A Father’s Gift

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About a week ago, I took a trip to New Hampshire, to climb Mount Washington for the eighth or ninth time in my life.  It’s a yearly ritual for my family, and it’s one that never fails to get me all nostalgic and sentimental.

This week, in preparation for fall, I set myself to the long-put-off task of cleaning up my horrid fox-warren of a room, the nooks and crannies of which look like an episode of Hoarder’s.  In the process, I found a letter I haven’t seen in almost ten years, since just after my dad died.

It feels surreal to type that.  To think that it’s been almost ten years since he went.  Almost half my life I’ve now lived without him, and yet he looms in my memory as large as the mountains he taught me to climb.

It’s odd, then, that I barely remember this letter.  I read it yesterday as though for the first time; a message from beyond the grave.

There are parts of this letter I don’t care for.  There are parts of it that hurt to read.  But it’s a beautiful, direct communication from him, and the writing is surprisingly strong.  Or maybe not so surprisingly — after all, he did always want to be a novelist.

Perhaps it can serve as a kind of closure.  I wrote last year that I was standing at a kind of crossroads in my life, and I don’t feel less at a crossroads now, but I suppose I must be.  The next chapter of my life is fast approaching: as an artist, as a craftsman, and as a man.

I can think of no better send-off.

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Dear Brandon,

On the occasion of Father’s Day, the idea set upon me that I should craft a gift for you, and my words are my purest gift. Hopefully these musings will foster a closer relationship between us in the years to come and will help you to better understand your father.

You are so young and precious now. You are bright and imaginative. Your enthusiasm, energy, and curiosity are boundless. May these qualities never desert you. When you peer up at me with wide eyes reminiscent of your mother’s, I seem to hold at my disposal the answers to each of life’s mysteries.

But the hour of rebellion and reckoning will soon fall upon you, and you may come to question every tenet ever set forth by your father. Know that this should pass without permanent scarring, and that by the time you become a man you could, God willing, begin to understand what I was trying to say in those days when I towered over you in apparent pomposity and self-righteousness. You may in fact begin to adopt some of my viewpoints. This will surprise you.

And one day you may have a son, and he’ll look up at you with pride and affection and amazement, and he’ll want to know why the sky is blue. In that moment, when you are distracted with the mundane ploddings of adulthood, you may recall tender moments we shared and you may feel comforted in the fact that every father gets asked that question.

Read this when you are in your twenties and forties and sixties, not as a guide, but as a bridge across the years to when you were young. When you speak you will hear my voice. It will be your job to pass your knowledge, wisdom, and courage on to your son, and you have so much to learn.

Yours is perhaps the most privileged generation in history; you have more conveniences and innovations at your disposal than I could have ever imagined in my youth. But prosperity can be a fleeting commodity, and you may have to grasp survival skills sooner than you think. So take your time and think a lot. Think of everything you’ve got. For you will still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not.

Part of your privilege is your birthright. It is about being American. Fate would have it that you were born into the greatest nation on Earth; don’t take that lightly. This is a country, despite some setbacks in the last twenty-five years, that has performed a miracle. While suffering the growing pains of a new world, we concurrently became the most powerful nation on Earth. We welcomed immigrants from every corner of the globe, and they brought to our shores a burning desire to “become American”. They carried their dreams and possessions on their backs and they built a nation from the dust. They were our father’s father’s fathers. They sacrificed and fought and bled and died for their beliefs. All the while, they smiled and shared and prospered, and they held a treasure which will serve you well when times are tough, when hope seems impossible…a deep, abiding faith in God. Take it from someone who knows: you may grow disillusioned with religion in your teens; you may question His word; but in your darkest hour He is with you. There really are answers to prayer.

In time, these pioneers bred what is called the American Character. Americans are vibrant, captivating, inventive, larger-than-life, and they never shy away from a good fight. Mostly, they are rugged individuals who ask for nothing without hard work. They are proud and strong; they have the hearts of lions. You can’t measure it…you can only feel it. Other nations look to us for the dream of freedom. Their citizens often want to come to our shores to begin new lives. Some are also jealous and manifest a hatred for everything American. The pioneers take the arrows and keep surging westward. Carry that mantle well. The eyes of the world will someday be upon you.

My earliest vision of American pride was in 1964. I sat with my father in front of a black and white Zenith watching 20-year-old swimmer Don Scholander at the Olympics in Tokyo. After winning the 100-meter freestyle in world-record time, he stood atop the medals platform, his chest swelled with pride, and he cried and shook as he sang every word of the National Anthem. The last two lines of the Anthem seemed like only vague concepts then, but as I grew, they gradually etched themselves in my heart:

The land of the free,

and the home of the brave.

If you ever serve this country and look down into the eyes of a beaten, starving refugee whose bloody hand reaches up to you, remember those words.

