in the Christmas Story movie) that periodically tested my father’s patience and commitment to decent language.

Our family was not poor, but we traveled in decidedly modest social circles. What Dad lacked in money, he more than made up for in ingenuity: the man could make anything. After I mastered the art of walking, he decided it was time for me to learn to ride, so he designed a wooden pony—two handles extending from its head for me to hang onto, a wooden seat for a saddle, and four wooden feet outfitted with dowel rods attached to ropes that suspended the whole thing from the ceiling rafters. Just an elaborate swing, that rig gave me endless rides on Western trails, chasing bad guys, herding cattle, and learning a freedom of movement that would someday inspire my passion for kayaking whitewater. This simple pastime gave me so much joy that it was only when I grew too big for its safety specs (I came too close too often to knocking myself unconscious on the ceiling rafters) that I reluctantly bid my mount “adios,” but he rides with me to this day.

About the time my horse was put out to pasture, Dad introduced me to a ping-pong table, which, given the tiny confines of our basement, required revised rules of play. Anything caroming off the ceiling or walls was fair game. (Years later, when my world enlarged, I realized that Dad and I had been playing jai alai with a small, white, plastic ball and paddles.)

What fun! Our nightly tournaments introduced bizarre trajectories the likes of which table tennis has not seen since. My father’s own, weird service spin kept me perpetually off balance as well. I’m not sure how much technical ping-pong skill I amassed from all that, but there is no doubt my lessons in reaction time and anticipating life’s curve balls began downstairs after supper. I also learned early that my dad was a competitive son of a gun. Paddle in hand, he taught me my first life lesson: folks out there in the real world play for keeps. I might as well get used to it. Even at age five. I don’t remember ever coming out on top, try as I might to best him. I’d get close, but when twenty-one loomed, he pulled one tricky serve or shot after another out of his hat, and it was game over. “You’ll get me next time,” he said, with a loving grin. And I always believed it.

Chapter Two


Illusionists, as some magicians call themselves, are just that: they pull the wool over your eyes so cleverly as to defy the laws of physics, and wreck your perception of reality. These are entertainers, but not practitioners of true magic. True magic, say the doubters among us, does not exist. I beg to differ.


Riding in the back seat of our Buick on the way to Sunday school, my six-year-old self suddenly remembered that I had promised my teacher that I would bring a dragonfly to the next class. Having forgotten to mention that to my parents during the ensuing week, my urgent pronouncement, “I forgot! I’m supposed to bring a dragonfly to Sunday school today!” caught them by surprise as we approached the church parking lot.

“What?” replied my father. “You mean, today?!”

“Yeah,” I answered, growing more upset by the second. I had been raised to be conscientious, responsible, dependable. I was frantic. My stomach turned, and I was about to cry.

“Well, now,” he calmly offered, “don’t worry about it. Just tell your teacher that you looked real hard, but couldn’t find one. She’ll understand.”

With that, we had arrived, and I got out of the car into blinding morning sunshine. I hadn’t taken more than a couple of steps when I heard Dad say, “Hey, look what I found!” And there in a bush beside the sidewalk was one huge dragonfly. Dad whipped out his handkerchief and deftly snared his prize, then accompanied me to the classroom where somebody found a jar, poked holes into its lid, and voila! We had made good on my promise under the most improbable circumstances. I looked for other dragonflies on my way out of church that Sunday morning, but found none. I didn’t see another one that entire summer.

Flash forward to my freshman year at college, where a 300-seat Zoology 11 class had been so daunting and the language of the text so mystifying that I was carrying a failing average into the final exam. As a high school valedictorian—well, salutatorian, courtesy of a last-minute intruder from Hawaii whose grades were off-the-charts ridiculous—I was jolted by a harsh awareness that some things were beyond my ability or aptitude. I was crushed. This couldn’t be happening to me. As badly as I felt inside, I worried as much about what it was going to do to my parents, who fretted over any ‘B’ that I made, marring an otherwise straight-A lineup I had always been expected to furnish on report card days. During the last break before final exams that first semester, Dad sat down with me at home as I poured out a litany of pitiful reactions to what had happened in that dreadful course.

