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Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist

  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Happy Father’s Day: Cribbage, alcohol, my father, and me

Posted by James McPherson on June 15, 2019

My sister, my parents, and me.
My sister, my parents, and me.

I told a version of this story for an event sponsored by Pivot about six weeks ago. You can hear it here. This is the first time I’ve written it down.

When my father was a kid, his dad taught him to play cribbage. My grandfather – whom I never met, because alcohol killed him before I was born – was a logger, and he would wake up my father early in the morning before he went to work. They’d play cribbage while my granddad has his breakfast, and then my dad would go back to bed when his father went to work.
My dad then taught me to play cribbage when I was growing up in a small Idaho logging town, and some of my fondest memories involve that game. Especially when I was in college and would come home from college for a holiday break. Dad and I would sit up late. We’d drink Olympia beer. We’d listen to Willie Nelson. And we’d talk – about almost anything. Because if guys can talk while looking at cards instead of at each other, they often can have deeper conversations.
So we played hundreds, maybe thousands, of games of cribbage. “Fifteen-two, fifteen-four, and eight’s a dozen.” (If you play cribbage, that will make sense to you. If you don’t, that’s OK; the rest of this will still make sense.) And they were great memories.
And then of course I graduated from college, and I moved a thousand miles away, and we didn’t get together so much anymore. But I had a good job, and life was good. For a while. And then it wasn’t so good. And a few years after my high school graduating class voted me “Most Likely to Succeed,” I found myself living in a 1966 GMC school bus, working as a migrant worker on an Easter Lily farm for minimum wage.
But I did make it home that summer for my sister’s wedding. Not surprisingly, my dad and I drank more than anyone else at the rehearsal dinner, and the next morning the two of us were dispatched to pick up the wedding cake. On our way back with the cake, Dad said to me: “You know, son, you and I are both alcoholics. I’m probably too old to do anything about it, but you’re young enough that you probably still could.”
I have to admit that I was a bit surprised by my father’s words, and I’ll also admit that those words did not keep me from making a total ass of myself at the reception that night. One family member at every Idaho wedding apparently has to do that, and I was the designee for that particular wedding. But my actions that night, and his words of earlier that day, gave me something to think about over the course of the next few months, and I eventually found my way to a few Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. And I didn’t drink for a while. Until one day I decided that this was the day I had to go to town and get something to drink.
Now, unbeknownst to me, about a week earlier my father had been traveling with a recovering alcoholic, someone I’d never met – someone I never knew. Why this came up, I don’t know. Maybe it was just a male bonding thing. Maybe my father was just trying to make a connection with the guy, but he said, “You know, my son is doing the same thing you’re doing, going to AA meetings.”
This guy then went home and wrote me a letter. And on the very day that I had decided I was going to go to town and get something to drink, before my ride arrived, that letter arrived. I don’t remember much of what it said, but I do remember these words: “If you work the program and trust in God, you’ll be fine.”
Well, trusting in God wasn’t really my thing, but I just started to bawl. And then I literally got down on my knees, on the floor of a 1966 GMC school bus that when I bought it had the words, “Faith Bible Church” painted on the side, and I offered a prayer that went something like this: “God, I don’t know what the f*** I’m doing, but if you don’t help me I’m going to die.”
I’ve never had a drink since. I’ve never had a desire to drink since. And I honestly can’t remember if I’ve ever told my father how he and his friend played into that. I know my father was proud of me when I went back to school and got a master’s degree, like he had. I know he was proud when I went into education, as he had. And proud when I got a Ph.D., and proud when I became a teacher, as he had. Neither of us would have believed that so much of my academic career would be teaching at a Christian university, but, nonetheless, there it was.
A few years later, my dad gave up drinking, too. And now when we get together, we don’t drink beer, anymore; we drink mostly water. And we don’t play cribbage, anymore, because my dad has dementia, and the words, “Fifteen-two, fifteen-four, and eight’s a dozen” probably wouldn’t mean much to him, either. Now I play cribbage with my sister and stay up late talking to my mom. And we talk about my dad.
I realize my father’s dementia is a terribly sad thing, but he has lived a very good life. He has helped a lot of people.
I also realize that, having drunk to the point of passing out many times before my brain was fully formed, and having suffered multiple concussions from a combination of football and stupidity, chances are very good that I will end up with dementia, too. I’m not sure how to feel about that, frankly, because I’ve already lived longer than I had any right to live.
Right, Dad? I mean, Dad, if you happen to hear this somehow, it really is me: your eldest son, the one who has the same name you do. And if you’re confused about what day this is, just think of it as Father’s Day. I know I’ve talked for too long, but I wanted to say: “Happy Father’s Day.” Thank you, and I love you, Dad.

2 Responses to “Happy Father’s Day: Cribbage, alcohol, my father, and me”

  1. sctr4230 said

    Right on partner…, write on 🙂

  2. Thanks, friend. With your background, I’m guessing you’re a cribbage player, too?

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