Remembering my father
Family | The man whose job was not to tell you how smart you are—but how smart you aren’t
by John R. Erickson
Posted 6/18/16, 08:58 am
I was 2 years old in 1945 when my father returned from military service in World War II. He was anxious to see the son he knew only through photos and letters. Mother said that when he walked into the house, sporting a beard and wearing his Army uniform, I ran screaming from the room and hid in a closet.
He was furious. Joseph Erickson and I got off to a rocky start.
When I was growing up, the third of three children, my father was an independent businessman (insurance and real estate) in a small West Texas town. He kept an office on Main Street and had to cultivate a public personality that allowed him to function in the world of commerce.
His customers and associates in the Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce saw him as open, honest, intelligent, and witty—and indeed he was. But he was also a very private man, skilled at controlling the access to his deepest thoughts.
His work and civic duties kept him away from home much of the time. He also served as organist at the First Baptist Church. He had to be at his instrument for Sunday morning and evening services, Wednesday night prayer meeting, and every night of the week when we had revivals. He was often called upon to play at weddings and funerals, and spent Saturday afternoons practicing the organ, alone in the empty sanctuary.
My father and I were not “pals.” Joe Erickson was an adult’s adult and didn’t particularly enjoy the company of children—his or anyone else’s. He seldom played with me when I was young. He cared nothing about football or other sports, hunting, fishing, or camping. When he was around the house, he enjoyed reading, listening to classical music, and playing the piano.
The truth is, he knew very little about being a child. During the Depression, he and his three brothers worked long hours in the family grocery store. They had no time for sports or extracurricular activities at school. They learned to work at an early age, and that’s all they knew.
He and Mother had a clear division of labor. He went out every day, battled the world, and made a living. She ran the home and raised the children. Joe was a strict disciplinarian and enforced a regime of biblical justice. His discipline was seldom loud or angry, always swift and fair. He kept his paddle in a large walk-in closet, and when he said, “Come wiss me to zee Casbah,” I received swats.
The line about the Casbah came from an old movie, set in Morocco, as I recall. I never saw the movie, but I heard the line many times and deserved every swat I received.
When I was in the ninth or 10th grade, we had a tense episode. I was feeling my oats and had outgrown Mother’s fly-swatter discipline. One day I mouthed off to her. Joe heard it, came thundering into the room, escorted me into the Casbah, and closed the door. Between clenched teeth, he said that if I was too old to spank, we could work it out with our fists, but one way or another, I was never to treat my mother that way again.
I had gotten my growth, was playing football, and working weekends on a ranch. For a few hard-eyed seconds, I wondered if I could whip him. But it was a question I didn’t want to answer. I humbled myself and said, “Yes sir,” and stopped tormenting my poor little mother. That was the end of it.
I didn’t always like my father, but I respected him. If you believe that a father should be a buddy to his children, he came up short, but he gave me a model of a strong, godly man who was faithful to his family and honest in his dealings with the public: kind, wise, and generous.
When I went off to college, I never dreamed I might return to my hometown. I wasn’t interested in getting involved in my father’s business and had big cities on my mind. But eight years later, things had changed. I was married and wanted to write. My wife Kris and I were living in Austin, and by the spring of 1970, the sleepy provincial capital we had known during the 1960s had entered into a period of explosive growth. We didn’t like the city Austin was becoming.
We packed up our worldly possessions and drove 550 miles north to Perryton. We weren’t sure where we were going but planned to spend a few days visiting my parents. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed getting acquainted with them as an adult. We lingered. I began going out to the tool shed behind the house to write for two hours in the cool of morning, a pattern I had been following for several years, and did some fix-up jobs around the house.
The weeks slipped by. One day Joe announced he had located a small rental house that would fit us pretty well. It even had an old garage that I could turn into a writing office. He said we might as well stick around for a while, until we had a better plan.
We moved into the rental house, I found a job working on a ranch, and we never got around to leaving. That was 46 years ago.
Joe began revealing more of himself when, in the spring of 1977, my mother died suddenly during a heart bypass operation. She was 65. That was the only time I ever saw him cry. He grieved for months. Embedded in his grief was the sudden realization that his status as a strong, independent man had owed a great deal to the quiet strength of a wife who stayed in the background and didn’t say much.
Mother’s personality covered many of his flaws and jagged edges. He had a tendency to be stubborn, blunt, solitary, outspoken, and fiercely independent, and it fell to Anna Beth to provide backroom diplomacy.
I think he was shocked on discovering how much and how deeply he had come to depend on her. For several months after her death, he seemed lost, and I even wondered if he would survive. (It’s not unusual for “strong independent men” to crumble on the death of a mate.) But his church and circle of friends rallied around him, and he decided he wasn’t ready to check out. Kris and I called him often, and usually shared a meal with him at least once a week. I will always be grateful that all three of our children had the opportunity to know him.
When I started Maverick Books in 1982, I became the third generation of Ericksons to be smitten by that most-American of impulses: the desire to be my own boss, start my own business, and prosper from my own hard work and good management. My grandfather Erickson, an immigrant from Sweden, was an independent grocer in Missouri. During the Depression, he owned several stores, but he extended too much credit to his customers, went broke, and had to start all over again from nothing.
Growing up, I showed little interest in my father’s entrepreneurial skills. Typical of middle-class kids of my generation, I enjoyed a comfortable standard of living and never bothered to notice where it came from, or to develop a proper respect for the man who had made it possible. Six years of living around universities fed my belief that “anyone” could start and operate a small business. That’s what you did if you weren’t smart enough to go to college.
