A great gulf lies between my son and me, but none at all between me and my son.
—John Steinbeck, Cup of Gold
One hardly needed episode VII of Star Wars for the revelation that relationships between fathers and sons can be problematic. The mythic pathos of father and son conflicting amid mutual misunderstanding had already been played out between Luke and Darth Vader. The trope of father-son mutual incomprehension has a long and reputable history in folklore, literature, and, of course, more recently, film and television. Variations on the theme abound. In some instances the vast gulf that can come between a father and a son is easily bridged. Telemachus has little trouble reestablishing a full and meaningful connection with Odysseus, the template for the absentee father, who disappeared at birth and showed up again twenty years later. In this case, blood was thicker than abandonment. A more humorous rendition of this trope can be found in Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue,” even though the song plays a darker note on the son’s motivation.
Other iterations of father-son misunderstanding portray how even good-faith efforts at building bridges nevertheless erode away into lasting and unbridgeable incommensurability. In Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, a father and a son are bound by blood while living in different universes, unable to touch each other’s lives across the light years. The son finally pursues his own life without reference to his father. For my generation, the sense that fathers and sons could live together in an Einsteinian relativistic prison—each alternately and forever bound by different clocks and frames of reference—was iconized by James Dean’s performance in Rebel Without a Cause.
My own experience of my father—I will not say his experience of me—was of just such a relativistic incommensurability. I spent the bulk of my life, until shortly before his death, certain that we would never really communicate; certain that we would play out the tragic trope parting as the complete strangers I insisted we were. If two people lived in more different emotive and alternatively valorized worlds, I was unaware of it. It is not that we ever conflicted. Our universes were so separate there was almost nothing about which to have a conflict. We just never connected. From my perspective, we failed at having ever shared anything of significance. My father was never who I wanted him to be. My sense was that we were incapable of communication. I always thought his “photon clock” ran at a different speed than mine. Finally realizing that this problem was in my frame of reference, not his, saved us. Or, at least, it saved him for me. I will never actually know how he saw my life, never know if he, at times, experienced me as incommensurable. Our conversations did not get that far before his death. But I suspect the incommensurability was a one-way affair.
I was in my late forties when I had the epiphany about my relationship with my father. I regret that it took me so long. (I can be stubborn.) I have no actual memory of the experience, only that, with what felt like suddenness, I could no longer blame my dad for being who he was rather than who I wanted him to be. I had spent much of my own life trying to be who I am rather than who others wanted me to be. How could I judge him for doing the same? He was who he was. I could finally let him be himself. This experience opened an all-too-brief window for connection before he died. Einstein would not have observed our two disparate clocks suddenly running in the same time, but they certainly moved closer to being commensurable. And for that, I am thankful.
The most direct effect of my epiphany was that it brought a host of memories from childhood and adolescence into a new and revealing light. The things (many things) my Old Man had done right (very right) emerged from their obscurity in the shadows. One such event is the story of The Used Tire.
I was five years old. Maybe six. It strikes me as having been the fall I started kindergarten. But for the purposes of telling the story, I’ll log in at five. My mother always found me a difficult handful. So on a brilliant, cloudless Saturday in October, she convinced my father to take me out for the day. Together, Dad and I climbed into the pickup truck and headed off to a farm sale.
Farm sales were a recurrent, ubiquitous aspect of life in the Midwest of my childhood. Little did I know at age five I was living in what Wendell Berry would later famously call “the unsettling of America.” We were constantly saying goodbye to relatives leaving their farms for jobs in cities. Circumstances varied, but under the post-War pressures of commodification and efficiency, farms were forced to grow larger or die. In the most favorable circumstances, farm sales happened when a farmer came to retirement and his children had all moved to the city. No one in the family wished to continue the family farm tradition. So it, and generations worth of accoutrements, were auctioned away. Some farmers experienced this as simply the change to modernity, and were happy for their children’s decision to “move up” in the world. Others were saddened by the loss of family tradition, the end of a heritage.
Many of the boys I went to high school with wanted to stay on these small family farms. They loved the idea of being a farmer. But the reality was that without three or four times the acreage, it would have been a life of penury. The decision to move to the city was not always a willing one.
