Father and Jack: Conversation as Life Preserver

My grandsons wonder about life in the fifties, life in their mother’s mother’s village, state. So here’s a personal narrative. Each family was unique, but this does describe another time & place.

Jack was one of my father’s friends, indeed his best and closest. And I’m pretty sure my father was Jack’s. A bit of a narcissist, still, he would sob about my father’s loss if we ran into him for years after my father died. I doubt the depth of sentimental drunks, but he thought the affection was real – for all I know it was. My father was moody; I suspect he always saw himself (as did those around him) as unfulfilled and unproductive. I brought home a boyfriend well on the way to being an expert in Italian medieval history; he was surprised my father wanted to talk about meta-history – what was true and what wasn’t about the great arcs. I wasn’t surprised my father wanted to talk about that – that was the kind of thing he liked. If your life is unmoored, you want to make sense of it. I suspect he spent some time wondering about those arcs – what was real and what wasn’t, what they meant. He had plenty of time to speculate and Jack was his companion. Conversation went late into the night, beginning when Jack showed up at our door.

Neither Father nor Jack had much self-discipline, though a lack of self-discipline for those maturing in the dustbowl and enlisting in World War II, husbands and fathers in the fifties was not the immaturity of pajama boys living in their parents’ basements. My father felt some duty: to friends, town. And to tradition in a broad sense – it drove him and the Missouri Synod minster to start the Kenesaw Great Books Club, it made the Legion a social focus, kept him Presbyterian and Republican.

That he felt that duty less than others, especially his wife and father-in-law, thought he should, doesn’t mean he wasn’t in general responsible. That he felt alienated did not mean he didn’t love the country roads he drove each day on his mail route, small town culture. In his last year, my parents watched Michener’s Centennial, an early mini-series whose characters followed the Oregon Trail, its real ruts still deep in the land but a few miles from our house. Their children had grown and they were left with each other, with regrets and grudges but also with what drew them together back in the thirties when both were in high school in Kenesaw, the next years out in the world, before they returned to a ten block square on the prairie.

My father seemed more responsible than Jack, whose family was buffered by his father’s money from the worst of his self indulgences. For instance, despite the fact that his farm was river bottom land along the Platte, he never made much of a go of farming. When he’d pretty much reached the end of his limited interest in working the land, he was offered a good price to turn it into a refuge for the cranes’ migrations.

During my college years in the mid-sixties, my father wanted to speak to me (not that common) about drugs. It is true, a few years later, my crowd might well have been druggies – we were artsy, but drugs weren’t yet intrinsic to lives like ours that consisted of much unnecessary but entertaining psychodrama. However, he’d seen their effect. Really I wondered. Later, I found he had gotten a call from Jack, who’d run his car into a ditch. Jack preferred Jaguars and MGs – poor choices on dirt roads in central Nebraska; combined with his usual level of blood alcohol, running off the road wasn’t unusual. But this time he and the wife of a man they both liked were stoned. I guess he thought my father would somehow fix everything – he must have done something because neither marriage disintegrated (though frankly if they were going to, they already would have). My mother believed her threat to find a key and lock him out if she got sufficiently fed up worked. I’m pretty sure sympathy wouldn’t have – and anyway that wasn’t in large supply at our house.

Another thing Father and Jack shared was a lost – purpose, perhaps, certainly profession. Jack had almost finished med school; he implied he flunked out. That was somewhat true – years later my mother met someone who said it was one course easily retaken. I suspect he just didn’t want to be the doctor his father, the doctor, wanted him to be. Neither Jack nor my father were good parents to their sons: angry and brutal, both with their fists and words that can never be unsaid nor leave the mind. There was anger there – at the world, at themselves. And they used those sons, expecting a maturity from them they hadn’t themselves.

