The original of this poorly wrought image is about the size of those pictures that LFG and I take in the seaside amusement park photo-booths. My hunch is that a booth similar is exactly the source of this one. Probably in a bus station…en route to Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina. An acne faced kid from the farm, doing his best to be a man. After all, men get drafted. Men go to Fort Jackson for Basic Training. And from what I’ve been told, my dad was anything but pleased to be drafted at the tail end of a war. Oklahoma was about as far as my dad got after Basic Training. He loved the drinking, dice and cards part of his patriotic duty but was fairly ambivalent about the rest. He stayed crazy about two of those three for the remainder of his short life. Not sure why the dice trailed off.
I’ve stared at this photo for probably hours. Wondering how a kid in his late teens…a farm kid from Horry County South Carolina…ever found the inspiration for such an assemblage of texture, geometry and I assume, tone. Wonder what the colors were like? I’m taken by many things in this photograph and left speculating about many more. I’m like that. I have the gift/curse of an incredibly active mind. But what I mostly speculate about is the genesis of this kid’s style. The inspirational sources of his kit…his contrivance…his rig. My father was a clothes fanatic.
Alan Flusser and I discussed it several years ago and Alan was sweetly but confidently dismissive. Almost assigning my question to the silly category. “Movies and magazines…shop windows and men from the professions, fathers and uncles. That’s where people got sartorial inspiration.” Certainly makes sense. Ralph Lauren tells stories about shop windows and the Big Screen as sources of inputs to his pediatric noggin…antecedents for his sense of style expression. Alan’s dismissive answer was grounded in the obvious. He grew up in a fairly affluent Gotham suburb and watched his father don sartorially rich contrivances head to toe, day after day.
Alan mentions his father a couple of times in his books and his characterization of his dad’s style sensibilities always resonated with me. He dedicated his first book, Making the Man to his father.
“To my father, whose esoteric wardrobe first whetted my appetite for French lisle, hand-clocked socks, striped English suspenders and garters, Brooks Brothers button down shirts and alligator tassel loafers, and whose memory is never far from mind when in my travels I happen upon some exquisite legacy from his time, an item crafted by artists and altogether elegant.”
Alan again calls upon the memory of his father in his 1985 sartorial treatise Clothes and the Man.
“I received my first lessons on how to dress from my father, for whom the possibilities of dressing well elicited considerable interest and enjoyment. He was in the real estate business and he used the way he dressed to project a successful image. Many mornings I’d watch him go through his daily ritual of dressing for work. The shirt, the tie, the suit, the shoes were all carefully selected so that he looked and felt his best. I believed it was normal to take that much care in deciding how one should look, to put such thought into the appropriateness of the clothes he wore. I didn’t realize then that my father was in a small minority of men, holdovers from a previous era who not only appreciated the feel and look of fine clothing but respected the rules and taste of decorum.”
I’ll never satisfactorily reconcile the sources of my father’s sartorial knack. The tobacco farms of Horry County require a bit more than a trip on the ferry or through the tunnel to be amidst a Stork Club and 21 esque reservoir of ape-worthy sartorial subjects. I do know a few things. And what I know doesn’t quell my curiosity, it rouses it. My grandfather was an unwavering stalwart of the agrarian New Deal Democracy. Never did I see him in overalls but never did I see him in anything other than a Hart Schaffner and Marx navy blue serge suit for church. Or khakis, a blue button-down shirt…short sleeves in the summer-long in the winter, a windbreaker or barn jacket, and a Stetson or Dobbs hat for weekdays on the farm. His everyday hats, straw or felt, were subordinated from their original role as Sunday go-to-church toppers. Rest assured that my father got none of the panache captured in that photo-booth snapshot from his own father.
But what about books, magazines and movies? My grandparents were honorable middle-class people who lived a provincial Southern life and wanted for nothing. Perhaps a bit of my dad’s sartorial traction was gained as a toddler. My grandmother made his clothes when he was little and I’ve been told that he always wore a hat. Bare headed JFK did nothing to assuage his hat affinity in later years. I never saw my dad dressed without a hat…ever. My sister and I still revel in our reminiscences of summers on their working farm. Do a quick inventory on every sound one makes when singing Old MacDonald Had a Farm and you’ve pretty much populated the farm of my father’s youth. We loved visiting the farm as much as my father hated it growing up.