“Well,” he finally offered, “do you know what’s going to be covered in the final exam?”

“Yes,” I said. “Genetics, for sure.”

“Okay,” he said, “let’s take a look at the book.”

We did, and for hours, he gently coaxed me through the mathematics of genetics probabilities. By the time we finished, I knew theoretically how many children were going to be born with blue eyes instead of brown. Dad’s steady countenance and my love of math threw me the final-exam-saving lifeline I needed. Instead of answering every multiple-choice question with the one fish part I knew (dorsal fin) like I had in the previous test, my final exam produced a decent enough ‘C’ to bring my semester average up to passing. The looming train wreck of a college experience had been transformed into an invaluable life choice—away from any further thoughts of medical school, and toward a rewarding career in law instead. Nothing short of magical.

Chapter Three


In the annals of Dad-dom, there can be no prouder moment than when a chip off ye olde block knocks in the winning run, tosses the dramatic touchdown pass in the game’s final seconds that sends the home crowd fans into delirium, or secures a hard-fought victory with a miracle block at the soccer or hockey net and earns the next morning’s headline with a photo op.

“That’s my boy!” dreamed my Dad.

Here is where parenthood’s proverbial rubber meets the road: guy submits his bid, gal processes the application, and for the next bunch of years, the likelihood of sports fantasy realization amounts pretty much to a roll of the dice. (Hint to all prospective parents: if you really, desperately, want a sports standout carrying around your genes and name, produce as many prospects as possible. Clearly, there are no guarantees, but improving the odds can’t hurt.) In my dad’s case, he bet it all on a single entry, and, well, it was a challenge from the get-go.

Dad’s hoped-for athletic star got off to a rip-roaring start, though. Fresh off World War II and a Korean “conflict,” America was suddenly a world power, but in its heartland, its people were still the same humble lot. Simple pleasures—card games and bowling—dominated the northern Midwest culture. Wisconsin winters were Nature’s most dismal reminders of who was in charge of things, but the German/Norwegian cross section of humans there knew how to distract themselves from all that gray miserableness outside: they formed bowling leagues. Knocking down some serious pins can work out even the worst job stress, and bragging rights down at your favorite gathering spot was high currency. Where better for my dad to kick off his anticipated son’s sports career than at the bowling alley? One tiny problem. His four-year-old boy’s carriage towered less than thirty inches and weighed little more than twice the ball itself. Together with the rule (my dad’s rule, at least) that no bowling ball shall ever be lofted (the bang! of a dropped ball on those beautifully waxed hardwood floors sickened him), there seemed to be no possible way for me to do this. But he was determined.

“There’s always a way,” he said time after time. “We just have to think about it. Come on, son” he coaxed, leading me up to the toe line, carrying my ball. “Here,” he said as he placed the ball in front of me, just behind the line. “Set it down, and push it as hard as you can. Use both hands.”

A four-year-old sees the world differently than his parent. There is nothing ludicrous about a pint-sized munchkin in a boisterous, smoke-filled bowling alley bending over and pushing a ball toward ten pins that looked about a million miles away. The only truly weird thing is that the ball actually defied physics and managed to make it all the way down the lane at a quarter-mile-per-hour clip. By the time it reached the halfway point, all of Dad’s buddies had stopped their beer drinking and were watching the incredibly slow pace of my ball. The reason they were so entranced is that the ball had not veered from the center of the path. At the three-quarters mark, neighboring bowlers paused and stared. The headpin was the first one to suffer the crushing blow of my bomb, and then, ever-so-slooooowly, one by one the rest of them wobbled and fell, toppling the others until the last one gave it up. The field was won! Not bad for a first effort.

“Atta boy!” shouted one very excited papa. More kudos from his totally shocked friends. I was still too transfixed by the carnage my ball had wrought at the other end of the building to utter a sound.

The other guys took their turns, and soon it was mine again. Same setup: Dad brought the ball and set it down carefully in front of me.

“Okay, Skipper, just do what you did last time.”

Okie-dokie, I thought.

I gave a mighty two-handed push, and a minute or so later, darned if another set of ten pins didn’t bite the dust. This time I wasn’t speechless.


