Fathers, then and now.

Last month, Father’s Day arrived while Sue and I were visiting Door County, one of Wisconsin’s most scenic areas. Like all Father’s Days for me in recent years, it was a two-way day for me. I place a call to my dad, and get calls from my kids. Spread out as we are from Boston to Milwaukee to northwest Wisconsin to Phoenix, relying on the telephone is the best we can do to make our connection across the generations.

On the morning of July 1st, another generation was added when my nephew Ian, elder son of my middle brother Alan, and his wife Rachel welcomed their first-born, Everett James Tindell, into the world out in Los Angeles. The little guy is my parents’ first great-grandchild, and as Alan pointed out, he could very well live to see the 22nd century. Everett will be exactly six months past his 84th birthday when January 1, 2101 dawns. And, projecting further, it’s not unreasonable to assume that his own grandchild might see the 23rd century.

What will fatherhood be like when 2101 arrives? In science fiction it’s been all over the map. Some writers envision a world where children are conceived in laboratories and raised entirely without traditional parents, living in a world where their entire care from cradle to grave is provided by the all-wise government. (Some European countries are just about there already, and they’re finding out it isn’t all it was cracked up to be.) Personally, I hope we never get to that point. I’d much rather think that fatherhood, like everything else, will change over time but not that much. In the 2009 movie Star Trek, James T. Kirk, the eventual captain of the starship Enterprise, is born in space in the year 2233–a year little Everett Tindell’s great-grandchild might see. His parents, George and Winona Kirk, are Starfleet officers whose ship, USS Kelvin, is under attack by an alien vessel. When his captain is killed, George takes command of Kelvin and sacrifices himself so that his wife, who is giving birth to their son, and other crew members can escape on shuttles. Before he dies, George is told by radio that he has a son, and his pride and love are evident as he gives his own life so that his boy might live.

 

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Played by Chris Hemsworth, George Kirk heroically gives his life…

 

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…so that his wife and newborn son can live.

 

George Kirk’s fictional sacrifice is one that few real-life fathers ever have to do, fortunately, but it’s something we occasionally think about. What would we be willing to do to protect our children? The answer, of course, is whatever it takes. There is nothing more important to us than our kids. To most of us dads, anyway; sadly, not all fathers feel that way. I have met many who never gave a thought to being a dad, and when given the opportunity to really be one comes around, they botch the job completely, or ignore it altogether. We seem to be getting more and more of those as time goes on, and that does not bode well for our society.

Fictional dads often do a better job than real-life dads do. My generation remembers fathers from classic TV series who always seemed to be engaged in their kids’ lives, who worked hard and were devoted to their wives (or, in the case of widowers, to their wives’ memories), who dispensed sagely advice and led by example.

 

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Jim Anderson, played by Robert Young, was the moral center on Father Knows Best (1954-60).

 

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Ward Cleaver (Hugh Beaumont) was always around to help his boys on Leave It to Beaver (1957-63).

 

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Andy Taylor, although a widower, was a strong father figure to son Opie on The Andy Griffith Show (1960-68).

 

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Fred MacMurray played dad Steve Douglas, who like Andy Taylor was a widower who later found new love, and was always there for his boys on My Three Sons (1960-72).

 

The fathers portrayed on those shows, and on dramas like Bonanza and The Waltons, are often laughed at by today’s culture. They were square, they were way too conservative, and most especially they were unrealistic. The seventies started presenting us with TV dads like the bigoted, ignorant Archie Bunker (All in the Family) and funny but out of touch Fred Sanford (Sanford and Son). Eventually we got to foul-mouthed, workaholic dads like Andy Sipowicz on NYPD Blue and complete buffoons like Homer Simpson of The Simpsons. And as we heard more and more about celebrity fathers who ignored their kids, and especially star athletes who had multiple kids with multiple mothers, our image of the traditional father began to collapse.

 

The real Santini.

Long-distance Fathers Days, and for that matter ones celebrated together, inevitably run out of time. It will happen for me, and it happened for novelist Pat Conroy and his dad, who will forever be known as the Great Santini.

Pat Conroy died in March at the age of 70, leaving behind a legacy of great literature, including classic novels like The Lords of Discipline. His most memorable work will always be the novel he wrote about a young man trying to deal with an abusive, domineering father. The Great Santini was Conroy’s way of telling the story of his own family. It was made into a movie, with Robert Duvall in the lead role that was really Don Conroy, a decorated Marine Corps fighter pilot who saw combat in three wars. In the prologue to his last book, The Death of Santini, Pat writes of his father as a warrior “as fierce as Achilles,” but a man who was also “meaner than a shit-house rat, and I remember hating him even when I was in diapers.”

When that’s in the first paragraph of the prologue, you know this won’t be your typical boy-worships-dad memoir.

 

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Pat Conroy’s memoir was difficult to read, but turned out to be a beautiful remembrance of a memorable man.

