Transcript

26:

Father's Day '96
Transcript

Originally aired 06.14.1996

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Full audio: http://tal.fm/26

Act One.

Ira Glass

OK, so Dad, so you have the script.

Barry Glass

I have the script. From WBEZ Chicago it's This American Life, the Father's Day edition.

Ira Glass

Dad, you are such a pro.

Barry Glass

I haven't done this in 40 years. It brings back all kinds of memories.

Ira Glass

Now you better explain to our radio listeners in what context you actually sat in front of a radio microphone, Dad.

Barry Glass

Well, it was around 1955 or 1956 when I graduated from Maryland. Instead of getting an honest job, I went to work in radio.

Ira Glass

So here's a tape of what you sounded like back in 1956 on the radio.

Barry Glass

Oh, please don't play that tape.

Ira Glass

This is three years before I was born, and you're just a kid in this recording. You are 23 years old.

Barry Glass

Do personal problems and worries have you down? Are you disturbed by business problems, marriage problems, or emotional problems? See Mrs. K., reader and advisor. Mrs. K., formerly of Europe, gives you a reading and answers all your questions for just $1 and you'll feel much better.

Ira Glass

Dad, how could somebody who's charging $1 for a reading even afford to buy a radio ad?

Barry Glass

Well, look, she's been to Europe. She got her education there, so they must have taught her something over there.

Ira Glass

Now at some point, you gave up your career-- your burgeoning career in radio-- really before it took off the ground and that was because?

Barry Glass

It was nothing important. It was something called making a living.

Ira Glass

Right. And so now you're a certified public accountant living in Baltimore.

Barry Glass

Right.

Ira Glass

Well, let me say this. Let me give a little explanation that we try to give each show for new listeners. Each week on our program we document stories of life in these United States using all the tools of radio storytelling, documentaries, monologues, found tapes, anything we can think of. And today for Father's Day my co-host will be my own father, Barry Glass, certified public accountant.

Barry Glass

And it's a real kick to do this.

Ira Glass

I know. This is our little Father's Day adventure together.

Barry Glass

You could have bought me a tie.

Ira Glass

Dad, why don't you read the billboard.

Barry Glass

Our program today will have four acts. Act One, Sandra Tsing Loh finds out that the world sees her father very differently from the way she sees him. Act Two, Dad's Music. We have a story from writer Sherman Alexie. Act Three, The Moment Dad Left. Act Four, Reconciling With Dad, a story from playwright Beau O'Reilly.

Act Two.

Ira Glass

So Dad, take us into Act One, will you please?

Barry Glass

Act One, How the World Sees Your Father.

Ira Glass

So, Dad, our first story today is from Los Angeles. It's from Sandra Tsing Loh as you said at the beginning of the show in the billboard. When she was growing up, her father was not a fun dad. He himself had been orphaned in Shanghai when he was twelve. He was raised in poverty, and because of that he was just this-- penny pincher doesn't even capture it. He was miserly. They didn't celebrate Christmas. He never took his children to Disneyland even though it was less than an hour away from their home. There were no real vacations.

Sandra tells the story. Once she bought a book of Charlie Brown comics for $1 at a book fair, and her father threw it across the room furious at how she had wasted money. He was really strict. But as Sandra found out recently, not everyone in the world sees her father the way she does.

Sandra Tsing Loh

There's a kind of news that you're never prepared for, and here last week was mine. A friend told me that, incredibly, a local grunge band had composed a rock anthem about my dad and was performing it to great response in Malibu area clubs.

The group in question was called Boy Hits Car and the song, a wailing rock cri de coeur powered by Pearl Jam-like riffs, was in fact called "Mr. Loh." The actual cover of the Boy Hits Car demo tape was a grainily xeroxed photo of a tiny, wizened 76-year-old Chinese man, grinning on a Malibu beach in tattered swim trunks, which was indeed my father. I have to admit, however, that the Mr. Loh in the song was not one I was familiar with.

As seen through the eyes of lifeguard slash singer Craig Rondell, Mr. Loh is a mystical dreamy figure who swims naked among the dolphins. In the duality that characterizes certain types of rock poetry-- I'm reminded of The Doors-- the natural dance Mr. Loh does on the beach brings the listener comfort while at the same time poses a profound spiritual challenge.

[MUSIC - "MR. LOH" BY BOY HITS CAR] Mr. Loh's not afraid to be naked, but some men fall from grace. They're not secure with themselves. He doesn't measure people by things we consider important. Can't seem to comprehend today, so he swims away.

My first instinct was that this had to be a sick Freudian joke one of my siblings was playing on me, as in, what is the most wildly unlikely, most fraught with amazing ironies, most wacky '60s Peter Sellers film thing you can imagine could happen to our family. But, no. My father was these Malibu surfers' Eggman. He was their Walrus. I decided to meet them.

Craig Rondell, bass player Scott Menville, and guitarist Louis Lenard were all too happy to come into a studio and explain how their song came to be.

Craig Rondell

It was one day at the beach and there was about five of us just sitting in the sand, just talking. Mr. Loh came casually walking up, and he was standing there for just maybe three seconds without saying anything. And we were kind of like OK.

