My father, dead now seven years, grew up in rural southern Ohio in the teeth of the Great Depression. As a young boy, he walked the rails to collect chunks of coal that had fallen from steam locomotive tender cars. That would heat the house in winter. By 10, he was hunting squirrels with his .22 rifle. That was supper. At 17, with World War II raging, he lied about his age to join the Navy — life would be easier, he hoped.
These were hard times but my father was not hardened. To the contrary, he became a gentle man, quick to choke up at a sad country song or lend a hand to someone in trouble. I loved him for many reasons, but I loved him most for that.
My father raised me with great devotion and instilled in me a strong sense of moral obligation. Yet when it came to how I might make something of myself, he had little to say. He wanted the best for me, but the deprivations of his childhood saddled him with a fatalistic streak. Work was unending, misfortune common, joy elusive. All one could do was face things like a man.
What made him a wonderful father is that, within limits, he permitted me to be the father to myself.
By high school, I was pretty much left to my own devices. There would be money for college, but beyond that no advice about a course of study, no suggestions for a career. Seen from the perspective of this era of helicopter parenting, college-prep coaches, and trophies just for showing up, my father — and to a lesser degree other Greatest Generation dads — might be judged derelict.
Their approach, however, had virtue. They had survived a financial catastrophe and triumphed in a global conflict. Even if it was a struggle for us generally clueless boomer kids, the least we could do was figure out how to conquer ninth grade.
For me, that first meant learning how to deal with difficulty, whether it was math or the ugly behavior of a classmate. My father didn’t abandon me to the wolves. (When I was attacked by a neighborhood German shepherd, he rushed to the owner’s house and spoke strongly to him.) But I was expected to handle my own small disputes, irascible teachers and social calamities. To earn spending money, I worked the counter at a McDonald’s and cut lawns.
Then there was determining how to act, or, more precisely, how to present myself. My father was an engaging salesman. He could sweet-talk an order from the most reluctant customer. I picked up some things just watching him, but by 15 I was already more wiseacre than deal maker. He saw that and let me go my own way.
My love of books would guide me. Imagination, I realized early on, was the greatest tool for self-invention. My father’s eyes would have glazed over at such a remark, but to me the leap from his passion for Johnny Cash to mine for Ernest Hemingway was plain. Years later, I found a line by the poet Robert Penn Warren that articulates my youthful insight: “Our lives are our supreme fiction.”
Finally, and most instructively for this over-cautious present age, my father allowed me to have my minor rebellions and my moments of emotional off-roading. By no means was I a serious troublemaker but I had some attitude: Late nights, rowdy friends and occasional bouts of smart mouth. More than once in my adolescence, I got hauled to the assistant principal’s office for a now-verboten corrective: a paddling. Just as my father didn’t object to my behavior, he didn’t object to corporal punishment. Neither did I, really. All in all, I felt stronger and more independent every time I challenged a boundary. Paying a price was part of it.
The question is, of course, was my father’s laissez-faire parenting a choice or just the product of his own upbringing? I think it was both. The male of the species thrives not by being coddled but by being tested. There are a few topics I wish my father had been more attentive to — chiefly sex and money — but he had nothing useful to say about either. Looking back, however, I wouldn’t trade a tutorial on women or a graduation-present account at Merrill Lynch for the latitude my dad gave me. What made him a wonderful father is that, within limits, he permitted me to be the father to myself.
Steve Oney is the author of “A Man’s World: A Gallery of Fighters, Creators, Actors, and Desperadoes.”
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