The value of father-son respect

Joe Bageant told many stories about his time two decades ago in Idaho as a reporter and columnist for The Idahonian, a newspaper that has since merged with the Moscow-Pullman Daily News. Joe did not save copies of many of his old articles and columns, but a reader has recently sent me some copies. Below is one of those columns.

– Ken Smith

May 1, 1990
Moscow, Idaho

By Joe Bageant

I look at those old pictures of my father, just returned from Korea with his khaki hat cocked at a devilish angle, leaning on the shiny black Plymouth. He looks happy and proud. I was six. He was my absolute hero. My total respect for him was never in question.

That respect was part of a long chain of fathers and sons. For most of American history fathers could take the respect of their sons for granted. Particularly prior to World War II, when the majority of families lived on farms — before the post-war shift to the cities that changed American family culture forever. A country boy grew up watching and working with his father, with few outside distractions and little media to create other realities than the daily rhythms of life and work.

Then over the next few decades, a strange thing happened. Television came along and planted new images of family life in the American unconscious. Dads became bumblers in shows like the Life of Riley, or Dick Van Dyke. The kids always caught bigger fish than dad on camping trips while dad couldn’t even build a campfire. Meanwhile, you saw Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz conniving to buy a new couch, and manipulate their husbands to various ends.

At the same time, kids got smart alecky, (Remember Rusty in the Danny Thomas Show?) drawing laughs and attention for taking cuts at dad’s expense.

Ironically, even when dad was presented as a strong, wise figure, it had a vapid authenticity about it. Take Ward Cleaver. He’d draw reflectively on his pipe in his “study” (Oh yea, all those cracker box houses we grew up in had a study), then solve some trifling problem of the Beaver’s in quiet, near ceremonial tones.

And exactly what did Ward do for a living, anyway? Or Ozzie Nelson, for that matter, besides wear sweaters and make milkshakes for the boys? Occasionally there were vague mentions of the insurance business, etc.

Whatever the case, when my dad would come home dead tired and dirty from working at his gas station all day, I doubt that he identified with Ward in his expensive suits or Ozzie with his milkshake maker in the kitchen. I think we both felt a strange sense of inferiority in the face of this daily deluge of an American dream that we pretty much assumed must be happening in California someplace.

At the same time so many of our fathers who’d grown up in a pre-war agricultural America were very confused about how to father us. They’d grown up working with their fathers on a daily basis, sharing in important labor that decided the welfare of the entire family. And out of that, I think in most cases, was born the genuine respect that comes from learning and accomplishing something meaningful together. Maybe there weren’t many heart-to-heart talks, or any talk at all. But there was the silent bond and the long slow rite of passage called earning your father’s respect.

The 1950s are always painted as a mindless time that melts like candy cotton in the mouth of history. That’s because, honestly speaking, the media gets to re-write American social history for most of us. Especially our children. But what I saw going on was a generation of boys who had gone off to a long war, and come back men capable of the steeliest kind of dedication to making something better for their families. And they did it. They gave their families the highest lifestyle and the best educations any generation in human history ever had. They made a lot of mistakes. They had no models to guide them, and even their own fathers could not be much help in what had to get done.

I can image their horror when the 1960s came along and their children’s generation invalidated, through rejection, everything they had ever stood for. Most of our fathers could not see the gift they had given was called diversity, individuality, true social consciousness and empowerment to change things like never before.

Then in the 70s and 80s our parents got rocked and shattered by the spectre of their children’s divorces. New family models emerged, and are still emerging. But almost none of them work as well as the old nuclear family model, when it comes to raising healthy, stable children.

And while millions of sincere parents today struggle to build self-esteem in their children through all the newest techniques, I wonder.

I wonder if, all things considered, these efforts can ever be equal to the self-esteem that comes from a boy looking at his father while doing meaningful work, and thinking to himself: “I am as good and worthwhile as the best man I know, because the best man I know accepts my respect.”

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