And then he said, you're all victims of modern technology. I started thinking, wow, that's deep, and then he just started to talk to us. He would sing. Throughout the conversation he would start singing, and so that's where the song-- the premise-- kind of came from.

[MUSIC -- "MR. LOH" BY BOY HITS CAR] Mr. Loh, will you speak to me. You're the only one I understand. Mr. Loh, will you sing to me. You're the only one who makes sense.

Sandra Tsing Loh

Do you remember when you first saw my father? Go ahead, Scott.

Scott Menville

I remember-- these guys probably have earlier memories-- but it was in 1978 after the big fire came. Our house burned down and we moved to Malibu West, and I remember seeing Mr. Loh stretching naked, and then taking a shower outside naked.

Sandra Tsing Loh

At the beach.

Scott Menville

At the beach. And I thought it was kind of like funny but like not in a bad way. I thought it was interesting. That was my first memory.

Sandra Tsing Loh

OK.

Louis Lenard

I too have similar memories. I mean, I've been at that beach in Malibu West since I was in diapers. Five, six, seven, eight years old, I was down there and I'd notice him doing somersaults in the sand or doing headstands against the wall, naked as well.

Sandra Tsing Loh

Talking to these guys, it suddenly occurred to me who my dad really is. You know how every neighborhood has its eccentric, the cat lady, the parrot man, the guy with the umbrella hat and recycling cart who yells? Well, in my southern Californian hometown, Malibu West, my dad is that person. It's an unsettling thing to realize about one of your own parents.

Scott Menville

And behind Mr. Loh's back, he was known as the Naked Handstand Man. For years I didn't even know his name. I just thought he was the Naked Handstand Man.

Craig Rondell

You're going to have to do the song.

Sandra Tsing Loh

So a song. What do you mean, the song?

Craig Rondell

Scott wrote another-- I'm going to put him on the spot.

Sandra Tsing Loh

Wait. There's a Naked Handstand Man song?

Yes, of course, there's a Naked Handstand Man song. Unbelievably, the Mr. Loh song they'd recorded was only the latest in a decade long aesthetic exploration of my father on the part of Boy Hits Car bassist Scott Menville.

Scott Menville

Ok, it was like, I was walking down the beach one day. I happened to turn and look his way. There stood a man that we all know, and his name is Mr. Loh. He stood right there with his head in the sand. He's the Naked Handstand Man. Mr. Loh. Mr. Loh. Like something like that, I mean, we were like twelve.

Sandra Tsing Loh

I invited my father to join me and the band in the studio. He doesn't really see all the fuss about his nakedness.

Mr. Loh

[UNINTELLIGIBLE] at Stanford University, which I went there, too, in the men's swimming pool, everybody was naked, because that's the most hygienic, most clean thing to do, you see.

Sandra Tsing Loh

But if some young people want to see his nakedness as a symbol of something more important, well, my father is happy to be of service.

Mr. Loh

The way I discovered the tape was this. One day maybe a couple months ago, I hitchhiked, and a couple young men pick me up. They said, Mr. Loh, we hear that tape about you. Oh, I say, those rascals. They did tape. They didn't tell me.

And it's very nice. I feel very happy, very honored , you know. Probably if they don't write any song about me, probably nobody will ever write about me. So this is my life chance.

Sandra Tsing Loh

Of course, that's not true, because I've made my career writing about you.

Mr. Loh

Yeah, but not song, you see. You see, you're on the writing so I appreciate that, too. But I like something different. That's very precious for me, you see.

Sandra Tsing Loh

Of course, with all due respect to the members of Boy Hits Car, in my opinion, my father's the least likely candidate to become a symbol of individual freedom, of spiritual introspection, of the healing powers of nature. After all, this is a man who believed all three of his children should get Ph.D.s in engineering or else they would starve in the street. Then again, all these things may be a matter of personal interpretation.

Sandra Tsing Loh

So you see my father's nakedness as kind of a rebellion of some sort?

Scott Menville

No, not actually. He's being natural.

Louis Lenard

I feel that he has the ability to go beyond the general stereotype that America holds in that regard, and it's free.

Mr. Loh

Contact with nature, now, that's very important. Now in this society, you're so busy, busy, busy, busy, busy. Not much time to talk to yourself or talk to the nature.

Sandra Tsing Loh

Nature. But did you-- I'm just trying to remember as kids, if you encouraged us to do that.

Mr. Loh

Oh, yes.

Sandra Tsing Loh

OK, when?

Mr. Loh

We did many things. We always go along the a Beach to the garbage can to collect those aluminum cans. And we'd compete with [UNINTELLIGIBLE] family. We have to go one step ahead.

Sandra Tsing Loh

Not to put too fine a point on it, but a competition to collect cans for spare change is not the sort of communing with nature, say, Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson extolled, which brings me to another point. I have to say there is something sort of poignant about sitting in a room full of young people who are hanging on to my father's every word. He's like an odd little guru, they his apostles. God knows he never got that from my sister, brother, or me. At one point for reasons too complicated to explain here, my father sang the boys in the band a Chinese folk song that he had translated into French.