My grandmother told me numerous times about my father’s insistence that he would never come back to the farm once he left. He was fastidious and loathed the grit and gum associated with what at that time, was a crop whose economic margins were stronger than anything else you could put in the ground—tobacco. And his loathing didn’t come from my grandfather working him and his brother like dogs. My grandfather was a softie and my dad took every liberty to skirt any form of callus creating, fingernail soiling farm work. My dad didn’t do squat that he didn’t want to do.
I’ll allow an occasional movie in my speculation but that’s about it. I’d bet that the magazines and books that I saw in my grandparents home were similar to what was there when my dad was growing up. Readers Digest, Progressive Farmer, local newspapers, The Bible and maybe another one-off publication from time to time but that’s about it. This was not an intellectually curious household.
So who knows? My father died when I was fifteen. Timing is everything and at fifteen I wasn’t exactly amidst long, twisty turny “tell me about your childhood; dad” interactions with my old man. There are a remaining few who could probably add a piece or two to the mosaic but it’s not worth the effort for me to sort it out with them. I rarely see them and the collateral subjects about my father that I’d have to endure are just too much for me.
My father had auburn hair and blue eyes. When I watch the newly discovered by me, Mad Men, I see my dad in all those guys. I was a child of the Mad Men generation. I think watching the first season of Mad Men was the final catalyst of motivation I needed to write something about my father. When I recollect my father’s business interests in tandem with his sartorial bearing I come up with Don Draper meets Tony Soprano. Suffice it to say that my father had interests in businesses that involved lots of “cash transactions.”
My dad was selling real estate and tending bar on the weekends at the Elks Club when he met my mom. Here’s the bartender on casual Saturday I suppose. I’ve speculated about the genetic predisposition for clothes horsiness and I’d wear this fuzzy diced shirt of dad’s in a heartbeat.
My father and his best buddy R.B. at Ocean Drive beach many years before I was even thought of. R.B. was a small town hero. Life Guard, dirt track racer and fellow bon vivant with my daddy. And this photo sums up my father’s affinity for the beach. R.B. is fully engaged in solar fun. My father is not. He’s there for one reason only…because my mother wanted to be there.
Another photo shows the girls sitting on beach towels in those Betty Draper bathing suits. My father hated the beach. That’s why he’s still dressed…in a cotton lisle knit-shirt and probably cotton Bermudas of some sort. Weejuns…maybe.
High and tight haircut, trad glasses and understated leather watch strap. That was my dad.
R.B. lived for a couple of decades after my dad died. His wife, one of the gals sitting on the beach while dad and R.B. strolled, still lives around the corner from my mom. She does smocking on little girl’s dresses. She did this one for LFG.
My earliest memories of my dad involve longwing shoes, whiskey and an ottoman. He’d come home from work and plop down in a club chair with at least one cocktail already under his belt. My older sister and I would climb up on him hug him like little people are want to do to their parents. He was very affectionate and really loved us no doubt...but we had a job to do. He’d direct us down to the ottoman for our nightly task of unlacing his longwings and at least for me, having said shoe drop on the floor upon release. It seemed heavier than me and the wax laces—I can remember my little fingers trying to unleash that heavy ass shoe…untying that waxy rope of a shoelace. I’m not certain I could tie my own damn shoes at that age.
I remember my dad in two guises…either pajamas or a suit. The man did not recreate…he couldn’t. He was either working or playing cards or doing whatever. He’d install us at the beach, load my mother up with cash and he’d split. The man was absolutely one dimensional…all business and of course, in an era where if you kept everyone at home well heeled and you hired others to do everything else, all was good. My father was nocturnal and the man could be found in one of about four places in our town of twenty thousand people. Cards and cocktails were de rigueur.
