Father’s Day is nearing. And I have been thinking about my own father, back when I was young.


He was cool, my dad. He could belch like thunder. He could take a blade of grass, and holding it in some secret way between his thumbs and blowing into cupped hands, create his screeching “peacock mating call” whistle that could be heard for blocks. To me, he was Captain America—human, yet somehow more.


He was funny and smart, strong but sensitive. Watching him interact with his friends always gave me a warm feeling of pride, because I saw him as a balanced blend of things: intelligent but humble, as interested in things scientific and artistic as he was in duck hunting and sports, comfortable with all sorts of different personalities.


I can feel and see him in myself now—the way I use humor to disarm people, my tendency to be goofy one moment and serious the next, my external ease with people from all walks of life. He taught me that there is nothing mutually exclusive about appreciating fancy big city dining one meal and good barbecue the next. I was never more proud than when he and I would sit together on a Sunday afternoon, watching football on TV, eating sardines and Vienna sausages and saltine crackers. It took me a while to get used to the sardines, but Dad loved them and I was determined to love them, too. It was a very special time, downstairs in the den, just the two of us, eating guy food and talking guy talk. Those were good days, there together, the burnished gold shadows of fall coming through the windows, me and my dad, Big Jim and Little Jim, laughing and eating sardines.


One day he took me to get a flat-top hair cut, just like his, at Tater’s Barber Shop on the Court Square. We sat side by side in the only two barber chairs in our small Tennessee town, the sun streaming in, the smell of soap and blue antiseptic and cigar smoke making me feel very important.


“How ‘bout the full treatment, Tater?” Dad said. “For both of us.” My chest swelled as I had my first “shave”—big, bald Tater wrapping steaming hot towels over my face, then the warm creamy lather, masterfully whisking it away with the dull side of a straight razor.


Then, red-faced and reborn, I marveled as the buzzing thing in his hand transformed me into a small version of my father. Soon the two of us had short hair sticking straight up, gooey with Butch Wax.


When we were done, Dad picked me up and held our faces close together in front of the mirror. I felt proud beyond words.

Never Angry?


I remember so many things about my father. But, oddly, I don’t recall his ever being angry. He could get frustrated, of course. And his booming voice would immediately throttle my sisters and me, and make us obey. But I never saw him truly angry, as if he had lost control. Or sad, for that matter. And we rarely if ever had any sort of serious father-son talk about things. He seemed uncomfortable and ill-equipped to enter into anything intimate.


I don’t know if anger and intimacy and sadness were emotions that had been forbidden him since childhood, or if over time it had become something he forbade himself. Maybe it was a part of him he just never let us see. I realize now that in many ways I did not know him. There was a secret silence separating us. I’m not at all sure what some of my father’s dreams were back then. But I know that at least some of them never came true.