Mr. Loh

[SINGING IN FRENCH]

Sandra Tsing Loh

Were you crying?

Scott Menville

I must say that tears were coming.

Sandra Tsing Loh

Why? Why?

Scott Menville

That was just beautiful. That was just an unhindered true expression of something that I just felt that was totally genuine. It just gave me the chills.

Mr. Loh

Should I sing another one?

Sandra Tsing Loh

Why not? Sing another one. If this makes my father happy, well, then I guess I'll try to be happy for him.

[MUSIC -- "MR. LOH" BY BOY HITS CAR] Mr. Loh he finds the water and seems to wash his place off as the dolphins jump and play. He speaks to us in the sand. Do you know the meaning of life or are you just a simple man? Then he swims away.

Ira Glass

Dad, do you have the script for the back end?

Barry Glass

Yeah, I have it.

Ira Glass

OK, why don't you give the back end?

Barry Glass

Sandra Tsing Loh is a writer, performer, composer, and columnist for Buzz Magazine in Los Angeles. She's the author of the book, Depth Takes A Holiday: Essays From Lesser Los Angeles. She tells stories about her father in a one woman show called, Aliens in America. It opens June 26 at Second Stage in New York City.

Ira Glass

Dad, I am so glad we're doing this. Hey, Dad, you know, one of the things that you often complain to me about stories that you hear on public radio is that they're too long. How are we doing so far?

Barry Glass

How long was that story in total?

Ira Glass

The total story is about eleven minutes.

Barry Glass

That's a pretty long piece.

Ira Glass

Too long do you think?

Barry Glass

Yeah, I think it's too long.

Ira Glass

Did your interest flag?

Barry Glass

No, my interest didn't slow down. However, if I were listening to the show at home with other distractions around, it might lag off a little bit.

Act Three.

Ira Glass

Dad, it's time to open up Act Two.

Barry Glass

Act Two, Father's Music.

Ira Glass

Now, Dad for this act I asked you to bring in an example of the kinds of music that you, my father, used to play around the house when I was a kid, because you had music going whenever you were home on weekends.

Barry Glass

Absolutely.

Ira Glass

OK. So what did you bring in?

Barry Glass

Well, I brought three Frank Sinatra CDs.

Ira Glass

Right on. Can you just choose a song and let's pop that on?

Barry Glass

Sure.

Ira Glass

What have you got?

Barry Glass

Probably my favorite Frank Sinatra song, "Lady is a Tramp."

Ira Glass

Why is this your favorite?

Barry Glass

I don't know. I just like the rhythm. I like Frank Sinatra's phrasing.

Ira Glass

Oh, Dad, this really swings.

[MUSIC -- "LADY IS A TRAMP" BY FRANK SINATRA]

Barry Glass

Ira, do you remember the 60th birthday party--

Ira Glass

Your 60th birthday party, of course.

Barry Glass

--where we had the Frank Sinatra impersonator?

Ira Glass

Sure.

Barry Glass

He sang this there. Did a pretty good job, too. What do you think? Pretty good song?

Ira Glass

It's a great song. This next story that we're going to is by a writer named Sherman Alexie, who lives out on the West Coast. And among other things, it's about his father and his father's favorite song. And Dad, his father is, I guess, a bit younger than you.

Barry Glass

So it's not "Lady is a Tramp" or anything like that.

Ira Glass

No, this story is called, Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play "The Star Spangled Banner " at Woodstock.

Sherman Alexie

During the '60s my father was the perfect hippie since all the hippies were trying to be Indians anyway. But because of that, my father was always asking me, how does anybody recognize when an Indian's trying to make a social statement? But there's proof. There's evidence.

Back during the Vietnam War, my father was at one of those demonstrations against it, you know. Yeah, there's this photograph of my father demonstrating in Spokane during that Vietnam War. And the photograph made it on to the wire service and was reprinted in newspapers throughout the country. It even made it on the cover of TIME Magazine.

And in this photograph my father's wearing bell bottoms and this flowered shirt, and he's got red peace symbols splashed on his cheeks like war paint, and he's looking like a hippie or an Indian. Yeah, and in his hands he's holding this M-16 rifle, and the photograph captures him in that moment just before he proceeds to beat the crap out of the National Guard private lying prone at his feet. A fellow demonstrator holds a sign that is just barely visible over my father's left shoulder. It read, make love, not war.

That photographer won a Pulitzer Prize, and editors across the country had a lot of fun creating captions and headlines. I've read a lot of them collected in my father's scrapbook, but my favorite was run in the Seattle Times. The caption under the photograph read, demonstrator goes to war for peace.

Anyways, my father was arrested, but he got lucky. At first they charged him with attempted murder, but they plea bargained that down to assault with a deadly weapon, and then they plea bargained that down to being Indian in the 20th century. He got two years and spent them in Walla Walla State Penitentiary, you know.

