I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
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The story begins with a message on Facebook: “I’m looking for Wayne Scott from the Baltimore area. A Navy veteran, about seventy-two or seventy-three. A relative of yours by any chance?” A phone call to my mother confirms that my father, whose name I inherited and who was close-lipped about his past, had dropped out of high school and joined the Navy when he was seventeen.
I write back to the stranger that I’m the oldest of Wayne Scott’s three sons and that he died of lung cancer fifteen years ago. “I wasn’t very close to him,” I confess, “but I am interested in any recollections you care to share.”
The stranger, Ken, is a friend of my father’s from his service days and is planning a reunion with their old Navy buddies. He’s sorry to hear that Scotty, as everyone called my father, is gone.
I accept his condolences, but the truth is I rarely think about my dad. During my teens and young adulthood I was enraged at him for the way he treated my mother both before and after their divorce; for his secrecy and disappearances; for his failure to pay child support and alimony. Growing up, I’d sometimes felt like an unwanted obligation.
Ken has warmer memories of my father. “Scotty fancied himself a ladies’ man,” he writes. “Whenever we walked into a bar, he would pause in the doorway to make sure everyone saw his entrance. Then he would pick out a girl and start buying her drinks.”
Ken scans old black-and-white photographs of my dad in the Navy in the 1950s and sends them to me. In one shot — taken during a night on the town in Okinawa, Japan — Ken, Scotty, and two other sailors named Jim and Will pose together with their arms around each other. Their shirts are unbuttoned, and my father grins broadly. In another picture the sailors have on dark-blue uniforms with white stripes and hold cigarettes and beers. They exude a youthful bravado. I study the picture of Scotty as a fresh-faced man-boy. If he weren’t my father, he might have been one of the kids who used to bully me on the baseball diamond.
It is 1972, three years before the end of the Vietnam War. Though I am only eight, every night I lie awake in bed, listening to war news on the radio and worrying about being drafted. My family — my mother, my father, my two younger brothers, and I — lives in a narrow brick townhouse outside Philadelphia. The walls are so thin we can hear the conversations and arguments and televisions of the neighbors on either side. We know which families are unhappy. We know which fathers drink and fight with their wives. We know which children get spanked and which parents yell and curse. We know how broke everyone is.
One night, from the room I share with my brother Michael, I hear my parents arguing in the kitchen. I creep out of bed and huddle on the stairs. They are talking about me: how I like to play with girls and wear an apron and help in the kitchen. It’s my father’s fault, my mother insists. If he were more involved, I would act like a boy. I would be more interested in sports. She quits accusing and tries to say it more kindly: “Wayne still needs your influence.”
Soon after that, against my will, they sign me up to play Little League baseball. My father, who loves the sport, is the coach. The baseball is like a stone that another boy hurls at you. When I am not sitting bored on the bench or standing deep in the outfield where the ball never goes, I worry about it hitting me. Stepping up to home plate with a bat, I heave a sigh while the catcher baits me: “Sissy, sissy, sissy.” I wonder which will cause less embarrassment: watching the ball go by and possibly getting walked, or swinging and striking out. If I get walked, I’ll have to keep playing. Halfheartedly I swing and keep missing.
“You’re out!” the umpire yells.
After I return to the bench, my father offers advice on how to stand at the plate, how to swing, how to ignore the catcher’s teasing. It is important that I neither cry nor give up. At home I beg both parents to let me quit.
That long, humid summer our team loses every game. My father remains steadfast, but I see the way his face falls as our opponents rack up runs against us. It is a game, but it matters. As I continue begging him to let me quit, I begin to see that he wants to quit, too. Not only is he the coach of a losing team, but he is the father of a boy who shuts his eyes when he’s at bat.
There is a pitcher we call “Wild Nicky” whose bangs flop over one eye and whose smile curls reptile-like. It isn’t clear why he’s not in juvenile detention. It isn’t clear why Wild Nicky is allowed to be a pitcher: not a game passes when he doesn’t hit at least one batter. Anytime he is on the mound, my dread of going to the plate becomes a crippling anxiety.
With only one month left in the season, we play Wild Nicky’s team. I pray that the batters who are up before me will all strike out, but I am not so lucky. I go to my execution in a daze.
The catcher taunts me under his breath. Wild Nicky does his theatrical, acrobatic windup. I don’t even bother to swing. I just close my eyes. The ball smacks me between the legs. There’s a shock of pain like no other. A singularly male agony ripples through my body, and I cry out. The crowd gasps; my father shouts, “Wayne!” and runs over; and in that second of his rare, delicious empathy, I seize my opportunity and collapse, a wailing martyr.
Though I am not allowed to quit baseball, a new position is developed just for me: team photographer. And I never go to bat again.
