In a recent New Yorker profile of Bruce Springsteen, his life-long friend Steve Van Zandt reminisced about growing up in working-class Freehold N.J.
He didn’t talk about the glory days. He talked about how fathers and sons saw each other – and treated each other -- back then.
Springsteen’s father Doug came home from World War Two an angry man, seething at his “crabbed circumstances,” according to profile author and New Yorker editor David Remnick.
You could say Doug Springsteen took his frustrations out on his rebellious son. There was bad blood between the two.
But that was only half the story, according to Van Zandt.
Springsteen’s old man was “scary,” Van Zandt said.
All fathers were scary back then, he said.
Then he explained why that was:
“The torture we put these poor guys through, when you think of it now. My father, Bruce’s father – these poor guys, they never had a chance. There was no precedent for us, none, in history, for their sons to become these long-haired freaks who didn’t want to participate in the world they built for them. Can you imagine? It was the World War Two generation. They built the suburbs. What gratitude did we have? We’re, like, ‘Fuck you!’ We’re gonna look like girls, and we’re gonna do drugs and we’re gonna play crazy rock and roll.’ And they’re, like, ‘What did we do wrong?’ They were scared of what we were becoming, so they felt they had to be more authoritarian. They hated us, you know?”
My father was one of those “poor guys” who came home from a war he never talked about to the Promised Land that he’d fought for. Like Springsteen’s old man, he was a son of the working class. Unlike Doug Springsteen, my father didn’t brood about his fate. He was ambitious. He wanted out of his hometown of Buffalo, N.Y. and he wanted it bad. In that sense, he was a lot more like Bruce than Doug. Nothing stopped him from meeting and surpassing every barrier to success he ever faced. He was the first Catholic reporter to be hired at the patrician Buffalo Evening News. He raised a big family and worked day and night in order to finally, nearly 15 years after he married my mother, make his escape to New York City, where he became a success in a business that he loved – working day and night as the public relations director of the old American Football League.
But that success wasn’t enough to insulate him from the battle that was created by the ongoing horrorshow that was the Vietnam War.
My war on the homefront began in 1968 while the family was living in Buffalo. Dad was an executive with the Buffalo Bills and I was a freshman at Fordham University.
My father wasn’t, as Van Zandt describes, scared of me. But he was afraid of what I seemed increasingly on my way to becoming, someone not his own: a long-haired hippie. A draft dodger. Someone he could no longer recognize as his own.
Because I was utterly entranced by the so-called values of an emerging “counter-culture” that mocked everything he stood for, I found myself growing more and more alienated from the straight world he represented.
So, like countless other fathers and sons back then, like Doug and Bruce Springsteen, the battle lines were drawn. Without either of us wanting it, my dad and I were drawn into a vortex of anger and misunderstanding and resentment and disillusion that seemed only to escalate with time.
One day in August, 1971, I wound up fulfilling my father’s every fear, and then some. I was arrested after hours inside the local government center, trying to destroy draft records. My mug shot was on the front page of the Sunday paper. The charges against me and four others were serious. We were looking at a possible maximum sentence of 15 years in federal prison.
Did I mention that while I was busy defying authority in every way I could, every chance I had, my dad was being treated for leukemia?
My father was a public man suddenly cast into a role he never asked for: father of a law-breaking anti-war radical who by his actions had demonstrated contempt not only for convention but for the law itself.
It was a juicy news story. Reporters from various local and national news outlets called him for comment.
They commiserated with him. Some of these reporters he knew. They were former colleagues. Friends. They were fathers themselves, no strangers to their own homefront battles. They assured him they were on his side. They empathized.
It’s easy to imagine how the interviews went:
We know what you’re feeling, Jack. It’s a dirty shame. We feel for you. We hate to do this. But you know the game. Tell us what you’re feeling, Jack. In your own words.
In his own words, here is what my father told his inquisitors that day:
“He’s my son. I love him.”
This is where my war story radically diverges from Van Zandt’s. This is where my father put an end to our battles. This is where, on the day when all his fears for me had come true in the most outrageous way imaginable, with the whole world watching, he stood his ground and stood up for me. With few those words, he declared peace between us, as loudly and dramatically as I had declared war on the Selective Service System.
His words were his song to me, and, almost 41 years to the day he sang them and almost 40 years after his death, I still remember them.
Author’s note: In his profile, Remnick calls Springsteen “father-haunted.” At first I thought that too glib an assessment. But when he reported that pop culture’s most beloved working class hero has been in therapy for 20 years, I thought maybe he was onto something after all.
It also got me wondering if maybe I was father-haunted as well. I’ve certainly found myself, often to my dismay, writing about my relationship with my father. Then I think maybe it’s not just me. Maybe all men are haunted – for good or ill – by memories of their fathers.
But that wasn’t why I wrote the piece. I was struck by the insight Van Zandt brought to the story of an era whose darkness has often been lost or forgotten.
The story that resulted, which appeared originally in fictionique.com, will be the final installment of a reading I’m scheduled to make on Thursday at a radical bookstore in my hometown. I’ll be talking about the political action that got me into trouble, but also about the father who, when the chips were down, came to my rescue.