 

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In the movie, Bull Meacham, played by Robert Duvall, terrorizes his 18-year-old son, Ben (Michael O’Keefe).

 

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The real Santini, Donald Conroy (1921-98), retired from the Marine Corps after 33 years of service with the rank of colonel.

 

When The Great Santini was published in 1976, it became a best-seller, praised by critics but not by Conroy’s family. He was ripped by both sides, even getting it from relatives who’d hardly spoken to him before. His father, son of a roughneck Chicago Irish family, wept and asked his son why he hated him so. His mother, who had escaped a hardscrabble Alabama mountain life when she married the dashing young Marine, wailed that she would never be accepted into genteel society again. Members of her family actually picketed some of Conroy’s book signings, urging people not to buy the novel.

If there was ever a dysfunctional family, this was it. The oldest of seven kids, Pat bore the brunt of his father’s abuse until going off to college. A younger brother committed suicide by jumping off a building; a sister tried to emulate him but failed. Pat himself cheated on his first wife, was tormented by his second, and finally settled down with his third, but his excesses of food and drink as he coped with his demons led to continuing health problems until cancer finally finished the job. How much of the kids’ troubles can be laid at their father’s feet? Undoubtedly he had a hand in it, but so did their mother, who often threatened to leave him and sometimes promised the kids she would, only to return to his side time after time. Eventually, Peggy Conroy divorced Donald and married a Navy doctor, but only after her kids had grown up.

In spite of everything, Pat Conroy produced some of the finest novels to come out of American literature in the late 20th century, because they were about Americans, struggling to overcome challenges that they sometimes created for themselves.

 

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Based on his own experience attending The Citadel, Pat Conroy’s 1980 novel about a cadet at a Southern military academy became one of his best-known works.

 

Pat Conroy will be remembered as one of the great writers of American fiction, but he was never happy about doing it. His third wife, novelist Cassandra King, often laughed while she wrote. “I’ve never cackled with laughter at a single line I’ve ever written,” Conroy said. “None of it has given me pleasure. She writes with pleasure and joy, and I sit there in gloom and darkness.”

The Great Santini may have been reviled by Pat Conroy’s family, but it was a best-seller and made him a wealthy man, and it actually led to a reconciliation between the son and the father. Don Conroy enjoyed being portrayed on screen by a renowned actor like Duvall, and often accompanied his son to book signings. He was happy to add his autograph to copies of The Great Santini, usually signing as “the real Santini.” Fellow writers would ask Pat why he allowed it, and his response was this: “I explained that my father and I had to search for ways to say we loved each other without saying the words.” Don Conroy died in 1998 and his passing was headline news around the world. At his funeral, Pat Conroy delivered the eulogy, calling Don Conroy “the best uncle I ever saw, the best brother, the best grandfather, the best friend, and my God, what a father.”

 

My dad was not Santini.

My father was tough on his three boys, too, but not nearly Santini tough. As the oldest son, like Pat Conroy, I probably got more of whatever “tough love” Jim Tindell offered than my brothers. There were some occasions during my high school basketball days when I thought my dad was being too tough on me. I was doing my best, after all, I thought at the time. What more can anyone ask? And yet, as I look back on those days now, I can see times when I didn’t work as hard as I should have, when I didn’t do what was necessary to raise my game to the level where I could carry my team deep into the playoffs, a level that would’ve taken me on to college ball. It will always be one of my greatest regrets that I didn’t do what I needed to do to maximize my talent. I never would’ve been an NBA player, perhaps not even a Division I college prospect, but I could’ve done more. My dad saw that, and like many sons, perhaps even like Pat Conroy, I was too full of myself to see the truth in what my father was telling me. To a certain extent, I think, it is ever thus with fathers and sons.

My dad has been devoted to one woman for going on 62 years. He was a star athlete in high school, served his country in uniform, then turned down a chance at professional baseball to finish his college education. He worked a long and honorable career in public education in Wisconsin and Arizona before settling into a well-deserved retirement. Over the past decade or so I have been privileged to be able to travel with him widely. He is a man of strong faith, and one of my fondest memories will always be standing with my father on the Mount of Olives, looking over the city of Jerusalem, and then walking with him on the Via Dolorosa, following the literal footsteps of Christ.

 

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November 2010. My father gazes out over the city of Jerusalem during our trip to the Middle East. We cruised out of Venice and visited seven countries.

 

Dad taught me how to hunt and fish, how to work on a car, how to shoot a free throw. He was unable to teach me how to throw a curveball, one of his few failures. Most of all, he has led by example, setting the bar high for me and my brothers. He continues to lead, in fact, with his faith, a belief so ironclad that we know without a shred of doubt that when he leaves us, his absence will only be brief. When we rejoin him, we will be able to hunt and fish and play catch for eternity.

My God, what a father we have.

 

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Dad, in the red shirt, was honored by his boys for his 75th birthday, January 2010.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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