My father made it through those two years in prison, you know, and never got into any serious trouble, somehow avoided rape, and got out of prison just in time to hitchhike to Woodstock to watch Jimi Hendrix play "The Star Spangled Banner." After all the [bleep] I'd been through, my father said, I figured Jimi must've known I was there in the crowd to play something like that.

20 years later, my father played his Jimi Hendrix tape until it wore down. Over and over the house filled with the rocket's red glare and the bombs bursting in air. He'd sit by the stereo with a cooler of beer beside him, and cry, laugh, call me over, and hold me tight in his arms, his bad breath and body odor covering me like a blanket.

Jimi Hendrix and my father became drinking buddies. Jimi Hendrix waited for my father to come home after a long night of drinking, and here's how the ceremony'd work. I would lie awake all night and listen for the sounds of my father's pickup. And when I heard it, I'd run downstairs, turn on the record player, and Jimi Hendrix would break into "The Star Spangled Banner" just as my father walked in the door. He'd salute, walk over to the table, sit down, and start drinking some more, or I'd walk over there, lay down at his feet, and he'd pass out on the table. I'd fall asleep at his feet and we'd dream the same dreams.

And then when he woke up in the morning he'd feel so guilty he'd tell me stories. He talked about how he met my mother, you know. He'd say, yeah, me and your uncle Raymond were sitting in the Pow Wow Tavern when your mother came walking in. And she was real tall, about six feet tall, you know, just beautiful. And your Uncle Raymond turned to me and said, she's real tall, ain't it? And I said, yeah. And your Uncle Raymond said, what tribe do you think she is? And I said, Amazon. And your Uncle Raymond leaned in real close to me and said, their reservation's in Montana, isn't it?

Your mother and I ended out that night sitting on the hood of a '65 Malibu, both smoking cigarettes and coughing away. Neither of us smoked but we both thought the other one did.

Somehow my father's memories of my mother grew more beautiful as their relationship became more hostile. By the time the divorce was final, my mother was quite possibly the most beautiful woman who ever lived. Your father was always half crazy, my mother told me more than once, and the other half was on medication.

Yeah, one night my father and I were driving home in a blizzard after a basketball game, you know, listening to the radio. We didn't talk much. And we heard this DJ on the radio. Hello, out there, folks. This is Big Bill Baggins with the late night classic show on KROC 97.2 on your FM dial. We have a request here from Betty in Teco. She wants to hear Jimi Hendrix's version of "The Star Spangled Banner" recorded live at Woodstock.

My father smiled, turned the volume up, and we rode down the highway while Jimi led the way like a snowplow. Until that night, I'd always been neutral about Jimi Hendrix. But in that near blizzard with my father at the wheel, with the nervous silence caused by the dangerous roads and Jimi's guitar, there seemed to be more to all that music. That reverberation came to mean something to me, you know, something specific, something Indian.

You know, I said to my father, my generation of Indian boys ain't never had no real war to fight. The first Indians had Custer to fight. My great-grandfather had World War One. My grandfather had World War Two. You had Vietnam. All I had was video games. My father laughed for a long time, nearly drove off the road into the snowy fields.

We kept driving through the snow and talked about war and peace. Those are the kind of conversations that Jimi Hendrix forced us to have. I guess every song has a special meaning for someone somewhere. I mean, Elvis Presley is still showing up in 7-11 stores across the country even though he's been dead for years. So I figure music just might be the most important thing there is. Music turned my father into a reservation philosopher. Music, a powerful medicine.

You know, my father told me once, I remember the first time your mother and I danced. We were in this cowboy bar. We were the only real cowboys despite the fact that we're Indians. We danced to a Hank Williams song. You know, Hank Williams was a Spokane Indian. Danced to that real sad one, you know, that I'm so lonesome I could cry, except your mother and I weren't lonesome or crying. We just shuffled along and fell right god damn down in love.

Hank Williams and Jimi Hendrix don't have much in common, I said. Hell, yes, they do. They knew all about broken hearts, my father said. You sound like a bad movie, I said. Yeah, well, that's how it is. You kids today don't know [BLEEP] about romance, don't know [BLEEP] about music either, especially you Indian kids. You've all been spoiled by those drums. You've been hearing them so long you think that's all you need. Hell, son, even an Indian needs a piano, a guitar, a saxophone now and then. My father played in a band in high school. He was the drummer. I guess he had burned out on those. Now he was like the universal defender of the guitar.

A few years back my father packed up the family and the three of us drove to Seattle to visit Jimi Hendrix's grave. We had our photograph taken lying down next to that grave. There isn't a gravestone there, just one of those flat markers. That's all that's left of Jimi Hendrix. He was 28 when he died. That's younger than Jesus Christ when he died, younger than my father as he stood over the grave. Only the good die young, my father said. Nah, my mother said, only the crazy people choke to death on their own vomit. Why you talking about my hero that way, my father asked. [BLEEP], my mother said, old Jesse Wild choked to death on his own vomit, and he ain't anybody's hero. I stood back and watched my parents argue. I was used to those battles.

