Because of my father, my very first musical memory, before Tantum Ergo or Christmas carols, is this tune:
Dad loved Johnny Cash, and so did I. And this song always reminded me of my dad. I knew that he worked “on the line”, ie, the assembly line at the GM plant. I always thought that when Dad sang “because you’re mine I walk the line” that he was singing about my mom, or maybe all of us.
For a long time, that was about all we had in common. I came of age in the late 60s and early 70s. It was a rough time, and we were in the thick of it. We argued about the war, we argued about the draft, we argued about religion, we argued about the length of my hair. But we didn’t argue about Johnny Cash, and one of the few moments of peace was watching the Johnny Cash variety show on TV.
The clash was almost inevitable. I, being young, was clueless about understanding my dad. As I grew older I came to see just how hard that time must have been on him.
My father grew up poor, farming in northern Michigan. He wasn’t as poor as my mom, who was raised another hundred miles to the north, only 20 miles south of the Straits of Mackinaw, which separate the lower and the upper peninsulas. Soil was even thinner there, and the growing season shorter, but it wasn’t exactly Eden where dad lived. As the eldest son, he got stuck with a lot of the really hard work, and developed a distaste for working so hard for so little.
My dad was a good looking man, not tall but broad-shouldered and handsome, a good dancer and a sharp dresser. Women loved him, and he was directly propositioned in the factories more than once. This, in the 1940s. As he lay on his deathbed he told us proudly that he had always been faithful to my mother. Mom was not impressed. “Hmmph!”, she said, frowning, “I should think so.” To her, this was the bare minimum, but to my dad this was a real accomplishment.
At 18 he was drafted to fight in World War II. While he didn’t enlist, once he was in he must have shown some promise, for he was sent to the 10th Mountain Division. My dad always downplayed his time in the military, and it wasn’t until long after I had grown that I realized that the 10th was an elite regiment. And he didn’t like to talk about it; my grandmother said when he came back if his younger siblings pestered him for war stories he would get up and leave, and not return for a couple of days. He never told me much about the war, only when I asked he said he never killed anyone; a real disappointment to me as a boy, for whom fighting the Nazis seemed a glorious adventure. He said, though, that he was shot at a lot. He worked communications, which meant running lines ahead of the oncoming army, or repairing them after combat.
He never said so, but he must have witnessed a lot of horrors.
He had a bunch of medals that he kept in the bathroom closet. Once in a great while we could talk him into showing them to us, but he downplayed this, too. It wasn’t until after he died that I realized that, contrary to what he had told me, not “everyone got a Bronze Star”. And it wasn’t until after he died that we found out that he had also been awarded a Purple Heart. We have never been able to find why he got the medal, but knowing my dad, he probably thought his wounds insignificant next to buddies who had limbs severed or were otherwise traumatized.
So he threw it out.
After the war he had no desire to return to “staring at a horse’s ass all day”, as he characterized his farming experience, so he headed south and found work in Flint’s auto factories. This was more like it; work your forty hours (and whatever overtime you could) and you got to live a decent life, have some comfort.
So when I embraced the counterculture and began questioning, well, everything he didn’t know what to make of it. He hated the hard life he had left behind, and I went off to join a commune that farmed with horses, and heated with wood fire. He hated carrying the heavy backpacks on his army marches; I deliberately put one on and hiked for arduous miles in the wilderness.
He had loyally done his duty to his country; I announced that I planned on going to Canada should I be drafted.
He must have been mystified at his son, raised in comfort and choosing to sleep on the ground and camp in the rain. And changing from a clean-cut Little Leaguer to someone with golden locks past his shoulders.
I am happy to report that this dissonance did not last all that long. As I grew older I came to appreciate all the many good things about my dad . And he mellowed, too, especially after he retired from his job, which had become stressful after he became a foreman (and I watched as GM deliberately put him in stressful positions to push him into early retirement. God damn capitalism.)
But even in the midst of the maelstrom, there was Johnny Cash.
Imagine my delight when I got Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline album in 1969 and found Johnny Cash performing a duet with Dylan.
“Hey Dad! Check this out!”
He didn’t say much and looked a little puzzled.
But more was to come. A year or so later Cash recorded “What is Truth?”, which pretty clearly, if naively, came down on the side of the counterculture.
The next time we were in the car and the song came on the radio I turned up the volume. “Hey Dad, have you heard the new Cash song?” He didn’t say anything, but I thought he had a hurt look on his face. E tu, Johnny?
As I said, we both mellowed. To his relief I didn’t end up dead, in jail or an asylum. Dad lived to see me marry and have my first child. We grew close again, and while we never agreed about politics, we learned not to talk about it.
I have so many things to be thankful to my father for: his example of integrity and humility, his unwavering love, even when we disagreed about almost everything.
And not least, I am thankful to him that my first musical memory is such a fine one.