I have a letter from Marge, in Louisville, Kentucky. She is 32 years old and she writes:
“I wish my father could be alive to see me, I just graduated from college amidst the coronavirus and am so proud of myself but nobody else is. I hope he would be, too, but I will never know. I started college when Dad was alive and he never got to see me finish before his pancreatic cancer. Is that stupid of an adult like me to want someone to be proud?”
Marge, I remember when I was 6 or 7 years old. I remember the following day explicitly: It was summer. My father and I were in the garage. I was shirtless and sunburned, sitting before a huge Westinghouse floor fan, eating a popsicle.
My father had just finished changing the oil in the Ford. He always had a cool garage. Back before terms like “man cave” were used we just called them garages. He had a workbench, millions of tools, auto equipment, torque wrenches, and various other welding supplies. And jet posters. Always jet posters.
My father was a frustrated fighter pilot.
If you would have asked him which outlandish wish he could have had granted—this would have been true for him at any age—he would have answered, “I wanna be a fighter pilot.”
It was an obsession with him. He aimed his whole adolescent life toward being a fighter pilot. When he was a young man, he went to take the preliminary pilot physical and the doctor discovered that he was mostly deaf in one ear. The doctor sent him away without even a “Gee, I’m sorry, kid.”
My father was a mess after that. So as a grown man, he did a lot of sitting in the garage, looking at jet posters. On the walls of his garage were—this is not an exaggeration—thousands of posters. They had faded with the years because most of these posters were older than I was.
Sometimes I would catch him inspecting a particular poster closely. I think he was probably wondering what it might have felt like to be in the air with two General Electric TF34-GE-100 non-afterburning turbofan engines rumbling beneath his haunches.
Whenever my father heard the sound of a jet overhead, he would race into the yard to gaze into the sky. He could tell you exactly what kind were flying overhead.
“That’s an F-4 Phantom,” he’d say. Or “That’s an A-10 Warthog.” Sometimes he would get so excited when they flew by that he would dance a jig in the yard and shout at the sky.
He could be crazy sometimes.
But anyway, getting back to when I was 6 or 7. On this particular day, he was sitting at his workbench, listening to a radio, staring upward at the posters. And I remember asking if there was anything he would ever change about his life.
Looking back, I don’t know how I came up with such an introspective question, I wasn’t a particularly smart 6-or-7-year-old. Mostly I just sat in the backyard making mud pies and singing songs about the wheels on the schoolbus.
He gave me a sincere look and said, “I have some regrets.”
I didn’t even know what a regret was.
He said, “I wish I woulda gone to college. That’s what I wish most. Promise me something, kiddo, go to college. Will you promise?”
So that’s my memory. And the reason I bring it up is because I couldn’t have been further away from college after he died. I dropped out before high school. I was a real fool. I’ve told this story about a hundred million times, in small-town high-school gymnasiums, various Rotary Club meetings, and nursing homes, and you’d think I’d be used to talking about it by now. But it still humiliates me.
The thing is, I wish I could give you a clear reason of WHY I dropped out, but I can’t. I’ve never met a dropout who could. There were lots of reasons that surrounded my family’s circumstances.
Either way, when I was a grown man, I decided I wanted to go back to school. I walked into a little community college office and several sweet old ladies behind a receptionist desk, who all smelled like Chanel No. 5, eked me into school. They probably broke the rules to do it.
I took high-school remedial courses, then retook the ones I failed, then re-retook them. And after 11 years I graduated college. I was one of those adults who received a paper diploma and broke down like I was receiving a doctorate.
And do you know what I was thinking at that exact moment of graduation?
I think you know what I was thinking. I wished one person could have seen it. I wish he could have seen me looking goofy, holding that degree. Maybe he would have been proud. Maybe he would have hugged me and said, “You did it!” Maybe we would have shared a beer afterward.
After graduation, I sat on the tailgate of my truck, watching the sky. A flock of jets flew overhead. I don’t know what kind they were. But I gave them a little salute, and I could have sworn they tipped their wings to me.
Marge. I am proud of you. And even though I never knew your father, I can tell you this:
He’s dancing a jig right now.