Father’s Day has been an ordeal for the last few years of my life. Back in January of 2011, my father died suddenly and unexpectedly. I wrote about it extensively on this blog and curled up in a hole for a while, consumed by my grief. I look back on that time as a strange dichotomy: on one hand, I was raw and wounded by my loss, but on the other I was stoic and emotionally unavailable. To this day, I feel closed off at unexpected times and at others I’m on the verge of weeping for no discernible reason. I doubt that’s all related to this event, but it definitely was a significant contributing experience.
Every May, the advertisements start and I am reminded that my only option is re-visiting old memories, rather than calling up Dad and celebrating with him. It gets “easier”, but, it never really gets easier. This year, I got out in front of my annual feel trip by purchasing a new book: John Wayne: The Life and Legend by Scott Eyman. The book is about my father as much as it is about The Duke; Wayne was Dad’s hero, someone he looked up to in reverence. Over the years, I’ve noticed that a lot of his quirks seemed lifted straight from the westerns he watched with such excitement. I’d written a short paper about the actor when I was in middle school, but beyond that and Dad’s passion I didn’t know much about the actual life of John Wayne. I’d heard about his staunchly conservative political ideals and a few disparaging things about his old-fashioned views, but nothing very specific.
I started not with eagerness and excitement, but with a fear that the monument of John Wayne I had in my head would crumble in the face of the reality of the man? I consider my love of westerns to be one of Dad’s legacies; what if I ended up hating them after this? Much to my relief and enjoyment, the book was a real treat. Not only did I get a better picture of the man that was Marion Morrison (known as Duke to his friends) but the book does a great job of painting the picture of Hollywood and the movie industry as Wayne came to prominence and stature in show business. It fleshes out the details on his pictures, his family, his friends, even his financials throughout his storied career. It’s not written to etch out a Legend of perfection, though; it talks about the man behind the image, too. It talks about affairs, poor business deals, and his stubbornness. It talks about his politics, his participation in the Black List, yet also his willingness to hear the opposing view and not hold those views against others. It talks about his failed marriages, but also his devotion to his family and strong desire to be better for them. It talks about his undying loyalty to his friends and his desire to make everyone around him better, at his own expense. At the heart of Duke Morrison was a very intelligent man, versed in Shakespeare, and a man that loved a game of chess more than just about anything else.
The book talks about a man that was unfailingly authentic, on and off screen. At the end, John Wayne is a man I respect on his own merits. He was a man that loved the movie business, respected the people he worked with, and worked hard to build himself into the man he wanted to be. It’s a really great read. Throughout the chapters, I felt the presence of my Dad’s hand on my shoulder. I would read certain passages that talked of events he told about me years ago and I could see his proud smirk as he said, “See? I told you so.” I think he would have really enjoyed the book, and I wish more than anything I could discuss it with him.
As the book reached the end of Duke’s life, I found myself getting more emotional. Dying of cancer is a painful, agonizing way to go. I have seen all of my grandparents go through a similar course. I had to put it down at one point because I couldn’t read the text through my tears. Of course, I wasn’t just sad about the visualization of this American giant withering away before the inevitable end. I was sad about that phone call, the one telling me that my own John Wayne was gone. Dad would never have wanted to go slowly like that; I’ve told people that if Tony Martin could have picked any way to go, it would’ve been exactly as he did. Quickly, without fuss, and without strain on his family. He NEVER wanted to be a burden…which was a sentiment echoed by Duke himself as his health deteriorated. The parallels throughout the book were too numerous to count.
My father, like Wayne, was an authentic person. He believed in the trust of a handshake and loved the art of a deal. When he called your attention to something, it was because it was Important. His patience was short, but his generosity was deep. Was Dad always that way, or did he see WAYNE on the cinema screen and decide that’s who he wanted to be? I don’t know if I would have gotten a straight answer if I’d asked him directly. But I think it’s a mix of both.
One of the last things that John Wayne did professionally was a series of commercials for Great Western Bank in California. I’d never seen these, so I paused my reading and looked them up on YouTube. The book described them as, “simply but elegantly produced, and surprisingly emotional. [They] are all heartfelt, the mood is intimate and gently retrospective.” I embedded one of them below:
As I watched a few, my tears welled anew. It sounds tremendously silly, but it was like watching my father tell me about something that was important to him. Not quite a message from beyond the grave; hell, these were BANK commercials from the late 1970s. But they packed an emotional wallop nonetheless. There’s something about the earnestness in his presentation and his tangible excitement to be working, though his pain was extraordinary. Maybe there’s another parallel here with the last few times I spent time with my father. He wasn’t sick … or did he know something was wrong, and he just didn’t want to tell anyone? Either is plausible. In any case, neither really matters at this point. I still miss him.
But, all I have to do is turn on Rio Bravo, Hondo, or Red River and he’s right there with me. Love you, Dad.