My father had been a civil engineer. He got his degree in 1936; public works projects were in full steam and engineers were building real infrastructure. Twenty years after he died, my brother flew my younger daughters around the state to see several dams on which he had worked. World War II followed; he was in the Army Corps of Engineers and on his way to Hawaii to build the roads and air strips of the Pacific Campaign. He needed a hernia operation and the doctor, either sloppy or unlucky, made a minor operation almost fatal. My mother (they dated in high school, may have been engaged, apparently thought of themselves as a couple) heard from his buddy he was long in a coma, but they used penicillin. His assignments changed as he recovered.

When 1945 came and he returned to Nebraska, they must have seen the times and themselves full of promise. My mother had joined the Waves. She loved it – traveling, interesting people, challenging work. They married in ’44; during the next year, the war was winding down; the Waves’ rather chic uniforms didn’t include a pregnancy version. So, before I was born in December of 45 she was back in Nebraska and Father came soon after.

I’ve got a foggy memory. My brother probably knows more. I overheard Father summing up those early years, speaking to my husband near the end of his life. I knew he’d been county engineer. He solicited bids from vendors. Some didn’t submit – saying it was pointless. He convinced them to try. When the lowest bidders didn’t get the contracts, he quit. They offered the job again – apparently there was a lack of communication since he was overridden again – he was fired/quit. I suspect he simplified the whole thing – this was thirty years later. And he was justifying himself to a new son-in-law. Mother always thought he would be happier (and the family better off) if he’d pursued engineering. Perhaps that whole mess had made it impossible; certainly there wasn’t a demand for bridges or dams or even engineered roads in Kenesaw. I think her point was, there were other places than Kenesaw (ones where his mother didn’t live).

My father and another friend started a business selling construction equipment in Lincoln, but he did sales, based in Kenesaw. This too led to unacceptable compromises and was the final break with his profession. A Caterpillar was left in our front yard – a handy jungle gym until it was finally sold. Other heavy machines sat in the barn behind our house, but slowly all were bought and moved. Years later the state’s largest construction company established an endowed chair at UL in ethics in a plea deal after the depth of bid-rigging was revealed in court.

My parents bought a drugstore where they sold groceries and candy, vet supplies and Fiesta ware, wallpaper and comic books, paperbacks and magazines. My brother and I enjoyed it – sweeping the floors, making malts for customers who stopped for coffee and gossip, sitting in stools at the long bar. The juke box was full of 78s. But the long hours of a small business became less attractive. His parents lobbied for a post office job and he became postmaster, later reversing roles with his father, whose heart was weakening (he drove one of the two rural routes). Around then I was in fifth grade, we had a younger brother and new sister, and were into the larger house all of us knew as home. If my mother (and her father) were not happy with him as a breadwinner, federal jobs offer security and pensions. And if he hated getting up early, he loved being home early, leaving time for his two pleasures – liquor and books. Perhaps too much time for the former.

Father and Jack shared a reluctance to persevere; coming up against a road block, they stopped. Father didn’t compromise, but that’s the first step. The next, well they lacked the strength of useful anger, the courage to face problems head on. Stoked anger flared out in ways good for neither their families nor themselves. And they shared a dilettante’s approach – curious, uncommitted. Their studies had been of the real, the experiential. They came to prefer speculation, more easily done with a bottle beside them. They started a men’s dinner club (they saw Playboy as a “lifestyle” magazine; experimented with recipes), took an art class. Father had projects, many begun but never finished: a luau pit, bricked patio, yoga.

In high school, I’d comforted myself that Father had his faults, but Jack was worse For one thing, Father often (but not always) drank beer when Jack was well into whiskey. In later years, as I knew too many Jacks, I developed an understanding of how much he represented a type. Sufficiently pickled, he never lost his good looks. My father was a big man – overweight with that burliness from the Kohl side, while his father was lean and tall (people said he looked like Lindbergh, while my father had the dark, heavy, look of Raymond Burr as villain and that ironic distance.) He had blue eyes but he stares from early pictures with dark plentiful hair, but not light hearted. He balded early – I never knew that man, but then, I never knew him.