My dad’s teammates and guys several alleys away were exclaiming all sorts of things that just about popped his buttons. Pretty cool.

The third time around was slightly delayed. Dad had something extra to tell me as he set the heavy ball down in front of me.

“Son, you make a strike on this one, and you get a turkey.” And with a huge grin, he stepped back and out of the way, giving me the floor. Once again, the big, round, shiny monster embarked on a mystical journey. The whole place had stopped bowling. All eyes were on the agonizing crawl of my dad’s sixteen-pound beauty as it made its excruciatingly slow way toward the Gang of Ten that waited to crush hopes and sneer at human futility. But, as before, it was the headpin that yielded first, then its partner to the right. Pin after pin knocked each other down as my ball coursed through the lot, until the last one wavered, wobbled, and finally fell.

I have heard shouts and cheers in bowling alleys through the years since, but none has ever been as deafening or felt as exhilarating as the momentous roar that went up at that third consecutive strike. I wheeled around, saw my dad grinning from ear to ear, taking congratulations from his pals and everybody else, and asked him, “I won a turkey, right?!”

“You sure did, son,” he replied, as the noisy celebration continued.

Nobody could believe what they had just seen. Dad was one happy pop. All I wanted was my turkey. I imagined a big, fat one like we always had for Thanksgiving dinner, and I couldn’t wait to see it. But nobody came up to me with one. I had just done something that would make the next morning’s edition of the major newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin, and all I could do was keep blabbering on dejectedly about why I wasn’t being given a frozen bird to take home to eat. Dad finally realized that I was disappointed, and the reason why, so he cut short his revelry with his pals and explained to me that a “turkey” in bowling parlance means three straight strikes—no actual turkey would appear and change hands. I would have been out-of-this-world ecstatic if someone had coughed up a real gobbler for me, but as it was, I felt cheated. So much for basking in the limelight of a sports highlight moment. Dad must have wondered whose goofy gene had somehow been dropped into my mix. It couldn’t have come from him.

Chapter Four

Big Wheels

When it came time for me to have my first bicycle, Dad stepped up to the plate in his typical “if we’re gonna do this, let’s do it right” fashion. No small-time bike for this kid. Nosiree, I was to have a twenty-six-inch, shiny, chrome-outfitted Schwinn. It was taller than I was. “No problem, we’ll put training wheels on it until you get your sea legs.”

Ummm, I don’t know about this, I thought. “How about one of these shorter ones?” I asked him hopefully.

Still thinking I would eventually grow, he answered, “Uh-uh, you’ll outgrow those, and you’ll wish you had this one instead,” pointing to the deluxe model.

I squared off against the towering silver monster and envisioned myself falling hard on driveways and sidewalks, bruising and breaking all parts of me, leaving a trail of bloody skin as evidence of his having miscalculated my bicycling skill.

On his meager salary, that purchase was a serious investment, and I was expected to succeed. For a while, things went reasonably well as I wobbled my way down the street time and again, relying on those wonderful training wheels to catch my errant sways and jerky turns. Just about the time I began to feel minimally relaxed on my steed, Dad showed up with a pair of pliers and knelt down beside the rear wheel.

“What are you doing, Dad?” I asked him.

“You don’t need these anymore,” he said, referring to the training wheels.

I protested, but to no avail.

“Look,” he said with growing impatience, “you won’t ever learn to ride a bike if you keep relying on these training wheels. They’re a crutch, and you don’t need ’em.”

Yes I did! I thought, but the discussion was over. He had those wonderful crutches detached in just a few minutes.

“Here,” he said, returning the bike to me. “Get on. You’ll be fine.”

I managed to persuade him to hold the back frame with one hand and walk alongside me for a little while as I pedaled and gulped back fear. When he let me go, I wobbled, listening to his encouragement from farther and farther behind me.

“You’re doing fine! Keep pedaling.”

Trial by fire. Thrown into the deep end of the pool.

Within a few minutes, I was able to turn the bike, and before suppertime, I was confidently striding around on the neighborhood’s prettiest two-wheeled machine. One problem. High off the killer pavement, I had no idea how to stop.