In the less favorable circumstances, a farm sale meant a farm family simply couldn’t make it. The bank forced a sale. The loans could only be repaid by selling the land to the successful farmers acquiring more and more acreage. I think of Isaiah’s words, “Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!” (Isa. 5:8). The rural county in which I grew up lost more than 50 percent of its population from 1955 to 2000.
I’m sure those sales were sad for the family selling. But while local people may have known the reasons for a sale, may have felt badly for the family, and might even have had some inkling of the damage a declining population would have on their communities, sadness was not allowed to cloud the opportunity of taking advantage of someone else’s misfortune! Here was a chance at unimagined bargains, perfectly good stuff, often available for next to nothing. Farm sales were stupendous, exciting festivals. Going to a farm sale was an adventure extraordinaire.
My dad and I parked the truck in an open field and entered. He gave me the run of the place. My mother would have had me on leash. All dad said, in his deadpan voice, was, “Don’t run off, now.” Me! Run off? Unimaginable! I just ran around, rather than off. I ran here and there and everywhere to see this, to see that, to climb on whatsit and look under and in everything. It was as heaven should be. A hundred-plus adults benignly watched over me making sure I didn’t accidentally kill myself.
The older men were dressed in bib-overalls and jackets. Some of the younger men wore blue jeans. Others, like my father, back from service in the Korean War, wore pants or shirts of army khaki. The young mixed in with their elders. All wore hats—the kinds actors wore in movies from the 1940s. I began the day in a coat but lost it somewhere. I distinctly remember looking at the toes of my shoes while kicking up clouds of deep, dry dust. More than likely, dirt was permeating my clothes, getting in my shoes, my hair, and my everywhere. I cannot imagine that when we got home my mother was happy with my state of cleanliness. Dad, on the other hand, didn’t care. His pickup wasn’t going to bothered one way or the other if I clambered in filthy for the ride home.
The geography was stereotypical farmstead: A white two-story box house with a front porch and back stoop, ample yard in both front and back. From the main road, a drive looped around behind the house in the shape of a “U” inscribing the house and the lawns. On the far side of the drive were two barns and an assortment of other outbuildings, sheds, and granaries interspersed with fenced-in lots and pens for hogs and cattle. Household goods—from lamps and chairs to cleaning supplies—were lined up in the front yard or set out on tables in the main floor rooms of the house. Farm machinery stood in neat rows in several lots, while animals milled about in the others. The miscellaneous sale items lined the fence along the drive separating the back yard of the house from the farm buildings.
I spent the morning exploring the large sale items. Tractors begged me to climb up on their seats and turn them into fighter jets—one of these levers must fire the wing guns! Hay wagons invited me to pretend they were sailing ships plying the vast oceans, rocking back and forth on their hinged chassis to mimic the vast saltwater swell. Equipment I couldn’t identify asked to be played upon one last time before some stranger took it away. Hogs stuck snouts through fences, eager to make friends with someone at their eye level. The cows, well, they were cows—obviously, even to a five-year-old, not the brightest of God’s creatures. They were mostly good at making poop and farting without remorse. It was a glorious morning.
At some point I discovered the lunch tent set up on the lawn behind the house. Inside the tent was a counter with food and a stove and women cooking. Those cooks were selling hot sandwiches, coffee, soups, and—PIE!
In the culture of my childhood, pie was its own food group, a necessity of life. A mark of poverty and deprivation was to be pie-less. My grandmother was noted by local historians for baking pies she set out for the hoboes during the Great Depression. I am certain I learned to love pie before my first tooth. In my extended family, Christmas dinners included turkey, ham, stuffing, the occasional goose, and two dozen side dishes. But what made a Christmas dinner memorable was the number, variety, and quality of the pies that were set out afterward. With great pride, my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all rose to the task of eating leftover pie for weeks to come.
In the tent, I discovered a paradise of homemade pies. There were lemon meringue pies, chocolate meringue pies, apple, blueberry, strawberry rhubarb, rhubarb custard, pumpkin, mincemeat, banana cream, gooseberry, boysenberry, mulberry, and peach pies. I saw still more pies of such exotic style they must have been shipped in from foreign countries. All this and more was for sale.
It never occurred to me that as a five-year-old I was short on cash. I just stood and stared at the selection of pies. Magically, a sandwich and a piece of pie showed up on a plate set before me by a woman who simply said, “You’re Bill’s little boy, aren’t you?” The look in her eye said, “He told me to take care of you.” He also took care of another one or two pieces of pie I asked for in the course of the afternoon.
