MEMOIR: When All the Words Were Done  

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Last night I dreamed that I was a child
Out where the pines grow wild and tall
I was trying to make it home through the forest
Before the darkness falls

                                                                 —Bruce Springsteen

REEDThe Thanksgiving holiday that year had been a good one. At dinner a family guest complimented my father Reed’s handsome portrait that hung in our dining room. “Yes, it’s an abstract,” I joked, much to Dad’s amusement. At dinner my father told a funny story about recently browsing through a product catalog only to discover the image of his childhood best friend in an advertisement for a home sauna. His friend Louis was an executive for the A.C. Nielsen Company, but also an aspiring actor. In recent years he had caused a stir among his friends by landing speaking parts in two Woody Allen movies. Now here he was lounging contentedly in a catalog advertisement next to a sauna, wearing only a towel. Dad got quite a laugh out of seeing that.

All in all, it was a relaxed, pleasant weekend. But now it was early Monday morning and time for me to leave. The train ride from Chicago to Carbondale was long and involved first taking a commuter train from the western suburbs to downtown Chicago, followed by a cab ride to the Amtrak station. I looked forward to finally settling in for the six-hour trip downstate.

I had woken up early to the smell of coffee brewing downstairs. Dad must be up already, I thought. I packed the previous evening so all I had to do was dress, grab breakfast, and we would be on our way. While I was getting ready Dad came up the stairs with a cup of coffee for me. We should leave in about 20 minutes, he said.

The coffee girded me. Downstairs, I made a quick meal of cereal and toast. My father already had his overcoat on when he entered the kitchen. He poured himself a cup of coffee and took a seat at the table. With finals coming up, he used the moment to remind me to give my studies adequate attention in the next few weeks. My thought: Yes, yes, I know! Why does he have to talk to me like this?  But I knew why. This was his way of expressing his endless concern about all the time I put into “extra-curricular” political activism.

I was a devoted peace activist early in my college years, even becoming a spokesperson for the campus Student Mobilization Committee. My father saw this as controversial, and not quite respectable. Later, I was elected to the university student senate and even ran for student body president. In itself these activities could not help but earn a degree of fatherly admiration, but the fact that I did so as a socialist left my father baffled and sometimes upset. Yet few people knew he had also quietly donated money to my campaigns.

At the breakfast table I assured him I was doing fine. In fact, my grades were excellent, as I reminded him. Dad looked at me thoughtfully for a second, but said nothing. Unexpectedly, he then reached into his wallet to take out two $20 bills, sliding the money across the table. This was for any extra expenses I might have before Christmas, he explained. I thanked him.

I’ll get my bag now, I said, and disappeared upstairs while Dad went outside to warm up the car. The car was a new Jaguar he had bought earlier in the year. On Saturday evening he had let me drive it to a friend’s house, despite his earlier declaration that no one but him would ever drive this car. For a man long used to Chevrolets, the Jaguar was a tangible measure of his new-found business success, a reward for years of hard work in the packaging industry. But he also still enjoyed driving the old VW Bug I had bought for $500 three years before.

Outside, I threw my bag in the back seat, climbed in the passenger seat, and we were on our way. We drove in silence through the early morning darkness, south on Main Street to our village’s small downtown. It was only a short ride of about a mile. With its gentle hills, majestic trees, and spacious old homes, Glen Ellyn was about as close to the quintessential ideal of the American town as a place could be. The village embodied a kind of old-fashioned, picturesque ideal of upper-middle class American life that my father had relentlessly pursued all his life. Our family moved here in 1969 from Ann Arbor, shortly after he started his packaging business. Now, six years later, the company was at last on solid ground. This moment in my father’s life was a long-time coming.

It was just before 6:30 a.m. when we pulled up to the drop-off area at the train station. The station was already bustling with cars and commuters. Dad put the car in park, leaving the motor running. He reminded me to give Mom a call when I arrived in Carbondale, adding that he didn’t want her to worry. I promised I would.

AAteenageI was eager to get going and hoped to avoid a repeat of last night’s conversation. In the early evening Dad had announced that he wanted to talk to me about something. I would usually cringe when he began a conversation this way. It meant something important was on his mind and that something was usually not anything I wanted to hear. As it turned out, what was on his mind was the idea of my applying to law school. He had thought it over and decided it might be a good career choice. With my analytical strengths and penchant for abstract, logical thought, a career in law might serve me well, he explained. In his estimation too much of the time I was putting this talent to use—or, to his mind squandering it—on various “hopeless” political causes. Becoming a lawyer had struck him as a sound alternative. At least he recognized I wasn’t one for business, I thought to myself.