I tell Ken that I have written two essays about Scotty, if he’s interested in seeing them. The first, “Separation Ritual,” published in 1998, is about a failed intervention: At the age of twenty-four I couldn’t conjure a memory of my father sober. He started drinking early every day and kept a cooler stocked with beer in the back seat of his gold Lincoln Continental. My brothers and I had long ago stopped getting in the car with him, but we couldn’t prevent him from endangering himself and others. Finally I convinced my father to see a psychologist who specialized in addiction. In the intervention meeting Scotty said he wanted to become a better father and to regain his sons’ trust. He promised to enter treatment.
After he skipped his first two rehab appointments, I called and demanded, “Which is more important to you: the alcohol or me?” There was a long pause before he said, “The alcohol.”
His admission was a gift. It liberated me from a futile sense of responsibility.
Though the tone of the intervention essay is compassionate, I worry it violates the code of silence that predominates among men of my father’s generation. Anticipating that my correspondence with Ken will end once he reads it, I send it anyway.
Within a few days a message comes back. “Wayne, I have to admit, your article brought a tear to my eye,” he writes, “partly because it so closely resembles the relationship I had with my own dad.”
Here I am, nearly fifty years old, a man who told himself he didn’t need to think about his dead father anymore, and suddenly I feel compelled to return to the puzzle of it all, to study it again, in case there is something I missed.
Ken passes the essay along to my father’s other Navy buddies, and he and I exchange occasional e-mails and share anecdotes about our lives. When I become his Facebook friend, he warns me: “I’m pretty conservative.” I struggle to reconcile the kind man who reached out to me in an almost fatherly way with the venom he expresses on social media: contempt for our Democratic president and healthcare reform; pro-gun and anti-immigrant rhetoric; words like freaks and fags. I marvel at the irony of his warmth toward me, a liberal social worker from Portland, Oregon.
Everything I share about Scotty, Ken forwards to his network of friends from the service. In return, one of them tells me how Scotty, when he was drinking, would often say that he hated his own father, who had had a stormy divorce from my grandmother. One time my grandfather was in Japan and wanted to see my dad, but Scotty refused.
This reminds me of a time when I didn’t want to see Scotty. I wrote about the incident in my second essay, “Call Your Deadbeat Dad”: I’m preparing to go back to college in Chicago after a visit home, and my father insists on coming to the airport to see me off, but I am mad at him and ask him to stay away. What I don’t tell him is that I will be saying goodbye to my boyfriend, David. I have no intention of coming out to Scotty, who shows up anyway and catches me in a long embrace with David. My father doesn’t know what to say. Later he calls me on the telephone. “It was nice to meet David,” he says. “He seems like a good man.”
I’ve hesitated to send Ken this essay, thinking that I will never hear from him again afterward. But now I mail him a copy.
Ken writes back: “Scotty was a good and loyal friend, and it’s bothersome to learn of the way he lived his life. He had everything going for him — looks, personality, family, success — but he chose the comfort of the bottle. It’s a sad but common story.”
He passes this essay along, too.
My father shakes me awake near midnight. “You have to see this,” he says. His favorite movie, Shane, is on the late show. He props me in front of the television, a bleary-eyed ten-year-old wrapped in a blanket, to watch the story of a handsome cowboy with a mysterious past.
Shane arrives by horseback at a Wyoming homestead, befriends the family, and becomes their hired hand. Their son, Joey, who’s about my age, idolizes Shane. A cattle baron is waging a war of intimidation against the homesteaders. His men send herds to trample their farmlands. Shane helps Joey’s father stand up to the bullies. At the end Shane single-handedly kills the cattle baron and six men who work for him.
Watching all this as a boy, I was shocked at the lawless, violent spectacle, everyone so quick to draw and fire.
“Now you run home to your mother and tell her everything’s all right,” Shane says to Joey after the last bad guy has met his bloody end. “There aren’t any more guns in the valley.”
Many times I had seen my father act out scenes from this movie. He had memorized every line. Seeing Shane for the first time, I had the uncanny sensation that the actor who played Shane, Alan Ladd, was doing a poor imitation of my father.
Several times since then, I have tried to watch Shane again, thinking it might contain a clue to who Scotty was, but I would always lose interest or fall asleep. Recently I forced myself to sit through the film, and I think I finally understood. It provides a model for his life: romanticizing the cool, rugged individualist who doesn’t need anyone, who prides himself on avoiding the frilly charms of domestic life, who brawls and wins, then drinks and boasts, then brawls and wins again. When he leaves the homesteading family for good, Shane, a decent man who has killed seven men and must run from the law, delivers a homily to the boy who loves him. “A man has to be what he is, Joey,” he says. “Can’t break the mold. I tried it, and it didn’t work for me.”
Joey’s last line, as Alan Ladd rides his horse toward distant mountains, is: “Shane! Come back!”