After a while, after too much fighting, and too many angry words had been exchanged, my father went out and bought a motorcycle, a big Harley Davidson. He left the house often to ride that thing for hours, sometimes for days. He even strapped an old cassette player to the gas tank so he could listen to music.

With that bike, my father learned something new about running away. He stopped talking so much, stopped drinking so much. He didn't do much of anything except ride that bike and listen to Jimi. Then one night my father wrecked his bike on Devil's Gap Road and ended up in the hospital for two months, you know. Ended up in this big surgery thing. Broke his legs, cracked his ribs, and punctured a lung. He lacerated his kidney, really hit his head. And the doctor said he could have died easily. They were kind of surprised he made it through surgery.

And my father laid there in that coma for two months, and my mother went there every day, you know. And one day my mother was there holding my father's hand, you know. And even though the doctor said if my father woke up, he might be somebody different, he might be somebody new, he might be a vegetable, my mother said on that day when she was holding my father's hand with those heart machines sounding like a drum and my father's fingers started beating along, you know, with those heart machines sounding like a drum, my mother said I knew it was your father. I knew it was him, because he was way off rhythm.

Yeah. Yeah, and when my father finally had the strength to sit up and talk, hold conversations and tell stories, he called for me. Victor, he said, stick with four wheels. He had to learn how to walk again, and when he did, he walked out of that hospital, forgot his advice to me, and got himself a new motorcycle, you know, and he ended up leaving us completely, you know. And then I'd get postcards from Browning, Montana, and Poplar, Montana, and South Dakota. For a while I got postcards nearly every week from him. Then it was once a month. Then it was on Christmas and my birthday. And then we didn't hear from him at all.

My mother did her best to explain it all to me. Was it because of Jimi Hendrix, I asked her. Part of it, yeah, she said. This might be the only marriage broken up by a dead guitar player. There's a first time for everything, isn't it? I guess, she said. Your father just likes being alone more than he likes being with other people. Even me and you.

And then on the night I missed my father most when I lay in bed and cried with that photograph of him beating that National Guard private in my hands, I imagined his motorcycle pulling up outside. I knew I was dreaming and all, but I let it be real for a moment. Victor, my father yelled, let's go for a ride. I'll be right down, I said. I need to get my coat. I rushed around the house, pulled my shoes and socks on, struggled into my coat, and ran outside to find an empty driveway.

It was so quiet. A reservation kind of quiet where you can hear somebody drinking whiskey on the rocks three miles away. I stood on the porch all night long and imagined I heard motorcycles and guitars until the sun rose so bright that I knew it was time to go back inside to my mother. She came outside, took me back inside, made us both breakfast, and we ate until we were full.

Barry Glass

Sherman Alexie lives in Seattle. This story comes from his book of stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven.

Ira Glass

Hey, Dad, it's time for us to give stations a chance to do the local ID breaks and local promos, so I think you have a piece of copy there in front of you.

Barry Glass

I do. Coming up, one father leaves, another one returns, in a minute when our program continues.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Our special Father's Day edition. And co-hosting with me for this day is my own father, Barry Glass, now a certified public accountant in Baltimore, but once upon a time, back in his early 20s, a DJ.

Barry Glass

Ira, you also said you wanted a song dealing with fathers.

Ira Glass

That's right. Did you bring in a song dealing with fathers?

Barry Glass

I did.

Ira Glass

What have we got?

Barry Glass

It's by somebody that you may have never heard of, because you're too young. Maybe you have. Eddie Fisher.

Ira Glass

The only way that I know who Eddie Fisher is-- wasn't he one of Elizabeth Taylor's husbands?

Barry Glass

That's right. That's right.

Ira Glass

He was the one before the guy who she did Cleopatra with.

Barry Glass

Right.

Ira Glass

Is that right?

Barry Glass

That's right.

Ira Glass

How very sad for Eddie Fisher that this is all that I would know. Here I am a person in my mid-30s, an educated person, that is all I would know about him.

Barry Glass

Richard Burton was married to Elizabeth Taylor after Eddie Fisher. The name of the song is "Oh My Papa."

[MUSIC - "OH MY PAPA" BY EDDIE FISHER]

Ira Glass

Dad, it's like Jewish mariachi music.

Barry Glass

Is that on point for Father's Day?

Ira Glass

You couldn't get more on point. Actually one of our producers--

Barry Glass

You go around singing that about your father?

Ira Glass

I will now, Dad. I promise. At least for the day, at least for Father's Day. Do you want me to do it now?

Barry Glass

No, that's OK.

Ira Glass

No, I'm going to do it. I'm going to do it. No, no, I'm going to do it.

Barry Glass

I've heard you sing, Ira.

Ira Glass

You can't stop me. When he would take me on his knee and with a smile he'd change my tears to laughter. Oh my Papa. Dad, this is going out to you. To me he was so wonderful.

Barry Glass

Ira, my heart is breaking.

Act Four.

Barry Glass

We're now at Act Three, The Moment Dad Left.

Ira Glass

In this act, we have a story from Jay Allison. Jay Allison is this radio producer that all the people who kind of work behind the scenes in public radio, we all know him. He just won the biggest award in public radio, the Edward R. Murrow Award. He does these really unusual little stories.