Later, as the sun bore down, the sale moved to the miscellaneous farm items set out in piles along the drive. This phase of the sale attracted my interest a great deal more than large farm equipment and the livestock. Here were all sorts of preeminently useful and mysterious things. There were whole boxes of bits and bobs that could be turned into almost anything your imagination could come up with. There were boxes of tools each destined to fulfill some as-yet-unknown task; pipes of varying lengths and diameters that one could use like tinker toys to build a rocket to Mars. There were brooms and hoes, axes and shovels, hammers and screwdrivers of so many varieties as to defy description. There were dozens of Folgers Coffee cans filled with perfectly useable used nails. I saw buckets of bolts and nuts to be matched up and used to fix important battleships or army tanks. One could open up a cottage industry repairing the barrels full of semi-broken stuff and reselling it. The entrepreneurial opportunities for a business savvy five-year-old were endless. How could one farm contain so many varied and desirable things?
At some point in this process I actually began to listen to the auctioneer. He was speaking in tongues! The religious force of his spiritual gift momentarily distracted my mind from the items he was selling and ecstasy filled my soul. In that brief interlude I could see a vision of my future. I was certain that I would grow up to hold crowds in thrall with such angelic languages. Oh, the power these unearthly words exuded! All eyes were riveted on the auctioneer as he oversaw and enabled the redistribution of wealth at the heart of what was a farm sale. Such sharing out of accumulated wealth was clearly worthy of mystical tongues.
In the midst of the religious experience of hearing a man speak in tongues and the mystical wonder of the flotsam and jetsam of life being set out for sale: it happened: The tire. THE Tire. The most beautiful, most perfectly round used tire I had even seen in my life or would ever see again.
My memory is vivid and distinct at this point. The auctioneer stands before a vast mountain of boxes, barrels, cans and buckets filled with salable items. An assistant, like those TV magicians use, reaches back into the stash to bring forth treasures. Two or three dozen farmers in dusty overalls form a ragged semi-circle drawn into shape by the force of the auctioneer’s song. I have maneuvered myself to the front of the semi-circle in the middle. The auctioneer holds up the tire and begins his foreign song. I am feeling very adult, it is as though the Holy Spirit has given me the gift of interpretation for I am beginning to understand what the auctioneer is saying. A farmer on my left begins the bidding for the tire at a quarter. This is the most valuable tire I have ever encountered, utterly perfect in its tire-ness. The whitewall gleams in the sunlight. When the auctioneer says, “quartribidaquartrwhollgimefifd?” I raise my hand.
Auctioneers are not trained to notice how tall a bidder is. They are only trained to look for a hand moving to bid. Only after uttering the magical incantation “fifdigofifd,” and thereby legitimating my bid, did he notice it had been made by an unemployed kindergartener.
Several fundamental laws of farm sale etiquette were simultaneously broken, creating a major cultural crisis. The scene froze. The auctioneer’s gift of tongues suddenly stolen away he looked down at me, flabbergasted. Every farmer in the group was staring at me. The crisis lasted only a second or two as the auctioneer’s eyes found my dad. Dad was standing to my left in the back of the semi-circle, hands in his pockets. I looked back over my shoulder just in time to see my dad nod his head to the auctioneer. He would make it good. The auctioneer’s ecstatic gift returned suddenly, calling for more bids. The legalities of the crisis passed, the world was stable again.
Now what man in his right moral mind is going to bid against a five-year-old for a used tire? I got the tire for fifty cents. My little heart aglow with beaming pride, I took my place among the men of my community. I owned a used tire—at age five, no less! After this high point, my memories of the rest of the day fade away.
When the afternoon finally came to its end, when the final bits of someone’s life had been priced and sold and spread about the county never to congeal as a whole again, dad put the tire into the back of our pickup truck and we headed home.
I have no idea what ever became of the tire. By the time we got home it had disappeared from my five-year-old consciousness and I was on about other things. I did not ask about it, nor to my knowledge did I ever see it again. Perhaps it became the tire swing in the tree in our front yard. Perhaps it ended up on a hay wagon. What matters is that my old man got this day in my life right, very right. I still owe him the fifty cents.
Preston Thomas teaches religion at a small liberal arts college in central Pennsylvania.