You Can Fly

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.


  1. Lita - May 8, 2020 6:32 am

    My parents separated after the war. I was three years old when my sister and I were put into foster care. My father died in 1984, and my mother died in 1996. I’m 73 years old and revising my first novel. Your story will help me to imagine my dad urging me on and perhaps dancing when the novel is given its final polish. Thank you, Sean.

  2. joinerscorner - May 8, 2020 7:01 am

    I couldn’t sleep tonight so I finally got up and checked email. I’ve been reading your column for a while now but have never noticed what time you post it. I was surprised to see you also couldn’t sleep or either you have real odd hours for work. Thanks for all your wonderful stories. Now wash your hands, say your prayers, and go to bed.

  3. Sandi. - May 8, 2020 7:40 am

    Sean, you are blessed with the gift of encouragement to others and you share it so generously. I’m sure Marge would agree. Let me add a high five to Marge for her accomplishment, because college graduation is no small feat. It requires several years of hard work, long hours of studying, tough exams and term papers, focused determination and tenacity. I’m sure she’ll accomplish many other splendid things in her life. Kudos, Marge, and may you soar to great heights.

  4. Sharon Lawson - May 8, 2020 9:53 am

    Wow! You have a true gift for telling stories.

  5. Cathi Russell - May 8, 2020 10:47 am

    Marge, believe Sean. He really is! Congratulations!!!

  6. Curtis Lee Zeitelhack - May 8, 2020 10:56 am

    Hell, yeah he’s proud!

  7. Jodi Scott - May 8, 2020 11:09 am

    Sean, please let your readers know you are ok! So worried about you after the fire yesterday. Prayers from Georgia for you and family.

  8. Naomi - May 8, 2020 11:53 am

    Sean, I don’t know if what I am writing will bring you closure or not regarding your father. I am a 76 year old woman and I have spent all of my adult life around airplanes. The recruiting officer who turned your father away was looking out for your father’s safety. My ex-husband was a draftsman and electrical engineer on several airplanes and jets at Hays Aircraft in Birmingham, AL., Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, AL., Lockheed Aircraft in Atlanta, GA., and McDonnell Aircraft in St. Louis, MO. He worked on the 1st Phantom 4 jet at McDonnell. We got divorced in 1973; seven years later, in 1980, I married who I had met at work. He joined the Georgia Air National Guard when he was 17 years old. Not long after he joined, he was sent to California then to Japan during the Korean War. Although he was close to the “action”, he always had office jobs. After 42 years, he retired as a LtCol from the AF Audit Agency. During these 42 years, he lost several buddies who died young when their planes were either shot down in South Korea or they crashed here in the US. One of them had just stopped by his office at Dobbins AFB. About an hour later his friend rand his jet into the ground and was killed. My husband was thinking about taking pilot training until his friend got killed.. Also, while he was at Dobbins, four pilots that he knew flew their planes into the ground in Gwinnett County. We found the names of four pilots he had worked with who were listed on the MIA wall in the Punch Bowl Military Cemetery in Hawaii. In the 1970, my then husband and I were invited to a luncheon honoring the Blue Angels who had just completed their air show in Albany, GA. I got to meet all of these handsome young men. A few months later they all died in a crash. So, if your father had qualified for pilot training, you still might not have had him around very long. Suicide is horrible, but would you have felt any better if he had died in a plane crash?

  9. Sandy Benson - May 8, 2020 12:13 pm

    I love that story!

  10. Phil S. - May 8, 2020 12:43 pm

    Your dad is probably dancing one, too, Sean. My dad didn’t go to college, either, and he told me the same thing, “Get a college degree, son.” Like your father and Marge’s, he did not live to see that happen, but, by the grace of God and the encouragement of my wife-to-be, I made it. Now, I am blessed to have grown kids who are raising their own fine children, and I am so proud of them. Another blessing is that I get to tell them that frequently.

    You are a blessing to so many like Marge and all of us, Sean. I know that your dad is so very proud of his boy that he’s making Fred Astaire jealous.
    Now i think I’ll go sweep out a place and dance me one.