What did Dad say, again? Oh, yeah—slow down, stick your leg out, and lean. I held my breath, and—crash! Dad rushed up from out of nowhere.

“You’re okay,” he said quickly, before I could panic. “You forgot to stick out your leg, that’s all. Let’s try it again.”

Back into the deep end. I finally got the hang of it, just like Pop said I would. Stomach still churning a little at the dinner table, I also felt proud. Mostly relieved that I hadn’t disappointed my father, which was likely the greatest motivator in play.

I didn’t have a serious bicycle accident until a few years later when I failed to pay attention to a parked car at the bottom of a long hill near my elementary school. I ran myself right into the back of it. My memory of that incident is fuzzy, but the scar on my left knee is a permanent reminder of Dad’s subsequent advice (“watch where you’re going”).

Chapter Five


By my tenth birthday, my father had watched his offspring prefer music to sports. Lessons on a Hammond organ he and Mom had bought me appeared to be “taking.” He nevertheless decided that his skinny kid should at least try to play baseball. He began with a whiffle ball, so I wouldn’t get hurt, at least not right away, and our house windows could breathe easier. “Hold your bat behind your head, choke up a bit on the handle, crouch a little, plant your feet, watch the ball all the way to the bat”—all the usual parental offerings to a budding slugger.

A short time later, still not comfortable with my swing, I hesitantly ventured into the world of Little League, where the ball was hard, and the hurlers from the mound looked like giants. I figured my best bet to survive this Roman gladiator arena was to outfit myself with as much protective gear as possible, so I announced early on that I wanted to be a catcher.

“Really?” asked my doubtful father. “That’s not an easy position, son.” He was probably reflecting on all those stocky, burly guys who generally hang out behind the plate, taking all sorts of physical abuse from America’s pastime.

“Yeah,” I said. I just wanted to put on a mask and chest protector.

It wasn’t long before a fastball somehow found my right cheek, and it stung. I had a swollen, black-and-blue face for quite a while after that one, which quickly prompted an executive decision.

“I’d like to play in the outfield instead.” Get me as far away from this craziness as possible.

Shagging endless fly balls in practice turned out to be my thing. Once again, Dad weighed in with some sound advice.

“Keep your eyes on the ball until it’s inside your glove. Use both hands. Don’t close your glove until the ball is firmly inside it. Watch the ball all the way from the hitter’s bat.”

He initially volunteered to help the team manager when he could, but by this time in his career, he was beginning to travel—that curse of breadwinners everywhere. It stole him from me too often as I extended my interest and skill in becoming the black hole of center field. My motto—“No ball drops out here.” And by and large, none did. Reading the trajectory of hits out of the infield came easy to me, and nailing a runner at home plate once gave me a lifetime memory. Now if I could only hit.

That’s the trouble with Little League baseball—if you play, you have to get up to the plate and face what I regarded as certain pain. Fear had its way with me, and no amount of reassurance from my dad could erase it. I imagine I set an all-time strikeout record along the way to my first-year batting average of .083, barely topping .200 by my final season. But happily, somebody threw me a bone during that last year, giving me a berth on the All-Star team, thanks to my fielding efforts, so Dad was able to have a photo op with his son sporting a cool new uniform. I never got in that game, though, thanks to a less than stellar batting history. Ironically, our team’s center fielder dropped a fly ball that allowed the game’s only run. People said afterward that I should have been out there instead and things would have turned out differently. Ah, well.


At sixteen, my height was becoming a real question mark. Is this kid ever going to grow? Dad must have wondered. Sure, I could now play the organ well enough to get gigs all around the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and I could drive myself to them (sitting on a wedge-shaped cushion so I could see above the steering wheel), but where was his athletic son? He tried once more. He bought me a tennis racquet. Now there’s an activity that doesn’t require brawn and height—at least during high school years. He took me out to the courts and coached me in the finer points of hitting a tennis ball. Funny how all sports have the same fundamentals: “watch the ball all the way to your racquet, bring your racquet from behind you, shift your weight from your back foot to your front as you swing, line yourself up solidly beside the ball so it will go straight where you want it to go.” In other words, focus. Concentrate, and focus.