He lives in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, Cape Cod, and one of his neighbors is a guy named Dan Robb. And Dan Robb is a writer and a teacher and a carpenter. And Jay and Dan had an idea for a little radio experiment.

Dan's father left his family when Dan was a little kid, just, I think, three or four years old. And Dan remembered that night vividly, or he thought he did, but he never discussed this with his parents. So, Dad, Jay encouraged Dan to talk to his parents about this on tape, and I'm going to play you the story they put together, OK?

Barry Glass

Yeah, I'd like to hear it.

Dan Robb

I remember clearly the morning they told me they were separating. I was three and they leaned over my bed, which was narrow, and told me this. Something like, don't think this changes anything, but dad's moving out. And what I remember is telling them that it was not OK.

Then later that day, I remember watching my father's back as he walked down the stairs outside the house. They were cement and had a black wrought iron banister running up both sides, and he was walking down the steps away from me. He had a brown tweed jacket on and brown leather shoes, and he was carrying two brown suitcases. He put them in his Jeep back when they still said Willys on the side, and he drove away.

Dan's Mom

The steps were cement steps pretty steep and about three flights, three little flights, three steps and then a landing and three steps down. And there was something crooked about them. One of the steps sort of went off at an angle. There was an iron railing along the way up, very pretty.

Dan Robb

Now, if I looked out the window and watched Dad packing his car and then driving away, at that time what kind of a car would it have been?

Dan's Mom

Well, he had bought a little sports car, because his car was in the garage-- in the shop-- and he didn't want to wait until it was ready, which would have been two or three days later. He bought a little car so that he could leave right away. And he told me he was leaving on a trip across the country, because that's what he had to do in order to clear his mind and get his feet on the ground again. So he packed up and he got in this little sports car and took off.

Dan Robb

What kind of car was it?

Dan's Dad

It was a little Triumph, a little two-door. It was a neat little car, which I sort of got special for the trip. I just drove out West. I mean, I just wanted to get away from Pittsburgh and just sort of clear my head out, I thought. I remember telling Allison that when I got back I thought I would want to move out.

Dan's Mom

I had a lot of different feelings. I was angry that he'd done it. I was angry that he hadn't ever taken Dan and me-- you and me-- on a trip.

Dan Robb

And he was walking down the steps away from me. And he was carrying two brown suitcases. He put them in his Jeep back when they still said Willys on the side, and he drove away. A little while before he left that day, he knelt down in front of me and tightened my belt for me. I have a picture of that. His hands are big, bigger than mine will ever be. Farmer's hands or a ballplayer's hands. And he is cinching the belt gently tighter and saying something to me.

Dan's Dad

I mean, I feel bad about all of the sort of gaps when I wasn't there. And all of that time, I mean, once it's gone, it's gone. You can never get it back. And relationships in many ways are built of memories, and the more memories you have, the deeper the relationship. And if you're missing several years of memories, you know, that's hard.

Dan's Mom

Well, there's a snapshot of his doing your belt up for you when you were probably three or four. You were four when he left, weren't you?

Dan's Dad

I don't remember exactly what the season was. It had to have been fall, I think, because I remember taking a lot of pictures of you in the subsequent weeks when we'd get together and go to the parks and stuff. And it was all autumn shots.

Dan Robb

And he is cinching the belt gently tighter and saying something to me. I can't make out the words in the picture, which is black and white, and shows me standing there three years old in front of the big window that let the monochrome Pittsburgh light into the living room.

The light is stark as if all of the coal burned to smelt the steel in that city had burned the color out of the air. And it reflects off his hair, which is smooth with Vitalis, and shows his strong jaw and the depth of his dark eyes.

There was no abuse in that household, no harsh words that I could hear, just nothing. No father anymore, and my mother sobbing over the dishes in the sink.

Dan Robb

What do you think you would have done after he had packed up his car and left? What would have been your reaction that I might have observed?

Dan's Mom

Oh, you probably saw me sad and mournful, but then turning back to the house and trying to look cheerful. I also felt abandoned, and I felt that it was the end of marriage, the end of my hopes for marriage, the end of my hopes for a family for you and me. And he'd left us.

But I also felt, as he drove out of sight, well, thank goodness. What a sense of relief. I'm free of all that abuse and misunderstanding and bad feeling that had been going on for so long. I thought, well, at least I can be me now and not try to be something that somebody else was making me be.

Dan's Dad

The split up was my doing, and coming out of sort of a combination of my own immaturity, restlessness, dissatisfaction, inflated hopes and expectations. I guess I just felt that I'd never had any kind of freedom. Of course, I never really found freedom afterwards. You think, well, you're going to change your life and then, lo and behold, your life turns out to be about the same.

Dan Robb

I was three, and they leaned over my bed, which was narrow, and told me this. Don't think this changes anything but Dad's moving out. And what I remember is telling them that it was not OK.

Dan's Mom

I didn't want him to tell you first, and he didn't want me to tell you first, so we did it together. And I remember I knew it was a terrible blow for you.