Now, at the train station, he mentioned the idea again, asking just that I think about it. I told him I would, even though I knew I wouldn’t. Jokingly, I asked him how he would feel if I became a lawyer and then sued him for violating OSHA laws or something? He laughed. This was one of the ways I had learned to “handle” my father. I could either agree with him, whether I meant it or not, or start an argument. I could also look for the humor in the moment. Ideally, the latter was the preferred form of diplomacy.

Actually, my father saw the humor in life as much as anyone. He liked practical jokes and laughed easily. Once, during the Christmas break of my freshman year, a college acquaintance of mine who I knew from the peace movement had shown up unannounced at the family home. John had long hair and a thick, full beard, wore horn-rimmed glasses, and was typically clad in a long black overcoat decorated with too many leftist political buttons. He was a few years older and something of a lost-soul type, slightly eccentric, but meaning no harm to anyone. John called almost everyone “brother” or “sister” and was notorious for showing up at the apartments or dorm rooms of people he knew (or barely knew) and more or less never leaving, until the hosts were finally forced to ask him to leave.

I wasn’t home the afternoon my father answered the doorbell to find John standing on the front step asking for me. Dad had been slightly startled to find this hippie from central casting standing on his front porch. “I send my son to college and three months later Karl Marx is ringing the doorbell,” he joked later that evening.

In truth, my father was generally wary of my new college friends. They were in his mind a stereotypically unseemly crowd of hippies, protesters, and pot smokers, who would only lead me down a slippery slope of poor career choices and other calamities. It hadn’t helped that I began my college career with a misdemeanor arrest for marijuana possession just a week before I left home. It happened at a suburban park with the younger brother of a friend. The small amount of marijuana I had was from a friend’s family farm in western Wisconsin, where I visited with a group of friends just weeks earlier. Being a generous person (so I thought), I had decided to give it away to a high school friend before leaving for college. Thanks to my father’s lawyer, I ended up with only a mild reproof, the case expunged if I stayed out of trouble for six months.

banksy-peacejpgAs it turned out, I spent the last hour of the last night of that six-month probation running across campus, fleeing tear gas and a police assault on hundreds of antiwar protesters. It was the spring of 1972 and we had gathered at the campus “free speech” area to protest the Nixon administration’s bombing of North Vietnam. That night nearly 300 students were arrested, but I was not one of them, thanks to the fortuitous assistance of a philosophy faculty member who waved a small group of us fleeing students into a campus house used by his department. When my father found out about this, he accused me of flagrant stupidity. If I had been arrested while on probation, I could have been in serious trouble. He was right, of course. I also didn’t care. When it came to social justice, nothing would stop me from doing what I thought was right.

A month before he had also gotten angry after I defied his demand not to attend a national peace rally in New York City. I went anyway, taking a chartered bus with a college friend from Grant Park in Chicago. It was a memorable trip, starting with the fact that the bus we happened to board was almost entirely populated by some radical gay liberation group, many of whom engaged for much of the bus ride in what might be described as dramatic displays of sensual behavior as we cruised east on Highway 80. It was slightly startling if only because, at the age of 19, I had never seen gay males kissing before.

In New York City we joined 100,000 antiwar protesters in Times Square, listened to stirring denunciations of the Vietnam War, and witnessed a surprise appearance by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who sang “Give Peace a Chance” with all of us singing along. Before boarding the bus for the long trip back to Chicago, we walked around Times Square, ate Chinese food, and attended a taping of The David Frost Show, a popular TV program where we watched actor Art Carney perform in a satirical skit about McCarthyism. It was an extraordinary weekend. But none of my account of this impressed my father, who for a time couldn’t get past his displeasure that I had defied his wishes.

But now all that was in the past. It had been a while since any major battles erupted between us. Now there was only the early morning and thoughts to share about my future. I listened and responded politely, of course, but that was all. As far as I was concerned, my father was static interference on the otherwise clear signal of my own youthful vision. I knew who I was in the world. I didn’t need his advice. Nor did I feel much patience for the constant cajoling to become his version of The Great Achiever. Whether it was a fair perception or not, it was how I felt. But in my heart I also did not want to push him away. Now at least the tenor of things between us was more yielding than usual. It was not a bad day.

At last it was time to go our separate ways. The train was arriving. Dad reminded me again to call Mom when I got in. Then we shook hands. A smile graced his strong features as he wished me well. I thanked him. I’ll see you soon, I said.

My father had three weeks to live.

And then came the moment when all the words were done. Everything that had to be said—everything that would ever be said—was finished and done. The story was complete. I bid goodbye then to my father, grabbed my bag from the back seat and swung the door shut. With a wave, I turned and walk toward the station platform.

The train was at the station and I didn’t look back.


* “My Father’s House.” Written by Bruce Springsteen. Downtown Music Publishing LLC.

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