LIKE FATHER LIKE SON
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
“Like father like son” is not the favorite cliché of sons who “have a conflict with authority.” And they also do not care to hear the expression, “have a conflict with authority,” a painful verbal reminder of their “need for discipline.”
I suppose I was like every other rebel who thought he was being singled out for unjust discipline and who therefore took up Liberty for his or her cause. In my case, since my father obviously loved fine literature, my Liberty was Free Speech. Ever since then I have been hell bent on saying any damned thing, at the spur of the moment, that might please me, and the more shocking the effect, the more pleased I become. I recall how thrilled I was when I overheard someone say, in regard to one of my first business letters, “How dare he say this! I’ve never had anyone talk to me like this before!”
I did not realize in my youth that my father had also been rebellious and romantic from time to time, for that was a carefully guarded secret. There is nothing like being poor in the Great Depression and being a World War II veteran to discipline the savage beast in a man. It was a mystery to me how such a tough man like my dad, who was once a boxing champion in the Army, and went on long marches over bad terrain with a hundred pounds of gear, could shed tears over some silly little poem. I suppose that is one definition of a romantic, a knight-poet.
Indeed, my father loved poetry. He was inspired as a young man to write poetry. However, having experienced the sudden loss of my mother, Charlotte, and thereafter being confronted with several dire exigencies, he laid down his law degree, put aside his dreams of becoming an author, and became an electrician. And he was a proud electrician indeed. He often took me on tours of job sites to show me the excellence of his craft. He sang the praises of the art of pipe-bending, wire-cutting and -pulling and -splicing and hundreds of other things. He was a union man, and ‘Union Made’ and ‘Made in the USA’ were noble emblems of the highest degree of honor. Now that I think of it, he had not really abandoned poetry: he was living it. For him his work was poetry in motion.
In that poetry he had his rhetoric: he had his rhythm and his rhyme and his meter according to the broader scheme of things, a scheme great poets have associated with divinity no matter how mundane the details. All the elements of discipline were there to mold the temper of a soft-hearted, hot-headed Scot. Still, at home in a drawer, he kept his poems handy, and in those wee hours at night that were his alone he would read grand literature to refresh his spirits.
As for me, there was no way I was going to be like my father. Poetry was not for me, nor was electricity or electronics. That all went in one ear and out the other, like wire through the wall. Poetry and transistors were equally obscure to me, all too mechanical as far as I was concerned. I was determined to serve the cause of Liberty, and far be it from me to define exactly what the effect of that cause might be. I got up and left my home town to wander at random at a rather young age.
I left town with my prose, with my free speech. As the years went by, I learned to regulate my prose somewhat. Although it is unsuitable for publication, I take some pride in my progress. A writer very recently gave me permission to be a writer someday. Just imagine that!
The irony of not wanting to be like my father has dawned upon me as of late. It seems that, in my opposition to the very idea, the idea took hold of me and has wrestled me to the ground. My resistance was just a different motion in the same general direction. I did not take up poetry and electricity, but I literally picked up prose. That was once my greatest burden in life: I carried two footlockers of books with me on the train from New York to San Francisco, along with a little bag of clothes. Lugging those lockers around town and up the steps of a flea bag hotel over a strip joint was a real drag. Since then, there have been several occasions when I have not moved away from bad situations for years because I had too many books and could not bear carrying, shipping or leaving them.
Yes, there is nothing I like better than to curl up with a book since I like to read in bed, I sometimes even sleep with a few books. And I just love libraries. Libraries are my churches. Reading is my religion. It is as if I want to make up for all that time my father lost when he was on the job for twelve hours a day bending pipes and pulling wire, when his studies were reserved for those wee hours of the night.
As for writing, it is my yoga. Writing is my prayer. Do I write to get published? Are you kidding? Who do you think I am? Someone fond of rejection slips?
I suppose my literary fate is what some people call either a family curse or its blessing. Here I am, yet another rebel of my family, having lived with my father for only a few years, but very much like him after many more years intervening between then and now. But there are differences in several respects, one difference being that I do not write poetry. After all, a camel does not have to pass through the eye of a needle to get to an oasis. Nor does an inspired author need to be funneled through a sonnet to reach Plato’s heavenly vault.
I do love to read poetry, but I do not read that sort of poetry one must learn to like while acquiring a taste for Scotch whisky. I have lately been reading some of my father’s poetry because I am posting it onto the Internet for him. I must say I am often captivated by it. It seems to be free of formal discipline, yet it is certainly disciplined. He has invested years in a few lines. Absent the common rhetorical devices, the Muse still speaks, but with a great deal of his help. His prose has the same inner coherence and quality, an integrity I do not understand. Maybe it is really all prose with a classical sort of beauty that can be divided into a poem at will. How should I know? I am no poet!
Now I have received a letter from my father. What is this? He is giving me a lesson on the sonnet form. Oh, no! What is to become of me now?