Dan's Dad

I don't remember telling you with her. You were in bed, I remember. At least I have this picture in my mind. And in that little room at Maple Heights. And I came in and I started to say something like, Dan, I'm going to be leaving and whatever I was going to say, and you somehow knew what was coming.

Dan Robb

It was not OK.

Dan's Dad

And you said, I don't want to hear it, and put a pillow over your head, and didn't want to listen. And it was a wrenching moment. It really was. I've thought since then that actually when I walked out of your bedroom that night, that that was really a major turning point in my life. And I don't know to this day whether it was for good or ill.

Dan Robb

When my father left my bedroom, it was a turning point for me, too. It was the moment I moved outside the myth of the American family, left it, and became a part of something else, something with no affirming mythology to look forward to, and my restless memories of that day to look back on. I became a part of divorce, which is like the death of the family, and I turned down a path less well-marked, less well-lit, but I, unlike my father, no longer wonder if it was for good or for ill. It just is.

Dan Robb

OK, well, I think that's about it. This will be on the radio right before Father's Day. So I'd like to wish you a happy Father's Day.

Dan's Dad

Oh, OK. Thank you.

Dan Robb

You're welcome. And maybe we can make something good out of this.

Dan's Dad

Yeah.

Dan Robb

So thank you so much.

Dan's Dad

OK.

Dan Robb

All right. I love you.

Dan's Dad

Love you, man.

Dan Robb

OK. Talk to you soon.

Dan's Dad

Yeah. Bye.

Dan Robb

Bye.

Act 4.

Ira Glass

Hey, Dad.

Barry Glass

Yes, Ira.

Ira Glass

Do the next act open, please.

Barry Glass

Act Four, Reconciling With Dad.

Ira Glass

You know, this whole show is like go to reconciling with Dad. But you and I we don't need to reconcile.

Barry Glass

No, we don't.

Ira Glass

We don't. Well, Dad, this next story is about a father and son. The father was this pretty well known man here in Chicago named James D. O'Reilly. He was an actor here and a director from the 1960s through the 1980s.

He's one of these people who everybody knew. He was the artistic director of the Body Politic Theater and the Court Theater, which are two theaters here in town. And he wasn't the most reliable dad. And his son is a guy named Beau O'Reilly, who's a playwright and a local musician and stages a lot of theater here in town. And Beau has this story about his father, including a moment in their lives when they did reconcile in a way.

Bill O'reilly

When I was a little kid, five or six, my father would do these big variety shows, these musical revues for college theater groups. And I would often appear with him, playing the bad kid in town or the midget clown screaming the lines of "This Old Man" from the top of a step ladder. And at the show's end, we would rush first to the bar where my father knew all the girls' names, and then to the train station to catch the last train home.

And I would get very tense then and hot in my stomach like I was going to burn up and pass out. So we would often miss the last train home and have to spend the long hours until morning waiting in the train station, my father falling quickly asleep, his huge head thrown back on the train waiting room seat. It seemed to hang in an impossible odd angle from the rest of his body like the dot at the bottom of a question mark that knows it has to be there but hangs on and unattached.

And this scene-- my father drunk and snoring, a big question mark of a presence-- would be repeated numbers of times over the next 25 years. My father passed out at the family table on Christmas morning. My father nodding off behind the wheel. My father snoring through the still Latin mass. My father's head thrown back in the last row during my high school production of The Glass Menagerie.

But when he was awake, he was not totally present either. He was this silent brooding man home once a week for a family dinner. And I would sit up all night in that train station listening to the muted rumblings of the next morning's diesel engines and the fluttering of pigeons in the ceiling above, my father snoring made rusty and noisy by too much cigarettes and beer.

When I was 29, something changed between me and my father. I was 29 and very drunk most days, and I came home to Chicago to work for my father, I guess. I had rarely seen him in my alcoholic adulthood, his alcoholic adulthood having taken him away from the family circle years ago.

And when my father, he got me this job as a house manager and sometimes understudy at his theater on Lincoln Avenue. And he was warm and kind about it, I guess. This kindness was unusual. It was hard for me to recognize it. I didn't know whether it was kindness really or not. Maybe he just recognized something in my swaying walk and my overly bright loud way of speaking, a kindred alcoholic spirit.

We would from then on do our drinking together late nights at the pub next door to the theater, a pub where we could sit for hours, get a burger and a beer, a pub where my father ran a tab, and I was always on the tab. Now the pub tables were family long with my father always at the head and crowded with actors and confidantes all with one ear pointed at my father, hoping for a good joke from him, which usually came, or some word of praise which came rarer, but when delivered were always delivered with a flair and a passion.

These tables would start full, full of people and huge pints of black Guinness and brown beer, but by one or two in the morning, they would be empty except for my father and I. Me talking loud and feverish now, lovers and women and broken hearts and politics and plays and broken hearts and lost lovers and lost women and broken hearts. And me doing most of the talking, my father nodding and grimacing and looking appropriately sad. But his eyes looking away always, scanning the bodies of the young women who moved about in the pub's waning hours.