“Keep your mind on what you’re doing, son.” If I had a nickel for every time my father laid that line on me…

For a guy who never had proper instruction, I did okay on the tennis courts. Even made the high school team, though it should be noted that our high school was one of the two smallest in the region. The larger schools sported bigger and more talented players, and we suffered predictable results. One afternoon, I secured our only victory against one of those big-time teams. Even though our team suffered an 8-1 shellacking (losing five of six singles matches, and all three doubles events), I couldn’t have been prouder. Our coach made a big deal out of it, and it still makes me smile to remember it. But my father wasn’t there to see it. He never saw any of my matches, as they were always played in the afternoons after school, and he had to work. Part of being a good parent—provide for your family. The work world demands that to succeed, you focus on what you’re doing. Just like sports.

Chapter Six

Scouting and Other Responsible Stuff

A good father wants his kid to have more in life than he had—a great one does everything he can to make sure that happens.

My father’s father was largely absent from home, thanks to traveling as a bookkeeper for various companies in numerous towns and cities through the heartland of Wisconsin. Dad’s mother kept the family going as well as she could, but it was his older sister who basically raised him and his younger sister. That older sister consequently grew up quicker and stronger than her age suggested—something she has admitted with a mixture of pride and lament ever since.

Lack of money to pay for anything more than life’s daily necessities ruled out opportunities for Dad to join groups to learn things like swimming or to experience activities like scouting. I could never get my father to talk much about his boyhood. Even when I pressed, he glossed over it, once allowing that “it wasn’t really all that good,” and that was that. Here was a guy with obvious artistic talent (he periodically drew intricately detailed animated characters with ease, as well as nature scenes you could smell and feel) who never got the chance to study his craft and explore his full, soul-satisfying potential. By the time I reached adulthood, I looked back on what I could discern of his conservative, steady, responsible life and figured he was just “born ready” to be an adult.

“Born twenty-one,” I commented to him once in a while during evening card games with Mom and my wife, as we nostalgically shared stories of our earlier days and assessed each other playfully. But that observation was offered in all seriousness. And I was inwardly feeling that out of habit if nothing else, he had raised me with the goal of being as fully responsible a being as he had been—a continual source of frustration for me.


First order of business: get this pint-sized kid into Cub Scouts to learn fundamental life skills. So off I went in a freshly pressed dark-blue uniform with a gold kerchief to experience the joys of knot tying and tent pitching. Boy Scouts quickly followed, which was eminently more interesting, but took a toll on Dad. Of course, he was pleased every time I recited the Oath, Pledge and Motto—solid community citizen material, not unlike lessons gained at Sunday school, my other required group activity. But when it came time to volunteer to help the Scoutmaster wrangle our troop through overnight and weekend camping expeditions, he hit the wall.

Dad was made of stern stuff, but a rain-drenched weekend in the Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, campgrounds ended his enthusiasm for personally monitoring my survival training. As he too soon (and too often) thereafter related aloud to me, “I was lying on that wet, cold ground in the middle of the night wondering what in the world was I doin’ out there?” The first time he said it in my presence, I understood his attempt at humor, but I also felt a little bad that his commitment to working through things with me had hit a bump—that I was not worth that kind of discomfort. He never again went on a camping trip with me, and while I didn’t blame him, it was the first time I felt a separation between what I knew he wanted for me (for my own good) and what he was willing to suffer personally to see that achieved. An admittedly selfish and immature thought, to be sure, but such was the parenthood bar he had long ago set. Suddenly, I realized there were limits to everyone’s endurance and will. What I had yet to appreciate was the additional, universal limitation of failure to understand another human being’s basic nature and avenues to happiness. That was a jolt looming down the road, and it like no other would define parenthood for me and affect my relationship with my father for the rest of our lives.

While merit badges piled up (“learn as much as you can about everything you can,” Dad continually advised, “including subjects you think you might not especially like—you never know, some of them might surprise you”), music lessons from various former professional organists exposed me to intriguing playing styles. Finding time for the keyboard between exhausting homework, tennis team practice, and Barbershop Quartet sessions was challenging, but my father had thrown down a motivational gauntlet regarding my pursuit of music.

