I miss my son. He’s been living out of the country for nearly two years. I saw him Christmas before last and it’s just been too long. We Skype from time to time, but there’s a time difference and we’re both too busy to work that out, too much alike in being averse to planning ahead. We don’t talk enough. Even when we do, dress it up all you want but Skype is still a telephone call with video. It’s not being with him, sharing a meal, hugging him. I find myself thinking about him more and more. I miss him terribly.
He’s the younger of our two kids at twenty seven. His twenty nine year old sister came home for Father’s Day weekend 2012 and stayed two nights in her old room. I love having her home. After a while we find ourselves talking about things we never think about, and it takes us out of our regular lives. We cooked out, goofed around in the yard, didn’t do anything special but had a wonderful time.
One night we got out my old vinyl albums. They had been locked away in the attic since God knows when and I was afraid they were ruined. They were fine. I’d stored them in a wooden crate standing straight up on edge. Although I don’t have a turntable hooked up, her boyfriend was able, through some kind of technological magic, to plug his cell phone into our living room stereo and play music through Spotify. It’s a service that provides access to, I don’t know, every song ever recorded in every language in the course of human history, for ten dollars a month. I was amazed. Anyway, I leafed through the albums and when I found a song that meant a lot to me, he would find it on the phone and play it. My albums came alive as I held them in my hand.
In addition to indulging in old music, I uncorked my daughter’s Father’s Day present to her Dad. I had two fingers of very smooth small batch Kentucky Bourbon while listening to old stuff I’d nearly forgotten about: Jeff Beck Rough and Ready, Grateful Dead Wake of the Flood, John McLaughlin Belo Horizonte. I had another two fingers while playing Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, John Prine’s Common Sense, and Arlo Guthrie’s version of his Dad’s old songs “1913” and “Ukulele Lady” from Hobo’s Lullaby. My daughter fetched more ice and poured another as we started on a string of Bob Dylan songs, complete with questions about where I was when I first heard them, followed by answers that were as truthful as I could remember. The lyrics were coming back to me really well and I was singing along loudly until the room filled with “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” from Dylan’s second album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. The lyrics, like Dylan’s lyrics always have, hit me hard. As much as I tried not to, I stopped singing and closed my eyes as tears ran down my face onto the table. My daughter held my hand. Maybe it was the whiskey. Maybe it was because it was Father’s Day. But as he’s done so many times, Dylan touched my heart, this time as a sixty year old Dad. Who knew?
“Payback is a bitch,” they say. That same idea is expressed in many forms. “Everything that goes around comes around” was popular in the sixties. Westerners’ vague ideas about karma contain that thought as well. Sometime in March 1975 I unbelievably caught a single ride from Frankfurt, Germany to Casablanca, Morocco. Throughout that spring and summer I hitchhiked all around Morocco before striking out across Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. I traveled North Africa with no plan, no timetable, and certainly no itinerary. During that time I may have written some letters to my parents but I can’t recall mailing them. I didn’t call. I didn’t think of it to be honest. I was busy.
Late in September I flew from Cairo, Egypt to Athens, Greece, back to the western world with more reliable post offices and telephone companies. From an old wooden phone booth in Piraeus I called my parents’ farm house. My long silence affected my parents greatly. They lived so predictably on the dairy farm I grew up on. Each day without fail they got their mail from a big box by the blacktop road at 10:00 a.m. The daily absence of a letter from their absent son got to them. Relatives and friends died and they couldn’t reach me. While I was in Africa the anxiety got to my Mom. She and Dad talked to my brother who was in the military. As he later told me they wanted to contact the International Red Cross or maybe the State Department to locate me and make sure I was still alive. He talked them out of it.
In November I walked into their kitchen unannounced after buying the second half of a guy’s ticket from Amsterdam to Montreal, making it to Chicago, and hitchhiking to the farmhouse. I walked up the stairs with my backpack. They were sitting at the table having coffee. They broke into tears. “There was a time we didn’t know if we’d ever see you again.” My Mom said. I didn’t understand.
The next morning at breakfast my Mom got serious, and angry, while describing the pain they went through during the long time I failed to communicate. “If you ever do that again,” she said, “don’t bother coming home.”
“Oh, Mom,” I said. “You don’t mean that.”
My dad, a soft spoken man, reached across the table, put his age-spotted farmer’s hand on mine, looked into my eyes and said, “Yes, David. She does.”
If we live long enough and keep our wits about us, perhaps we’ll understand everything before we die. That’s what I’m hoping. A year and a half later in a shack on the Pacific coast of Ecuador, I wrote a mushy story from my Dad’s point of view about what he might have thought during my absence. But it wasn’t until I had an epiphany on Father’s Day weekend listening to Bob Dylan’s thrumming guitar and strained voice that I experienced what my Dad must have felt.
Not only can you Skype your son in Rome for free, and listen to a giant catalog of songs on a cell phone, you can Google the lyrics of any song you can imagine and be reading them in less than a minute. I used to listen to Dylan lyrics, and Rolling Stone lyrics, and others over and over trying to determine what they were really saying. My friends and I would disagree and argue. Now with an internet connection they all become clear in no time.
In “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” a father and a son converse. The father asks his blue eyed son, his darling young one, five questions in order to learn about his son’s life away from him: Where have you been? What did you see? What did you hear? Who did you meet? What’ll you do now? When I was young I never really heard the father’s questions. I was much more interested in the son’s answers. His answers define the song. As you listen to his words you imagine his journey. The son’s answers are poetic, fantastic, vivid, obscure, and wonderfully Dylan-esque.
Where had the blue eyed son been? To twelve misty mountains, six crooked highways, seven sad forests, a dozen dead oceans, ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard. Can his Dad possibly understand that?
He saw a newborn baby with wolves all around it, a highway of diamonds with nobody on it, a roomful of men with the hammers a bleeding, ten thousand takers whose tongues were all broken, guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children. He heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world, one hundred drummers whose hands were a blazin’, ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’, the song of a poet who died in the gutter, the sound of a clown who cried in the alley. He met a young child beside a dead pony, a white man who walked a black dog, a young woman whose body was burning, a young girl who gave him a rainbow, a man wounded in love.
And when his Dad asked ‘what’ll you do now?’ he answered bravely, ‘I’m a-goin’ back out fore the rain starts a-fallin’. I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest, where the people are many and their hands are all empty. Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters. Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison. Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden. Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten. Where black is the color, where none is the number. I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it. Reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it. I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’. But I’ll know my songs well before I start singin’.”
And through it all with a rising voice and driving blues harp is the refrain: “And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.” The song ends. A Dad asks five short questions, and the son answers them with exuberance, so full of energy, and so determined. If the Dad could but add a verse at the end it might go like this.
“I know everything that you speak of is out there. I saw it myself and I feel it inside me. Please don’t go back there its cold and it’s risky. I fear that hard rain will fall hard upon on you. Stay in one place and live life more slowly. Stay close to me, I love you and miss you.”
But it’s not a Dad’s song. The Dad is the straight man. It’s a song that captures the essence of youth. Fathers can’t help it. They stay home and cry. Neither can sons. They have to go out and live.