Ken and his Navy buddies have planned to hold their reunion in Portland, Oregon, where one of them lives just two miles from my home. They ask me to join them so they can regale me with stories of Scotty’s youth. I am mildly panicked at the thought of meeting these men in person. Though they have read my essays and know basically who I am, I suddenly feel the need to be different, manlier.
I try to imagine myself in that picture of the four of them as young sailors, holding cigarettes and beers, but I don’t fit. I am behind the camera, the one at whom they are laughing.
But I’m not eight years old, I tell myself.
There is a moment in “Call Your Deadbeat Dad” when a therapist suggests that the problem between my father and me is my rigidity and judgment. She tells me to go drinking with him and meet him where he’s at.
The problem is, I don’t like to drink. I garble my words after a few sips. But I resolve to try.
Scotty takes me to his favorite bar outside Baltimore, where he introduces me to everyone. When the bartender asks what I want, I order a Coke.
My father scowls and tells me to have a beer. It’s on him, he says.
I feel a familiar tension between us: Pick up the damn bat and get out there and hit the ball.
In an attempt to save face I order a white Russian. It has alcohol in it, I rationalize. Vodka, even.
Scotty eyes me skeptically.
“I’ll see if we have any cream,” the bartender offers, raising his eyebrows.
Thirty years later I still gravitate toward what my friends call “girl drinks”: daiquiris with umbrellas, pink cosmopolitans, lemon drops in sugar-crusted martini glasses. If I’m going to join this merry band of brothers, I need to find a cocktail that is respectably masculine.
Recently my friend Tim, who is gay, introduced me to Manhattans. He has strong opinions about which bourbons to use, how much vermouth (just a splash), and the type of cherry that should rest in the bottom of the perfectly chilled glass. He takes me around to bars in some of Portland’s older hotels to sample different versions of the cocktail. Maybe this could be my manly order? Or is the Manhattan now a gay drink? I quiz my friends about it.
“A Manhattan is a vintage drink,” says one. “Maybe it’s just a little gay.”
“It’s not gay at all,” says another. “It’s something from the Mad Men era.” That’s my father’s era, too.
I decide on the Manhattan. I will join the party and have a drink. I will blend.
Ken, Wayne, Jim, and Will (left to right) in 2015.
Photo Courtesy Of The Author
Even though Ken invited me for the whole night, I decide to drop by only after dinner. I don’t want to intrude too much on this gathering of men who have been friends for more than fifty years. I ride my bike to the address — a modest brick 1940s house — then circle the block, not quite ready to go in. What if I can’t keep up with the drinking? What if they’re already drunk?
Finally I knock on the door. No answer. I bang harder. Still nothing. The windows look dark. I check the time, then call Ken on his cellphone.
“Where are you?” he asks, shouting above men’s voices in the background.
“I’m outside,” I tell him. “No one’s coming to the door.”
“Well, the TV’s on,” he says. “We can’t hear anything.”
He lets me in, and I finally shake hands with this friend of my father’s. Inside, the two other men from the picture — Jim and Will — are sitting at the dining-room table, talking loudly while Jim’s wife listens and endures. Fox News is blaring in the living room, but no one is watching it. The men interrupt each other so frequently that I strain to follow the conversation. At one point Will pushes a manila envelope across the table toward me. “These are for you,” he says. Inside are black-and-white photos of the four friends as young men. My presence inspires a series of stories about Scotty: how hard he worked during his Navy days, his bright smile, his charm, his sense of humor. “He could make friends with the whole bar,” Jim says.
Sitting there, just hearing them talk, I can see Scotty through their eyes. It might have been entertaining to hang out with him, I think, if I were his friend and not his disappointed son.
The men ask about my job and my family and whether Scotty ever met his grandchildren. Jim wipes away a tear when I describe how quickly my father died after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Mostly I provide an audience for their boisterous reminiscing. The generational divide between us doesn’t seem that vast. A wide chasm separates a ten-year-old and a thirty-five-year-old, but not so much a fifty-year-old and a seventy-five-year-old. We all have aging bodies; we all have complaints. There is an underlying melancholy that unifies all of us: the sense of having made big choices and closed off other possibilities.
Before I know it, it’s nine o’clock, and Ken and Will rise from the table to head back to their hotel.
“Already?” I ask.
“We aren’t young men anymore,” Ken says with a wink.
But I’m ready to have my Manhattan. I look at the dining-room table covered with dessert plates and forks and crumpled napkins and realize: No one is drinking. No one has been drinking all evening.
Later I’ll reread Ken’s e-mails and find that he told me everyone had gotten sober. Somehow, lost in my own story about my father, I’d forgotten.
“Wayne, if Scotty were in a position to see how you’ve turned out,” Ken says before I leave, “he’d be beaming with pride.”
Jim’s wife takes a photograph of the four of us with everyone in the same position as when the guys were all out on the town in Okinawa in 1958. And I am in my father’s place.