There's a Johnny Cash song my kids love called "A Boy Named Sue." In the story, which was written by Shel Silverstein, a mythical boy grows up without a father who left him behind with nothing much but that name.
Later as an adult, the younger man finally meets up with his old Dad, who explains why he gave him that name.
So he'd grow up to be tough.
My two youngest boys grew up sharing a loft in their Mom's house way up on Bernal Hill. It's an old, drafty house and the window frames in their room are metal and ill-fitted. They make sounds in the wind and fail to prevent the rain from coming in when a storm hits at a certain angle.
Unfortunately, that angle happens to be from the west, which is where the prevailing winds hail from in the 49-square-mile tip of the peninsula known as San Francisco. And the boys did tend to get a lot of colds in the rainy season.
On occasion, when I visited them there, I went up to their room to work on those windows. Replacing them completely was the right solution; but we couldn't afford that, so a roll of duct tape and some small nails were the next best option.
Sealing them up pretty tight was my goal.
When you are one of those Dads living apart from your kids, a fear you can't shake is that something bad might happen to them, something that could have been prevented had you been there.
My oldest son had his own small room in another old, drafty house (we specialize in those in the Bay Area) and when he was about ten, in my absence he had taken over the chore of chopping wood for the fireplace. One time he chopped off the tip of one of his fingers in the process and had to be rushed to a nearby emergency room, where the doctor said, "He's still young, it will probably grow back."
Another time, I arrived at the house to find a grocery bag of smoking coals sitting in the front entry way. The house is made of wood and had I not removed it, that bag would have burst into flames, probably after everyone was asleep.
But I took the bag outside, doused it with the hose, and buried it in the yard.
Over the years, I would frequently try to project a protective shield over all of my progeny against all the bad guys and bad things in this unpredictable world.
Maybe in some tiny way, it even worked, sort of.
Divorced fathers tended to develop a bad reputation in the relevant years when I was one, with labels such as Deadbeat Dads and so on. The stereotype was that you left your wife for a younger, sexier woman and the family station wagon for a faster, sexier car. But personally, I never met one of those kinds of guys.
No, most common among my cohort were hard-working chaps who spent most everything they earned supporting the families they'd left behind and stayed themselves in rented rooms rented out by kindly divorced ladies on the other side of town.
There, we would commiserate with one another and show up at school events, where we'd sit alone at the back of the room as opposed to up front, where the intact families congregated.
Not that exciting, sexy experiences never came our way, mind you. But even those tended to be more like the swimming pool scene at the motel in "National Lampoon's Family Vacation," where Clark Grizwold ended up exposed when he was simply skinny dipping with a cute young acquaintance in what was supposed to be a secret encounter while his wife and kids were asleep upstairs.
Actually, they were out on the balcony, looking down with all the other guests.
David Weir is a journalist who has worked and published at Rolling Stone, Salon, Wired.com, The New York Times, The Nation, Mother Jones, New York, New Times, SunDance, and many other publications and sites. He is a co-founder of the Center for Investigative Reporting and the author of four books.
Johnny and Friends (and Family)
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