Grainy old photograph of me, a ball, a dollar bill clutched in my left hand, a fish and my dad. One thing’s for certain, some of the farm help caught the fish on behalf of my dad, as agent-in-fact, for me. My dad didn’t get dirty and he damned sure didn’t get fishy. Straw hat, cigarette and for a moment—a fish.
My father died on a Sunday. Fifteen year old boys, who have provisional driver’s licenses for daytime driving and an MG Midget in which to do so, are generally disengaged from their parents. My father had been ill, dramatically so but he’d made a turn and was to be discharged the previous Wednesday. I spoke to him on the phone that Wednesday morning. He asked me if my MG was running ok…I’d just had the clutch repaired…again. I told him that it was indeed and I hurried off the phone. Surely I had to be somewhere and besides, they were bringing him home that afternoon and I’d see him then. I never spoke to him again. As a matter of fact, he never spoke to anyone again.
I didn’t miss my dad for the ensuing fifteen years. I was blessed with some mechanism that shielded me from the loss I suppose. I navigated the teen years reasonably and my twenties were go-go great. And then I woke up one day when I was thirty years old and I missed my old man. I missed having the conversations that other grown men and women had with their fathers. There are two instances where other adults, my peers, spoke of their fathers and it gut-punched me. One guy said the simplest but most admirable thing about his dad. He had seen the world, his father hadn’t. He’d gained gobs of post graduate education. His dad had none. But about his father he said, “I could just sit and talk with my father all day. He is the greatest person I know.” I think I was sick with jealousy for a week. A friend said about her recently deceased father… “I became a PharmD. because my father was a PharmD. He was a brilliant, brilliant man and I’d live the rest of my life under a bridge just to have another day with him.”
And my wingman JTS and his retired Navy diesel sub CIA spooky dad can sit on the porch drinking a bourbon in fellowship for an hour…without saying a word. But they are engaged with each other. My buddy Michael remembers his dad buying him his first adult sized suit at Paul Stuart… “My dad bought all his suits at Paul Stuart. My first grown up suit came from Paul Stuart- a 2-button navy Southwick. When I think of my dad I think of those suits with the smell of Aramis cologne in them. Weird how that brings me back. After my dad died in '88 - I never really shopped there much.” I’d give my left arm to have something other than vague pediatric memories of my dad.
I call my daughter Monkey...the same thing you called me. She’s named for mom and she’s the prettiest of all your grandchildren. You’d love her so much and I bet she could get your longwings off without much trouble. And she’s funnier than I ever was. I know that you loved us but what I’m trying to do with your granddaughter is love her differently. I want her as an adult, to say the same things about me that my friends said about their fathers. And I want to be around to hear her say it. That’s why I drink slightly less hooch than you did.
Mom quit smoking. Something you never did. But it took a mild heart attack twenty years ago to do the trick. By the way, they cost about ten bucks a pack now. I can just hear you say something about ten bucks “being the current cost of pleasure” or whatever. And there’s a show called Mad Men. It’s about smoking and drinking. You’d relate.
I heard you call me a “little fucker” when you had to come home from the office and take me to buy new shoes. I was six. I know you weren’t frustrated with me per se but I realized it wasn’t a compliment when you said...“he’s the toughest little fucker on shoes I’ve ever seen.” It’s ok dad. I now have an ass-load of shoes and the clothes horse in you would want a pair of each for yourself. Butcept maybe not the Belgians.
I did throw the brick that hit your ’54 Corvette. I didn’t mean to but you can bet that I wasn’t gonna ‘fess up. “Little fucker” would have been a complimentary warm up compared to what I would have had coming after you regained your motor skills and could catch me.
I’ve made and lost more money than you but that’s ok too. I’m still here to make more and I’ve learned something you never did. It isn’t as important to me as it was to you. I’d rather forgo a billable day to make certain that your granddaughter sees me on the front row…of whatever event it happens to be…because that event, at that moment, represents a memory making opportunity for me and your granddaughter…both your Monkeys.
So Dad…Onward…in your shadow.