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In Big Shoes, Al Roker and 37 other well-known personalities share personal stories about how their fathers have been there for them during times of both adversity and triumph, and the countless large and small ways theyve shaped their lives throughout the years. These essays remind us of the important--and lasting--legacy of our dads, ...
In Big Shoes, Al Roker and 37 other well-known personalities share personal stories about how their fathers have been there for them during times of both adversity and triumph, and the countless large and small ways theyve shaped their lives throughout the years. These essays remind us of the important--and lasting--legacy of our dads, even as weve grown up and gone on to start families of our own. As Al Roker says, "No matter who your father is or was, whether a great man or someone who left a lot to be desired, there is something in the man that you can learn from, something that will make you a better person."
Contributors to Big Shoes include:
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Emmy Award-winning star of The West Wing and numerous other television shows, plays, and films.
My father passed away five years ago, but if he were able to write this essay himself, he would begin with the proclamation that he, George Van Norman Whitford, has a bright future behind him. Dad's heroes were subversive writers who punctured artifice, like H. L. Mencken and Mark Twain, and even his own death was not immune to mockery.
He was a quintessential member of what has become so commonly known as "the greatest generation." It is a description he would scoff at. As far as he was concerned, there was nothing particularly great about it; you just did what you had to do. Whether it was the Depression, fighting the Japanese in World War II, or busting your hump at work, you dealt with it. The current fashion of obsessing over one's feelings was as foreign to him as music from another planet. He had a clear optimism about the future that only a child of the Depression could have when faced with the abundance and opportunity of America in the middle of the twentieth century.
I was the fifth and last child in my family, born when my father was forty-five years old. It is rumored that my father was not consulted by my mother about my conception. My theory has always been that my brother Dave was the afterthought and that I was put on the planet to keep him company. Once he went off to college, my mission was complete.
Though I came late in life, Dad was the opposite of a fussy older parent. He went on the assumption that if you loved your kids unconditionally and kept them out of traffic, things would probably turn out all right. There was no question that we would be allowed to pursue whatever interested us. He quietly assumed a massive financial burden as Dave and I ambled through expensive college and graduate school careers headed for insecure careers as a writer and an actor. The only repayment he asked was that we do the same for our children.
I always felt that Dad got a kick out of having a kid who was an actor. He would lovingly tease me about being a "ham and a fraud." I will never forget the image of him standing in the middle of the audience in countless school plays as I looked out from the stage, his wide grin beaming as his camera flashed at me. He was encouraging without being cloying and as a result I felt supported but never pushed. I don't know if a kid could feel the same sense of ownership I feel about acting in these days of self-conscious parenting.
Being an actor was a way to aspire to my dad's most joyous values. The greatest compliment he could pay someone was to say that they were "a character." It meant they were colorful and outside the norm. Even in his eighties, he would go out of his way to introduce me to the animated and toothless parking lot guy he had struck up a friendship with.
And then there were the ceaseless, ridiculous, corny jokes. Dad had the rare ability to make lame comic material hilarious simply by way of goofy persistence. In the years since his death the relentlessness and the subversiveness of his humor continue to inspire me.
I am grateful to have been raised by a man who was so kindly predisposed to the wacky and the unexpected. Dad's life was a testament to the great twentieth-century American values of kindness, hard work, and taking care of your family, but he was deeply suspicious of the herd. He subscribed to Mark Twain's observation that patriotism was the last refuge of scoundrels, and detested pandering displays of flag-waving. When there was a proposed constitutional amendment to ban flag burning, he said that he was proud to have fought for a country where an idiot could burn a flag if they wanted to.
Dad gave me an opportunity that he never had. He was a talented musician who loved public speaking and often spoke about his desire to be a writer. He spent his life working hard, successfully pursuing a business career that he enjoyed, but I often think of him when I'm on the set of The West Wing and wish that he had had the freedom he provided me to pursue a creative life.
After he had a heart attack, my father asked his doctor for a frank assessment of his future with the clinical detachment of a career life-insurance man. He was an eighty-four-year-old and had a damaged heart. If he were lucky, the doctor said, he would be taken out with a heart attack. More likely was the slow and agonizing suffocation of congestive heart failure.
My father listened without expression.
"Yeah ... yeah ... yeah ..."
There was no sentimentality or emotion, just a frank acceptance of the inevitable.
A few days before his death, Dad told me he was looking forward to a business meeting in Boston in six months. It was a ludicrous notion for a steadily deteriorating invalid who could no longer make it across the room, even with the help of a walker. None of that mattered. He had a meeting to get to.