“You either get paid for your music, or get a job delivering papers. You’re not going to just sit around and play music for your own amusement!”

Wow. That edict packed a wallop. Where did my solicitous, encouraging Dad go? I wondered. Delivering papers? Yuck. I had already been worn through the meat grinder of several years’ lawn-mowing assignments from the time I was barely able to reach up and grab hold of the mower handles. No way was I going back to numbing physical labor—I wasn’t built for it. The thought was spirit crushing.

So my music, just like that, turned a corner. Now it was going to be a means to an end, and the end was money. The responsible thing to do. Sure, it would pay off a half-dozen years later in Nags Head, North Carolina, at a nine-week engagement as a supper club organist entertaining vacationers, when I earned enough to cover all my living expenses and pay for a semester’s tuition in law school, but the exhilaration of being in a spotlight and reaching what would be the pinnacle of my music-playing capability was tempered by the realization that music for me was as much a job as a spiritually rewarding release.

And, like any job, that summer’s experience treated me to the darker side of human existence. A middle-aged woman too fortified with “liquid courage” left her pals at the table to snuggle up to me on the organ bench, lick my ear, and invite me to join her after my last set for the night. Horrified, her companions quickly retrieved her, murmuring apologies while I chuckled. Later that season, two men invited me to their motel room to discuss a “business proposition,” which I naively mistook for a potential offer for future music engagements. When I realized the true nature of their intentions, I hastily extricated myself from them. It is a memory that still makes me shudder. Whether it was those kinds of episodes, or an inner conflict of playing music for money instead of pure enjoyment, that persuaded me to pursue an education in law and relegate music to a few years of after-work private instruction to bolster my early marriage years’ poverty budget, I suppose I will never know.

I will admit that one of the coolest aspects of being encouraged to “get paid” for playing music was my exposure during my mid-teens to guys in their twenties who were already out there in the real world playing music for a living. I was treated to rides in fancy sports cars that they spent their first paychecks on, and encounters with women of various young ages who found guys (even runts like me) who produced music in supper and nightclubs alluring. And, having to travel all over the Washington, DC metropolitan area by age sixteen to appear at county fairs and organ studios, I was awarded my own car—neither of my parents relished the prospect of chauffeuring me at all hours of the day and night. That car, incidentally, was a beauty. True to his long-standing love affair with the automobile, my dad ignored the adequate but stodgy Triumph Herald in favor of the sportier Sport Six model that featured exterior chrome, wood-paneled dashboard, and a white convertible top to complement the cherry red body. This truly was a car that he would have loved to have had himself when he was my age—that was obvious when he took the wheel occasionally—but typical of his solid, lifelong generosity, he handed me the keys from the start, and reminded me to “be careful—it’s not a toy.” When I wrecked it less than a year later on the Beltway late one night following a county fair organ engagement, he was the first person I sought to come to the scene and help me sort things out. I knew that if he could get there, everything would be all right. It is one of the things I recounted in my eulogy of him nearly fifty years later.


Summers during my teenage years offered such promise! A secluded lake featuring pristine white sandy beaches near the church where I played the organ every Sunday morning looked to be a daily spot for me to rest from secular organ gigs and recover from the relentless chase of straight-A report cards. And as far as I was concerned, I was one of those individuals ‘made’ for basking in the sun. I tanned easily (thanks to my mama’s genes—Dad burned if he merely looked too hard at a sandy beach from the car), and absolutely, completely, from-the-core-of-me loved lying out in sunshine. Feeling the breezes, smelling the water, watching butterflies and birds move about their daily business—surely, this is why we’re all here on this planet, I believed. The blissful solitude didn’t hurt, either. An introvert by nature, the press of people at organ engagements and constant interaction with others at school stressed me to my core. I needed distance from all of that more than I knew either of my parents understood, despite their obvious shared need for privacy.

It was a nice dream, but the envisioned Nirvana of Timber Lake materialized little more than a couple of times over those years—sacrificed for summer jobs in downtown Washington, DC, where confinement in air-conditioned boxes amid the suffocating heat of asphalt streets consumed five days every week from “school’s out” to “first day of school.” The money I earned was put away for my future college education—the responsible thing to do.