Only in the last few years did my brother tell me something else they shared. My mother said that when they first moved to town Jack asked who she was as she struggled to carry groceries. Offering help, he walked her home. He always had an eye for other men’s wives and that may have been part of it. But he wanted to see my father – I don’t know if he’d known him before or just heard of him. Jack, a few years younger, had been a high school friend of Jim Brown, my father’s first cousin – Grandfather Brown’s brother, Ed’s, only child. They all lived in Hastings, 15 miles away. Anyway, they had been friends and gotten into trouble. The judge’s verdict: guilty but you’re young; you can enlist down the street.

Jack joined the Navy but Jim headed toward the Pacific in the Army. Soon, he was captured by the Japanese and missing in action. After the war a buddy visited his parents. I learned that talk gave resolution, if not much consolation. The Japanese were not kind to prisoners. Jim had been an only child, his father Grandfather’s closest friend. (When Grandfather was eleven, they had sat on each side of their father, bringing the cattle in from the pasture as a rain was coming on. Lighting struck the tallest figure on that great flat prairie, killing him and throwing his sons to the ground.)

Years after my father died, I was back for my sister’s wedding; Jack’s wife explained they had to move as the sanctuary was completed. Of course, they couldn’t move in ten miles to Kenesaw, they were heading for Colorado. They never really belonged she said. I don’t think she joined all those clubs my mother did – Extension Club, Readmore, Canasta – and there wasn’t a Catholic women’s group. That wouldn’t have been her style, anyway. She’d been the girl next door, growing up with Jack. Still, she taught dance intermittently, occasionally appeared in outfits Jack ordered from Frederick’s of Hollywood, and her father (I learned thirty years later) had been a bootlegger. My mother’s home ec degree – with its embrace of the scientific approach to domesticity – came from a different place. Betty might not have felt at home, but she’d spent hours at our dining room table, drinking coffee, smoking, until her kids got out of practice, even more hours at smoke-filled parties.

If I’d known more, I might have understood more. But how little I knew – and I don’t know much more now. Older myself, having long left behind my own professional dreams, I better understand father’s disproportionate anger when Gerry and I found his engineering seal and thought embossing all our books was a good idea. He kept up those credentials long after he had much use for them. The darkness of his moods came from disappointments with others, with us, but especially with himself.

My mother kept a pretty steady level of criticism – she had clearly expected a man more ambitious and willing to make waves. She was convinced her two children most like him were going to waste their lives. That she complained about my laziness the year I worked 40-hour weeks at the mental hospital and took a full load of graduate level courses as a junior was really irritating – especially comparisons with my always active brother, about to get married. Of course, she was right – I spent most of that year dramatizing a disastrous love affair. I was doing a pretty good job of pretending to go to school, but my grades indicated that wasn’t really the first thing on my mind each day. I guess my mother understood what I was doing more than I did. I wonder how my parents saw themselves – they (especially she) certainly did a lot of things to get their four children through those years that I doubt they thought they’d be doing when they left college or were in the middle of the war: things repetitious and unchallenging; an irritable and irritating daughter made them even less rewarding.

My mother would (seldom) hint at why they stayed together. Once, with great seriousness, she said I should remember he had virtues – honesty and intellect. Of course, she was also stoic: critical of women who did divorce, they made their beds she’d say. She was tough in the Scots-Irish way. Sure, they were critical of themselves and the people around them, they analyzed everything and found little up to their standards. But they did have a basic trust in their community – and found life’s comedy entertaining. This prepared me for a (somewhat aborted) career puzzling out patterns in literature, in autobiographies. We found, in Melville, James, Faulkner human nature portrayed wisely, patterns emerging. My parents mined the ten-block square and multi-generational world of Kenesaw, for similar orders, patterns.

My father could be condescending and was always curmudgeonly, but after a minor scandal he said: I’m not afraid people will say things to you – they are kind. But a hush will come when you come up to people talking at school or on the street. This will not always be easy, but you can get through it. They respected and trusted neighbors, the institutions and rituals of mid-century, mid-western America – of Land Grant Schools and “know how” inventiveness. If they seldom showed affection for one another, they shared a perspective. Neither encouraged complaints of illness or unfairness. Appearances weren’t important nor were they concerned with our grades – they just didn’t take the external, the real, all that seriously.