I’m sad to say I viewed my father as a “Babbitt,” a shallow character in a novel of the same name by Sinclair Lewis. Rebellious students of my generation used the term to dismiss the accomplishments of our fathers, to identify them as members of a narrow-minded, provincial bourgeoisie who practiced an unenlightened form of Christianity, grubbed for money in small businesses, and filled their time with the hollow rituals of ticky-tacky little towns.
But once I had launched my publishing business, my perspective began to change. Sleepless nights and days filled with anxiety about cash flow forced me to recognize that my old man had knowledge I not only did not possess but also never even dreamed existed.
Thus began a daily ritual. At the end of a workday, I would drive over to Joe’s house on Indiana Street (after Mother’s death, he lived alone) and we would spend an hour or two talking. He would mix himself a Scotch and water, I would tell him what I was doing in my new business, and he would offer his opinions, whether I wanted to hear them or not.
I didn’t always want to hear his opinions, because he had a maddening habit of telling the truth—truth delivered like a bucket of cold water on a winter day, with an ice-blue Scandinavian glare that frosted every window in the house. In giving advice to his offspring, he could be fearless and brutal.
Sometimes I became so angry, my eyes filled with tears and my voice trembled: “Well, what do you expect of me? I’m not perfect!”
He would soften his tone, but not the bite in his eyes. “Listen, kid,” he’d tell me, “everyone in this world will tell you how smart you are. It’s my job to tell you how smart you aren’t.”
He was a tough old bird, and getting hosed down by him wasn’t a pleasant experience, but we never crossed any fatal lines. After sulking for a few days, I licked my wounds and went back. At a time when I needed toughening, he was there to do it, and I’m very grateful. Babbitt might have described Sinclair Lewis’ father, but not mine.
I’m not sure he ever understood my passion to be a writer. Writing was not something anyone in my family, on either side, had ever done, or had even thought about doing. While I was in college, I showed him some of my short stories, but instead of giving me the praise I thought I deserved, he eviscerated me with two words: “So what?” I was furious and didn’t show him another piece of writing for years.
He was right, of course. My stories from that period were rubbish, exactly the kind of hopeless, depressing existential postmodern flapdoodle that was being praised in literary circles and college English departments, but Joe was a wise man and asked the right question: “So what?”
In thoughtful moments, he must have wondered, “What is going to become of this kid?” In his place, I would have wondered too—wondered and worried and prayed for some kind of miracle that would lead John into a respectable profession that a father could explain to his friends.
His circle of friends had watched me grow up, leave home, walk away from a master’s degree, move back home, work as a cowboy, and now I was doing what? Writing books and publishing them myself?
My poor father didn’t have much encouraging news to pass along to his friends, whose children were doing all the things they were supposed to be doing in their 30s. But, incredibly, he trusted my judgment. I’m sure he drew comfort in knowing that there was a God who watched after sparrows, drunks, fools, and self-published authors … and that I had married an extraordinarily fine woman.
Joe spent time preparing me for his death, for the time when I would have to stand alone, without him around to vet my decisions. This wasn’t easy for me, but he did it with uncommon grace. He didn’t fear death or consider it something foreign or unjust. Death was part of God’s plan and it should be part of our plan too.
He died on Dec. 31, 1989. One of his friends observed that by dying on the last day of the year, he denied the Internal Revenue Service the pleasure of extracting a 1990 tax return from him. It was exactly the sort of thing he might have done by design.
My father was a patriot, a loyal American who had served in the Pacific during World War II, but he feared and loathed the IRS and often talked about its power to make cowards of otherwise brave and productive citizens: “The power to tax is the power to destroy.”
He left no instructions about the kind of funeral service he wanted, but I was pretty sure if he’d been around to do the planning, he would have hired the best organist in town and told her to blow the birds’ nests out of the pipes.
During the 1950s, when he served as organist at the church, he often grumbled about the Hammond electric organ he had to play. He compared it to the organ at Furr’s Cafeteria in Amarillo, whose quivering tremolo drove him nuts. Eventually, he talked the board of deacons into buying him a pipe organ, a bold move for Southern Baptists at that time and place. It wasn’t a huge organ, but a big step up from the Hammond.
That was Perryton’s first pipe organ. We now have three.
He had a jolly time with that instrument, playing full-organ postludes that rattled the stained glass windows. Some of the elderly ladies complained that he was shorting out their hearing aids, and Mrs. Grigsby infuriated him by saying, “Joe, that stuff you play is nice, but why don’t you ever play ‘The Old Rugged Cross’?”
That “stuff” he’d played was probably a piece by J.S. Bach. He loved Bach, even if Mrs. Grigsby didn’t, and he loved his Bach loud.
We held his funeral service at the Methodist church, whose sanctuary held the biggest and best pipe organ in town. The organist at the church had known and admired Joe all her life, and she played several of his favorite numbers, including Widor’s “Toccata” and Bach’s magnificent “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.”
There were no tears shed at his service. He’d had a good long life and had done just about everything he wanted to do. We sent him off with a roar of pipe organ music that would have melted the wires in Mrs. Grigsby’s hearing aid. He would have loved it.
During Joe’s last illness, the doctor told the family his time was near and we needed to say our last words. I went into his room and we were alone. He had a breathing tube in his mouth and couldn’t talk. I’d had time to think of my last words, one sentence that would sum up a lifetime. I took his hand and said, “You gave me what I needed to be strong, and I will take good care of your name.” His blue eyes smiled and he gave his head a nod.
In the years since, I have done my best to honor that pledge to my father—in my home, in my community, and on every page of every book I write.
John R. Erickson
John provides commentary and short fiction to WORLD. His Hank the Cowdog series for children has sold more than 8.5 million copies worldwide, and in addition to publishing 74 books, his work has appeared in news outlets such as The Dallas Morning News. John and his wife, Kris, reside near Perryton, Texas.