The very last day of his life, Father's Day of 1999, at the end of a happy conversation I told him I loved him and asked him if my mother was around. He answered with the last words I would ever hear him speak:
"No," he said, "she's a square."
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Author of the best-selling memoir Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self and editor of two anthologies, What Makes a Man: 22 Writers Imagine the Future and To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism.
I don't know if all fathers are unsung heroes, but mine sure is. For the last twenty-five years, my father, Mel Leventhal, has been known in many circles as "Alice Walker's ex-husband," and a few weeks ago he told me people now refer to him as "Rebecca Walker's father." He laughed when he said this, claiming to love this latest twist in the identity game, but I know better. How can I not? I know what it's like to be practically invisible, a living arrow pointing to someone else.
My father, with a rifle and a German shepherd, fought the Klan on our doorstep in Jackson, Mississippi. My father, with a law degree and a lot of chutzpah, fought segregation in the U.S. Supreme Court. My father has fought on behalf of consumers, old people, disabled people, women. My father has worked almost every day of the week to support his first wife, and then his second, and to put his children through college and beyond. My father has packed up the car with his kids' stuff and moved us into and out of more dorm rooms and apartments than I care to count. He has written more checks for root canals and bite plates, bar mitzvahs and baby showers, laptops and trips abroad, than seems humanly possible. He has attended an untold number of plays, readings, lectures, baseball games, and even movie premieres to support his children and kvell. He has mentored young people and counseled family members through legal crises; he cared for his elderly and infirm mother until her death.
Sometimes I feel I am the only one who notices all this. Is it that these are things that fathers are supposed to do and so no one says anything about the amazing fact that they actually get done? Or maybe there is a medal I don't know about that is secretly awarded to men who give their entire lives so that their families and the rest of humankind will be better off. Really, I am serious. How come people aren't, like, blowing horns or organizing tributes to these guys? I don't get it.
It has taken me thirty-four years to understand the way my father loves. To understand that for him fathering is about self-sacrifice, or as one friend of mine says, "dying into one's children." When I was a small child, I missed my father when he went to his office, especially on weekends. As I grew older, I resented the fact that he disappeared into that netherland. As an adolescent I confronted him, accusing him of being a workaholic and trying to escape intimacy. Now, as a parent myself, I see more clearly his deep sense of responsibility, the integrity in his commitment to making sure his children started off with a solid foundation. He has put off so much of his own life for our development. I don't know that I agree with his choice, but I can't say I haven't benefited from it.
These days, my father comes from New York to visit me in San Francisco bearing gifts: a bag of my favorite chocolates and ten days of his time. He lets me sleep in the mornings and then picks me up in the big SUV I convince him to rent. We go to movies, walk around mountain lakes, and eat at all my favorite restaurants. We talk about all the books we plan to write, and all the cities in foreign lands we want to visit. We talk about the importance of fathers and the many, many men and women who don't have one. We talk about his first grandson, still swimming around in my belly. We talk about how much I will miss him when this life is over, and how much more this makes me appreciate him now.
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Singer/songwriter/author with almost forty gold, platinum, and multiplatinum records and three No. 1 New York Times best sellers; top-drawing concert attraction.
My father took me to see The Spirit of St. Louis when I was ten years old. He had been an aviator in World War II, flying as a crew chief on C-47s over the Burma hump. It was a strange undertaking for a man who came from a long line of sailors, and it wasn't until we were both much older that I learned why he had chosen to fly.
The images of Jimmy Stewart acting out the story of Charles Lindbergh got to both of us. By the third reel, my father and I were riding with Lucky Lindy in The Spirit of St. Louis. We were with him as he munched on his tuna sandwich, fought off fatigue, got lost, almost crashed into the ocean, and finally found the lights at Le Bourget airport in Paris. I still remember that day at the Loop Theater, in Mobile, when my dad and I jumped out of our seats and cheered as the wheels touched down. We sat and cried as Jimmy Stewart rode on the shoulders of the extras from central casting to the end of the movie. It was the first time I had ever seen my father cry.
Dad and I never really talked about his flying days. I was so enamored of the exploits of my grandfather that I forgot that my old man had had a few adventures of his own. My grandfather was at sea for months, sometimes years, at a time, and my dad became the father figure for his three younger siblings. When World War II broke out, my grandfather and my uncle both joined the navy. My father, however, joined the Army Air Corps, where he became a master sergeant. He was a flight mechanic and worked on B-17s in Maine, B-25s in Africa, and C-47s in India. After the war, he spent every day until he retired building ships and barges. Once I became romantically involved with airplanes, it became a wonderful opportunity to stay in touch with him. Until he died in 2003 he rode with me in every airplane I have owned, and there have been a lot of them.