  11. Marilyn - May 8, 2020 12:44 pm

    I believe your father knows you graduated, Marge – and he is proud! I feel the presence of my deceased husband and know he “sees” the happenings in the family.Though not with us in body, their spirit is always with us, being a comfort,encouraging us and sometimes keeping us from harm.
    The same for your father, Sean. He is proud of you and knows of your accomplishments.

  12. Richda McNutt - May 8, 2020 2:19 pm

    Sean, you always know the right words to say – and Marge, this Tennessee gal is proud of you and is sure your father would be also. Congratulations!

  13. Nancy Huey - May 8, 2020 2:19 pm

    You are always so kind and encouraging.
    Thank you for also telling, the rest of your story.👍🏻😀Not many people know the rest of mine. My parents knew it, Miss them almost every day, but I know it and I’m proud. If it’s the truth, it’s not bragging, it’s the truth.

  14. Robert Chiles - May 8, 2020 2:50 pm

    Years ago, I worked with an old guy named Mr. Bill. He told the story of when he was a boy and they first came out with bi-planes. Everyone would go out to see them and some would climb up on the roof of the house or barn “to get a better look.” And Marge, your dad IS PROUD!

  15. Christina - May 8, 2020 3:08 pm


  16. Gale Smith - May 8, 2020 3:50 pm

    I am proud of you, Marge, and I am proud of you, too, Sean. I will dance a jig for both of you. I’ll bet both of your Dad’s are flying high with pride.

  17. Linda Moon - May 8, 2020 5:12 pm

    No, Marge, it’s not stupid of you to want your Dad to see you graduate and show his pride. Sean, I’m wondering how your dad came to the aspiration of becoming a fighter pilot. My daddy had unfulfilled military aspirations, too, and I’m looking at a very old picture right now of him in military dress. You were very wise to ask your dad that question about LIFE, Sean. I wish I had asked more of those questions before my Daddy left my world. So, to both of you from someone who got sidetracked from a Doctoral aspiration because of cancers, I’m dancing along with your fathers!!

  18. Linda Moon - May 8, 2020 5:17 pm

    To Jodi Scott: please let us readers know about a fire that you related to in your post. Apparently Sean and Jamie and the dogs are O.K.

  19. Jared - May 8, 2020 5:18 pm

    Thank you, Sean. Your writing and the movie Field of Dreams always seem to make the eyes a little misty.

  20. Ala Red Clay Girl - May 8, 2020 5:49 pm

    I think it’s instinctive for a child, no matter what age, to want their parent’s approval.

  21. JAMES W NEAREN JR - May 8, 2020 5:55 pm

    Me too. I’m proud of you also Marge.

    Upon my graduation from graduate school my Dad said “Son, I always hoped and prayed you would go to college. But after seven years I got to the point of hoping and praying some day you would stop.” 🙂 True story.

  22. Kathie J Kerr - May 8, 2020 9:00 pm

    Marge, I’m proud of you too. You to rock girl
    Now go get that masters!

  23. Nancy - May 9, 2020 1:05 am

    So true! I could never get that approval from my Mother no matter how hard I tried. Finally before she passed she realized what her other daughter was made of and I was the one who ended up protecting my Mother. My Daddy died when I was 17. He didn’t get to see me graduate high school. 😭

  24. Jeanie Evans Walker - May 9, 2020 2:14 am

    I am proud of you, Marge!

    And of you, too, Sean!

  25. Judy Tayloe - May 9, 2020 2:45 am

    Marge, congratulations on your graduation from college. I know your dad is proud of you! I’m proud of you too Sean!

  26. Naomi - May 9, 2020 5:12 am

    Sean, thank you for sharing Marge’s words. You give such beautiful encouragement and due dignity to people’s heartfelt admissions. You’re a blessing!

    Marge, I just want to say I am SUPER proud of you as I know your dad is! You did it! – from a fellow daughter to a dad gone too soon.

  27. junebugjrgirl - May 9, 2020 4:37 pm

    Love your writing. This will be quite true, albeit temporary for most, during the pandemic of 2020. No graduation ceremony, no after party, no great job awaiting them. But as someone who did not finish college, I am proud of every person that graduates.

  28. Mary - June 18, 2020 6:25 pm

    I put myself through college. At my graduation no one came. Afterwards I caught a bus home and took care of my mother full time until she died two days before my 24th birthday. All I wanted was one family member. Just one.


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