A short reading

Posted by jdg | Thursday, October 02, 2008

I first read the following acrostic piece while waiting for a connection at O'Hare back in January, 2004, a year before my first child was born. I have thought about it quite often since, and recently dug out the old issue of Harper's where I first read it. It doesn't appear anywhere online, so I transcribed it here because it is such a weirdly detached but intensely personal take on fatherhood and our parents' failings (as well as our own) and our ability to rise above both. Like I said, it is a beautiful piece that has resonated with me for years and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

This originally appeared in the literary magazine Crazyhorse. The author is Dinty W. Moore.



Best known as the father on ABC's Home Improvement, the popular comedian was born Timothy Allen Dick on June 13, 1953. When Allen was eleven years old, his father, Gerald Dick, was killed by a drunk driver while driving home from a University of Colorado football game.


"A man, after impregnating the woman, could drop dead," Camille Paglia suggested to Tim Allen in a 1995 Esquire interview. "That is how peripheral he is to the whole thing."
"I'm a drone," Allen responded. "Like those bees."
"You are a drone," Paglia agreed. "That's exactly right."


After the female Japanese carp gives birth to hundreds of tiny babies, the father carp remains nearby. When he senses approaching danger, he sucks the helpless babies into his mouth and holds them there until the coast is clear.


University of Arizona psychologist Sanford Braver tells the story of a woman who felt threatened by her husband's close bond with their young son. The husband had a flexible work schedule, but the wife did not, so the boy spent the bulk of his time with the father. The mother became so jealous of the tight father-son relationship that she filed for divorce and successfully fought for sale custody. The result was that instead of being in the care of his father while the mother worked, the boy was now left in day care.


Once a male emperor penguin has completed mating, he remains by the female's side for the next month to determine if the act has been successful. When he sees a single greenish-white egg emerge from his mate's egg pouch, he begins to sing. Scientists have characterized his song as "ecstatic."


In 1949, Robert Young began Father Knows Best as a radio show. Young played Jim Anderson, an average father in an average family. The show later moved to television, where it was a major hit, but Young's successful life was troubled by alcohol and depression.

At age eighty-three, Young attempted suicide by running a hose from his car's exhaust pipe to the interior of the vehicle.The attempt failed because the battery was dead and the car wouldn't start.


The actor who portrayed the benevolent father on the popular TV show Leave It to Beaver was a Methodist minister. Tony Dow, who played older brother Wally, reports that Beaumont actually hated kids. "Hugh wanted out of the show after the second season," Dow told the Toronto Sun. "He thought he should be doing films and things."


My father was a skinny, asthmatic, and eager-to-please little boy, not the tough guy his hard-living Irish father had wanted. My dad lost his mother at age three and later developed a severe stuttering problem, perhaps as a result of his father's disapproval. My father's adult vocabulary was outstanding, due to his need for alternate words when faltering over difficult consonants like B or D. The stuttering grew worse over the years, with one exception: after downing a few whiskeys, my father could sing like an angel. His Irish tenor became legendary in local taverns, and by the time I entered the scene my father was spending every evening visiting the bars. Most nights he would stumble back drunk around midnight; some nights he was so drunk he would stumble through a neighbor's back door, thinking he was home. As a boy, I coped with the family's embarrassment by staying glued to the television. I desperately wanted someone like Hugh Beaumont to be my father, or maybe Robert Young. Hugh Brannum, though, would have been my first choice. Brannum played Mr. Green Jeans on Captain Kangaroo, and I remember him as being kind, funny, and extremely reliable.


Kitten, the youngest daughter on Father Knows Best, was played by Lauren Chapin. Chapin's father molested her, and her mother was a severe alcoholic. After the show ended in 1960, Chapin's life came apart. At age sixteen, she married an auto mechanic. At age eighteen, she became addicted to heroin and began working as a prostitute.


Wolf fathers spend the daylight hours away from the home hunting but return every evening. The wolf cubs, five or six to a litter, rush out of the den when they hear their father approaching and fling themselves at him, leaping up to his face. The father backs up a few feet and disgorges food for them, in small, separate piles.


The female emperor penguin "catches the egg with her wings before it touches the ice," Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson writes in his book The Emperor's Embrace. She then places it on her feet, to keep it from contact with the frozen ground. At this point, both penguins will sing in unison, staring at the egg. Eventually, the male penguin will use his beak to lift the egg onto the surface of his own feet, where it remains until hatching. Not only does the male penguin endure the inconvenience of walking around with an egg balanced on his feet for months but he also will not eat for the duration.


In 1979, Lauren Chapin, the troubled actress who played Kitten, had a religious conversion. She credits her belief in Jesus with saving her life. After his television career ended, Methodist minister Hugh Beaumont became a Christmas-tree farmer.


In an episode titled "Beaver's Freckles," the Beaver says that Ward had "a hittin' father," but little else is ever revealed about Ward's fictional family. Despite Wally's constant warning-"Boy, Beav, when Dad finds out, he's gonna clobber ya!"-Ward does not follow his own father's example and never hits his sons on the show. This is an excellent example of xenogenesis.


(zen'u-jen'v-sis), n. Biol. 1. heterogenesis 2. the supposed generation of offspring completely and permanently different from the parent. Believing in xenogenesis, I changed my mind about having children about four years after rejecting my wife's first suggestion of the idea.


The Y chromosome of the father determines a child's gender, and is unique, because its genetic code remains relatively unchanged as it passes from father to son. The DNA in other chromosomes, however, is more likely to get mixed between generations, in a process called recombination. What this means, apparently, is that boys have a higher likelihood of inheriting their ancestral traits.


Internet chatrooms and discussion lists repeatedly recycle the news that the actor who played Mr. Green Jeans was the father of musician Frank Zappa. But, in fact, Hugh Brannum had only one son, and he was neither Frank Zappa nor this author. Sometimes, though, I still wonder what it might have been like.

[© Dinty W. Moore, reprinted with permission]