I was the oldest child but much was already in their pasts, a history inaccessible by children they accurately assumed wouldn’t understand. My daughter claims I choose my friends (ruefully because she does the same) for their entertainment value. Certainly, we all appreciate someone who adds value to conversations – connects ideas, entertains us with experiences, references culture insightfully. But we also find psychodrama appealing: a good person is not always as entertaining as a story-teller whose life has been sprinkled with cautionary tales. Indeed, good people often eschew gossip – which often loses its grounding in reality to make a neat narrative arc. Jack didn’t read all that much and I don’t remember him telling stories with the wit my father (and my brothers) did. He lived a reckless life. Jack was interesting – anyway, they could talk and talk and talk.

I suspect my family owes a lot to my brother. Father was abusive and put Gerry’s inventive mind and energy to work on projects he would only start and seldom complete himself. Their relation had been terrible. At one point, my family thought a psychiatrist could help (do they ever?). Later Gerry described those sessions. Barely past (or not) puberty, his fantasies were more concerned with creating a go-cart from the mower and bicycle tires, while the psychiatrist kept probing his thoughts on sex. In the fifties everyone read Freud, which was seen as a key much as Foucault was (at least in academic circles) in the nineties. Some facing of the reality of family tensions would probably have been more useful.

Anyway, every night for the first years of his marriage, his wife and young daughter would come to my parents’ house, my mother would fix dinner and chat with them; my brother and father leave for projects in the garage. The younger two would – what? – be kids I suppose. I was gone. When I visited, it was high school again. My mother would complain of the length of my skirts and my laziness and my inability to get along with people, my father would find fault with my tastes, my reading choices. But either my siblings were remarkably unaware or my memory is quite faulty. Or, in the ten years between the two sets of children, our parents had given up.

Looking back, I suspect that part of it was that my brother helped my father be himself – a more productive, sensible self. Gerry brought his young wife into that house – she who had centered Gerry – and much as they loved her (perhaps because they loved her, perhaps because they felt lucky that a sensible person married Gerry), they didn’t want her to sit through dinners rife with implied charges and tears. All I know is that house was all theirs, then. And the parties became fewer and longer between. They had never met to watch television, to play sports or music or cards – they came to talk (and drink). My younger brother would sneak down the stairs and sit there, listen as they argued politics and religion and whatever else was happening in Kenesaw. And Tom learned that lesson well – in some ways too well. At the wedding of Gerry’s daughter, one of the groom’s relatives told me how much Tom meant to him, the magazines and ideas, records and theories exchanged. Tom had shown him the life a mind can have. I’d phone him, decades later; he was fun to talk to – always had been I suspect. He’d been a trucker and dispatcher, going to UNL for years but never graduating. But he did love to read. Gerry had whisked him off to Mayo, a gesture I’m not sure he ever fully appreciated. (Tom, like me, like our father, never liked to be told what to do – no matter the intentions. Gerry, on the other hand, likes to fix things. Tom returned with a pacemaker and lived several more years.) But there, a doctor, the daughter of one of our parents’ friends from years ago, dropped by his room. She told him she remembered our father fondly because he talked to her as an adult, interested in adult things.

He himself was turning to Churchill. He’d read shorter works, the multi-volume biography, but in those last couple of years, very sick and unable to do much but read, he entertained himself with A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. He didn’t phone, but when I phoned him, he’d sum up that week’s chronology and his impressions – who was now king, what was going on, English history moving onward. And, as father had talked with my old boyfriend decades before, Tom sought patterns, narratives, truths – and escape.

I don’t think my father talked to any of us all that much, but I suspect that my parents’ marriage had been built on talk – they were both more worldly and more analytic in ways few of their friends really were. In the early years, they would talk in bed into the night – we could hear them. But grudges had built, their talk to each other hard, their complaints bitter. Both loved words, argued over them even – and they could use them. Without Jack would they have had to look at one another, draw one another into conversation, into marriage? Would both Jack and our father have been better off without each other? Perhaps. It wasn’t all good – if bitter comfort – to be with someone else who had given up on himself. And probably less good that the other was likely to respond, “well, hell, have another drink”. They might have done something, for instance. Talk isn’t everything.