It is tempting as we get older to wonder whether our misspent youth was worth the cost of unrealized opportunities. It likewise tugs at us to ponder whether we spent too much time doing the mundane, responsible things that caused us to miss out on moments that might have better nurtured our souls and given us a happier, more complete approach to life.

Above all, parents who care about the future welfare of their offspring push the “responsible thing to do” buttons at every turn, worried that their sons and daughters will otherwise fritter away their youth and end up tragically in lives of drudgery or crime. Decisions parents make to direct their children’s life experiences while they have them under their roof spring from their own past fears, disappointments, and regrets, and override any concern or understanding they may have for their kids’ emotional needs. Such is the inevitable stuff of family dynamics, however awful or wonderful they may be. As clearly or inaccurately as the past is seen, one thing is painfully certain: like children, parents are moving through this life for the first time. With luck, their hearts are in the “right place,” so a little banging into door frames along the way is to be expected, and allowances can be made. Unfortunately, for my father and me, a bigger crash was on its way.

Chapter Seven

“Go Help Your Father!”

For a while, I figured this was to be a life sentence. It was for my father, who felt compelled to consign most of his family so-called vacation time to fixing things at his father’s house. Maybe this was German heritage dictating behavior, but whatever its source, Dad’s commitment to devoting his time and energies this way every time he drove us to Wisconsin from Georgia and Virginia during my childhood and early teenage years was unwavering. Once there, bleary-eyed from no sleep after the twenty-hour drive, he set to work repairing a roof, painting, you-name-it, while Mom and I tried to figure out what to do with ourselves. Sometimes I was given an opportunity to visit a nearby uncle whose horse farm was a delight (except for when a half-broken pony slammed my knee into a corral post, causing an injury that has spoken loudly to me ever since, affecting everything from my tennis game to simple walking and yard chores).

For all my childhood and early teen years, I can remember only three actual family vacations when our extended clan didn’t come into the picture—and they received mixed reviews. Two of them were drives to North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where remote beaches navigable by leftover metal pathways beckoned to spirits wanting to leave the inhabited world behind in favor of secluded beauty and peace. Dad didn’t know it, but he was giving me in that first trip a taste of heaven on Earth, and it imprinted forever. Early exposure to sea life—sea shells, sand dunes, sea oats, sea gulls, the scent of salty air, and toes tickled by crashing waves racing up the smooth, damp sand—those images, sounds, smells, and feelings stayed with me, and called to me and my new bride years later to make incredibly delightful and healing beach escapes from our jobs.

At first, Dad found the landscape interesting. He took as much advantage of it as possible, feeding sea gulls crackers during ferry rides from island to island, exclaiming in wonder how the old navy grate roads we were driving on still worked through barren stretches of sand. He had fun watching me squirm poolside at our motel as his chess game inched closer to my demise, at which point I invariably dived into the pool (because it was “getting too hot”—for me, and for my side of the chessboard) to delay the inevitable checkmate. That memory prompted a chuckle out of him for the rest of his life. I think he may have enjoyed walking the first few times along the ocean’s edge, finding marine life in tidal pools leftover from the previous night’s storm surge, and occasionally coming upon remains of wooden ships—victims of the infamous barrier reefs lurking somewhere out there toward the horizon. His was a curious brain that always found animal and plant life fascinating. How things work intrigued him, and it applied to zoology and biology as much as to mechanical fabrications. He spent hours looking for seashells, more often than not finding only parts of seashells, broken to bits by the merciless Atlantic waves crashing onto shore. Discovering a complete shell was exciting. Back home, Dad helped me organize and classify our treasures. We glued them neatly in a box, penned labels for them, and voila! I had a science fair exhibit for school. Every event held an educational opportunity for my father—a lesson his endlessly churning mind made sure he and I took advantage of.

