Thursday, September 23, 2010

To Not Going Gentle Into The Darkness

Today is Bruce Springsteen's birthday. Freehold's favorite son (at least now if not always) was born sixty-one years ago today. One of my favorite large-scale misconceptions that you encounter when you travel into a part of these United States beyond the boundaries of the State of Concrete Gardens is that all of the residents here are die-hard Springsteen loyalists. While there are indeed a number of us who are, in the case of music appreciation, as in the case of all things, it is best to heed the words of my old college professor David Armstrong, "Beware the man who speaks in absolutes."

Professor Armstrong's admonition finds support even when using only the small sample pool of my parent's six children. Among this particular sextet there is at least one of us who not only is not a "die-hard fan" but is not a fan at all. Surprised? May I ask why. If you take a representative sampling of individuals (more than two or three will likely prove sufficient), poll them individually as to their likes/dislikes on a number of subjects and find - when reviewing their answers - that each mirrors all of the other's likes and dislikes, then listen to me carefully. Put down your cup of Kool-Aid without sipping from it. Smile politely and then run out of Jonestown as fast as your little legs will carry you. Do not look back. Do not slow down. Run. Run like the wind.

I have as little concern about anyone's dislike of Springsteen's music as I do about anyone's dislike of anything else of which I am especially fond. Unless this is your first time at this particular rodeo you know that I care hardly at all whether anyone at all shares my tastes and preferences in music, sports, television, politics, etc. I encourage one and all to express their own opinion on all things. As long as your enjoyment of your favorite thing or things does not unfairly restrict my enjoyment of mine, I care not where and when you do what you do. I presume you would reciprocate my feelings on the subject. Then again, asking would suggest caring and well if any uncertainty exists in your mind as to my feelings on that subject, just read back to the beginning of this paragraph.

Often my oldest brother Bill refers to Springsteen being the soundtrack of his life. I like the reference. I tend to think of his music in a similar way - as I suppose many of us who have been avid fans for a number of years do. Not every song conjures up a pleasant memory perhaps but since life for all of us whose zip code identifies us as living somewhere other than Candyland is comprised of some less-than-pleasant moments that has to be expected.

Last week at this time I was in Florida pitching in just a little bit to help the ornery one (a/k/a "Mom") through a patch of unexpectedly rough water. One morning, prior to heading over to JMC to check in on JMK I found myself perusing the bookcase (for lack of a more artful term) in her room. Among the treasures she has stashed upon it is the Wardlaw soccer player that Matt Albano made for my father something close to a million years ago. I know not whether it is made out of clay or something else altogether. I do know that that red-uniformed soccer player has made the trip with Mom to each and every place she has called home in the more than three decades since Dad died. It has not aged a bit in spite of the fact it must be close to forty years old.

My eye was drawn as well to a long-forgotten (by me anyway) photograph of my father. It is a candid shot, taken of him while he was doing something that he enjoyed doing very much: coaching. It is a fairly tight shot, capturing him only from the shoulders up. Yet in spite of the limitations of the frame it is a picture that appears to have captured the measure of the man.

He has been dead for quite a long time and he died at a time where he and I - in the midst of our mutual existence - were not especially close. Perhaps given his age, which was 57, and mine, which was 14 and the fact that I was his sixth child, the mutual animosity we felt towards one another in the months (hell - for a year or two at least) before he died was neither surprising nor extraordinary. It was what it was.

I am forced to confess that - perhaps due to the omnipresent Irish gift of melancholy - my memories favor all of the bad things I have done and the disappointments I have experienced over the good times that I have enjoyed (I was going to add "and the good things I have done" but they are memories, not fantasies). My father has been dead almost thirty years and for most of that time it has been the unpleasant memories of our co-existence that have dominated my recollection of him.

Yet for a moment last week - standing in the quiet of a home hundreds of miles away from my own - I was drawn to the look in his eyes captured in an instant that occurred a lifetime ago. And looking at a picture of that father through the eyes of one who was not then but who is now a father in my own right, I had a better understanding of him - and a better appreciation for him - than I have felt in too many years to count.

For most of my life, the Springsteen song that best represented for me the relationship we had at the time that my father died was "Independence Day". In my mind's eye I have seen forever the last night of his life when I kissed him good night as he trundled off to bed, which was something I never did and something that I did that night only because I sensed that the opportunity to do so would never present itself again, in the first two lines of its opening verse, "Well Papa go to bed now it's getting late/Nothing we can say is gonna change anything now." In the song it is the son who is preparing to leave. In real-life (at least in our family) it was the father. Despite the role reversal, it is a song that has simply fit both the mood of that evening, which I recall as vividly now as I did when I lived through it at age fourteen, and the relationship of the principals involved:

Now I don't know what it always was with us
We chose the words, and yeah, we drew the lines
There was just no way this house could hold the two of us
I guess that we were just too much of the same kind.

In the soundtrack of my life, Independence Day fits as well in 2010 as it did in 1981, "So say goodbye it's Independence Day/Papa now I know the things you wanted that you could not say/But won't you just say goodbye it's Independence Day/I swear I never meant to take those things away." Yet last week, in the cool of my mother's house, staring at a photograph that I had forgotten had ever been taken of a man who I had forgotten ever existed, for the first time in a long time when I thought of Dad, it was not the song that queued up in the iPod between my ears. Instead, staring at his face and seeing the reflection of my own in the glass of the picture frame, I thought of a song Springsteen included on Tunnel of Love, the first album he released after the explosion that was Born in the U.S.A. (first the album and then the marathon world tour).

For the first time to my ear anyway on "Walk Like A Man" Springsteen seemed to lift his musical foot off of his father's throat. While he is not too much of a storyteller in concert these days, way back when he would tell stories at various times during a show most of the ones he told about his father spoke to the difficulties in their relationship. Perhaps there is something about fathers and sons - or at least Irish fathers and their Irish sons? Regardless, the stories about life with father were not nearly as upbeat and hopeful as those he told about his mother and the songs he wrote about the father/son dynamic echoed those sentiments.

Yet in telling the story of a son's transition - from boy to man - on his wedding day and the realization (to a degree at least) of the significance of the lessons imparted to him by his father over the course of his lifetime, it has seemed to me that the balance shifted a bit. Perhaps as a son it is easier to understand that which we watched our father do when we were young once we are not only a bit older but also once we have added a title or two (husband / father) to our own name? Remember the words of wise old Professor Armstrong here kids. There is no absolute truth in anything - present topic of conversation included.

Whether it is true for all or true for none other than Yours truly I blissfully add to the ever-expanding list of things about which I know nothing. I do know though that standing in my mother's house last week looking at that particular photograph the first thing I thought of was Springsteen:

Well now the years have gone and I've grown
From that seed you've sown
But I didn't think there'd be so many steps
I'd have to learn on my own
Well I was young and I didn't know what to do
When I saw your best steps stolen away from you
Now I'll do what I can
I'll walk like a man
And I'll keep on walkin'

....and as I do I know what will continue to serve as the soundtrack of my life. Not even my birthday and I still get a present. Not too bad. Not too bad at all.


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