But I remember my first year in Lincoln. The people I found weren’t always solid. I’m pretty sure some of us were bad for each other – I, too, liked psychodrama a bit too much. But it was wonderful to talk to people, share cokes while discussing James, stay up late arguing over Hawthorne. I found people who looked at literature as I did, as we were all being trained to do. And it was, well, wonderful.

I’m not around my grandsons much and I doubt these patterns are all that helpful. My father and my brother and I all played at life – erratically applying the discipline true education requires. Still and all, our father gave us something. When we first came to College Station I spent a lot of time with another young wife as we finished dissertations on similar topics. She was angered the department didn’t tenure-track the spouses (7 or 8 that year) and kept complaining that she’d done her work, gotten her degree: she kept saying she had her union card. I didn’t share her anger. Spousal hires are unattractive – is it real worth or associated worth or just, well, politics? To be honest, I’d also just given birth to my first child and hormones were kicking in; tragically, she had been given bad advice and had a hysterectomy that year. But I wasn’t brought up to think that way. On the other hand, running a small service business wasn’t a smart move – it gave me knowledge different and important, but gained by working ridiculously long hours.

A couple of years ago, describing my then dying brother’s passions, my father’s arc, I noted that I was like them – I got a Ph.D. and within a couple of months and for 13 more years stood over a Xerox machine. A friend from those days seemed a bit taken back. On the defense, I said, well, we did what came along, we did things our way. His tone was tart – “that’s one way you can describe it.” And it’s true, that old standard implies choice; we drifted. I hope my grandsons don’t assimilate our patterns. I don’t want them to become dilettantes or bitter. I don’t want them to compromise – especially on the big things. But that shouldn’t include giving up. And, I want them to have a friend that understands, that they understand.

Our youngest grandson, entering kindergarten found numbers more interesting than children; he slowly began to appreciate others but then Covid came and virtual learning replaced the friends he had begun to make. His older brother, Marc, shares computer games and chats with his friends; he was more flexible and more mature. But last year Mattis started talking with a boy down the street, one he didn’t really know – his parents were divorced and he went to a different school. My daughter said they’d sit in the yard, appropriately distant, and talk for hours. She was surprised, but happy about it. Mattis discovered, with some intensity, the nature of conversation, of speculation. He talked to us on his birthday, something he had never really done before; he said yes, he enjoyed talking to that friend and the friend’s friend. He said, he’d come in afterwards and feel sad, but then, he would think, WOW! – and he said it with that force. WOW! It isn’t small talk – as pleasurable as niceties can be. WOW! We can see farther, feel free – what we see is lovely, intense, meaningful.

10 thoughts on “Father and Jack: Conversation as Life Preserver”

  1. My father had no regard for education. He dropped out of high school at 15. He did various things over the years and, for a while-years really, was quite successful. Then times changed and he could not adapt. I attributed this to his lack of education but he was also resentful of any authority. He could not work for anyone else. I left home at 18 and never returned to live. I went through college and medical school on scholarships. We sort of reconciled as our life trajectories went opposite ways. I have some fond memories of him when I was a boy.

    One risk of having such an unsatisfactory relationship with one’s father is that there is a temptation to do better with your own kids. I fear I was over indulgent with two of my five, probably three of them. It is all water over the dam now.

  2. re Conversation, I just finished Ford Maddox Ford’s series of novels, ‘Parade’s End’, in which the leading character muses:

    “You seduced a young woman in order to be able to finish your talks with her. You could not do that without living with her. You could not live with her without seducing her; but that was the by-product. The point is that you can’t otherwise talk. You can’t finish talks at street corners; in museums; even in drawing-rooms. You mayn’t be in the mood when she is in the mood – for the intimate conversation that means the final communion of your souls. You have to wait together – for a week, for a year, for a lifetime, before the final intimate conversation may be attained…and exhausted…That in effect was love.”