In early 1995, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. My dad had been a whiz with facts and figures. He was a draftsman and a dynamo of energy with whom few people could keep pace. Now he had to face the awful reality that he was losing his mind. Once the devastating news settled in, our conversations were more personal than they had ever been. Dad had never been a talker, and when he did talk, it was about either his work at the shipyard or his children and grandchildren. Now he was scared and bewildered, and he said so. He never talked about licking Alzheimer's, as if it were some kind of opponent he was going to defeat. He knew his fate. He told me he just wanted to do a few things that he had never gotten to do. He was going to study his options and let me know how I could help.
One day I got a call from him, asking me to come to Alabama. I had no idea what my dad had come up with. He was mostly here in those days, but he could also go out into the cosmos. I didn't know if he would ask to go to Mars or mainland China. I started to flash on that old TV show Run for Your Life, starring Ben Gazzara. My father was not a big movie or television buff, but along with Jackie Gleason in The Honeymooners and James Arness in Gunsmoke, he loved Ben Gazzara in that series. Here's the basic plot: A wealthy and successful doctor finds out that he has only six months to live. The guy buys a fancy sports car and proceeds to travel around America, falling in love with beautiful women in exotic locations. I wondered if the old man was going to run for his life.
He met me at the airport and threw me the keys to the car. "You didn't like the way I drove even before I got this shit," he said. It was a small indication of his harsh reality, and his awareness that in desperate times and situations, humor is the only way out. We picked up a couple of oyster loaves and Barq's root beers at Mac's Care, then drove on to Homeport.
We were sitting at the end of the pier that my father had had built which ran from the house on the bluff for the length of four football fields. It was his signature upon the landscape of the eastern shore. As one of his neighbors had said upon its completion, "Goddamn, J.D., I guess you wanted them astronauts to see where you lived from outer space."
Flying around the roof were signal flags and flags from every country he had visited. Old Glory sat on the south corner on a solitary and lofty old mast. In the opposite corner stood his pride and joy, a barbecue pit and smoker fabricated in a sheet-metal shop out of materials left over from the refit of the aircraft carrier Lexington. It looked like a small nuclear reactor and weighed about as much. It had been dragged out of the shipyard under cloak of darkness and presented to him as a surprise from his coworkers upon his retirement. My dad called it his heirloom and the only material thing he really loved. He was going to leave it to me in his will-that is, as he said, "if you can move the son of a bitch."
We were looking out over the shallow waters of Mobile Bay, savoring the day and the taste of fresh fried oysters on buttered French bread with hot sauce and tartar sauce-the sandwich that's synonymous with the Gulf Coast. He drained the last of his Barq's and stared out across the bay. "You know what I was just thinking about?"
"What?" These days that could be a loaded question.
"Remember when you got thrown out of the sailing club for leaving the race and sailing all the way across the bay?" I only had to think a moment about that major event in my misspent youth. It had been the same kind of day as today.
"You bet I do," I said with a laugh.
"I never told you, but that was about as proud as I ever was of you. I mean, being the first Buffett to get a college degree was good, don't get me wrong, but that time you just decided to light out on your own, that was a moment."
Tears came into my eyes. I started to drift back to that incredible day, but my father's next words cut my trip short.
"I just saved you a hell of a lot of money," he said.
"What do you mean?" I asked, drying my eyes and swallowing hard.
"Well, I've decided where I want to go. I talked it over with your mom, and she thinks it's a good idea. I want to go to Salt Cay for Christmas."
"Salt Cay?" I said in disbelief. I was probably one of the very few people on the planet who had actually been to Salt Cay. It is a scruffy, parched little island to the south of Grand Turk in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Paris it ain't.
"This disease is strange, Jim. It takes you back, you know. When it hits, I can't remember shit about what I did two minutes ago, but I can see things in the past like I was there. I had some of the best times in my life on Salt Cay when your grandfather was loading salt bound for New Orleans. I was six years old, and we were on the Chicamauga. She lay at anchor, and I would go watch them load the salt and then I'd take off with a group of local kids, and we would chase flamingos and catch lobsters from the beach. I know, it ain't a place Ben Gazzara would go looking for his babes, but I want to go back."
Excerpted from BIG SHOES by Al Roker Copyright © 2005 by Al Roker.
Excerpted by permission.
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