Sometimes these women stopped by the table to speak to my father, him finding sly ways to kiss and touch and pinch them, locking their eyes with his as if his eyes were gift enough to allow him his inappropriate touching. The pub would close with us still in it. The tables having adopted the chairs and now holding them piggyback, and my father would sign his tab with a flourish, and we would part company, Me often watching him walk slowly up Lincoln Avenue, a large man with a lordly old-fashioned head, always aware that he was like something out of Shakespeare or O'Neil. He might be swaying, but swaying with a charm and a dignity.

The further my father got up the street, the more real he felt to me. There. There. That was the father I knew, half a courtyard away under the hot lights doing Shakespeare's Lear or Brecht's Galileo, and I would stand on Lincoln Avenue crying, the crying of a 29-year-old drunken baby whose father is moving away, always moving away, and that baby knows he's better off having Dad go.

I learned a lot watching my father's theater that year, wonderful productions of The Playboy of the Western World and Ronald Harwood's The Dresser, Brian Friel's Translations. My father's performances were always in the center of the plays, and I was the house manager.

I was skittish in a baggy suit and non-matching vintage ties, greeting the audience at the door and selling them coffee, but mostly watching the performances night after night. My understudy assignment was not something any of us ever expected to use, but one week here it comes. An actor could not appear, and I was to play my father's tortured, crippled son.

It was an Irish play about an Irish father and his Irish sons, and I was an Irish son, never mind that I had an Irish brogue like Ringo Starr's Liverpool, and I'd never appeared on a professional stage. There would be one rehearsal, my father not even on stage but seated in the audience, chain smoking, hung over, barking orders, orders that moved my body hot and frightened clumsily around the stage, me mumbling the lines and standing in all the wrong places.

And the night of the performance I was pacing and shaking in the hall outside of the green room where my father and the rest of the cast were making up and preparing to perform. I could hear them talking, but they couldn't see me at all. They didn't know I was there, and one of the actors said, with a good actor's projection and precise actor's diction, get ready for amateur night. What did you say? My father said it quietly but with force. Get ready for amateur night. Well, he'll be fine. You worry about yourself. Prick.

Now this is the only time I ever heard my father defend me, and I now realize the significance of that, but at the time I was very angry. And it was the anger that burned the fear out of me like a fog on a new hot summer Sunday, and I was fine when I hit the stage. I was understudy good enough. And when I played to my father, his eyes a deep well into the heart of Brian Friel's Translations, I actually enjoyed myself. There were moments of real emotion between us. And on the stage, my father was really there, like I could reach out and touch him, and he would really be there.

And when the lights came down, I stumbled off stage, tripping and falling in the dark. My father was waiting, his big, noble actor head shaggy with sweat, his arms open to receive me. We, hugging, missed the curtain call. Probable first for my father. He was not one to miss a curtain call.

A few months later, my father fired me during his production of The Dresser by Ronald Harwood, my father playing Sir, a bullying, tyrannical, Shakespearean actor Sir. My father was not one to shrink from typecasting. And one of my assignments was to meet him in the lobby, holding a towel which he would use to wipe the makeup and sweat from his face before returning to the stage for the curtain call.

I wasn't there with the towel. I had wandered off to the pub for a pint before the show ended. The truth be told, there were probably many nights when I wasn't there. I was off crying into the phone, running up the long distance phone bill for the theater, or selling dope out of the theater concession stand to my friends. I was 29 and drunk most of the time, and my father, he recognized me for what I was.

I was becoming very much like him in my 29th year, and perhaps he was embarrassed and uncomfortable having to see himself in me every day. He was fired soon after from his theater on Lincoln Avenue, and we continued to meet in the pub night after night for many months.

Barry Glass

Beau O'Reilly is a Chicago playwright. His show The Third Degrees of J. O. Breeze, is running in Chicago until the end of June. He is also performing in a play called The Trips by Jenny Magnus at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago.

Credits.

Ira Glass

So, Dad, you're sitting there in a studio in Baltimore. I'm here in Chicago. Do you have our credits?

Barry Glass

I do have your credits.

Ira Glass

All right.

Barry Glass

Our program was produced today by Alix Spiegel and Ira Glass with Peter Clowney, Nancy Updike, and Dolores Wilber. Our contributing editors are Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, and the fabulous Margy Rochlin.

Ira Glass

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Barry Glass

Music help today from Chicago's John Connors. The story about Dan Robb's father leaving comes from Jay Allison's ongoing series, Life Stories, which is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Ira Glass

If you would like a copy of this program, it is only $10. You can call WBEZ 312-832-3380.

Barry Glass

That's 312-832-3380.

Ira Glass

That was so smooth. Or you can email the program. All emails get a response, and if you want to reach my dad, we'll help put you in contact with him, too. The email address, radio@well.com.

Barry Glass

[FUNDING CREDITS]

Ira Glass

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia. I'm Ira Glass.

Barry Glass

And I'm Barry Glass.

Ira Glass

Back next week with more stories of This American Life. Until then, don't drive like my father.

Barry Glass

Don't drive like my son.