That other beach trip to the Outer Banks? Pretty much a disaster. It rained. A lot. All the time. A hurricane had formed, stalled, and poured its little heart out all over us. Dad, Mom, and I huddled inside our austere motel room and tried every version of board and card game we had brought with us, taking turns peeking out the window to see if it was “letting up a little.” It didn’t. We dashed to the car to drive to supper at the same place every night (ferry rides were going to be no fun in all that fog and rain just to go to a different restaurant), then herded ourselves back into the motel for another long stint indoors. This went on for three days, until, with no relief in sight, Dad declared the vacation over, and we headed home. Once there, the sun reappeared, Dad went back to work, and that was that.

Ditto for the third and final vacation of my youth living under my parents’ roof—a long drive to the Maine coast, which Dad had declared would be safe from those stupid hurricanes and the dismal weather they carried. Nope. For the first time in decades, a renegade hurricane made a beeline up the Atlantic seaboard and took direct aim at Bar Harbor—our port of call for a week’s vacation. Had local folks known my father was the culprit who had brought the rain fest to them, we would have been run out of town on a rail. Dad remarked later that the back-to-back hurricane events that targeted him turned him off family vacations for good—at least while he was working for a living. Time off was too precious to squander on disagreeable weather. Mom suspected that he did not really see the point of taking a vacation when there was important work always to be done at the office, and plenty of projects needing attention at the house. She figured he was merely looking for an excuse to excise vacations from his playbook. Knowing him as I think I came to, I believe she was onto something there.


Back to the point of helping out the family patriarch as a way of life. That cultural/genetic assignment was passed along in our nuclear family.

“If you don’t have anything else to do, go help your father,” was my mother’s favorite directive whenever she saw or sensed that I was not immediately busy.

“Down time” was unacceptable in our household. There were a few Sunday mornings that I remember my father actually sitting down and reading a newspaper for a little while, but with that exception, I cannot recall a time when he just “chilled.” Whether a product of a very capable, active mind, or a genetic propensity to stay busy, or both, Dad was a doer.

“I’m certainly not going to just sit around contemplating my navel,” he said, shaking his head disgustedly more than a few dozen times within my earshot.

Meditation was not in his wheelhouse. Time to think, feel, explore, observe—to just “be”—wasn’t going to happen in mine, either, if my parents had anything to do with it.

Helping somebody with a project can be anything from a partnership to a gopher role. Sometimes it is nothing more than intermittent, lengthy bouts of standby (staying out of the way) until called to duty. It largely depends on the main character’s mood and preferred approach to the task, and the point that the project has reached. These were assessments I had to make quickly when directed to “help” my father in my youth. Barging in alongside him with an enthusiastic “Anything I can do to help?” when he was deep in thought or experiencing a particularly irksome aspect of a problem drew immediate exasperation and dismissal—not exactly the kind of reaction a son wants to evoke from his father. You generate enough of those unfortunate moments through the maturation process as it is. Carefully creeping into the picture, I learned, was the best way to inject myself. Once admitted into his consciousness, and allowed to participate, I was treated to all sorts of commands (“hold this,” “bring me ‘X,’” “see if you can find me ‘Y,’” “ask your mother where she keeps the whatsits”) in between sometimes lengthy periods of silence.

I have wondered on occasion as an adult whether it was my parents’ insistence that I keep busy with planned activities (not the least of which included ‘helping my father’ with his endless projects), or my already time-consuming commitments to music and voluminous homework, that accounted for my never forming friendships of any real consequence. My whole world was the only-child dependency on my parents for activities, education, and play when not engaged in official outlets for those sorts of things. I have concluded that my aloofness had its genesis in this aspect of my upbringing. It wasn’t an altogether bad thing—it did prepare me well for a career in office management—but its consequential effects on my daily life have been many and undeniable.

During my middle school years, my ‘help’ often graduated to taking full charge of some chores. Our house in Georgia sat on a plot covered with hard clay soil that grew crabgrass if it sprouted anything at all. In my father, that cursed ground met its match. Figuring what the place needed most was some border greenery, he extended a string from stake to stake along the entire four boundaries of the place, then began planting small hedge bushes along that four-hundred-foot perimeter in perfectly straight lines. He didn’t have much money, so the plantings were small. Over the course of the next several years, untold hours of hose watering nudged those struggling plants upward, and I accounted for most of them.

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