It is important to me at this point to offer a brief chronology of my life, of the people and events which shaped my thoughts, attitude, and actions. I hope this sheds some light on your understanding of me, and in turn might help you as you grow to manhood.

The story of my life is a halting, flawed, and yet richly textured poem of the postwar phenomenon, the “baby boomers,” the sons and daughters of the World War II generation. My parents sacrificed as much for me as I have for you. They did without to build us a better life than theirs. We were told that we were the best and the brightest, the hope of the future for America and the world. My mom used to tell me that I would some day be President. I imagine that some of my friends were told the same thing.

My childhood was a warm, sheltered, hazy, innocent dream where time stood still. This was shattered for myself and for the entire nation by the Vietnam War and Watergate, and the immoral, reckless manner in which these events were orchestrated by our leaders, and our consciences would be altered forever. The period of time from 1962 to 1975 was a historical watershed as important as the Civil War. In those days, the power elite enjoyed blind loyalty and no close scrutiny by the press. When we discovered that their intentions weren’t completely honorable, it destroyed the trust and confidence we had traditionally placed in them.

At the same time I personally began to suffer loss after loss of those I loved, and at the age of sixteen I was rudely thrust into adulthood. My father was dead, my mother was in a solarium, and I was the oldest, so I became the head of our household. Death had made me cold; I couldn’t even cry at my dad’s funeral. In the evenings I would gather my brothers and my sister and we would plan for the future. From that point forward we drifted apart, and as my mom regained her sanity, I vowed to her and to myself that I would never be a burden to the family. I worked for $1.60 an hour, dreamed my dreams, and smiled through the pain.

High-school was a blur, and by the time I graduated I had completed my first book-length manuscript, had secured an invitation to a Boston Bruins minor league tryout, and was in love with one of my teachers.

With my ego sufficiently overblown, I entered the service as the war wound down and served in anonymity in a reconnaissance platoon in a C.I.D. company of the Tenth Mountain Division. When I returned home I found a different America. My generation had split in half. While some began to party every day, feeling sorry for themselves, hating America and bleeding the system, others of us went to work and began our professional careers.

I went back to my typewriter, worked in a research lab and volunteered in the projects in York. I worked in the lab for five years, had some nice girlfriends, learned by my mistakes, and wrote parts of seventeen manuscripts. At work, promotions began to pass me by because I didn’t have a college degree, so I started night school at York Penn State where I played football. For the rest of my adult life, I would only average four hours sleep a night.

At the time, I was living with a model named Caroline. When more promotions went to less-experienced people with sheepskin, I quit my job and went to college full time. This is a valuable lesson as it is never too late to further your education.

At Penn State, I studied journalism and played ice hockey. In the winter of 1980, we won the E.C.A.C Hockey Championship on the same day as the “Miracle on Ice” at Lake Placid. Sadly, I left school later that spring at Caroline’s request, as she was experiencing health and financial problems.

So I went to work again, eventually drifted away from Caroline, and met Joe and Matt’s mom, Diane. We were married the next year. In the following six years, I worked in the transportation industry as a driver, a salesman, a supervisor, and a dispatcher.

The marriage failed for many reasons. I was a workaholic and spent too many hours away from home. When Diane fell out of love with me, I got involved with other women (which was wrong.) I also got in trouble with the law for a fight I had with the father of a girl with whom I was involved. I was working three jobs, going without sleep, and as our divorce was being finalized, I spent seven months in prison for assault.

My life fell apart. I wasn’t allowed to see my sons, and I lost my job. But I kept my chin up and prayed for strength. God answered many prayers for me.

As the nineties dawned, I had a good job, met a loving, caring woman (your mother), and you came into my life. While every day hasn’t been perfect, my life has been so blessed.

So, I give you my strengths and frailties and values.

What do I mean by values?

When you give your word, stick to it.

Be kind to the people you love.

Be willing to work hard.

In our family, we like to climb mountains. This recreation is a metaphor for our lives. The climb is the struggle and the summit is the achievement, the reward for hard work.

Take responsibility for your actions.

When you do wrong, don’t blame someone else; accept the consequences.

When you are right, be strong. Toughen your heart, and hold dear our national identity, because it is important. The enemies of this country are prevalent.

When you work hard, do not expect immediate gratification. Good things come to those who wait. It took me twenty-one years to achieve the kind of life I wanted.

Finally, talk to your mother and I when you have questions or problems. It is easy to hide things and grow distant, but you will regret it when we’re gone. There are so many things I wish I could say to my father…

…and as I always say, if only he could have seen you.

Love,

Your Dad,

Forrest Lee Carbaugh

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  • That was beautiful. Utterly, spellbindingly beautiful. There is so much truth and practical wisdom in that letter that so many people, not just Americans, should read this. Thank you for posting this.