    Overstated and certainly not universal, but with a considerable element of truth.

  3. My father too was an engineer that let his, I’ll call it distractability, derail his professional career. I have probably compensated by spending too many years pursuing dead ends when I should have cut my losses and moved on.

    We all come to the realization sooner or later that our parents are, or were, just people, and had the combination of good and bad habits and tendencies that we all are subject to. Being able to forgive them for their shortcomings is a big step in carrying on with your own life with as little collateral damage as possible.

    While outright abuse would seem the hardest to forgive, it’s often things that from the outside are invisible that can cause as much or more resentment. Some seem to find a missed birthday harder to forgive than a broken arm.

    The unlucky few have exponentially more to forgive than the rest of us. The surviving children of the Nazi war criminals come to mind.

    Your comment about Psychiatry caused me to smile, when your only tool is a hammer, every problem is a nail. It could have been worse, now days he might have gotten a cocktail of drugs instead of having his Id adjusted.

  4. An interesting novel with a civil engineer as protagonist is ‘The Testing of Luther Albright’, by MacKenzie Bezos. (yes, the former Mrs Jeff Bezos.) The scenarios is that many things simultaneously start going bad for Luther: possible defects have been found in a dam he designed, his marriage and his relationship with his son are falling apart, and the house he designed and built also turns out to have serious problems.

  5. Thanks for reading it and the thoughtful comments – I feared no one would take the time. I did fix the link – the idea of paying off decades of graft with a chair you got to name after you – and one theoretical when the graft was so concrete – seems a bit irritating but also Midwestern practical – we can’t get the money back, what might broadly apply. This is probably a kind of guilty conversation, too, because I always identified with him and feel guilty I didn’t appreciate what my mother did – still don’t – to keep things together.

  6. Well remembered, Ginny, and well wrought. Some of your observations–and some of the comments–put me much in mind of Carlo Rinehart, the protag of four of Thomas Berger’s novels.

    Do you know Berger? He’s not as well known as Updike or Roth, but saw just as deeply–and usually in better humor–than they tended to.

    My war-hero father (it said it right there in the obit) died in 1962, leaving a fat former campus-beauty widow and four sons under the age of 14 (I was #2).

    It was interesting at times. Only two of us ever married and only I produced any grandkids–one son, also unlikely to reproduce.

    Thus endeth the line of Opa F., who came here about 1912 from Hamburg, and Oma, who had come from Bokel-bei-Stubben about the same time.

  7. Thank you for the writing.
    I wonder how well we ever know anyone…certainly how much we know our parents. I’ve read some letters written by my father in college, and some are in a voice I recognize, and some are of a complete stranger, a person who no longer is, and never was by the time I really knew him.
    “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”…

  8. As noted above, I have had a complicated history with my father. He died before my younger son was born and was very ill with emphysema (5 pack a day smoker) for years before that.

    However, my mother once said to me “You are handsome but you will never be as handsome as your father was.” She was 5 years older than he was (He never learned this) and she lived to 103. She was a much more interesting person. She was a city girl and lived in 3 centuries. Born in 1898 and died in 2001.

    My father was immensely strong. He was in the juke box business during WWII when he was doing well. I have seen him pick up a juke box (probably 250 pounds) and carry it up a flight of stairs. He could fix anything and, with an education, he could well have been an engineer. I was determined to get the education he did not have and did not want me to have. “Get the idea of college out of your head.”

    He wanted me to be a golf pro.

  9. Hello. Thanks for writing that, Ginny – very sensitive. It’s interesting to hear about Kenesaw; I had to look for it on the map. There’s a book I have on the Orthodox community that built up in Kearney, started by a couple of Levantine immigrants, one of whose family members was eventually ordained and served as probably the first or one of the first Orthodox priests in the Great Plains (Fr. Nicola Yanney). He lived in Kearney, just a little bit away from Kenesaw.

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